An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

by John Locke
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the first major presentation of the empirical theory of knowledge that was to play such an important role in British philosophy. The author had studied at Oxford, and later he became a medical doctor. Although he did not practice much, he was greatly interested in the developments current in medical and physical science, and there is some evidence that he first began to formulate his theory of knowledge in terms of considerations arising from medical researches of the day. Locke was a member of the Royal Society of England, where he came into contact with many of the important experimental scientists, such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. A discussion with some of his friends seems to have been the immediate occasion of the writing of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which Locke attempted to work out a theory of knowledge in keeping with the developing scientific findings and outlook.

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The completed version of the work dates from the period when Locke, along with his patron, the Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, was a political refugee in Holland. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Locke returned to England and was quickly recognized as the leading spokesperson for the democratic system of government that was emerging in his homeland. The essay, first published in the same year as Locke’s famous work in political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, quickly established the author as the foremost spokesperson for the new empirical philosophical point of view that was to dominate English philosophy from then on.

Seeking the Origins of Human Knowledge

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257

The question to which Locke addressed himself in his essay is that of “the origin[s], certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.” By using what he called “this historical, plain method,” Locke hoped to discover where our ideas and our knowledge come from, what we are capable of knowing about, how certain our knowledge actually is, and when we may be justified in holding opinions based on our ideas. The value of such an undertaking, Locke asserted, is that one would thus know the powers and the limits of human understanding, so that “the busy mind of man” would then restrict itself to considering only those questions with which it was actually capable of dealing and would “sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things” beyond the reach of its capacities.

Before commencing his investigations, Locke pointed out that human beings do, in fact, have adequate knowledge to enable them to function in the condition in which they find themselves. Therefore, even if the result of seeking the origin, nature, and extent of our knowledge leads us to the conclusion that we are unable to obtain complete certitude on various matters, this should not be grounds for despair, for skepticism, or for intellectual idleness. People have wasted too much time, Locke insisted, in bemoaning their intellectual situation or in disputing in areas in which satisfactory conclusions are impossible. Instead, he said, we should find out our abilities and our limitations, and then operate within them.

The Question of Innate Knowledge

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

The first book of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding deals with one theory about the origin of our ideas, the thesis that our knowledge is based upon certain innate principles that are supposed to be “stamped upon the mind of man.” Locke severely criticized this theory, especially in the form in which it had been presented...

(The entire section contains 4369 words.)

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