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Locke's attack on innate ideas and innate knowledge


To: Christian Mi.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's attack on innate ideas and innate knowledge
Date: 30 July 2007 12:21

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 19 July, with your University of London essay written under exam conditions, in response to the question,

'Locke's attack on innate ideas and innate knowledge does not seriously damage any theory that a competent philosopher would wish to maintain.' Do you agree?

This is not a bad answer to the question - indeed it contains most of the ingredients for a very good answer.

Although you have grasped the sense of the question, I think that the examiner is looking for a more precise answer along the lines of, 'Locke attacks what he understands by a theory of innate ideas, which is ABC, but the interesting question which Locke's attack fails to address is whether it is acceptable to hold a theory of innate ideas which holds that DEF.' In other words, according to the question, Locke is attacking a straw man. His arguments against innate ideas defeat the straw man, but not the more resilient theory of innate ideas that a competent philosopher would put forward.

But is that true? Is Locke merely attacking a straw man, or does he succeed in making a valid point, even if the result is less than he claims?

I liked the paragraph where you discuss the point that 'the perception of a pattern is already a tremendously intelligent act... if the mind has not some 'innate pattern recognition programme' it is very difficult that we could perceive anything, not even a simple thing as a triangle or a circle.'

Locke, as you seem to allow, does not deny that human beings have innate capacities. His argument is only that these capacities cannot be described in terms of propositional knowledge, or concept possession. To have an innate pattern recognition programme which is so tuned as to enable a human being to recognize a circle when presented with one is not the same has having the concept of a circle.

Why does Locke miss the mark? I think it would be relevant to the question to say something about the historical context of Locke's attack, that indeed even though a contemporary philosopher would not seek to defend the view that Locke is attacking, there was support for the 'naive' theory of innate ideas at the time when Locke wrote his essay, in particular ideas of morality and religion were widely held to be 'innate', placed in our minds by God.

Consider - as a notorious example of a claim about innate ideas - the particular case of Descartes' assertion, in the Meditations, that he has an idea of God as an infinite being, an idea which forms the first of his arguments for the existence of God, on the grounds that the objective 'cause' of this idea cannot be something which is merely finite.

But what exactly is the issue here? Putting aside relatively simple-minded views of innate ideas like the classic view held by Plato (the theory of recollection) the real meat in the question concerns the distinction between the things we know empirically and the things we know a priori. Here there is very considerable room for debate. For example, is the concept of a 'cause' empirical or a priori? (More on this later.)

You would also gain extra marks by showing some knowledge of Leibniz's responses to Locke's arguments in his 'New Essays on Human Understanding'. Leibniz was more aware than the contemporary reader of the historical context in which Locke deploys his arguments against innate ideas.

Your point about evolutionary biology is a good one and deserves to be expanded. Locke was simply not in a position to appreciate the significance of the possibility that human beings have innate knowledge through their evolutionary inheritance (as argued e.g. by Peter Carruthers in his book 'Human Knowledge and Human Nature').

Locke does in fact seem to treat the theory of innate ideas as an empirical claim, so an evolutionary account of how human beings acquire certain concepts which have survival value would be the perfect response. In other words, in arguing against innate ideas as if it were an empirical claim, Locke has overlooked a possible line of defence (which he could hardly be blamed for overlooking).

However, there is also the point which I alluded to earlier about a priori concepts. Here, Kant's 'transcendental arguments in the Critique of Pure Reason arguably identify a crucial weakness in Locke's position. The concepts of 'substance' and 'cause', 'space' and 'time' cannot be acquired empirically, Kant argues, because they are a prerequisite for the very possibility of having experience at all. Such ideas are not 'innate' in the literal sense of having been stamped on the mind - either by God or by evolution - but rather in the logical sense of being essential aspects of any possible conceptual scheme.

All the best,