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Locke's arguments against innate ideas


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's arguments against innate ideas
Date: 25th August 2009 10:33

Dear Alistair,

Than you for your email of 15 August, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?'

This is a good essay, which successfully gets to grips with the nitty gritty of Locke's arguments.

Reading this question carefully, one implication that I pick up is that the view that some ideas and/ or principles are innate poses a serious challenge to contemporary philosophy of mind/ epistemology, the issue being whether there is any real benefit to be gained from enlisting Locke. This contrasts with the strong impression that one might get reading the Essay that the view Locke is merely attacking is a straw man.

Consider the saying, 'East, West, home is best.' One can point to empirical evidence to support this belief. However, considering that it is such a useful belief to hold (it keeps human beings grounded and connected to their roots, protects the institution of the family etc. etc.) that once upon a time some might have thought it not unreasonable to hold that a Wise Creator instilled this belief in His creatures, for their benefit. We can laugh at this today, but in Locke's time a priest or preacher could say this with a perfectly straight face.

On the other hand, when one considers moral principles like the prohibition against incest or cannibalism the case looks a lot stronger -- not for a Wise Creator admittedly, but for some not implausible story about evolution and the selective pressures bearing on creatures who form social groups. (Peter Carruthers in 'Human Knowledge and Human Nature' argues that the theory of evolution gives scope for empiricists to accept the possibility of certain kinds of innate idea, although his interest focuses on such things as our conception of 'best explanation'.)

As much as one would like to find reasoned arguments (in Lockean mode) against incest or cannibalism, it is certainly tempting to fall back on the view that the widespread and cross-cultural (though admittedly not universal) dread of these practices is somehow a product of our evolutionary heritage.

Does Locke have a strong enough argument here? It looks to me that we have a problem of where to place the onus of proof. Given that we may not be sufficiently resourceful to produce the necessary arguments, what prevents us from falling back on the innatist view? In other words, is the onus on the innatist to prove their case (with particular examples), or on us to disprove it?

I liked your example of facial recognition which I am sure would surprise Locke and (arguably) give the lie to the 'blank tablet' metaphor. Human beings are highly geared up to recognize certain very sophisticated kinds of pattern. However, what is significant here is that the 'idea' in question is not the kind that supports any corresponding principle with a propositional content. It is much closer to the idea of 'innate quality spaces' which Locke could accept as part of the apparatus which the mind brings to bear on experiences (a point which you allude to when you talk about the brain's pattern matching ability).

In extolling the remarkable capacity of the mind to recognize similarities and dissimilarities, however, there is a danger that we might be conceding too much to Locke. This is brought out in a brilliant little book by the philosopher Peter Geach 'Mental Acts' (Routledge 1957) where Geach argues against the the theory which he calls 'abstractionism' according to which human beings acquire ideas by noticing similarities and dissimilarities amongst given objects. Geach contrasts this with the view that it is the acquisition of language and linguistic concepts that makes it possible to detect and respond to the *relevant* similarities.

For example, consider a child learning the meaning of 'red'. You show the child a red balloon, a red building brick, a red flower. How is the child supposed to know that the colour is the relevant quality to look for, if they do not already have a concept of colour? And how can one have a concept of colour without having a network of concepts in which colour concepts are embedded?

The background to Geach's arguments is Wittgenstein's considerations on 'following a rule' in the 'Philosophical Investigations'. Whereas Locke focuses on the individual, the rule following view sees individuals as necessarily placed in a social context.

Obviously, this raises the question whether Locke's proposed alternative to the innatist view can be formulated in a way which does not lay him open to this charge: in other words, whether we can restate Locke's main argument against innatism in terms of language rather than 'ideas'. (You do say something about this, when you talk about the difference the 'high level' of ideas expressed in language, and the 'lower level' which underlies our higher level capacities.)

All the best,