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Locke's attack on innate ideas and knowledge


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's attack on innate ideas and knowledge
Date: 24th September 2009 11:28

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 16 September, with your essay in response to the University of London Modern Philosophy 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?

I have received several essays in response to this question, and yours is by far the most thoroughgoing analysis of Locke's arguments and possible nativist responses. As you so clearly demonstrate, the problem with the question is that Locke's arguments appear to be directed against a version of nativism that no-one would wish to defend today. Locke is of course severely restricted in the range of nativist positions that he is able to consider, given the importance for contemporary nativism of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

So the real question becomes, beyond stating the obvious, where is the philosophical meat of the question of Locke and nativism to be found?

I am going to focus on the law of non-contradiction, because you make some remarks on this which seem to jar. So let's consider nativism about the law of non-contradiction.

The first Pentium chip, or one of the early Pentium chips, as I recall, had a bug which resulted in its giving an incorrect result for certain relatively simple mathematical calculations. How did this come about? There is no mystery about how one could construct a 'calculating' machine which gave wrong results. In effect, through the designers' negligence, that's what the Pentium chip was.

Animal brains have evolved over millions of years to produce appropriate behaviour to given stimulus. As you point out, there is no bar in principle to the evolution of a disposition to inappropriate behaviour in certain situations, provided that the selective process insufficiently tuned to weed it out. You remark that one of the strengths of contemporary nativism is that there is no presupposition that innate beliefs are necessarily true.

So along similar lines could we conceive of the possibility of a human genetic defect, say, which resulted in failure to apply the law of non-contradiction in specific situations?

You say:

'Applying Locke's own example of the principle of non-contradiction, it can be asserted that young children do seem to implicitly manifest their knowledge of this principle by their actions. For example, they do so by not trying to both push and pull a door simultaneously and by searching elsewhere for their toy if it is not where they first expected it to be.'

I have difficulty with this. If I saw a young child pulling hard at a doorknob while pushing the door with his feet, I would interpret this behaviour, not as 'trying to open (pull) and close (push) a door simultaneously' but rather as trying to forcibly remove the doorknob. This reflects one of the basic principles of the interpretation of behaviour, namely that in order to identify bodily movements as 'actions' we need to presuppose that the agent is rational. (This is a point repeatedly made by Donald Davidson in his writings on the problem of 'radical interpretation'.)

It is indeed remarkable to what extent human beings are capable of holding contradictory beliefs. But that's a different story. You can be fully aware of the law of non-contradiction yet fail to appreciate that two of your beliefs violate it.

Nor is it ruled out by Davidson's methodology that one might come to the conclusion that a given agent is behaving 'irrationally' (one example Davidson considers is the problem of weakness of will). Irrationality, when it occurs, is localized and selective, and its attribution presupposes that much of the agent's behaviour is rational. Otherwise, we are simply not dealing with a suitable subject for interpretation.

So I don't buy the idea that young children 'manifest their knowledge' of the law of non-contradiction in their actions, for the reason that nothing would count as failing to manifest it. No conceivable genetic defect could produce an inability to recognize when desires, or intended courses of action, contradict one another which did not also render the subject incapable of meaningful behaviour as such, i.e. behaviour which can be interpreted in terms of folk psychology, explained by the attribution of beliefs and desires.

If the law of non-contradiction is not an 'innate principle' provided by evolution, nor 'learned', then this would suggest that there must be something wrong, or at least over-simplified in the 'innate-learned' dichotomy. Might there be other concepts or principles which also failed to fall into this neat categorization?

Consider that Locke is fully prepared to allow (as he must) that the mind, albeit a 'blank tablet' is furnished with powers to process ideas and form beliefs. Could such a mind conceivably by like the first Pentium chip, fatally flawed? Or maybe all human brains are constructed to a flawed 'design'. (Colin McGinn is prepared to argue the case that the human brain is through some innate defect incapable of solving the mind-body problem!)

My suspicion is that the harder you press the distinction between 'innate' and 'learned' the fuzzier it becomes. It is human language and culture that forms the mind, yet the evidence points to the human brain having evolved partly as a consequence of the development of primitive social structures.

Briefly, I was also going to say something about your remark that Locke anticipates 'externalism about mental content'. I just could not see his at all. He does, according to J.L. Mackie 'anticipate Kripke' in his account of substance and real essence. Crucial here, however, is the recognition that only a restricted class of entities -- the 'natural kinds' recognized by the physicist, chemist or biologist -- have a 'real essence' from which their manifest properties flow.

All the best,