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Locke's argument against innate knowledge and principles


To: Christine W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's argument against innate knowledge and principles
Date: 18th December 2009 12:47

Dear Christine,

Thank you for your email of 10 December, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Descartes et al. module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?''

This is a well argued essay which clearly shows the effort you have put into it. I'm also glad that you looked at Leibniz as well as Descartes' Objections and Replies.

There are two approaches to this question, as demonstrated in your useful reference to Chomsky. The first approach is to consider the objections to Locke that could conceivably -- or were -- mounted at the time (e.g. Leibniz). The second is to consider other possibilities which (understandably) Locke and his contemporaries had not considered: e.g. the empirical research of Chomsky and the 'poverty of stimulus' argument.

Under the second heading, however, one should also consider the role of evolutionary arguments in epistemology: Quine in his essay 'Epistemology Naturalized' laid the basis for this, arguing that 'there is no first philosophy' (hence traditional Cartesian epistemology is redundant). On the contrary, the human capacity to acquire knowledge of the world is something that can be empirically explained. Human cognitive faculties are the product of millions of years of evolution.

This opens the gate to forms of innatism which Locke had not considered. Despite this, how well do his arguments stand up?

The classic innatist claim is Descartes' argument for the existence of God from the 'idea of infinity'. Descartes is aware that he has this idea which only God could have given. Because God exists, we know that innate ideas are necessarily true. If Descartes had instead succeeded in proving the existence of an evil demon, then the fact that an idea appeared innate would be a reason, if anything, for doubting it.

In a similar way, sociobiologists have argued for a particular view of ethics on the basis of Darwin's theory of evolution. Human survival proves the validity of those ideas/ beliefs which we have an innate tendency to form. However, ethics if anything gives the best case against this kind of evolutionary view: the fact that we have evolved certain dispositions does not make them ethically right (cf. Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy').

You put your finger on the essential point: Locke's strongest argument is the argument from lack of universal consent. However, what is more interesting is the way Locke deals with potential objections to the argument. The claims of dispositional nativism are pushed back and back until the claim becomes trivial.

Regarding this point, I was puzzled by your statement, 'Leibniz adds that nothing is inborn in the understanding except the understanding itself. Contrary to Leibniz, Locke's argument ignores the question 'how understanding is possible', 'what understanding is', or 'how truths can be regarded as 'self-evident' to the human mind, which are considered important questions for dispositional innatists.' -- Locke accepts that understanding is a capacity which all human beings are born with. To make the case for anything deserving the tag 'innatist' there has to be a stronger claim, and it is not clear to me from what you say what the stronger claim is.

The problem for the contemporary interpreter is that the dispositional innatist's claims don't seem trivial. Given the perception and the capacity to reason, human beings can discover through ratiocination those principles which are necessarily true. To say that my knowledge that 123+456=579 is 'dispositionally innate' on the grounds that I am able to verify its truth through reasoning says no more than I have the capacity for reasoning, which Locke of accepts. However, Chomsky demonstrates the gap in this argument: the possibility that Locke overlooked. The rules of deep grammar are not 'necessary truths' discovered by reasoning. They are rules which govern the production of speech. And, evidently, there is at least the potential here to discover that knowledge of these rules cannot be accounted for inductively. So it would appear that they must be in us, in the 'hard wiring' of the brain.

If dispositional innatism isn't trivial, is there in fact dispositionally innate knowledge? Was Locke wrong? One could say that Locke succeeds in laying out the broad criteria that an innatist theory must meet in order to be non-trivial. However, he doesn't resolve the issue whether or not there is (dispositionally) innate knowledge.

All the best,