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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Dated 1690, Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke made a lot of famous philosophers think about the basis of human knowledge and understanding. In the first book, Locke portrays the mind at birth as a blank canvas, which is filled only with experience. There are no innate principles, and everything we ever get to know is due to our experience. In the second book, the author unfolds his previous thought and says that ideas appear from experience with the help of sensation or reflection.

Books III and IV are devoted to words and person’s understanding. “God, having designed man to be a sociable creature, not only made him with an inclination and need to have fellowship with other men but also equipped him with language, which was to be the great instrument and common tie of society.” Locke believed that humans are given an incredible gift – language – so we could communicate and articulate sounds and words. Thinker defines words as signs referring to internal ideas. All of the terms, according to Locke, can be either particular or general. The philosopher says that if people use a different term to each object or thing, then language would become too complicated to speak. Why? Here the author provides three reasons for this. First, a human mind is not capable of forming and retaining separate notions of each particular signified it encounters, like butterfly species. Secondly, it is useless. Language’s main purpose is to convey thoughts, so the speaker would achieve nothing by designating particular things. Thirdly, we develop our intelligence by grouping items and generalizing notions. Ultimately, we would not broaden our knowledge by calling each item and separating term for every particular thing.

The next issue Locke wants to shed some light on is how we coin general terms. Particular terms turn into general when they signify general ideas. If we take any notion and separate it from circumstances of time and place or any other peculiarities we’ll get a general idea. This is called abstraction. When baby sees his mother, he coins an idea in his brain as he associates the word “mommy” with a certain person and face. Later, when a child grows up, he or she starts arranging words into groups because many other objects look alike and resemble each other. At the same time, a child considers various qualities of things or objects. It allows him to place each different object into another category and make a distinction.

The next thought Locke wants to emphasize in his third book is the imperfection of words. Locke tells that sounds are arbitrary signifiers of ideas and person can choose any word to describe and signify his ideas. However, the main condition is to constantly use the same word to the same notion, otherwise, it would be misleading for a hearer. As to the words that have a double use, Locke divides them into civil and philosophical (scientific). Civil words are those that are used in everyday talks or ordinary affairs while philosophical are the words conveying specific notions of things. Locke sees an issue of each person using a particular word but implying a different meaning to it. He provides an example of the interpretation of Old and New Testaments. He believes that if everything said in the text is true; the reader cannot be confident if he understands everything accurately. Locke also blames scientists for coining new words that have no clear meaning or using words, which do not render clear ideas. He calls it the “abuse of words.” There are two ways to abuse words. The first is to use them without a distinct meaning, and the other is to operate with language loosely.

After having done an investigation of experience, ideas, and words, Locke discusses the main subject of his study: knowledge. Locke defines it as a concurrence and dissension between ideas. The author also separates knowledge into degrees: intuitive knowledge and reasoning. Intuitive knowledge is overwhelming, and a human’s mind cannot resist it. Locke compares it with a bright sunlight, which encroaches into the mind, leaves no place for uncertainty or doubt. For example, our mind clearly understands that tree is not an animal and that a circle is not a triangle. The next degree is not perceived by our mind immediately and is called reasoning or demonstrative knowledge. Such a type of knowledge requires explicit proof, and in order to demonstrate it, philosopher provides an example of a puzzle. Do the three angles of a triangle agree or disagree in size with two right angles? You cannot answer this unless you think for a few minutes on it. By developing this idea through his work, Locke suggests the third degree of knowledge, sensitive. Sensitive knowledge appears from explicit sensation and is similar to our awareness of pleasure and pain.

Locke also shows the extent and limitations of human intelligence by saying that our knowledge can’t extend more than our ideas and perceptions of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas. Moreover, we cannot answer all our questions about intuitive knowledge; our reasoning won’t reach to the whole extent of our ideas either and sensitive knowledge reaches only to the existence of things influencing our senses. Locke then starts figuring out what truth is and how to distinguish truth from falsehood. He begins with dividing them into verbal and real. Sometimes it is quite difficult to distinguish between truths as words signify ideas, and it’s almost impossible to think about truths without using words. There are other types of truths as well. Moral truth is kind of truth which is verified according to the persuasion of our own minds, while the metaphysical truth is the existence of things corresponding to the ideas. To unfold his thoughts, Locke talks about approximate types of knowledge such as judgment and probability. Thinker claims that God has given us an ability to compensate the lack of apparent knowledge by judgment. Using judgment, our minds can figure out either particular ideas are true or false. We can use judgment because there is no proof of certain knowledge or because of being lazy or lacking skills. All in all, judgment is assembling or separating ideas in mind. Probability, on the other hand, is a likelihood of truth, and it needs enough arguments for it to be accepted as true. The last chapter is dedicated to the proper division of the sciences.

To sum up, in Book III and IV Locke reveals his hypothesis related to words and knowledge. Words are signs that convey our thoughts and are closely related to ideas while knowledge is a chain of ideas. The author thinks that knowledge may be of different degrees of certainty and suggests a method for others to verify it. Finally, it may also be concluded that Locke’s main idea is that our knowledge is very narrow, and we can’t have undoubted knowledge.


An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book III: Words, John Locke http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1690book3.pdf

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book IV: Knowledge, John Locke http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1690book4.pdf

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