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In regard to true knowledge and wisdom, it was Socrates who noted, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” With consideration to philosophical studies, a statement such as this raises substantial epistemological questions; questions such as what do I actually know, and is there anything that I can be absolutely certain of, as epistemology is essentially “the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge” (Abel 133). In search of a higher truth, philosophers, or lovers of wisdom, studying epistemology can be divided into two different groups in arguing how it is that we acquire knowledge. While rationalist argue that knowledge is obtained through the mind, empiricist such as John Locke argue that true knowledge is attained from sensory experience. Although both epistemological camps raise valid arguments, the arguments that Locke raises regarding the origin of ideas in his essay entitled “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” are seemingly irrefutable. This essay will explain how Locke successfully argues the origin of ideas, by explaining issues raised in his essays such as simple and complex ideas and their primary and secondary qualities, and will argue its validity.

John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” begins with Locke rejecting the universally accepted belief of his time that our mind is naturally furnished with certain innate ideas. Locke then suggests that the mind is essentially a blank slate upon birth and that it is only through sensory experience that we can attain knowledge. In order to argue his point, Locke first objects the argument that there are truths to which all human beings accent, which makes these truths innate. According to Locke, this doesn’t unconditionally prove these truths innate, as there are other ways that can demonstrate how mankind came to this universal accent, which Locke states is enough to prove that there are none such, as there is nothing that all mankind can universally agree upon. In addition, Locke argues that the fact that “all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought,” of principles such as “Whatsoever is, is,” is enough evidence to prove that these are not innate ideas. On a rudimentary level, Locke’s argument is irrefutably successful, as his epistemic reasoning disproves rationalist notions regarding innate ideas. An example that best articulates how it is impossible for us to be born with such innate ideas as tautologies, God, or anything else for that matter is exceptionally demonstrated in Locke’s hypothetical example of a child who only saw black and white, and never experienced colors. According to Locke, “I think, it will be granted easily that if a child were kept in a place where he never saw any other (color) but black and white till he was a man, he would have no more ideas of scarlet or green, the he that from his childhood never tasted an oyster or a pineapple has of those particular relishes.” Again, it is indisputable that Locke’s argument against innate ideas is successful, as it is unquestionable that we aren’t born with any ideas, but rather that we come to them by degrees of experience, as Locke suggests. Although Locke’s objections to innate ideas are painstakingly valid in themselves, his assertion regarding the origin of ideas and how it is that we come to knowledge greatly bolsters his argument.

When discussing how we learn through experience, Locke suggests that “There are two fountains of knowledge from which ideas spring,” which are sensation and reflection. According to Locke external sensible objects are those in which “convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things according to the way they affect them…ideas such as heat, yellow, white, etc.” whereas reflections of the operations of the mind are those that, “furnish the understanding of things with another set of ideas, which could not be had from things without…such are thinking, doubting, believing, etc.” Additionally, Locke argues that it is these fountains of knowledge that resonate in us either simple or complex ideas. On a primitive level, simple ideas are those that contain one uniform conception within the mind, which make the indistinguishable from different ideas, whereas complex ideas are those in which have been repeated, compared, and united after an understanding comes to the mind through the faculty of either sensation or reflection. From here Locke further elaborates on how we come to these ideas in his discussion of qualities, qualities being “the power to produce any idea in our mind.” Locke suggests that there are two qualities which have the power to generate ideas within our mind, which are primary and secondary qualities. Essentially, primary or real qualities are those in which have a resemblance of and object, which make them real qualities. These qualities include objects such as solidity, extension (space), figure, and mobility. Whereas secondary qualities are those in which do not resemble the object and do not exist. These are objects of bulk, figure, and texture of insensible parts as colors, sounds tastes and so on. When considering these arguments concerning the origins of the operation of the mind, there is no questioning the validity of these points, as there is nothing that we do not experience that does not come from either our sensory perception or from the operations of our mind, which leads to our acquired knowledge. Even though Locke’s an “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” demonstrates a sound argument regarding innate ideas and the origin of ideas, there are still points that he raises that other philosopher’s such as Descartes would object to.

“I think, therefore I am,” would be rationalist Rene Descartes initial response to Locke’s argument that it is through experience that we learn. According to Descartes “Meditations on First Philosophy”, material objects basic nature is that of extension, which is grasped within the mind. To argue his point, it is unquestionable that Descartes use wax in order to exemplify his argument. With his example of the melting wax Descartes would argue that the senses can be deceiving, and that it is the mind that grasps these concepts, not experience, which is in accordance with Descartes statement regarding the wax, “Yet, here is the point, the perception I have of it is a case not of vision or touch or imagination-nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances-but rather of pure mental scrutiny.” In addition, it is undeniable that Descartes would have used his statement, “But what then I am? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions,” to further reiterate his rationalist beliefs that we acquire knowledge through the mind. Although Descartes raises  a good point, they could easily be refuted by examples derived from John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”

To defend his argument, Locke’s rebuttal would indubitably focus on the fountains of knowledge, with an emphasis on primary and secondary qualities. In order to discredit this counterargument, Locke would argue that Descartes wax example was a result of a sensory experience. Locke would then argue that the conclusions that Descartes has arrived at were a result of the reflections of the operations of his mind as a result of his experience. In addition, Locke would then go on to explain to Descartes that his stated example further supports Locke’s assertion regarding simple and complex ideas, as his conclusion was the result of the uniting and comparing of both primary and secondary qualities. At which point Locke would conclude his argument by arguing the reason that Descartes had been deceived by his sensory experience was because, like many others, he did not have a clear idea of the operations of his mind with his statement, “For, though he contemplates the operations of his mind cannot but have plain and clear ideas, unless he turns his thoughts that way and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear ideas of all the operations of his mind and all that may be observed therein” (165). Consequently, this would successfully act to further substantiate the validity of Locke’s argument concerning the origins of ideas

With consideration of epistemological matters, rationalist John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” successfully argues the rationalist notion that knowledge is attained through experience, with his discussion of the origin of ideas, using such exemplary issues as simple and complex ideas and their primary and secondary qualities. This conclusion is based on how Locke successful refutes the previously accepted notion of western philosophers that there are certain innate truths, which is demonstrated in how children and idiots lack these certain innate truths, which consequently destroys the belief that there are innate truths. In addition, Locke’s hypothetical example of a child that couldn’t see colors further validates his argument, as it is irrefutable that people are brought into this world with knowledge, but rather that we come to it by degrees of experience. In addition, Locke’s argument concerning the origin of ideas further bolsters his assertion that it is through experience that we learn, which is demonstrated in his discussion of such matters as sensation, reflection, simple ideas, complex ideas, and their primary and secondary qualities. Furthermore, the validity of Locke’s argument can best be demonstrated in a hypothetical argument between Locke and Descartes, with examples derived from Fifty Readings plus an Introduction to Philosophy. Although Descartes would argue that it could be proven that we learn through mind by how deceiving sensory perceptions can be, Locke holds the stronger argument in this example by explaining how Descartes experience could be justified using his examples of the fountains of knowledge with an emphasis on their primary and secondary qualities. Consequently, it is irrefutable that Locke was successful in arguing his empiricist belief that we attain knowledge through experience, with his discussion regarding the origins of ideas, which can be found in “An Essay on Human Understanding.”

A.W.

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