On Book I of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), discussed by Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
How do we know things? Locke is well known as a British empiricist: All knowledge must ultimately come from our experience. Contra Plato, who thought that knowledge of the important things is “recollected,” perhaps from the time before we were born as individual humans, when we were part of the absolute, true world. Well, there’s a big jump between those two views, and we’ve never on this podcast systematically considered what views the empiricists were really arguing immediately against.
An allegedly innate idea is one we’re born with, that we therefore don’t have to learn from experience. It’s not important to tell a story like Plato’s of how exactly we can before birth to gain this knowledge, but the general presumption among Locke’s opponents is that God made us and inscribed within us certain ideas or truths. One candidate supported by Descartes among others is that the idea of God Himself is innate. Otherwise (say these philosophers), how could we have learned that He exists? A strict empiricist is going to have trouble with this, because we don’t sense God (not in the verifiable way we sense objects in the world, in any case), and it doesn’t seem like the notion “God” can (like “shape”) be abstracted from the things we experience, so therefore it can’t be something we have a legitimate idea about at all.
Locke is going to say we need revelation to fill in the gaps of experience, but that’s just a presumption and not something he argues in this part of the text. I’m just trying to motivate his “rationalist” opponents. Relatedly, some of these philosophers claim that the notion of “infinity” must be innate, and likewise all the basic axioms of geometry and arithmetic, even the concepts of number and spatiality themselves. One that Locke discusses a lot is the law of non-contradiction: Can something both be and not be at the same time?
In the first half of our discussion here, we get very hung up on just formulating the notion of an “idea” according to Locke (and presumably those he’s responding to). Ideas are whatever it is that’s “inside” our minds, the things that the operations of though are directed at. Even this much is tricky, because clearly Locke has in mind the same thing that Descartes was talking about in noticing that he was thinking, and that this thought characterizes the mind. But I just said (as we say in the podcast) that the ideas are what the operations, i.e. the thinking, is directed at. If I’m perceiving or remembering my copy of Locke’s book, then there’s something I’m thinking of. If you see the mind as essentially a container, then the thing I’m thinking of is an idea: an image of this book as it was noticed by by senses and compared in my mind to other books (thus categorizing it as “book”), with a bunch of other mental associations that enrich this particular idea. It’s also a compound idea, in that I can think of the book’s contents (which could be, e.g. displayed on my computer screen or in other physical copies) vs. the actual physical instantiation, and within the latter I can think about the physical form being made up of its solidity, its colors, the texture of the pages, and lots of other qualities.
So these are all ideas, some simple, some compound (we’ll explicitly consider the difference between those in episode 258), and many ideas can be put in the form of sentences. So there’s the solidity of the book and also the idea expressed by “this book is solid.” Locke very quickly goes from talking about innate ideas to innate principles. So it’s not just the “idea” of non-contradiction (which is a little hard to imagine), but the actual claim that’s used to articulate that idea, which is the principle of non-contradiction. This can be stated in a few different ways: A thing can’t both be and not be at the same time. A claim can’t both be true and false (at the same time and in the same respect). A single thing can’t be in two different places at the same time.
Another example Locke considered is “God ought to be worshipped.” Is this part of the mere idea of God or not? If you have a traditional conception of God, then yes; it’s related just like those various versions of non-contradiction. Teasing out the principles is a way of seeing that you actually understand the core idea. So there’s the core idea of numbers, and then there’s all the arithmetic truths; the core idea of space and all the resultant truths of geometry.
So again, the realm of the mind is made up of these ideas, and one example of thinking about them is to cash them out into principles: Is the “cashing out,” i.e. the thinking itself, also part of the mental? Locke says yes. Contra Freud, Locke (like Descartes) thought that all thinking must be conscious. If you think of something, you’re also aware that you’re thinking of it, so the idea of “thinking” is itself something we experience. It’s not “perceived” per se, since that word is reserved for what comes in through our senses, but it’s something we’re exposed to immediately by reflection on our own minds. So mind is the thoughts but also the thinking, and both of these are transparent to us.
This is important, because clearly, we’re born with numerous instincts. We already know how to breathe. But do any of these capacities amount to knowledge? We know how to do things, but according to Locke, we don’t know that anything is or isn’t the case. Even something like “I am breathing” is something that you’d learn just by observing yourself doing it, just like “I am thinking.”
According to a secondary source we all read on this part of Locke’s book, Locke’s opponents can be divided into occurrent nativists and dispositional nativists. You’ll notice that in my description of Locke’s take on the mind, there isn’t room for, for instance, a stored memory to be classified as mental. To be in the mind, an idea has to be something you’re actually thinking. So memories aren’t mental, except insofar as they were mental (you at some point thought about or perceived the thing) and if you remember them accurately, you can have a new mental experience recollecting the thing. But despite what I just said about the “thinking” actually being part of the mental, it’s clear there must be a lot of “processing” that’s happening that Locke does not consider part of thinking, like however it is that memories get stored in the brain and retained, or perhaps not.
The upshot is that occurrent nativism is a hard position to defend, and that’s the position that Locke spent most of his energy arguing against. If you want to claim that something like the law of non-contradiction is innate, as an occurrent nativist you’d have to claim that every human being is actually thinking, or at least has actually thought, of that idea. Locke pointed out that of course babies and “idiots” haven’t actually thought this thought, that it takes education. Much less “God,” which plenty of cultures (Buddhists?) don’t believe in and don’t even think of that term as Westerners do. Another allegedly innate principle is the golden rule: you ought not to do to others what you don’t want done to you. Yet many cultures, Locke claimed, not only don’t affirm this, but they positively condone practices like infanticide (You don’t like your baby? Leave it out to die of exposure!), and feel no guilt about it. Clearly those people are not constantly thinking about the golden rule, and if it has crossed their minds, well, then the opposite (or rather this particular exception) has crossed their minds more often. They can’t be said to “know” it.
The more sophisticated position (which Descartes for one believes in) is dispositional nativism. It’s not that everyone can recite our inborn principles, but everyone can (as in the case of the slave boy in Plato’s Meno) be brought to see that they already knew them, just implicitly. Locke saw this as also problematic. First, the argument against universal assent described above still applies here: Those infanticide-loving cultures and atheistic cultures aren’t going to assent in any circumstances to the supposedly universal, innate principles against infanticide and for belief in God. But let’s just consider the less controversial, more theoretical cases like non-contradiction, space, and number. Perhaps people will all assent to these upon gaining the ability to reason? So (per the appellation “rationalist”) it’s reason that shows us that we knew these things all along?
Locke argued that first, there are plenty of people that can reason, but still haven’t formulated the law of non-contradiction. Also, the fact that something seems obviously true as soon as we understand it doesn’t prove that it’s inborn. There are plenty of truths of experience that this applies to, like “dogs are different from cats.” As soon as you understand what each of these animal types is, you understand that they’re different, but of course you only know these from perceiving (or being told about) them. No one is claiming that they’re innate truths. Locke just didn’t see any way to formulate criteria for determining innate truths that wouldn’t also apply to obviously empirical truths. We first learn, from experience, things like “red isn’t yellow” and “dogs aren’t cats,” and then use reason to generalize to truths like “a point can’t be two colors at once” and “no animal can be both dog and cat,” and then if we’re educated or thoughtful enough, we’ll get to “something can’t be what it is not” or other formulations of the principle of non-contradiction.
Locke’s arguments against the dispositional nativist are considered much less successful than those against the occurrent nativist, but they come down to trying to deny that we could possibly figure out what truths we have the disposition to believe without us actually thinking those truths at some time or other, i.e. that all dispositional nativists are really occurrent ones. Plato, in describing some time before birth where we knew all the truths of the Forms, at least gives us an image whereby these thoughts did actually occur to us, but then we forgot. If you abandon that myth in favor of some truths being instinctual or otherwise programmed into us by God, then it’s hard to prove that we all actually believe such truths unless we show evidence of this by uttering them in appropriate circumstances, and Locke didn’t believe that we all do this.
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Art by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
Mark: You’re listening to The Partially Examined Life, a podcast by some guys who at one point set on doing philosophy for living but then thought better of it. Our question for Episode 257 is something like: are there some ideas that we’re just born with and we don’t have to learn them? and can they serve as a foundation for the rest of our knowledge? We’re reading Book I of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1689. For more information and link to the text, please visit partiallyexaminedife.com. This is Mark Linsenmayer, universally consented to in Madison, Wisconsin.
Seth: This is Seth Paskin, impossibly being and not being in Austin, Texas
Wes: This is Wes Alwan, interrogating children and idiots in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [laughter]
Dylan: This is Dylan Casey, removing the rubbish from choking my storm drain in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Mark: Man oh man, Mr Johnny Locke! We skipped this one early on. We went straight from Plato, Recollection, Theory of Knowledge. There is stuff that we, when we’re doing math problems, we just realize I guess we knew this already. I guess even an uneducated slave boy, in the Meno, for instance can find that he has geometrical knowledge and skipped right to Hume, that the only thing we know is what we’ve experienced. And we missed a few links. And since we’ve covered Descartes in much more detail recently in the last year than we did at the very beginning of this podcast, 11 years ago, this seemed like a good time to come back to a guy responding directly to Descartes among many other people and who, of course, then was hugely influential on David Hume.
Dylan: Because of my own upbringing, I have never thought of John Locke as an epistemologist. (or is it epistemology guy?) That probably says more about the gaps in my philosophical education and the fact that I know him from reading political philosophy. I couldn’t help but think all the time, when I was reading from the Epistle onward, about his political philosophy. What’s lurking behind why he wants to understand this is anti-authoritarian attitudes.
Seth: Dylan, do we read this at St. John’s? I know I’ve read some of it in philosophy.
Mark: Probably not this part.
Wes: Yeah, I took a survey course, actually, when I was in high school. I enrolled in college just to take philosophy classes. So I know I read pieces of this there and I’ve read bits. And like a few months ago, I was looking at stuff about primary and secondary qualities, and I dipped into the book to see what he had to say about that. And it’s really interesting, but we’ll get to that in the next episode. But it’s hard for me to now remember what I knew or didn’t know about this book before I started reading some of the secondary sources that I’ve been looking at, but I think I was surprised by the first chapter’s focus on innate ideas. So as we’ll see, Locke is an anti-nativist. He doesn’t like the theory that there are such a thing as innate ideas and spends all of Book I arguing against that. That was a big surprise to me, as were the kinds of arguments involved, because they seemed pretty weak and straw mannish. So that surprised me, and that got me to get into some of the secondary literature. And of course, I found that, yes, he’s commonly accused of kind of creating a straw man in this first book. But contemporary philosophy is a product of developments from these sort of ideas that are developed in this period that have to do with a kind of crisis and faith around epistemology, one that has something to do with the advent of modern science and the realization, for instance, that “hey, when I see color, it’s particles of something bouncing off something else, and the color may not actually be out there” and those sorts of considerations. And so you get this epistemology of ideas, which may or may not reify ideas in an unsavory way. But it’s something that, of course, is taken up and Locke’s not the first, obviously. But this is kind of a pivotal moment, so that all of this stuff gets taken up in one of its natural consequences is idealism and many of the developments and…
Seth: You’re saying that it leads to Kant. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. But it leads also, you know, when people talk about social construction, that has its origins in the primary-secondary qualities distinctions. So I… I mean, yes. Kant sort of puts construction on the map, but it all starts here.
Seth: Whether I’m being brought back to my youthful roots or whether they’re being thrust upon me, I’m not sure. But when we went to school, typically there was a class called the Empiricists: Locke, Berkley, Hume, right? And the rationalists Descartes, Kant, Leibniz. It was like a dodgeball game or a volleyball game. You know, you have the rationalist against the empiricist and you know, the enterprise was: “who do you agree with? Do you agree with the rationalists or do you agree with the empiricists?” And of course, Locke has his political philosophy, which is also hugely influential and… But, you know, I’m used to thinking about him in terms of this rationalist empiricist debate. But in re-reading the text, I was struck by how, from a… as Wes alluded, to almost a quasi scientific approach that, you know… ultimately, what he’s interested in doing is justifying for the foundation of knowledge, which is what Descartes wanted to do, but for the purposes of science. He wants to be able to say the truths that we, somehow intuitively, seem to know, can be relied upon, and not by virtue of some Fiat of God or some innateness, which he’s uncomfortable with. He’s trying to basically do science. This is his way of grounding science, which is a project that we’ve seen time and time again for these early modern thinkers. And so the good news is it’s broken into lots of small sections and is very readable. But the sentences are very long, have a lot of commas…
Wes: …and he’s very repetitive.
Seth: Yes. Very repetitive. Locke, Hume… they’re very difficult people for me to read, because on the one hand, I’m sitting here thinking: “Okay, there’s a whole host of scientific knowledge and conceptual development that’s happened that sort of negates some of the arguments and all that, and you realize they’re struggling, exercising their immense intellectual energy and talent in a structure, in a confine that, you know, a third grader today would find ridiculous in some respects. But they were such amazing people and such polymaths. I mean, Locke is just another one of those. It’s not just political philosophy. It’s not just philosophy. It’s legal… you know, he dabbled in everything and this explosion of intellectual energy and exploration at that time. it’s hard to find an analogy or an analogous situation in history where you had that much energy being spent by so many brilliant people across so many different types of subjects. I’m infatuated to some extent with him and with the period that he was in and at the same time, I find some of the stuff tedious to go through. It’s… I’m ambivalent, I guess, is the word.
Mark: It’s interesting that he’s trying to ground science. There’s not much discussion of that. I mean, there is a concern with the disputes of the school men that is complained about by people in this era. We want to know what the limits, what knowledge the understanding has by the basic idea is that we have and the certainty evidence and extent of it. This is part of his method in the introduction, and so if there are things that we really can’t know anything about, then we should just shut up about them. He doesn’t end up being like Hume sort of ruling out religious talk, for instance, because the third part of his method here, I shall make some inquiry into the nature and grounds of faith or opinion whereby I mean that assent which we give to any proposition or whose truth we have no certain knowledge. And here we shall have occasion to examine the reasons and degrees of ascent. He has a pretty traditional conservative… I don’t know, for his time, but for us, a pretty traditional Christianity that he wants to ground here, you know, that’s not really all that different from Leibniz. In its broad outline, he wants morality to be something that we can figure out using our reason, which I just didn’t remember any of that as part of this right? I just remember this fact. I was calling this the inquiry rather than the essay because I was confusing it in my mind so closely I associate with Hume, who just lifted the tone. I think Hume, if anything was more direct about it, that if I remember correctly, he kind of just starts off his book like: “yes, there are ideas in the mind and there are abstractions based on those” or something like that. And that would be Book II of this, where Locke gets very quickly into talking about the truth of perception, the truth of reflection. Like those are the only places that we get ideas. And Book I, the paper copy that I owned, highly abridged Book I, like almost half of it was gone, and it was really just a clearing away of these battle thinkers. So now I can get to expressing my empiricism. But I think it is useful. This is to explain to the listener why we’re going to spend a whole week here on Book I. Well, because we plan to do multiple Locke episodes, and in fact, we’re going to put the second part of this one up for the public, and the second part, the next one up for the public so that we could just keep going through the book, at least for the two episodes. And what kind of decide, as we’re recording the second, whether we’re gonna go beyond that. I don’t foresee us spending four months to get through this entire book, but at least given the tone, how sort of systematic and plotting he is, it seemed: “Okay. We just spent a lot of time waiting through 50 pages of Book I. Are we going to just make that the first 10 minutes of our episode and then get right to the famous stuff?” So Wes can save the day here, finding this Cambridge Companion to Locke’s Essay piece.
Wes: And Routledge’s Companion. There’s two things.
Seth: There were about a hundred secondary… [laughter]
Mark: I didn’t read the Routledge. I read Samuel C. Rickless’s Locke’s Polemic Against Nativism. Did you read something else Dylan?
Dylan: Excellent article.
Wes: So I also recommend the Routledge guidebook, which is by E. J. Lowe, who was a pretty well known philosophy-of-mind guy and he’s a superb writer. I mean, I cannot recommend this highly enough, The Routledge Guidebook to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. But also, yeah, I thought you might… you guys might find this other as pretty tedious although it’s introductory material it’s very helpful in understanding some of the background, right? Some of the stuff to which Locke is actually responding, because it really is unclear. You know, there’s this whole book on attacking people who are advocates of innate ideas, and I think we all understand vaguely. We know that Plato, in a way, is a nativist. We know that Descartes is, but there’s a lot more background than that to it, you know, and it’s good to be reminded of what role Descartes plays. And then there’s all these other people that Locke is essentially responding to that he doesn’t… I think he mentions one guy by name, but for the most part he’s not mentioning people by name and he’s not really spelling out their arguments in any detail. So this other Cambridge… Mark did you want to say the name of that again?
Mark: It’s Samuel C. Rickless’s Locke’s Polemic Against Nativism. That’s the one that I read that lays out here the three kinds of groups of people that he’s responding to. I didn’t even see clearly how he was responding to Descartes, the parts of Descartes that I quoted to you are not from the text that we read that I recall.
Wes: So I was thinking… we could say what he means by idea a little bit and then what he means by innate idea. And then we can, as we discuss what an innate idea is, that kind of naturally brings up some of the background mentioned by this Cambridge Companion Essay.
Seth: I just want to make one editorial aside. The idea that this chapter could be dismissed as setting up a straw man, the idea that he would expend that much energy to demolish a straw man and that in the climate that he was in that that would even be a meaningful thing. Just shows how…
Seth: Uncharitable we are to history. Yes, it’s fucking ridiculous that anybody would even accuse him of something like that.
Mark: I’ve started using the term shit man instead of straw man. When it’s not like there’s nobody that believes this, it’s just that it’s such a poor view that, like, why would you waste time arguing against this, so that I feel like Sam Harris responding to the most devout religious people like: “Well, I wouldn’t consider those people philosophically sophisticated.” So what’s the point in responding to them other than, as a political point, it’s… philosophically it’s not interesting. But obviously, it just depends what part history you’re in.
Dylan: I sort of wonder as we go through it, if… that what the charitable reading of it’s gonna be. Are we gonna just jump into Book I or are we gonna say more about the Epistle, and about like, how he’s thinking about his job?
Mark: Well, Wes wanted to say what an idea was. It seems like he doesn’t actually get around to telling us.
Wes: He does have a definition in Section 8 of Book I. So it’s maybe not all that helpful. Maybe we don’t need to say much about this until later episodes. But Section 8 he will say an idea stands, for (quote) “whatsoever is the OBJECT of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by PHANTASM, NOTION, SPECIES, or WHATEVER IT IS WHICH THE MIND CAN BE EMPLOYED ABOUT IN THINKING; and I could not avoid frequently using it.” What he’s trying to say is that this word “idea” is the most generic possible way of describing the objects of our thoughts. And, you know, as we’ll find out later, it can mean concepts, or it can mean perceptions. They might mean what we mean, what we call qualia today or this objective sensory experience of the outer world. But it’s an interesting formulation because it makes it sound as if he’s setting up this kind of intermediate… It sounds like he’s reifying ideas, in a sense, right? So he’s setting up this intermediate mind world, and it almost sounds like he’s creating an analogy to perception that goes on within the mind. So instead of, for instance, our usual talk about perceiving an object, it sounds like what I perceive is perhaps… and this is something Locke is frequently criticized for, and perhaps unfairly, I think we’ll find that out as we go along. But it sounds like the object of the perception becomes the idea itself. And we get this… what’s been called a veil of perception that stands between us and the world. So what we get immediately in this idea is a challenge to naive realism. I think this… the word idea carries a lot with it.
Dylan: When I read this idea, I’m pretty sure I understood along the lines what you’re describing, Wes. But to me, it’s incredibly imprecise, except insofar as the activity of thinking is working on ideas. And so if that leads to the notion of a veil of perception that whatever we perceive in some kind of raw way, whatever that means, is then transformed into ideas that we actually do thinking on, then that sounds like that’s what he means. I’ve included a separate set of questions about how you could possibly do anything different. It just seems utterly unobjectionable that the activity of our thinking is using something… those things… I’m just gonna call those ideas. I’m gonna be deeply imprecise about that. And I’m going to conflate all kinds of things, like concepts versus abstract versus particulars. All that. I’m just gonna call them all ideas.
Mark: And I’m not sure that he made that up. I think that this is kind of common parlance. We have to look at Descartes more closely. You know, does he have a similar idea? But that was my sense. And the reason it sounds so weird to us is because of the subsequent objections to that, that essentially he’s performing some kind of mental atomism. The idea is kind of the basic unit of thought. You might have an idea that then you analyze. This doesn’t happen in this book… This happens a little in this book, actually, where he considers like the notion that God should always be worshiped or something. And, you know, one of his opponents has said that is just something that it just comes. It’s an innate idea. It’s built into us. And he said, “Well, look, that clearly is made up of two ideas: the idea of God, the idea of worship, so right there you’ve got a complex idea made of simple ideas.” It seems like it just follows from grammar. But you might want to say, like, Wittgenstein, you know, we did our Protagoras episode. No, actually, the basic unit is the proposition, is actually the joining of those two things. There is no considering… they immediately did the subject by itself. And I think Locke gets, as we get into this book, as he drills down, he is troubled by these things. So we are going to talk about basically to… metaphysics, eventually in this book, where he’s considering the relationship between a substance and all the various properties that it holds. Am I wrong that he’s the guy who… actually I don’t know where… I know Barkley, when we covered.. that he very much disbelieved that there is some sort of basic substance that then has all the properties like… No, the complex thing is just a bundle of properties because it’s just… that’s what we experience.
Wes: That’s Hume.
Mark: Okay. [laughter]
Wes: So we’re ahead of ourselves. [laughter]
Mark: Locke does bring up the idea because part of this, when he’s trying to figure out, of all these different ideas that we’re talking about, which ones do we think are innate. So, some past thinkers have put forward the idea of substance is one of them, and he doesn’t dwell on it here, but, he says. “I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about, substance. When I experience something, I experience it’s greenness and it’s roundness and it’s squishiness or whatever properties that it has, the idea of the substance that has all these things, like I don’t even know what the hell that is.”
Seth: How did you get to substance?
Mark: It’s just one of the things he brought up. Wes was talking about ideas.
Seth: What he brings up, the point that Wes mentioned, is he’s just “I’m going to use this word idea. It could mean a lot of different things. I think you understand what I mean when I’m talking about it, my real question, our first inquiry, then shall be: how do they come into the mind? So there’s some kind of activity in our mind, and that activity is directed towards something. I’m going to call it an idea. I think we can all universally agree. The question is, how do we get ideas? That’s basically it, right? That strikes me as unobjectionable, as Dylan said.
Dylan: That that is the goal of the first part of the inquiry. And then once he figures out, just paying attention to experience, how he thinks we get ideas, then he’s gonna jump and actually rule some of them out to say, given how we get ideas, some of these things these philosophers talk about. Did you get these ideas that way? No. I guess they’re not legitimate ideas.
Wes: Should we move on to what it is innate ideas are? And why people are motivated to think that there’s such things as innate ideas? So…
Mark: Dylan, did you want to talk about the preface?
Dylan: We could do it however you want. I mean, he lays out some interesting things in the Epistle, and in the introduction, I think, just about what his goals are and why he’s doing it. But maybe that’s just all sort of proforma stuff from early modern folks, you know.
Wes: Well, I think some of this will come out of the discussion of what innate ideas are. If we get into some of this background that we’re given, too, in the Cambridge Essay, one of the motivations for saying that they’re innate ideas is something we’re familiar with from Hume, which is the idea that there are some things that cannot come in through the senses. So for Hume, causality is not something that can come in through the senses. You get perceptions, right, the sensory data, but there’s nothing, there’s no organ on the body that can somehow take that in. So that’s one motivation. It’s worth saying that when we talk about innate ideas we’re dealing with two different types: so one of them theoretical, one of them practical. We’re on the sort of theoretical bent, right now.
Dylan: I just wanted to make a practical question or practical point, because the section, the chapter, at least Chapter 2, is no innate principles in the mind as opposed to no innate ideas. And given that he said that like, I mean, this is like two paragraphs later, I took that to mean principles, as at least… Ideas is the sort of general, amorphous class of things that are the contents on which thinking happens and principles are one of those things. So, in some sense, principles are an example of ideas. Very roughly, that’s the way I was interpreting it.
Wes: It’s a little confusing because he will later say that propositions are made up of ideas and just the way we might expect. But for the sake of this chapter, it’s an argument against innate ideas. But really, it’s an argument against innate principles, which of course, are built up of supposed innate ideas. So, for instance, an innate idea, for example, is just the idea of God. That’s a possible innate idea. One of the theories is that our soul is kind of stamped with these things. We have the idea of God built into us by God for various reasons. But a principle might be that by being virtuous, we worship God. So we get principles in propositional form. Or another practical principle would be, you know, the golden rule: “do unto others as we would have done onto us.” But there’s a large set of candidates for this, right, that take the form either of just ideas or propositions of principle. So the law of non-contradiction, for instance, which is the one that Locke will use the most in here, that’s an example of what was thought to be an innate idea: “the whole is greater than the parts,” certain mathematical principles.
Seth: Well all the common notions from Euclid, right? I mean, he doesn’t mention them, but those, like leap out as the ones that they would all know…
Wes: …the angles of a triangle totaling 180 degrees, which is something that he does mention. And then even the fact that we could do schematization when we do proves right. So the idea that we could prove something about a particular triangle in a diagram and know that that applies to all triangles of that type, that capacity for… to schematize in that way was also argued by some people to be required innate ideas of perfect triangles, for instance. And then there are relative notions (and this comes up in Plato as well) like, what do you do with likeness? Or unlikeness, for instance. That’s another thing that seems like it can’t come in through the senses, these kind of formal relationships between things that the senses can’t do directly. So it seems like some of the stuff must come from the mind to cause and effect, similarity, equality, symmetry, all that stuff that later on, Kant will say, are the categories by which we construct the world. These are all candidates, these are all the types of things that people have been talking about that Locke is responding to.
Mark: It seems like saying that they come in through the senses. It’s gonna have to be an account of how you build it up out of experience and the difference between something being a capacity versus in a principle. When I started trying to figure out what the difference between those two things, it seems like there’s a wedge that they come into, right? Or maybe it’s just a blending where at some point, one person’s capacity ends up becoming another person’s principle, because the principle and the mind becomes the manifestation in concrete form of the capacity.
Seth: It is a very weird picture of the mind, just based on what we said about ideas so far that we’re gonna have to get into when we get to Book II next time. But people are probably familiar with the idea of tabula rasa: as opposed to there being innate ideas, there’s just a blank slate, so when you’re talking about, Dylan, the difference between having an idea and having a capacity, that’s something that’s very important to Locke because his view of the mind… It was really weird when we did Sartre, and he had such a problem with conceiving the unconscious as Freud thought of it and just thought, like by definition, it couldn’t exist. Well, that kind of prejudice is right here, because it’s really like the mind is just this container, this slate, this one piece of paper that stuff could be written on, if you’re actually thinking about it now and then when you stop thinking about it, it’s gone. It’s blank again. You know he’s gonna have a lot to say about memory, but memory is not gonna be like another part of the mind. That’s like the part that we’re conscious of. That’s like, well, when I’m not thinking about Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln is still back in a different part of my mind in the unconscious part, being just the way he was when I was thinking about him like… No, it’s just gone. But we have the capacity to revive that idea. We’ve heard about him. We’ve seen a picture and we can revive that. So it’s a very like, overly simple picture of what the mind is, and clearly there’s a lot of stuff that the brain does, that he’s not going to consider part of the mind. He’s actually not that interested in how the mind and the brain come together. The thing that was the big problem for Descartes. He is more like a phenomenologist than I expected, that he’s really just… What are we actually experiencing and anything else that the mind can do? Well, that’s kind of like… I don’t know. Go do some brain science or something. I’m talking about the mind and we can all just reflect on our experience, and this is what we see. These ideas and how they’re logically related to each other in experience.
Dylan: Does that make me want to bring up a little bit about why he’s doing this, and so the context for it? So it reminds me of this notion of hunting for the truth. I think you’re right, Mark, that there’s something that feels remarkably draft quality, lots of simple things he’s thinking through. Or they feel like they’re simple. But he’s clearly in this situation where “Look, we have to start talking about how we think about things in order to make sure that we can make progress in hunting for what is really true in the world.” So this reminds me of someone like Descartes, for instance. You know, the whole rules, regulation of the mind and how we’re gonna get certainty and how we’re going to know things in the world. And, he says, “for the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it because it is unknown. Thus, he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts at work, to find and follow truth will not miss the hunter’s satisfaction. Every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight, and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.” From the beginning, he’s talking about this activity that we have, that we are hunting for true things. And if anything, that’s the kind of thing that one would think “that drive is innate,” right? Just like, you know, at the beginning of… I think it’s The Ethics Aristot… everyone reaches out to know. Locke is really in that same position. And then probably the thing in the secondary literature that I read most quoted was this quote about being “ambition enough to be employed as an under-laborer in clearing the ground a little” where he’s trying to lay the groundwork or clear the ground a little for Huygens and Newton and other people to do the work that they do. That’s the link with science, you know, trying to justify science.
Mark: So, of course, we all are born knowing how to breathe. For instance, we don’t have to, like, watch somebody, watch your parents and then figure out how to breathe. So, of course, there’s inborn something, but not ideas, not principles, not things actually in the mind, those would be in the body somehow. Capacities.
Seth: I’d like to circle back without getting into a discussion about propositions versus simple ideas at this point yet, but just he’s trying to say there are things that are generalizations. It’s not abstract. It’s just there are statements or principles that we perceive to be universally true, and we perceive them to be universally true in a way that suggests the awareness of their truth must result from them being somehow ingrained in you as opposed to brought from experience. So X is not Y, right? Red is not blue. Green is not yellow. Dogs or not cats. We could just continually and infinitely go through examples. But the abstract idea of “A is not B” or “A and not A are not the same thing”, you know, however you want to say it, which he says, and which I think the other people are arguing is, it’s something that you may not have thought about it, but when it’s presented to you, it’s obvious. You may have had experiences of this, that and the other thing. But when you’re presented with a generalized maxim that articulates a variety of your experiences and you go, “Yeah, oh, yeah, of course”, then the question becomes, how is it that it’s so obvious that it’s true to you and that you can accept it.
Dylan: I thought you were going to go a little bit different than that, Seth. So I like that, “how do you know that it’s so obvious?” Like, how is it that that’s clear and distinct for you? But I thought that you were also going to go to: there’s some capacity that I know difference, but I don’t think of it as knowing difference. What is it that I tell this from that, cats are not dogs, those kinds of things. Or as Wes was bringing up: likeness. That this is like that. What I thought you’re gonna go to is that, that that is somehow an innate capacity that we have but it’s not yet a principle and that there’s a step to be made to say that two things cannot be alike in exactly the same way and be different from one another. Or the law of non-contradiction is an extrapolation. Locke, I think, says, at the very least, that if I take that information of dogs are not cats by experience with the world of distinction between this and that, that that is somehow raw experience and then I have an action that happens, that allows me to then extrapolate the law of non-contradiction, that that is not an innate idea. That is a built or constructed idea that I can see as informing all kinds of other things as maybe being true. Well, because we have to talk about the way he thinks that’s gonna be true.
Wes: Seth, you jump to the very beginning of his argument, where he’s arguing against the common views that because some things are universally assented to, whether it’s speculative principles or practical principles, whether it’s the law of non-contradiction or the golden rule, then they must have a innate origin, and that’s gonna be the thing he argues against. And then Dylan, what you’re getting at and what Mark has already mentioned, which is a deeper part of this conversation with you guys are already articulating, is the difference between having explicit knowledge that you can state and then having procedural knowledge that you act on, that you know tacitly and that you act on, so like know-how, versus know-that. So I know how to play tennis. I may not be able to put all the principles into words, but I know how to do it. And in the same way, I may know how to behave in the world, as if the law of non-contradiction were true, but that doesn’t mean I can explicitly state that law of non-contradiction. So if I’m a child, you know, of course I’m not gonna be… “what you talking about. The same thing can be and not be in the same respect at the same time. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They have to get older before they’re gonna understand something like that. But you can see in the way they behave in the world, right, that they embrace the law of non-contradiction. So they would never, for instance, try to do what they’ve gotten split brain people to do in experiments, which is to try to do two opposite things at once because one side of the brain doesn’t know what the other side is doing. A child, of course, assumes that it can’t do two opposite things at once. It seems bizarre when you state it, but yeah, that’s implicit in our behavior. We know not to do something that stupid. But anyway, that also gets us towards the difference between a capacity and being able to have principles that we can state. Because it seems like, in the end, what Locke is gonna want to say, is that there is something innate, it’s just that he wants to make it a very broad capacity for abstraction, for instance. And then we can use that, based on experience, to develop more specific capacities, for one thing, but then also to be able to state the implicit principles on which those capacities operate, state them and assent to them, as explicit truths. But he doesn’t go much into that sort of thing in this argument. That’s kind of our evaluation.
Mark: I found it instructive how, I think, Seth was fumbling with what is the general proposition from the examples he gives. White is not black. A square is not a circle. Yelliness is not sweetness. These are all the things, the concrete things of experience that we learn and what is the general truth from that? And he says it’s the law of non contradiction. But the fact that, you know, a square is not a circle, that’s not the law of non-contradiction. It’s actually an interesting re-conceptualization, like Dylan or Seth was saying, something like Leibniz’s law, like something can’t be exactly the same as something else and also be different [laughter] like these are getting to the law of non contradiction from concrete things in the world is actually pretty difficult. I mean, other than like, it’s easier when you’re talking about propositions rather than ideas because, like, “it’s raining” and “it’s not raining” at the same time. Like okay, that is the classic: “The cat is on the mat.” “The cat is not on the mat.” Those are the examples that we give. But if you actually try to put it in terms of just ideas, yellowness and blackness, or something like that, it’s kind of difficult.
Wes: So I think part of what’s confusing here, yeah… I’m not sure if Locke is giving bad examples of the law of non-contradiction or if he’s thinking of something else, which he’s just not explicitly telling us, because he is responding to people who will say these relative notions like likeness and unlikeness are things that we can’t sense, right? Which makes sense, like if you’re very literal minded about this, the certain relative formal qualities of objects, it’s hard to conceive of how they would come into the mind from the outside world, and so you think of it as coming from inside. And then the question is whether you define that as a kind of discriminatory, right, capacity or if you say, ok, there are these innate ideas of their concepts, let’s say, likeness and unlikeness, and then I have to apply them.
Seth: I guess I’m completely confused about the notion that things, being different from one another, it’s difficult to understand how that comes into us from someplace outside.
Mark: Locke thinks it’s obvious, that it obviously does come from us from outside, that a child looks and, you know, dog and cat, and sees these are different. He doesn’t think of the generalization. He knows a lot of individual, different things, but to think…
Wes: What sensory organ is geared towards likeness or unlikeness?
Mark: Your nose. It’s the abstraction
Wes: What comes in through the nose are smells, right? And then we have to do something to be able to say that one smell, for instance, is unlike the other, and that involves a lot of complicated cognitive operations.
Dylan: I completely disagree with that.
Wes: Well, for one thing, it involves memory, right? There’s no way to actually compare two things unless you have memory. So that’s one complex cognitive capacity. And we could list a lot of others the way someone might compare and get a difference between two sensory experiences. And we know, you know, a lot happens in the brain for this to happen, right? It’s not just that it comes in through the nose.
Seth: I’m not disagreeing that a lot happens in the brain. What I’m saying is that our very cells, and the very atoms in our body, tell the difference between this and that, and the way atoms connect to one another, the way in which our individual cells let some atoms in and some atoms out, they tell the difference between “this is not like this” “this is not like that,” No. Likeness, I think, is a higher thing. But to know that this is not the same as that…?
Wes: Well, the idea is these are formal relational things that don’t come in through the body.
Seth: What are the other examples he gives, which I think is a little more powerful, and I can relate an anecdote here is, he says, the same thing cannot be in two different places at the same time. And one of the things I love about the early moderns is that their arguments are such that I can try them out on my wife and my friends who are not philosophically sophisticated, let’s say, or maybe philosophically ingrained. So the question I posed to my wife was: Let’s say you saw two identical twins standing side by side. Would you think that you were seeing the same thing in two different places? Or would you think you’re seeing two different things?
Mark: If you’re saying a person and then their mirrored reflection… but you couldn’t see the mirror?
Seth: No, no, I’m saying like… I was talking about… If she was… two physically identical. I’m not talking about a mirror concept. I just… My question was, is it possible for her to conceive that she would be seeing the same thing in two different places? Like, would that even cross her mind?
Mark: Most identical twins are actually time travelers that have just come back.
Seth: And of course, she said no. Obviously, if I saw two identical things in two different places, the first thing she would go to would be to assume they’re different, and then try to figure out why they looked… you know, like in other words, you automatically assume difference with physical separation. And so I was like: “Why do you know that or why do you believe that?” And she’s like: “I have no idea.” And I think that that’s part of what Locke is getting to, is… This is the problem statement, if you will, that Locke and the people he’s responding to have, is there’s a certainty about that knowledge, and their nuances about whether you’re aware that you know it or not, that Locke gets into, whether that even makes sense or not. But there’s certain propositional content in your mind. And maybe now I’m talking myself into what you guys were talking about earlier. Maybe we’re just talking about capacity.
Wes: You know, Seth, you’re still talking about likeness in, in a sense, a variation on likeness and unlikeness, which I think is a good example, because, you know, a lot of this stuff has to do with the concept of a relative notion than the idea that it can’t come in through the senses. So just try to think about this in a very concrete way about the way in early Modern is thinking about perception, right? They’re thinking about it in terms of a corpuscular theory. They’re thinking of the world mechanically. And they’re thinking of seeing an object, for instance, as involving particles bouncing off the object and coming into the eyes and the eyes, having the capacity to be affected in a certain way by them. And so, suppose I take two similar people, let’s say, or I could give a simpler example of two similar objects of some sort. I can imagine light hitting one object and coming in through the eyes. I can imagine light hitting the other object and coming in through the eyes. But what never happens is that the likeness, the fact that they are like each other, that light bounces off some entity out there called likeness and then comes in through the eyes. What instead has to happen is there’s a bunch of complicated cognitive stuff that has to happen and involves the memory, it involves synthesis, it involves imagination, any number of different faculties that has to act on that raw data, before I could say they’re alike or unlike. Now, of course, as we know, once we’ve become continents and modern cognitive scientists, we would say that even about seeing the object, right, we would say, “Okay, well, the brain has to do a lot of work, even to turn the light that’s coming into the eyes into something that we would call an object.” All sorts of categories are in operation. So Kant would say, you know, unity is in operation, causality, spaciality, temporality. Suppose we grant that stuff? There’s all the stuff that goes on the mind. Then the question is, do we formulate those things as capacities, as faculties, in the way that Kant does, or do we want to call them concepts that we apply? Do I have an innate cognitive capacity to tell when one thing is like another and not like another? Yeah, sure. Does that mean they’re innate ideas, does that mean they’re some sort of innate content? Well, maybe. Am I applying the concept of them like this? And the reason why people want to say maybe, is because they’re these mathematical principles, right, which don’t seem to be provable from experience, right. When I prove that the angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees, there’s an a priori quality to that proof. I don’t prove it through observation of the world. Something else seems to be going on. So there’s a lot of mixed up stuff going on here. But there are reasons why people want to think in terms not just of capacity, but in terms of axioms, in terms of principles, like the golden rule, in terms of concepts of likeness and the likeness, or whether that’s legitimate or illegitimate. I think it helps to know what the motivation there is.
Mark: Is that the advantage of the axioms and the principles is that they could be operationalized? You can chain them together. Whereas if it’s a capacity, it acts on something, but it isn’t operationalized. So you could do a proof with axioms involving principles. The best you could do is say, “Well, I have the capacity to do proofs or to understand them.”
Wes: It doesn’t truly become a science until I start formalizing this stuff, right, so I may have special intuition, that’s great, but I don’t get geometry until I start explicitly stating these things in propositional form and then doing work on them.
Seth: I grant that there’s a lot of stuff that the mind does. But I’m still stuck on this idea that there isn’t something fundamentally deeper and physical about difference and even our perception of difference. So another example comes to my mind is, I have two buckets of water and I stick both my hands in it, and I make the judgment that one is colder than the other one. One bucket of water is a different temperature than the other. If I follow what you’re saying, what you’re saying is, “Look, it’s gonna be a very complicated process for us, taking whatever those raw signals are and then making the distinction between saying, “Oh, that one’s that different temperature than the other”. And that part’s just not clear to me, that it’s that complicated.
Wes: Well, it doesn’t have to even have to be complicated as long as we admit that there’s something innate about that, right, that as long as we admit that there’s no organ of receptivity to difference per se. They’re just organs that are receptive to the sense data and then there’s something in the mind that has the capacity to compare those sense data.
Seth: so that amounts to saying that the brain is acting like a processing unit. I won’t call it a computer, a processing unit that can take signals. But the only way that I can talk about relational… this is why I use the word relational. No other way I could talk about comparatives at all, is I have to have an operation on inputs in order to come up with an output. And whatever that operation, that’s mind or brain or whatever. And that is not another sensory object.
Mark: I think the reason again, why Locke and Descartes and other folks at this time are so foreign to us is because we are used to thinking in these sort of computer terms, you’re talking about a black box and they’re being input and output. For Locke, when he’s talking about the mind, he’s only talking about the screen, and he thinks that we can do epistemology, we can do a philosophy of mind again, using this analogy. What’s showing on the computer screen, just the things that are being typed in by the world, by the senses, and then the things that are coming out, and in fact, that there is an apparent logic that we can sort of delve into without going behind the screen, without looking inside the computer without looking at the underlying programming. Like if you came across a computer and you didn’t know how it worked and you decide I’m gonna discover how computers work, but I can’t look inside and I can’t know anything about programming. You just say “that’s hopeless.” You’re not doing something that will succeed. Well, I think that has been the verdict of history on this kind of doing philosophy, is that no, you actually have to look behind the screen and bring in brain science or something here. But if we wanna take this text seriously and both Locke’s position and the people he’s arguing against, we kind of have to try to play his game and make it resist. Both Dillons urge to say “the discrimination that I have in yellow versus black is just like the discrimination the cell has in deciding what is gonna let through its membrane.” Like, that completely makes sense. But I don’t think that’s part of Locke’s game at all. That it’s just one involves consciousness, one doesn’t. They have to be different things. And likewise, when Wes keeps wanting to edge toward Kant, even though Kant has the notion of like a concept, it’s not merely, you know, something in the brain will actually be able to draw it as like a flow chart. We could give a sort of technical… first the… you know, I’m just about to, you know, re-create the kind of explanation that Kant gives. But folks can go listen to our episode on that. That, too, I think, is not playing Locke’s game where all you have is just the tabula that is either rasa or it has an idea in it. And that’s it.
Wes: Okay, we’re talking about the people he’s responding to, right? We’re trying to grasp what the nativists think, not what Locke’s response to it is, so far. So… and these are the arguments that the nativists have. If you read that Cambridge Companion Essay, it gives you all the background on the types of things that people are claiming our innate ideas, these relative notions and all the rest of it. So that’s all I was trying to do. I was trying to help people wrap their heads around the idea to which he is responding.
Mark: And sorry, what’s that distinction that the secondary source makes between the two kinds of innatism? The implicit and articulated? Something like that?
Wes: Recurrent and dispositional. So that’s another step in the argument. But go ahead.
Mark: The reason everybody thinks that Locke is arguing against a straw man is because any sophisticated version of innateness allows for dispositions, which very rapidly go into this knowledge. How…
Wes: Hobbs was an anti-nativist, right? So he said, there’s no innate ideas because innate ideas would always have to be present to the consciousness. And when people sleep there are periods where you have no consciousness. Hobbs is assuming his opponents advocate a simple non-disposition, or nativism. But Descartes came and he replied to that, and he gave an account which is now referred to as dispositional nativism, which is to say that to have an innate idea doesn’t mean it’s active all the time. It doesn’t mean it’s being attended to, or in our consciousness all the time. It just means that it can be summoned up when necessary under certain circumstances. So sure, we might have to have certain sense data or certain types of experiences before the innate idea even occurs to us, but the idea is that it’s there, and you could say it’s in the memory if you like. If you use the word memory broadly, Locke would say “no, you’re wrong about that.” So it’s elicited. So you can have these dormant, non active, innate ideas for the dispositional nativist.
Mark: He has some arguments in here against that more sophisticated dispositional nativism. But most of it are like Hobbes against a current nativism, against the idea that if you have knowledge, you must know that you have that knowledge, right? So it sort of rules out in advance Plato’s model of innate ideas that you then remember somebody has to, like in The Meno Guide, you’re through doing the geometry exercise, and then you realize that you had this knowledge all along. That is something that I don’t think Lock explicitly considers. [laughter] Which is weird! Of course, of course, he read, Pla.. The Meno!
Wes: Well, he does when he talks about memory. So he says towards the end of our reading, that’s Section 20 of Chapter 4, where he’ll say the innate ideas you can’t say they’re hiding in the memory because memories are something which… they involve things which have been conscious at some point. And when you remember them, they have the mark of repetition, right? You know that it’s not a new… there’s something there to distinguish it from just having a new perception. The memory says. “Okay, this is not an active perception, but it’s something that’s been perceived before, and I’m calling it.” So the memory has a little metadata, let’s call it, that tells us that it’s a memory. This is a very weak argument on his part. But he doesn’t like the idea of the memory as a… as a way out.
Mark: He’s trying to reduce the sophisticated dispositional nativist back to being a current nativist. Ultimately, if you’re gonna be a nativist at all you have to believe that the supposed innate ideas were things that are now, or were at some point, explicitly in your consciousness, and you were aware that you knew that thing and believed it.
Wes: That’s a good point, but except that, you know, most of the arguments about universal assent, right, they apply just to either form of nativism.
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