Continuing from part one on Book I of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689).
We go through the arguments against innate ideas: There's no universal assent to foundational principles, either practical or theoretical. Plenty of people around the world deny in good conscience what we might consider foundational ethical principles, and they certainly don't all believe in any religious tenets. As to theoretical principles, such as the principle of non-contradiction or anything else foundational for mathematics, there are plenty of people that wouldn't even know what you were talking about, as they've never learned math or logic.
Could we implicitly know such principles? How could you prove this? Maybe you claim that people assent to them as soon as they gain the capacity to reason or as soon as they understand the claims. But this according to Locke doesn't prove their innateness. On the contrary, you need experience to even make sense of such alleged principles. Math and logic are not simply delivered up by reason itself, but are abstractions from things experienced.
According to Locke, discovering a new truth means turning the unknown into the known, not turning the known (that you didn't know you in fact knew) into the known (that you mow know you know). This means that Locke doesn't think that unconscious belief is possible. Even if you follow Freud against Locke about this, we could ask whether even if as a part of instinct we were born not just with capacities but with actual beliefs (e.g. fight or flight is the appropriate response for stressful situations), why would that guarantee that such a belief would be correct?
Mark: Let's actually get into his arguments against innate ideas, starting with this argument against universal assent.
Wes: It begins in Chapter 2…
Seth: ...which is definitely the meat.
Wes: “No innate principles in the mind.” You know, his idea is that the advocates of innate ideas they're motivated by the fact that they believe that there are certain principles again, speculative and practical, having to do with math and science and ethical notions that everyone agrees on. And it's cross-cultural, so that would include the law of non-contradiction and it would include the golden rule. It would include belief in God. God is thought to be, you know, kind of universal phenomenon, so you could go to any culture, they have an idea of God, everyone agrees, and so that must be because the idea of God is innate. And this is kind of a little mini ontological argument, and that's the idea of God is innate is because God put that in us.
Mark: This is Section two: “There's nothing more commonly taken for granted that there are certain principles both speculative andpractical, for they speak of both universally agreed on by all mankind, which therefore, they argue, must needs be constant impressions, which the souls of men received in their first beings, which they bring into the world with them as necessarily and really as they do any of their inherent faculties.” And he doesn't like this argument.
Wes: He does not. Aside from saying as an aside, but even if there were universal assent, that doesn't imply innateness, there might be some other explanation for that. But more importantly, there are children and they're idiots. Which means that there is no such thing as universal sense because all we have to do is ask an idiot or a child about the law of non-contradiction, and they will have no idea what we're talking about.
Dylan: And in a funny way, that would be the condensed version of the argument, right?
Dylan: Go ask a child. They won't have any idea what you're talking about. Therefore, it's not true.
Mark: Did he not read the Meno? Can he not bring that to bear here? How you could take a child? But no, it's just we're talking about a much more restricted view than Plato's. We're talking about the idea that there actually are beliefs, propositions that everybody assents to. He's taking it very literally.
Seth: And he probably would argue that Socrates teaches Meno.
Wes: The argument does progress towards the dispositional, right, because he's going to get into little sub variations about: so children will send it a certain age, for instance. That's an inherently dispositional idea. The idea is innate, but it just hasn't been activated yet. Beginning with section 7 of Chapter 2, he'll start responding to a more dispositional account. So he does say here, you can't have innate ideas that are not perceived or understood. So he does seem to be rejecting dispositionalism out of hand. You know, if they're imprinted in us, how could it be that they're not known? He sees as a contradiction for there to be such a thing as unconscious knowledge.
Dylan: And the generous thing there would be just to say that he is dismissing a notion of dispositional innateness. And so it’s sort of a... unsophisticated view of innateness. I mean, that would be the criticism.
Wes: Yeah, although again I think he does address it as the argument progresses, so...
Mark: But it is very vivid, since people like Descartes used the notion of God so much, that God basically signed his name on us...
Wes: “signed his name on us” [laughter]
Mark: … so that anybody could just look within themselves. And they have this notion of God and therefore there must be a God who put it there, that ontological argument, and he just flatly like… No. Have you ever heard of Buddhism? There are plenty of places in the world where people don't believe in God. Don't believe in your kind of God. Even people that do claim to believe in God have very different ideas of God. It would be very piss-poor penmanship if he actually... God signed his name in all of our brains. But yet so many people just can't seem to read that part of their brain to figure it out. It has to be pointed out to them by somebody in particular.
Seth: To be charitable to Locke here, he says, “Okay, well, what would it mean for you to have an idea imprinted in your brain?” He says, “Let's take it at face value.” The idea is that somehow God or something, these ideas are in your brain. And he says, “Well, they’re in your brain. But you're not aware of them” “Well, yeah, no, we are aware of them.” “Well, no, children and idiots they're not aware of them. As a child, you're not aware of them.” You're right. So how do we explain how you could have an idea that you're not aware of, and that is not a memory, as Wes pointed out earlier? And then he says, well, then people refine the argument and they say it's not until you have the use of reason. There's a certain maturation process, and then reason it's like you uncover this or discover in your own brain, this idea. And then he goes on to criticize that. So I think his stepwise approach to questioning the notion does, I think, successfully, at least call into question, even within the terms, Mark, as you pointed out, of the discourse that he has available to him at the time. What would the mechanism be? How could you possibly have anything in your brain that you're either not aware of or that you come to discover independent of experience? And in fact, the argument he's gonna make is, you have to have all this experience to even create the concepts and the constructs that would make sense of any idea that could possibly be put into your head. But more importantly, if you kind of admit that there is any innate idea, that ultimately there's a million innate ideas, and I don't think it's too much to say that he's leveling some pretty serious questions that need to be answered and that he ultimately thinks can't be answered by assuming that there are such things as innate ideas.
Wes: To take him seriously, we have to assume that he knows that we do have lots of innate knowledge. If we think of knowledge as know-how, right. So babies know how to suck. They know how to do lots of other things. Birds know how to build nests. There are lots of built-in procedural knowledge in us. It's just that this is the charitable reading. I don't know how true it is, but we could take him as just claiming that that doesn't translate into the idea that there are these ideas or propositions in the mind. If we want to read them charitably, we want to see him as making that kind of distinction, and we might want to see him as saying that and when you talk about capacities, I don't want to hear about your alike-unlike capacity, and your non-contradiction capacity and your triangle capacity. All I need is abstraction, right. From looking ahead a little bit, we have hints that he may just want to be talking about faculties or capacities instead of ideas, and he may want to make them as broad as possible and then they can be articulated and flushed out as they respond to sensory experience. So abstraction may do everything, and sense, in a way, may be able to teach abstraction to do lots of different things that other people would otherwise say are innate.
Dylan: And there, in that reading, abstraction is sort of the fundamental engine of reason.
Wes: Mm-hm. Well, he thinks of reason specifically as being able to move from axioms to theorems. So he will say, like this whole use of reason section, right, there's two flavors to it, and one of the flavors is that once you get your use of reason, you can use that to discover DNA principles that have been hidden inside you but they haven't been activated yet, and the other is just that, okay, around the time that you get to use reason you also come to knowledge of those innate principles have prompted, but not because you discover them by use of reason.
Seth: I'm making a mistake when I... abstraction is more of a capacity, whereas reason is more specific than that.
Wes: Yes. So what he'll say is, in Section 14, he'll say that the making of general abstract ideas and the understanding of general names is a con-committent of the rational faculty. But he will want to say that it's not the same thing as the use of reason, and the reason he wants to do that is because he doesn't like the idea that we get the innate ideas from reason, he says, that's silly. We don't get them from reason or any ideas simply by reasoning. We have to get them by abstraction. And so even though it's related, it's not the same thing. Do we want to continue to step through the argument? Because the first brand, the use-of-reason argument about discovery, we’ll basically just say if you're discovering the axioms through reason, then... First of all, he thinks that's kind of silly. It's like we need reason for eyes to be able to discover visible objects. In other words, he thinks of reason as inherently deductive, as inherently moving from things known to things unknown. So we discover new things. The idea of discovering something that's already there seems paradoxical.
Dylan: Yes, and so he's sort of using a contradiction here. So we may as well think that the use of reason necessary to make our eyes discover visible objects as that there should be need of reason or the exercise thereof to make the understanding see what is originally engraving in it and cannot be in the understanding before be perceived by it.
Wes: So someone might come along here and they might say, Okay buy, well, by reason I don't just mean deductive reason. I think there's such a thing as intuitive. That such a thing is rational intuition, and I rationally intuit the axioms, which I have innately in me. And therefore, it's only when I get to use my reason that I can rationally intuit reason in things. That's another idea he doesn't like.
Dylan: So something like “the whole is greater than the part” as a max mark common notion, he would disagree that that is held inside us. Even if we want to say, Well, you have to reason your way to get there but it’s still held inside you.
Mark: I think he just thinks that there's nothing fundamentally different about coming to the general truth, that the whole is greater than the part and coming to the general truth that, like elephants are bigger than foxes or something like that.
Mark: It's a similar... They both use abstraction. A lot of what we call reason is manipulation of basic ideas to understand complicated ideas. Or maybe you start with a complicated idea and breaking it down into simpler ones. Both of those clearly use the rational faculty, but that doesn't mean that anything involved is innate. He doesn't think that there's a way to use this criterion of reason to only count the things that his opponents say are innate, as actually innate, right. Because reason also operates on things that are obviously, you know, elephants are bigger than foxes, straightforwardly things from experience. Then if you say just because reason was involved to come up with this general truth, then why not say it was involved to come up with all the general truths, right? He thinks it's just as likely that I learn that the whole is bigger than the part because I've seen a piece of pie and then the whole pie. I've seen a piece of apple and then the whole apple and I, you know, it's exactly like elephants are bigger than foxes. The apple is bigger than the bite that I took out of it.
Dylan: So I remember when I was learning philosophy in school and reading Plato, and we get to these questions like differences in these… in logic itself. And I was wondering, well, where did all this come from? Where did the principles of logic, for instance, come from?
Seth: And I didn't really learn about that until, or at least one possibility is reading through I think it was Posterior Analytics or some Aristotle, where he makes the argument, for instance, about I guess, the law of non-contradiction.
Dylan: In these other pieces of fundamental logic, and please don't quote me exactly on my history of philosophy here, because I might be wrong. I might be attributing the wrong books or something like that, but he makes arguments for why these principles are true. He doesn't prove them, he doesn't have a demonstration for them. But the argument he makes with the law of non-contradiction is that we wouldn't be able to talk. So he goes through... and there wouldn't be able to be any conversation if that wasn't true.
Wes: This is Metaphysics Gamma 4.
Dylan: Okay, thank you. [laughter] Wes has a better memory than I do.
Dylan: And... So… as for…
Seth: Do you want that quoted in Greek? [everybody laughs]
Wes: It's just… Yeah, anyway, I could give you the story of what I know about the guy. [laughter]
Dylan: But the reason I bring up this example is that it is an argument for a maxim, or a principle, that you would get your way to thinking about it. Why that has to be true. But it's not an argument that it's innate. It has to do with it's a reflection of a... activity that we do. And I don't know if I would go so far as to say that... well, that somehow agrees with what Locke’s saying, right, is that, you know, we come to know what that principle is based upon our experience, and we extrapolate it. Well, you know, we wouldn't even be able to talk to one another unless this was true. And that principle comes to have a lot more power, and in fact, it seems like we probably are leveraging that principle well before we actually articulate it, as opposed to something like “every triangle has 180 degrees” in angles. That's the kind of thing that you end up leveraging later. You don't just whip that out while walking down the road.
Seth: Do we think that maybe Locke is not being sensitive to those kind of logical entitlements? Because in trying to look at the mind, he's really trying to give a genetic account of where knowledge comes from, not about its abstract logical structure that somehow the everyday truth that we spout out of our mouths, those are in fact logically entailed by the law of non-contradiction, among other things, but that in our minds, we actually for that abstract, logical thing to be true in the world, it has to also be true in our minds, according to these innatists, that we hold these things like the law of non contradiction in our mind, and those are what enable us to say the practical things. And that's what Locke is denying. He's saying, “that is, whatever the truth of logic is, I'm not concerned about that. I'm concerned... I'm doing philosophy of mind here, I'm doing psychology here.” That's not the way we think.
Wes: Yep. You know, one of the examples he brings up is that children can actually reason. And I think he says that animals clearly can, as well, in a little dig at Descartes, because he says something, you know, these people don't even think animals have souls, but clearly they could even think, right. So children and animals can use reason and to use reason, they don't have to know anything about law of non-contradiction or any other axioms or any of the fancy stuff. So reason is not really required. What's required, and this is all the interesting stuff from Section 14 to Section 16, is this capacity for abstraction. You know, he gives us this picture of... we get ideas from the senses, we remember them, we apply names to them, we abstract from them, use general names, get concepts in language. I think maybe the best examples in 16 where he's talking about how does a child come to know three plus four equals seven, like to be able to do that does not, for him, depend upon any innate mathematical axioms. It's more about the ability to count, the comprehension of words and concepts that are involved in using equality. So one thing to note here is that this kind of thing actually works both for him and against him, because we can begin to see here like the hints of a theory of language which he doesn't really have, which is language as use, right. So to... a concept doesn't really end up being an idea. The way he wants to say this. That's part of the problem here. He thinks concepts are ideas. He thinks they're these contents in the mind, and a lot of contemporary philosophers would reject that. They would see it more as a form of know-how language, right? Our comprehension of meaning has a lot to do with language use. Language use is an ability. It's a form of know-how. And concepts in a way, above all, are a form of tacit knowledge. They're a form of know-how. So if we wanted to challenge him, we would say, Well, you know, we mean innateness in a different way than just saying they're these explicit axioms and maybe that would satisfy him. Maybe he would say, “okay, well, yeah, that's what I'm saying. I'm just saying everything is a matter of these capacities and abilities” and then maybe he would argue with us about how specific they are, right? Is it just abstraction? Or do I have to have something, you know, these more specific faculties other than abstraction?
Seth: Well, it seems like he would probably be good with that to me, because so much of this... his concern about this innateness, about knowing specific things seems to be tied up with him not wanting to have people be held accountable for knowing things.
Seth: Right? When I referred to, at the beginning, that I couldn't help but thinking about his political philosophy, part of that is him not wanting to allow for people to be held accountable for knowing things, because everybody ought to know them. And therefore, if you don't know X, Y or Z, then therefore you're lying about it or something like that. Particularly in, sort of, the moral things right or questions about interpreting God. He wants to allow for very, very broad notions of toleration and stuff like that, even though he's a strong Christian himself.
Wes: Well, he doesn't want people to say, “Hey, these teachings are just…
Dylan: Yeah. Exactly.
Wes: ...I'm just telling you about the innate principles that everyone accepts and you can't question them.” So he sees some of this as the grounds for authoritarianism, right? And for lack of freedom of thought, and...
Dylan: That sort of runs through this whole criticism. And maybe it takes the wind out of that by changing the innateness to capacities rather than insensitivities or dispositions, rather than being specific things that you know.
Mark: It's hard to underestimate the amount of influence that. I want to say Darwin, but just the general, more scientific way of talking about human behavior and the mind that we have now, and it's really... you wanna ask again. He's saying that, yes, we have some innate capacities, but we don't have innate knowledge. And he wants to say that even animals think, right, so that if the dog is waiting for its dinner, then you want to say the dog knows that the dinner is coming or, you know, thinks that the dinner is coming, the dog recognizes... He wants to say that, you know, it's having a similar kind of experience that you are. And it's just so hard that, like, does the baby in having the built-in instinct to reach for the mother's breast, do we want to say that that involves some innate knowledge? You know, belief. Let's just say belief, that good things, milky things, something, will come from the breast. Or is that entirely, he's just committed to know the mind is a blank slate. The baby just learns that because a breast gets shoved in its face and says, “Oh, wow, this is awesome. I... The breast is great.” [laughter] And so, therefore, even though we have all these... you know, obviously nobody showed it how to suckle on, exactly. It has that know-how, but that all the knowledge, that, has to come from experience and there's nothing instinctively that counts as a belief.
Wes: Yeah, it seems hard to believe that he would think that obviously he knows there's gotta be a lot of stuff, instinctive stuff that we have that doesn't just come from experience. He would definitely not want to call it belief. He would not want to call it innate propositional knowledge but...
Mark: Ideas? I don't know.
Mark: Like “good boob!” Is that an innate idea?
Seth: Why would anybody call it knowledge? I was wondering this earlier, that particular example, in fact. These things that I might have called instinct or very, very physical activities that happen. It seems like a different class of knowledge, if you want to call it knowledge. I'm not even clear... that it's not clear to me that I want to call it knowledge.
Wes: Well, I would call it knowledge. I mean, look at nest-building in birds.
Mark: Does the bird know, in some sense, that if I get more soft stuff that this is going to be a good place for my eggs. Does he know that? Is that a bit of knowledge, or is it purely he's just an automaton obeying instinct. And I think if birds are like dogs, that Locke is committed to saying the bird has knowledge, but yet, clearly, that seems like innate knowledge.
Seth: No, mhm. [Wes laughs] No, the bird does not know.
Mark: You just don't even think you wouldn't consider that a belief.
Mark: Putting aside whether it's true or not, saying it's knowledge. He's okay with the idea that it could be. Well, maybe that's something to bring up. Is he okay with the idea that we might come imprinted with something? But it could be a lie. In other words, not innate knowledge but innate belief.
Wes: He's not open to that possibility, right, because in the context of the times, these are things that are supposed to be imprinted on us by God. They're supposed to be truths. But of course, yeah, we can entirely entertain that. We think about this in terms of evolution, right? And it may be that what's evolutionarily useful is not necessarily true.
Seth: It's also the case that what is used is not necessarily used because it's evolutionarily useful, right? There's all kinds of things in capacities, even within evolution, that you have, that they're not selected for right? It's not true that every capacity of an organism is something that is useful because it's not true that every capacity of an organism is something that's selected upon. There's all kinds of things that they have that are not selected upon, or that our weakly selected upon so that they're just... they're along for the ride with other things that are selected upon. It’s fallacious thinking to ask the question, “well, why did evolutionarily we need X or that dogs need Y?” Because that is not the correct question to think about evolutionarily-wise. The output of evolution that every feature or capacity or capability of an organism, is due to some particular reason.
Wes: But if we did have a belief that were due to evolution, it could still be alive. [laughter]
Seth: I think these are difficult questions. Do beliefs need to be linguistic? Are they necessarily things that are right? So then we could rule out as a matter of hand animals having any sorts of beliefs because they don't have language. All this stuff gets us into lots of tourney issues.
Mark: Right. Just that Locke has a view of language, as you were saying before, that is sort of the naive view that maybe came from Augustine. Or at least that's the first place that people commonly cite that animals might not have the words for things, but they have the ideas. Ideas logically and genetically come first, and then we learn what the names are afterward, as opposed to maybe the way that people more think of it now, that we have an incoherent mass, and until it gets tied down to a word, then it's certainly not something vivid. It's not something that... I think Locke would definitely not have a problem with there are beliefs that are not linguistic beliefs. They’re connections, they’re ideas, just not words.
Wes: I mean, if we like the idea that a concept is a form of know-how, then we open things up.
Seth: I don't know what it would mean to say. “Have a belief without words.”
Mark: Well, what do you mean? Like the dog, his dish empty of water is different than the dish full of water, and he doesn't have the words full and empty.
Dylan: But why is that a belief?
Seth: What does that mean?
Mark: There is no water in my dish right now. I'm looking. Maybe my master will put some in there, but it doesn't know any of those words.
Wes: Or you throw a ball, or you pretend to throw a ball and the dog runs after it. And the dog believed that you threw the ball even though you didn't. [laughter]
Dylan: So, the reason I'm getting stuck on this, I don't know whether it’s the same reason that Seth is getting stuck on it, is I somehow feel a lot more comfortable with saying the dog that thought that you threw the ball but you didn't, you tricked him, as opposed to the dog believed that you threw the ball. [laughter] And the reason that I don't like the word believe there, is that it has a more strident, broader cognitive implication regarding the structured thinking that has sort of linguistic content implied in it, as opposed to the thought. And maybe I'm, you know, making a distinction that there's no difference actually.
Wes: But yeah, again, I just think these are all hard-to-get-by issues.
Mark: And I like how, I don't know if this is on point, but how a lot of... some religious people try to produce notions of belief and especially the word faith into their more personal notions, right? Why does the dog believe that the ball is over there? Because the dog believes me, the dog loves me, basically. If it was a stranger doing that, I don't know that the dog would... and that's how they say, like why you can have faith in God because you have faith in your friend, you have faith in your spouse, don't you? So you should have faith in God in the same way. I'm like, “no, because faith in God is an unsupported belief and a belief is a proposition that should be routed to more fundamental propositions that should be routed to experience.” “No, no, no, no. That's not what belief is. Belief is actually something less cognitive than that. I don't think that that route is open to Locke, but maybe there's something in there to get us out of this animal...
Dylan: Is there more to walk through on 15, 16, 17? West mentioned earlier, this is, at some level, the juicy center. He didn't use that phrase. I just made that up. [laughter] So this question about, you know, child knows 3,4,7... This seems to be an example, at least, of where he's walking through a... individual case to try to lay alongside. People say that this is because it's innate, but it's not because of why.
Wes: Yeah, and I think it gives us a good preview into his stuff that's gonna come later. This theory of ideas.
Dylan: Maybe it's worth prefacing it with 15. So he says “the senses at first let in PARTICULAR ideas and furnished the yet empty cabinet,...” (so this is the tabula rasa thing) “and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in the memory, and names got to them. Afterwards, the mind proceeding further, abstracts them, and by degrees learns the use of general names. In this manner the mind comes to be furnished with ideas and language, the MATERIALS about which to exercise its discursive faculty. And the use of reason becomes daily more visible, as these materials that give it employment increase. But though the having of general ideas and the use of general words and reason usually grow together, yet I see not how this any way proves them innate. The knowledge of some truths, I confess, is very early in the mind; but in a way that shows them not to be innate. For, if we will observe, we shall find it still to be about ideas, not innate, but acquired;” I haven't checked to see if this is the first place he does this, but he's going through something like his positive account of how we get these things that would be instead of them being innate.
Wes: This is not like his main exposition. He's doing this, in a way, as an aside, and...
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