SparkNotes: Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is sectioned into four books. Taken together, they comprise an extremely long and detailed theory of knowledge starting from the very basics and building up.

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In An Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke sets out his theory of knowledge and how we acquire it. Eschewing doctrines of innate principles and ideas, Locke shows how all our ideas, even the most abstract and complex, are grounded in human experience and attained by sensation of external things or reflection upon our own mental activities. A thorough examination of the communication of ideas through language and the conventions of taking words as signs of ideas paves the way for his penetrating critique of the limitations of ideas and the extent of our knowledge of ourselves, the world, God, and morals.

John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxfordacademic and medical researcher. Locke's monumental An EssayConcerning Human Understanding (1689) is one of the first greatdefenses of empiricism and concerns itself with determining the limitsof human understanding in respect to a wide spectrum of topics. Itthus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to knowand what one cannot. Locke's association with Anthony Ashley Cooper(later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively agovernment official charged with collecting information about tradeand colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, andfinally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in theGlorious Revolution of 1688. Among Locke's political works he is mostfamous for The Second Treatise of Government in which heargues that sovereignty resides in the people and explains the natureof legitimate government in terms of natural rights and the socialcontract. He is also famous for calling for the separation of Churchand State in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Much ofLocke's work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. Thisis apparent both on the level of the individual person and on thelevel of institutions such as government and church. For theindividual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truthrather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject tosuperstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to theevidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes importantto distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions ofinstitutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses offorce by these institutions. Locke believes that using reason to tryto grasp the truth, and determine the legitimate functions ofinstitutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual andsociety both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. This inturn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of thedivine purpose for humanity.At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingLocke says that since his purpose is “to enquire into theOriginal, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge, together with thegrounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent” he is goingto begin with ideas — the materials out of which knowledge isconstructed. His first task is to “enquire into the Original ofthese Ideas…and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to befurnished with them” (I. 1. 3. p. 44). The role of Book I of theEssay is to make the case that being innate is not a way inwhich the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas. Locketreats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there isno good evidence to support it.