That Innate Ideas are Probable

by Rob McLarty on April 10, 2015

In Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (270-373), an effort is made to deny the existence of innate ideas. It is said, instead, that all knowledge is acquired through experience. In this paper, I will outline some of Locke's arguments concerning innate ideas, and then criticize them by showing where they are lacking. It will be shown that innate ideas cannot be rejected outright; they are clear possibilities (if not, actualities).

Locke investigates, in his Essay, the origin of human knowledge. He begins, in Book I, by analyzing the possibility that we (human beings) may come into the world already endowed with certain pieces of knowledge. He argues in this book that no such knowledge exists and that all knowledge that does exist is acquired by means of experience and interaction with the world.

Locke states that "universal consent proves nothing innate" (I, ii, 4). It is said, by proponents of this line of reasoning, that certain principles are accepted by anyone who comes across them; thus they must be naturally imprinted on the mind from birth. Locke does not agree. He goes on to point out that children (and idiots) do not apprehend any of these so-called 'universally consented' ideas. he concludes from this that such ideas are not in existence at birth. "For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? And if they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown?" (I, ii, 5). So, in essence, because children and idiots do not universally understand such truths or ideas, then, according to Locke, such ideas cannot be innate (i.e., they must be acquired through the course of life). Locke provides examples of two universally consented propositions: "Whatever is, is" and "It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be" (I, ii, 4). He says that if they are in the understanding by default, then children should not be ignorant of them. Moreover, he asserts, every living mind of whatever age (including infants) must necessarily be aware and know the truth of these propositions. Because there are some (especially children) who do not understand such propositions, they are not in the understanding at birth.

Locke later examines the reply, made by believers of innate, universal ideas, that "men know them when they come to the use of reason" (I, ii, 6). Locke does not believe that because reason discovered the propositions that they are innate. Reason, says Locke, is the deduction of unknown truths from truths already known and understood (I, ii, 9). He maintains that if reason is necessary to discover innate truths, then we would find "all the certain truths that reason ever teaches us to be innate," (I, ii, 8) which, of course, is not the case. Locke also attacks the notion of 'implicitly' imprinted ideas, claiming that if this means 'the mind's ability to understand them when encountered' then "all mathematical demonstrations as well as first principles must be received as native impressions on the mind" (I, ii, 22). As a result Locke believes there are no innate ideas.

I am not in full agreement with Locke for the following reasons. Firstly, infant's minds may not be aware of ideas which are dependant on language, but this does not entail a lack of knowledge of any kind. Secondly, there are some abilities at birth; the question is whether they constitute knowledge. Thirdly, the sorts of things which Locke says that the mind is doing when it is in the process of acquiring non-innate knowledge requires some sort of know-how to begin with, and ideas may not be innate, but something is there to start the mind off on its empirical journey. Something is going on in the mind for which Locke does not account, which is most probably some for of innate process.

I agree in a very limited manner with Locke in that "no proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of" (I, ii, 5). Obviously a pre-linguistic mind will not be able to understand propositions (i.e., linguistic utterances). And I will also admit that such minds do not comprehend ideas, where the term idea represents an object of language. I do not contest this. But is knowledge merely limited to the linguistic domain? I know how to move my arm about. But all this kind of knowledge is in ineffable. Thus, there does exist a certain kind of knowledge which is non-propositional (i.e., not expressible in language). So, when Locke says that no proposition can be in the mind before the mind's experience of it, he has not stated that no knowledge can be in the mind before the mind's experience of it.

Locke argued that because infants are not aware of the universal truths that all men seem to agree to, these truths are not innate. True, infants may not comprehend these, specific ideas or facts, but this alone does not mean that they have no knowledge of anything. They may not be able to speak, and subsequently have no knowledge of the proposition 'whatever is, is', but they may know when they are in the presence of their mother, and they may know that they are hungry (although they do not know the word 'hungry', they may feel a grumbling in their stomachs and understand this sensation qua a sensation without need of any external, empirical knowledge beforehand). Certainly, when a baby cries when given to a stranger, and then stops when given to its mother (this even occurring immediately after birth), it had not a chance to learn any distinction between mother and stranger empirically; it is an ability it does seem to have, an ability that is present at birth. If this ability does not constitute being 'knowledge' or 'imprinted upon the mind', then we require a new category for abilities of this sort, otherwise, they are innate knowledge. So, it is probable that infants know something innately.

Locke clearly explains the method in which the mind acquires its first pieces of knowledge: "The senses at first let in particular ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet, and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in 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 come to be furnished with ideas and language" (I, ii, 15, my italics). There are quite a few verbs being used in these propositions. As a result, the mind seems to be quite an active participant in its acquisition of knowledge. It has to let things in, furnish its memory, grow familiar with its newly acquired ideas, get names to all these ideas, and then learn general names for them. How can it do all these things without knowledge of how to do all these things? The letting in of ideas, I grant, may perhaps be passive (like the letting in of sunshine through a window; the window does not need to know how to do this). But what of the furnishing of the cabinet? This is only an analogy, but the mind is clearly doing something active which would require it to know how to perform this action. Similarly with the rest of the verbs, the mind must know how to do them before it is able to do them! Therefore, by Locke's own admission, the mind knows something in the first stages of its development.

Having no understanding of the linguistic domain does not necessarily constitute having no understanding of knowledge what ever. Locke, thus, leaves room for possible innate knowledge in his arguments since he only takes language-oriented (or propositional) knowledge into consideration. As well, from infants' abilities at birth which can be observed and inferred (e.g., quieting when in mother's arms; awareness of 'hunger'; being upset when given confused, that is, contradictory, signals), there are examples of possible knowledge which may be innately imprinted upon the mind. And, by Locke's own argument, the mind must know something in its initial stages of development in order for it to furnish itself with new knowledge (specifically that of the linguistic kind). Therefore, Locke does not rule out the possibility of innate knowledge and by further reasoning it may be seen that innate principles are indeed quite probable (I do not say 'certain' because we cannot peer directly into prenatal minds in order to learn what is actually going on inside). Nevertheless, innate principles or ideas are probable.

Works Cited:

Locke, John. AnEssay Concerning Human Understanding, Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Ed. Roger Ariew, and Eric Watkins. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. 270-373.


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