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Locke vs. Knowledge Innatism

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In this paper, I will explore the topic of knowledge innatism and define what it is and what it isn’t, Locke’s objections to it, and responses to these objections. After raising an objection, I will argue either that 1) this objection is weak or 2) this objection works. The sort of knowledge that nativists think are innate in the mind are truths that do not have to be learned through experience, such as knowledge of the laws of nature & mathematical truths.

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Examples of these are: 1) “What goes up must come down” (the law of gravity) & 2) “one plus one is two”. This school of thought is used to explain certain truths that might seem to have universal applicability. Nativists think that certain sorts of knowledge are innate because of 1) its universal applicability or 2) truths that go beyond sensory experience, such as: 1a) moral/ ethical truths such as the concepts of “right” & “wrong” & 2b) the idea of people having a “soul”.

For Locke, his biggest problem with the nativist school of thought is that their ultimate assertion is unclear; he is unsure if nativists are saying A) that everyone is born with knowledge of certain truths and is conscious of them all along, OR if they are saying that B) everyone is born with the innate capacity to come to know certain truths. As Locke understands it; if A), then it is empirically false, because infants and retards have no concept of these truths. For example, if you were to ask an infant, “What is the square root of 4761? they would not know. For Locke, this negates any notion that there are universal truths accepted by all human beings. He argues that, “No proposition can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew which it was never yet conscious of” ( p. 23). What he is saying is that it is not plausible to conclude that certain innate truths exist if someone is not consciously aware of them. Now that Locke has successfully refuted A), he continues by negating B) as well.

If the nativist argues for B), then this assertion becomes trivial at best, since if knowledge is already in the mind, it is because of the mind’s general capacity to come to know these truths, and NOT because of one specific truth already being “pre-programmed” into the mind. For example, one does not possess a sense of right & wrong because they were born with that knowledge but rather the capacity to learn what right & wrong is, through experience. This is significant because nativists hold the view that anyone with the capacity to learn, will do so.

However, Locke goes on to state that just having the capacity to know certain truths doesn’t necessarily mean that you will ever eventually come to know these truths. From the text, “Man may live long and die at last in Ignorance of many Truths, which his Mind was capable of knowing, and that with Certainty. ” (p. 23) Nativists state that if knowledge is innate, then it must be universal. Some truths, such as math, are universal. Furthermore, the capacity for all humans to come to know this is universal as well.

Locke begins his refutation by saying that these concepts can be separated and are distinct from each other. In his view, innate knowledge is not universal; an example is that just because the mathematical fact that “1+1 = 2” is true universally does not mean everyone innately understands this. For example, infants and retards lack the capacity to comprehend and be aware of this fact. Therefore, innate knowledge is not universal. Knowledge innatists may say that knowledge is innate in the mind, but one just has to become aware of it for it.

Yet, it is a contradiction to argue that an idea or proposition is already in the mind before one is conscious of it. If an idea is in the mind, it is not because it was always there and one must only become aware of it for it to exist; rather, it is because of the capacity of the mind to come to know it. For example, as the text is quotes above shows, there are many truths that the human mind may never come to discover or know in their lifetime, but this does not mean that these truths do not exist.

So, while this knowledge may be universal, it does not neccessarily mean that such knowledge is innate, but rather just the capacity to come to know these certain truths. Since Locke is an empiricist, he states that the ability of the mind to know certain truth is only innate through the senses. It is through use of sensory experience that one learns things about nature, our environment, or ourselves. I agree with Locke’s view, because while I may never experience enough to know all there is to know, I am able to come to the understanding that everything that I know has come from experience of some kind.

Even ideas that are not tangible, such as the concept of a human “soul”, are feasible to me because even though I have never actually seen a “soul”, I can confidently describe what it means because I have learned about its definition through texts, conversation, and my own reasoning based on common definitions – this is my experience of what a “soul” is, and hence, knowledge is gained. However, the problem for me is the examples of the infant or mentally handicapped.

A precocious child may learn mathematical truths well before they are able to speak; one can imagine a child playing with things such as pennies and being able to count, add, and subtract them. The mentally handicapped example is a bit weaker but it works as well. The retard may have a sense of what is right & wrong, but they may not be able to speak about it due to a lack of the necessary motor coordination and skills to be able to talk. Knowledge innatists claim that knowledge is innate and universal as well.

However, only some truths are universal, such as math – regardless of the fact whether or not an infant is consciously aware of it, “one plus one equals two” will still hold true universally even though it is not necessarily innate – for example, infants or people with mental retardation may not have the ability to articulate or comprehend this truth. What can be said to be innate, however, is the capacity or potential to come to have knowledge, although it does not necessarily mean that a person will ever come to know everything.

A person may live or be raised as a recluse or in isolation their whole lives and therefore fail to experience many things in life, such as learning a sense of right & wrong or be able to work out mathematical problems; however, this does not mean that these truths do not exist. Just because one is unable to experience, understand, or articulate a universal truth does not mean that it doesn’t exist; however, everyone is born with the potential to come to learn facets of the human experience that constitute knowledge.

Cite this Locke vs. Knowledge Innatism

Locke vs. Knowledge Innatism. (2017, Mar 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/locke-vs-knowledge-innatism/

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