Seminar paper: John Locke, Epistle to the Reader
John Locke was born near Bristol in 1632. He studied in Oxford, but it’s only thanks to Descartes’ essays that Locke became really interested in philosophy. He was also influenced by famous scientists such as Robert Boyle and Sydenham.
Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1690. In this book, he explains his view of human understanding and its extent. His aim was to determine the origins of human knowledge, its authenticity and greatness. He analyses human’s abilities in order to understand how we can develop ideas and therefore find out about the limits of human understanding. In the Epistle to the Reader, Locke explains to his audience the target he hopes to reach in writing this Essay. First of all, let’s see more in depth the content of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
1. Innate ideas
Since Locke is considered as one of the first empiricist philosopher, it’s understandable that he strongly disagrees with Descartes’ concept of innate ideas. The British philosopher states that knowledge comes from experience of senses and personal reflection. According to the principle of innate ideas, some ideas, such as the existence of God, are universal. Locke proves that this principle is wrong, basing his argument on the fact that children don’t have such ideas, or that in other civilisations some of the moral ideas existing in Western countries don’t exist at all. Thus Locke refers to the concept of Tabula Rasa, which means in Latin « virgin wax tablet ». He considers that a newborn has an empty mind, a bit like a new computer with an empty hard drive. Experience will, little by little, get absorbed by the mind. Therefore, experience is the only origin of human’s knowledge and understanding. Locke deepens his analysis describing two sorts of ideas: simple and complex ideas.
2. Simple ideas
According to Locke, simple ideas are complete and cannot be divided. We cannot analyse, define or explain them as they are not mixed with other ideas. For example, the idea of numbers: would we be able to analyse and explain clearly the idea of the number one? Probably not.
3. Complex ideas
Complex ideas are just an association of simple ideas. Locke analyses three types of complex ideas:
1) Complex ideas composed of simple ideas. These are just a modification of a simple idea. For example, the idea of the number two is simply the addition of the idea of the number one. Then, there is
2) The way of thinking: perception, memory, awareness, which is also an association of ideas.
3) The free will, which means humans have the power and the freedom to decide to do something or not.
Thus, Locke showed that human’s knowledge is always linked with ideas. Knowledge without ideas is just impossible. He also classified human’s knowledge in four degrees of assent: the two first ones are about certainty, the third is about opinion and probability and the fourth is about Faith. I believe that these particular points are very important in our context because as we know, journalists are perpetually seeking after the truth. Here, Locke is giving us a quite pessimistic view of Knowledge in general, as there is very little we can be totally sure of.
The greatest degree of assent is the intuitive knowledge.
1. Intuitive knowledge
We could define intuitive knowledge with Descartes’ cogito « I think therefore I am ». This refers to every idea we have that we are totally sure to be true, like our own existence. Locke says that we perceive our own existence and it doesn’t need to be proved. If it needed to, everything else should be proved, because nothing is more sure than our own existence. This is the greatest point of certainty we can ever reach. Locke carries on his analysis with the demonstrative knowledge, which is a step below the intuitive knowledge on the scale.
2. Demonstrative knowledge
According to Locke, demonstrative knowledge consists in comparing ideas. With this process, we can then link them to other ideas to discover the truth. There are four steps in demonstrative knowledge:
-Organize the ideas so that we can clearly
- Deduce the result, and then
- Reach a conclusion.
In the demonstrative area, mathematics is the greatest point of certainty ever reached, because they include these four steps. Locke also believes that we can prove God’s existence with this process. Indeed, as the non-being cannot produce anything, therefore it means that an eternal being has created the world at some point. The rest of our knowledge is perceived by our senses.
To conclude, in his Epistle to the Reader, Locke says that understanding « is the most elevated faculty of the soul.». Although it is really difficult to gain knowledge, it is very rewarding to seek after the facts and the truth. As future journalists, I think this is the most important point we should all remember about John Locke’s philosophy.