An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Essay

John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding consists of four books that reveal the core aspects of the understanding. The famous philosopher says that only understanding sets man over animals and gives him a possibility to dominate over all other living creatures. Locke emphasizes that through knowledge humans are able to perceive everything. He focuses on the origin and the depth of human knowledge, the grounds and intensity of belief, opinion, and assent. Belief, opinion, and assent are not the biological aspects of the mind.

John Locke is looking for the deep contrast between opinion and knowledge. He also explains his view on what standards should guide a person to figure out whether his opinions are right or wrong. The aim of the essay is to find out what the scope of the understanding is, how far it is able to achieve certainty, and acknowledge that an individual is able to understand only what the condition of the person enables him to understand.

At the beginning of the Book I, “Innate Notions,” the writer tries to render his viewpoint on how powerful our minds are and illustrates the priority of thinking even if we cannot fathom all the depths of our lives. Locke opens his essay by describing how the notions come into the mind – the source of the meaning of understanding. He insists that a human is born with a blank mind and that we possess all information in order to get those notions through the eyes from external objects. To verify his theory, Locke provides certain arguments against the innateness hypothesis. If all the truths a human ever comes to understand are innate, then the doctrine about innateness will be refuted point by point. Our mind is capable of knowing lots of facts, and if the doctrine about innateness is correct, then babies have to carry these facts in their understandings automatically. However, they don’t. Locke then shows that not everybody understands some of the notions, but the supporters of the innateness theory affirm that every person has to understand them. Locke clarifies that it isn’t sufficient for most people to be familiar with a particular notion for it to be innate. Locke concludes that knowledge comes from experience. Using language people can recognize various experiences as well as put conceptual ideas into an order which are impossible without language. In the third section, Locke suggests an ideology opposite to the innateness of empirical principles. He argues that it is self-evident that no moral principles are universally assented to than that no non-moral principles are. He also mentions that moral principles need to be supported by reasons.

He also discusses the assumption that people believe in and are aware of certain doctrines depending on the societies. Locke offers to explain this phenomenon, largely in terms of early education – he connects an early education and the belief that humans have innate principles. People who have been instructed to grow up in a particular way and reflect on their own minds, can’t find anything more ancient there than the opinions that they were taught in the early stages of their life journey. They can’t remember any source for those opinions, and that makes them confident that the opinions were given them by God and nature. In the last chapter, Locke comes again to the assumption that the concepts and the words that refer to sensations must be acquired. If two people have a concept of a particular notion in their heads, it does not determine that the notion itself will imply the same meaning or thing to everyone. This example clearly illustrates that the facts or notions are not inborn.

In the second book, “Ideas,” Locke explains how experience writes notions into understanding and how understanding then uses those ideas. He raises the question how people acquire such notions expressed by the words ‘whiteness’, ‘hardness,’ ‘sweetness,’ and ‘thinking.’ The prime source of most of the notions we have Locke calls sensation while the other way how experience provides notions to the understanding is the reflection. Most of the human’s basic ideas are from sensation such as our knowledge of color, sound, and taste. Reflection creates ideas that couldn’t be obtained from external things such as perception, believing and other processes that our minds perform. In other words, reflection is the procedure of creating ideas by analyzing the activity of the mind. Locke supposes that our notions take their beginnings from those two sources – external material things, and the operations of our own minds. Thinker provides an example of a baby who perceives ideas gradually. Children are born into the world surrounded by objects that fill their minds with a variety of notions like light, colors, sounds and other qualities that children can perceive through senses. If a child were kept in a place where he never saw any color but black and white till he became older, he would have no notions of other colors. In the next chapter, logician speaks about complex and simple ideas.

Locke provides several examples of various simple and complex ideas and finally approaches to a notion of primary and secondary qualities. Simple ideas appear from one conception in mind and cannot be created or destroyed. Some qualities of a thing, their color, taste, or texture, for example, can change if facts about the thing are changed. For example, food that has been cooked tastes different from the same food uncooked. He leads to the idea that basic or primary qualities of an object cannot be changed without changing the object itself. Primary qualities are the thing itself, whereas secondary qualities appear from the interaction of the thing and abilities of perception. Locke explains that the complex ideas are combined with simple ideas. He distinguishes three methods of idea combination (putting diverse ideas together into one complex idea), relation (seeing the relation between ideas), and abstraction (separating one property from many particular ideas). Thinker divides complex ideas into modes, substances, and relations. Modes don’t contain the supposition of self-sufficient subsistence. Substances represent distinct particular things, and relations are the relationships among other ideas, substances, or modes.

To conclude, John Locke’s essay is one of the most prominent philosophical works explaining the essence of the understanding. At the beginning of a study, John Locke provides a strong proof that if all the facts a human ever comes to understand are inborn, then the doctrine about innateness is not valid as the mind knows many truths and when a baby is born he should already have them in his understanding. In the Book II, Locke unfolds his previous hypothesis and illustrates how human derives notions from experience. Ultimately, the famous thinker leads to the hypothesis that mind of an infant is blank and understanding of concepts comes with the experience.


  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I: Innate Notions, John Locke –
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II: Ideas, John Locke –
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