John Locke's 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding': Summary

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'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' does not operate under the pretense of possessing a store of wisdom to be passed on to others, rather it aims to dispel sources of intolerance, stimulate others to think for themselves, and promote the cause of freedom enacted through thought and action. As an adequate representation of the spirit of the modern age, it has done much to shape the course of many different fields of inquiry. The Western world will forever be imprinted upon by the ideas outlined in this monumental work, to which freedoms present today can be attributed.

Any adequate appreciation of Locke's work must consider the major objective of and circumstances under which the book was written. Locke, who had witnessed the results of tyranny on the part of both political and religious institutions, was unalterably opposed to tyranny in any of the forms of manifestation and all devices for controlling the minds and activities of men. It was his intense devotion to the cause of human liberty that inspired his work supporting the protection and defense of human rights.

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Locke's serious and systematic inquiry into the problems of epistemology marked an important beginning of the rise of such inquiry becoming a central issue in philosophical discussions. He met regularly with a small group of friends to exchange views on important questions relating to science, morals, and religion, and the injustice he witnessed and so strongly opposed. It was the lack of a definite conclusion during these exchanges that led Locke to give the possibilities and limitations of the human mind careful consideration. He struggled with the absence of a last and final word and the lack of mutual agreement among those whom he scrutinized.

When exploring the capacity of the human mind, Locke becomes particularly keen on demolishing the nativist position. After careful deliberation, he arrives at the disbelief in innate knowledge. When dispelling innate theoretical principles, Locke directs his focus toward the principles that he views as the best possible candidate for universal consent through the formulation of a strong nativist position. He objects to it, then revises the nativist position, continues to object to the newly proposed position, and so on, until the nativist position is so utterly weak it is trivial. The idea of 'whatever it is', God, and infinity are all rejected by Locke.

The structure of his argument against innate principles can be broken down into three key elements. First, he argues that if, in fact, there is innate knowledge then, such knowledge is composed of innate theoretical principles that everyone would assent to. Secondly, there are no principles to which everyone assents. The lack of agreement among those whom he engaged in philosophical debate indicated to him that surely there were none. Third, therefore, there are no innate theoretical principles. Though simple in formulation, Locke leaves no stone unturned.

He felt humanity would benefit greatly from knowing precisely what areas of inquiry we can never obtain more than probable knowledge for, and what we can be certain of. To Locke, the freedom of the individual to think and act for himself necessarily entailed a better understanding of the processes that enable human minds to arrive at truth. It is only once we achieve such understanding, then time will not be wasted on questions that cannot be answered. Furthermore, an appreciation of the limitations of the human mind would encourage tolerance toward individuals holding different and conflicting opinions; this tolerance would safeguard against persecution and all its evils.

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