For the research paper for my 17th century philosophy class I’ve chosen for my topic Locke’s notion of simple ideas and their role in his epistemology. So, what’s all this mumbo jumbo about? And who is John Locke? As most of you may know, John Locke was trapped on a strange island with a bunch of other people when their plane crashed. But what many of you might not know, is that prior to crashing on the island in Lost, John Locke was a prominent 17 century philosopher.
Locke is the grand daddy of empiricism–the philosophy that the foundation of our knowledge is sensory experience. His philosophy is in obvious contrast with the rationalists Descartes and Spinoza who believed pretty much the opposite–that the foundation of all knowledge is accessible through rational refection.
A super skeleton sketch of Locke’s empiricism looks like this (reduced from about 500 pages to 6 lines):
1. There are no innate ideas…have you ever met a baby that knew how to do maph? He gives quite a few different arguments against innate ideas but you get the gist of it.
2. So, all knowledge must originate as ideas caused by sensory experiences. (Perceiving something produces an idea of that thing in my mind).
3. The mind then acts on these simple ideas to compare, connect, and abstract from them to form more complex ideas.
In my essay I want to explore a couple of interrelated issues. (1). What is a simple idea? and is this an intelligible concept? (2). if we can come up with an intelligible notion of a simple idea, can it do the work Locke needs it to do to support empiricism, or do we need to allow some degree of innate knowledge? Anyhow, you’re going to follow along as I do my research…
Lets get in stahted in hah….
Ideas in General and their Origin
For Locke, if someone reflects upon the origin of many universal truths “they would have found them to result in minds of Men, from the being of things themselves, when duly considered; and that they were discovered by the application of those Faculties, that were fitted by Nature to receive and judge of them, when duly employ’d about them.” If we translate this from Locke’s beautiful prose it reads that knowledge of general truths is derived from the ideas that those objects cause in our minds through sensory experience. Enough with the generalities, lets get down to the nitty gritty of how this works.
The contents of the Mind are ideas. Er’body has a variety of ideas in their mind, such as Whiteness, Hardness, Sweetness, Thinking, Motion, Man, Elephant, Army, Drunkenness, Sippy-cup, Chains, Things that are Off the Chain, etc…How do all these ideas get into our mind? Locke demonstrated that they can’t be innate, so whence did they come?
Here he famously axes us so suppose the mind to be “white paper, void of all characters, without any Ideas”…all the ideas that fill our mind came from one source: experience. All knowledge is founded on it and derived from it. “Our observation employ’d either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking”.
So basically our knowledge has two subsources: sensation which gives us ideas through the perception of external things; these ideas include things like yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet…and anything else we call sensible qualities. Sensible ideas are the result of the ideas that are produced in our mind through a causal relation to an external object. For example, the chair causes in my mind the ideas of brown, wood, chair, etc..
Reflection is the other source “from which Experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is the perception of the operations of our own Minds within us” as it acts on the raw ideas is has received from perception to produce new ideas. Basically, we can get new ideas when our mind manipulates, mixes, abstracts, and compares whatever ideas we already have (from perception). Acts of the mind include: perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing which give rise in us new ideas (about other ideas).
There are no other sources of ideas beyond sensation and reflection. Ideas arising from sensation arise from without and concern external objects whereas reflection involves ideas about our mind’s own operation. Locke challenges us to “search our Minds” for ideas that didn’t come from one of these two sources.
Pay attention! The more numerous and varied the objects you come in sensory contact with the more simple ideas you will have; there is a parallel for ideas arising out of reflection–the is a direct relation to the amount of reflection one does and quantity of ideas one has about the operation of his own mind. Also, there is a direct relation to the degree of clarity your ideas have with the the degree of attention you put into observing external objects and your mental operations. If you don’t pay attention your ideas will be unclear and your knowledge will rest on a shaky foundation–so pay attention!
On our first ideas: At what point in our life do we have our first ideas? “When he first has any Sensation” then it is to these first sensorily derived ideas that we employ the mental operations of perception, remembering, consideration, reasoning, etc…In time the mind (can) reflects on its own mental ideas. This means something like the having thoughts like “I am looking at the elephant”, “I like elephants”, “I am thinking about myself looking at the elephant”, “I like thinking about myself looking at elephants” and so on…Through this process the mind gets more ideas–ideas from reflection.
The important point is that we need the initial sensory ideas first before the mind can go to work on them, after that, through continual reflection and more sensory ideas the sky is the limit. Our minds are idea factories!
Hint at a criterion for simple idea (finally, Yay!): In receiving these basic ideas from sensory perception our minds are passive. So long as our perceptual apparati are in good working order there is little we can do to avoid the intrusion of these first sensory ideas into our mind; and no one can be wholly ignorant of what he does when he thinks. These are the simple ideas–the one’s that the mind can do nothing to avoid or blot out, no more than “a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate […] the objects set before it.” Ok, Locke, I’m going to hold you to that!
Time to take a break and work on the proposal for my Kant paper…due tomorrow : )