Summary of an essay concerning human understanding


3 thoughts on “LOCKE: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [Book III, Ch. 1-3, 9-11]”

Just how these two worlds, which are so different in their respective characteristics, can interact on one another is something that Locke did not explain, but that an interaction of some kind did take place he never doubted. It had been recognized for some time that the sense qualities of color, sound, taste, and so forth, do not belong to the objects that are sensed but to the mind which perceives the objects.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Summary & Study Guide

At the same time, it was generally assumed that spatial characteristics and such items as size, weight, and density are present in the objects which constitute the material world. Locke followed the customary practice of designating the qualities that belong only to the mind as secondary and those that belong to the objects as primary.

Recognizing the difficulty that is involved in knowing anything at all about the real nature of that which is external to the mind, he assumed that, whatever its nature might be, it was capable of acting on human minds and causing the sensations that are experienced. Having accepted the empirical method as the only reliable one for an adequate understanding of the phenomenon of human knowledge, Locke was led by the logic of his position into a kind of subjectivism.

This means that one may have genuine knowledge about only the workings of the human mind, and consequently no positive claims can be made about the nature of that which lies outside the sphere of consciousness. This may seem to be a strange position for him to take since the scientists whose methods he was attempting to follow always considered that they were studying the material world and not merely the appearances which it produced in human minds.

Locke: An essay concerning human understanding

Locke's major contribution in this respect consisted in shifting the emphasis from a study of nature to a study of the mind and the processes by means of which knowledge of any kind is obtained. In doing this, he achieved a measure of success, for he was able to give some account of the way in which ideas are formed even though he was unable to present any empirical evidence for assertions concerning the nature of that which is external to the mind.

Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" Book I, ch's 1-2

It is obvious that the logical outcome of Locke's empirical method could be nothing other than skepticism insofar as the real nature of the external world is concerned. While it is true that Locke continued to believe in many of the basic assumptions of the scientists of the seventeenth century, he could provide no evidence from human experience to support their validity. He believed as ardently as any of the scientists that there is a rational order in nature and a cause and effect relationship which holds good for all observed phenomena.

But since these beliefs imply more than the facts of experience, we may have faith in their validity but we can have no certain knowledge concerning them. Because the term knowledge had been used in a way that implied certainty, Locke was forced to the conclusion that we can have no genuine knowledge about nature.


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All that we can have is probable knowledge. This conclusion he did not think should cause any alarm, nor should it be disturbing to any thoughtful person. Probable knowledge is, in many areas at least, reliable knowledge, and as such it is sufficient for our needs. Since this is true, we ought not to bemoan the fact that our minds are limited. Rather, we should learn to make use of what capabilities we do possess.

The only certain knowledge that we have is the kind which is illustrated in the field of mathematics, where the test of truth is the consistency of our ideas with one another. But this type of knowledge does not tell us anything about the world of nature, nor does it give us truths in the areas of morals and religion. Removing book from your Reading List will also remove any bookmarked pages associated with this title.

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    summary of an essay concerning human understanding Summary of an essay concerning human understanding
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