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Locke's attack on innate ideas The attack on innate ideas and Locke's project As William Uzgalis puts it, the Essay is "concerned with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to a wide spectrum of topics. It...tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot". The central goal of Locke's project is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke referred to himself as an 'underlabourer' to the likes of Boyle, Huygens and Newton. In doing so, Uzgalis suggests he is not only displaying a certain "literary modesty", but also contrasting the positive discoveries of the scientists with his own attempt to show the inadequacies of the Aristotelian and Scholastic - and to some degree Cartesian - philosophies. Thus, within the apparently neutral project of determining the limits of human understanding, we see a distinctively positive project. In the four books of the Essay, Locke considers the sources and nature of human knowledge. In Book 1 he argues there are no innate ideas, and hence that the mind is a sort of blank slate on which experience writes. The role of this Book, then, is to make the case that being innate is not a way in which the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas. We can see two ways in which this doctrine plays a part in Locke's wider project:?
The doctrine of innate ideas, Locke tells us, is used by "Masters and Teachers" to illegitimately control the minds of their students - Uzgalis points to the scholastics and Aristotelians as the targets for this attack. Thus, Locke's attack on innate principles is also an expression of his view of the importance of free and autonomous inquiry in the search for truth. For Locke, using reason to grasp the truth is part of optimising human flourishing. Locke, like Descartes, is focussing on tearing down what Uzgalis calls "the foundations of the old Aristotelian scholastic house of knowledge"; while Descartes' focus was on the empiricism at the foundations, Locke's focus is on the claim that innate ideas provide its first principles. The attack on innate ideas is thus also the first step in the demolition of the scholastic model of science and knowledge.
Descartes' view on innate ideas Jolley contends that it is not clear Descartes has a doctrine of innate ideas per se; instead, Descartes' account is somewhat unstable, with innate ideas invoked for differing reasons. According to Jolley, Descartes' views on innate ideas are targeted towards:
1. A theory of causation (for example, as in the Comments on a Certain Broadsheet). The doctrine of innate ideas allows Descartes to reconcile perception with his mechanistic theory of physics, via the Aristotelian 'causal-likeness principle'.
2. An innate idea of God, for his cosmological argument.
3. As a basis for his theory of necessary truths as those implanted in us in God, so that we can't doubt them. Descartes' theory of necessary truths is psychologistic: God 1
could have willed other necessary truths, but the ones he has chosen he implants in us such that we cannot, on reflection, doubt them. Descartes distinguishes between two 'levels of innateness':?
Innate ideas proximately caused by a mental disposition. Innate intellectual ideas not abstracted from, nor given in, sense experience.
According to the Comments, sensory ideas are innate in the first sense but not the second. On the other hand, innate mathematical ideas are innate in both sense - see, for example, Descartes' argument in the Fifth Replies. On the other hand, in the letter to Hyperaspistes, Descartes seems to go still further and say the infant's mind is mainly perceiving sensations but nonetheless knows all self-evident truths in the same way as adults when they are not attending to them - though interpreting this passage is difficult given Descartes' different (and conflated) uses of the word 'attention'.
Meditation III Descartes distinguishes between 'ideas' and 'volitions or judgements':?
Ideas are images of things, such as we have when we think of a man or an angel. Other thoughts have further forms, such as when I will, or am afraid, or deny. In these cases, my thought includes something more than the likeness of the thing. This category includes volitions or emotions and judgements.
Ideas considered solely in themselves cannot strictly be false; only judgements bear truth value. Ideas appear to come in three sorts:
1. Innate - "my understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, what thought is, seems to derive simply from my own nature".
2. Adventitious - "my hearing a noise, or seeing the sun...comes from things which are located outside me, or so I have hitherto judged".
3. Invented by me - "sirens...and the like are my own invention". Our innate idea of God is the 'stamp of a craftsman' on our soul.
Comments on a Certain Broadsheet Descartes writes that "I have never...taken the view that the mind requires innate ideas which are something distinct from its own faculty of thinking. I did, however, observe there were certain thoughts in me which neither came to me from external objects nor were determined by my will, but which came solely from the power of thinking in me; so I applied the term 'innate'...in order to distinguish them from...'adventitious' or 'invented'. This is the same sense as that in which we say generosity is 'innate' in certain families...they are born with a certain...tendency to contract them". He goes on to scoff at the idea that "the power of thinking could achieve nothing on its own" and argue that "if we bear...in mind the scope of our sense...we must admit that in no case are the ideas of things presented to us by the sense just as we form them in our 2
thinking....there is nothing in our ideas which is not innate to the mind or the faculty of thinking, with the sole exception of those circumstances which relate to experience". He makes an argument similar to that in the Fifth Replies:
1. Nothing reaches our mind from external objects through the sense organs except certain corporeal motions.
2. But neither the motions themselves nor the figures arising from them are conceived of by us exactly as they occur in the sense organs.
3. Hence it follows that the very ideas of the motions themselves and of the figures are innate in us. This is supposed to apply particularly to ideas of pain and colours, which are extremely dissimilar from the corporeal motions. Descartes argues universal claims such as transitivity of identity in particular must be innate, because they bear no similarity to corporeal motions. Descartes distinguishes between proximate or primary causes and remote or merely accidental causes: Primary causes are those like the workers of their work, without which the thing cannot exist. Remote causes are those that give the primary cause reason to exert their effect at one moment rather than another, like the men who commission the workers. Thus, our idea of God is due to the remote cause of our instruction as to His nature, pictures representing Him, and so on. But it cannot be the proximate cause, because God is not merely a picture: He is more than the idea 'God' plus certain sensory information. Hence, everything beyond the purely sensory is innate, in that it relies on a potentiality or faculty: "so everything over and above...utterances and pictures which we think of as being signified by them is represented to us by means of ideas...from no other source than our faculty of thinking. Consequently, these ideas, and that faculty, are innate in us, ie. they always exist within us potentially, since the term 'faculty' denotes nothing but a potentiality". In the final section, he comments that having innate ideas is 'a natural power', such as that with which to know God. But the ideas themselves are not natural, or forms distinct from the faculty of thinking - so, for example, the baby has no actual conception of God when in the womb.
Fifth Replies In the Fifth Replies, Descartes advances an argument that strongly parallels one Leibniz makes for why mathematical truths must be justified by innate ideas. It is extremely plausible that it is an argument Leibniz would have accepted. The argument hinges on the idea that we can only ever have an imperfect depiction of a triangle via the senses. "Geometrical figures are composed by and large of straight lines; yet no part of a line that was really straight could ever affect our senses, since when we examine 3
through a magnifying glass those lines which appear most straight, we find they are quite irregular..." Jolley reconstructs the argument along the following lines:
1. We recognise the geometrical triangle from the diagram.
2. If we recognise the geometrical triangle from the diagram, we have the idea of the triangle.
3. If we have the idea of the triangle, either we have acquired it through the senses or it is innate.
4. If we acquired the idea of the triangle through the senses, then a triangle was presented to the senses.
5. But no triangle was presented to the senses.
6. Therefore the idea of the triangle was not presented through the senses.
7. Therefore the idea of the triangle is innate. As Jolley points out, however, this position still relies on some external stimulus. Indeed, in a letter to Voetius, Descartes argues for the innateness of mathematics in both theorem and axiom.
Letter to Hyperaspistes Descartes argues the infant's mind is mainly perceiving sensations, but that the infant nonetheless has innate ideas of self-evident truths in the same way adults do when not attending to them. We could understand this by drawing attention to Descartes' dualism, and arguing that in these cases the physical is dominating and clouding the mental.
Leibniz's view on innate ideas We need to be careful to distinguish Leibniz's views in the New Essays, where he argues concussively, to that in the Discourse where all ideas are virtually contained in us. In the Discourse, Leibniz seems to have in mind something like a grasp or confused understanding of the relevant principles. Confused knowledge (in the Discourse): when we can recognise something as X, but not give necessary and sufficient conditions for its being X. Jolley sees Leibniz as taking up the challenge offered by Locke, of showing that innate ideas are not a bare passive ability but are also active. Leibniz's dispositionalist view is that innate notions is that the mind is innately predisposed to some beliefs rather than others. Leibniz also argues for an innate disposition to discover certain truths. Unlike the targets of Locke's polemic, he is careful to note such dispositions are active: "it is not a bare faculty, consisting in a mere possibility of understanding those truths: it is rather a disposition, an aptitude, a preformation... (SS80)" Under this interpretation, the senses 'direct' the mind to draw the necessary truths "from its own depths". Leibniz's peculiar view of the mind 'expressing' ideas leads him to claim innate (virtual) knowledge: "our spirit always expresses all its future thoughts, and already thinks confusedly of everything that it will come to know innately...and nothing can be taught of us which we 4
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