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LOCKE'S ARGUMENT AGAINST INNATE KNOWLEDGE

All western philosophers in one way or another agree that knowledge is ultimately derived from experience. Plato said that through experiencing sensible things we are reminded of the ideal forms we forgot at birth. Aristotle claimed that we derive knowledge through induction from experience. But for Plato the knowledge existed already in the mind. In this sense we can call it innate. In the same sense the categories of Aristotle were assumed to be part of man's birthright. They are what man utilizes in order to derive knowledge from experience. Aristotle did not suggest that they were innate to man. Neither did he explain their source. When Locke set out to show that all knowledge necessarily came only from experience, he took on the responsibility of showing exactly how this occurs. Aristotelian categories, and Platonic forms then, could be called innate, if we mean by innate that man does not have to derive them from experience. These underlying assumptions are part of the philosophical baggage that western thought brought into the seventeenth century.

Locke's argument against innate moral principles has been questioned on the basis that it depends too much on his particular definition of innate, In a footnote on his edition of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, Fraser put the controversy this way,

This argument against 'innate principles for determining conduct' proceeds, like his previous arguments, upon Locke's interpretation of innateness, as involving actual realization in the consciousness of each individual from birth. But a principle may be potentially innate, and only invoked in the consciousness of the few who are highly educated, morally and intellectually. To awaken a response to the principles on which human life reposes is the aim of higher education. From Socrates onwards this has been recognized by teachers of religion and philosophy. These 'innate' elements are not consciously apprehended by all; and some of them are always dormant in some persons, or are acted on without a philosophical intelligence of their meaning. Moral principles may be vindicated on the ground that-- operative in good men. though dormant in others-- they ought not to be surrendered, unless they can be shown to contradict necessities of intellect. Note that Locke's point still is,--the time and way in which the individual becomes aware of the abstract principles of morality; not whether the moral constitution of things be not such that, at the proper time and under the natural conditions, self-evident truths must shine forth in their self-evidenc

Sir Karl Popper in the twentieth century talked about a third world of self-evident truths, that is truths which can not be denied. His example was prime numbers. Prime numbers are discovered self-evident truths. They are not the result of the numbering system. They would exist regardless of the numbering system invented by man. But, regardless of the numbering system they would remain hidden until man put forward the effort and discovered them. When he said this he was illustrating an important Lockean concept. Prime numbers are not innate in man. He must locate them in experience. That anyone, regardless of the numbering system he used, would discover them does not make them a permanent part of the human mind imprinted at birth and awaiting the opportune moment to spring out.

Descartes' explanation of God and existence required an innate sense of the presence of God. Father Mersene, In his objections to Descartes Meditations, questioned the need for an innate knowledge of God. He claimed that human knowledge was a sufficient foundation on which to construct the idea of God, that innate knowledge was not necessary. Here is a portion of Descartes reply.

When you say that in ourselves there is a sufficient foundation on which to construct an idea of God, your assertion in no way conflicts with my opinion. I myself at the end of the Third Meditation have expressly said that this idea is innate in me, or alternatively that it comes to me from no other source than myself. I admit that we could form this very idea, though we did not know that a supreme being existed, but not that we could do so if it were in fact non-existent, for on the contrary I have notified that the whole force of my argument lies in the fact that the capacity for constructing such an idea could not exist in me, unless I was created by God.

As we shall see Locke taught that man could know the existence of God absolutely without the need for innate knowledge, or, as Descartes put it, the "imprint of the craftsman." Locke's rejection of innate knowledge was not a "non-problem" as a number of philosophers have suggested, it was a major turning point in western philosophy affecting moral philosophy as well as epistemology. And it is important that it was a development in English philosophy that had far less effect on the continent.