What are Locke's arguments against the Rationalist notion of innate ideas? Do you find his arguments convincing? Why or why not?
According to Rationalist philosophers reason is the source of knowledge. Hence knowledge holds more importance over experience. The Rationalists argue that we are born with some innate ideas including the belief of God, mathematics, the concept of time, casualty and other such principles which help us understand the essence of the world. Unlike empiricists, the Rationalists don't believe in the concept of mind being 'a blank state' at birth. They postulate that not all our knowledge derive from experience. Plato who is a rationalist believes that we are born with innate knowledge of mathematical concept, moral ideas (virtue, beauty, and piety) and even color. G.W. Leibniz believes that principles of logic are innate, Noam Chomsky believes in the use of language to be innate and Descartes finds the concept of God and the knowledge of existence to be innate.
According to Locke, if ideas were innate then the whole universe would agree to them, but that is not the case. Locke argues that the universe is divided into diverse cultures and values which have evolved through experience only. May be we were born with innate ideas but experience shapes and molds each of our minds differently, resulting in universal diversity. In fact, Locke believes that it is through experience that we attain knowledge and our mind is a blank state at birth.
Another instance for lack of universality includes that children need to be taught the principles of mathematics, God, time and so on. Locke argues if innate ideas are what we are born with, then children should be aware of them. But the very fact that they need to be taught these maxims prove that these ideas are not innate. He makes use of two maxims to which disputably the universal assent might be applicable: “What is, is” and “it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be”. People in support of innate ideas might argue that universal assent proves that these ideas are innate within us. But Locke disputes that such ideas are not ratified by universal assent because children as well as idiots lack the logical and cognitive function to appreciate these concepts. Rationalists believe that children might not be verbally and cognitively expressive enough like an adult, but through their simplistic actions they can display their awareness of these maxims. Locke argues that "to say that a notion is imprinted on the mind, yet at the same time to say the mind is ignorant of it is to make this impression nothing" (John Locke, p.272). Locke believes human mind is incapable of any thoughts it is unconscious of. Further he argues that innate ideas are actually knowledge that we acquire through experience. If innate ideas do exist, then they would be more prominently visible in children rather than ideas because children minds are unalloyed and not tainted by complications of the society and the world. So it proves that what is deemed as innate is actually a derivative of experience.
Locke's strongest argument against universal consent highlights the things we universally are in agreement with. For example, the universe agrees in the outcome of the mathematical calculation of 2+2 = 4 and mathematics is an empirical science. In order to prove this, we see if universal consent implies that innate ideas exist, then empirical truths, such as mathematics or "black is not white" and "sweet is not sour" are also innate truths.
Rationalists state that reason is the source of knowledge. Locke argues that if reason is used to attain knowledge then knowledge is not innate. Another Rationalist idea was that when children grow mature to express their consent, they consent to the knowledge, which Locke refutes saying that it is impossible to know if children are communicating innate ideas or giving their consent based on their recollection of experience.
Rationalists believe that innate ideas are self-evident and one would consent to it when he will realize the truth. But Locke argues how these ideas could be innate if they are not clearly known. We humans have great potential to learn new things which doesn't necessarily indicate that things are innate and we know of them.
Finally, Locke uses the argument of God to prove that the innate ideas are baseless. Rationalists believe that we are born with the belief in God, but Locke argues that there are many cultures which question the existence of God and do not have any idea of God. Therefore, this idea too cannot be innate.
That Locke was a true proponent of empiricism is evident from his arguments because he continues to argue against universal assent to reproach innatism. Though apparently Locke's arguments are pretty convincing and intense, there are few things that catch notice. Firstly, his arguments are thoroughly based on the assumption that human mind is transparent to itself and there are no thoughts going around our minds that we are not conscious of. He believes that ideas in order to be innate should be reinforced by universal consent. He bases his arguments extensively on the reason of universal consent but there could be more determining way to confirm innate ideas. Locke also misses the simplest of argument that innate ideas cannot be proved. There are no ways to prove that the ideas we have are innate or not.
- "The Case Against Innate Epistemic Principles" (on-line).Francis F. Steen: Communication Studies, University of California http://cogweb.ucla.edu/CogSci/Locke.html (April 2013)
- "Rationalism vs. Empiricism" (on-line).Peter Markie http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/ (April 2013)