John Locke.

An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 online

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learn, whether English or Japan, or if he should learn no language at
all, or never should understand the use of words, as happens in the case
of dumb and deaf men. When it shall be made out that men ignorant of
words, or untaught by the laws and customs of their country, know that
it is part of the worship of God not to kill another man; not to know
more women than one not to procure abortion; not to expose their
children; not to take from another what is his, though we want it
ourselves, but on the contrary, relieve and supply his wants; and
whenever we have done the contrary we ought to repent, be sorry, and
resolve to do so no more; - when I say, all men shall be proved actually
to know and allow all these and a thousand other such rules, all of
which come under these two general words made use of above, viz.
virtutes et peccata virtues and sins, there will be more reason
for admitting these and the like, for common notions and practical
principles. Yet, after all, universal consent (were there any in moral
principles) to truths, the knowledge whereof may be attained otherwise,
would scarce prove them to be innate; which is all I contend for.

20. Objection, Innate Principles may be corrupted, answered.

Nor will it be of much moment here to offer that very ready but not very
material answer, viz. that the innate principles of morality may, by
education, and custom, and the general opinion of those amongst whom we
converse, be darkened, and at last quite worn out of the minds of men.
Which assertion of theirs, if true, quite takes away the argument
of universal consent, by which this opinion of innate principles is
endeavoured to be proved; unless those men will think it reasonable
that their private persuasions, or that of their party, should pass for
universal consent; - a thing not unfrequently done, when men, presuming
themselves to be the only masters of right reason, cast by the votes and
opinions of the rest of mankind as not worthy the reckoning. And then
their argument stands thus: - "The principles which all mankind allow
for true, are innate; those that men of right reason admit, are the
principles allowed by all mankind; we, and those of our mind, are men of
reason; therefore, we agreeing, our principles are innate"; - which is
a very pretty way of arguing, and a short cut to infallibility.
For otherwise it will be very hard to understand how there be some
principles which all men do acknowledge and agree in; and yet there
are none of those principles which are not, by depraved custom and ill
education, blotted out of the minds of many men: which is to say, that
all men admit, but yet many men do deny and dissent from them. And
indeed the supposition of SUCH first principles will serve us to very
little purpose; and we shall be as much at a loss with as without them,
if they may, by any human power - such as the will of our teachers,
or opinions of our companions - be altered or lost in us: and
notwithstanding all this boast of first principles and innate light, we
shall be as much in the dark and uncertainty as if there were no such
thing at all: it being all one to have no rule, and one that will warp
any way; or amongst various and contrary rules, not to know which is
the right. But concerning innate principles, I desire these men to say,
whether they can or cannot, by education and custom, be blurred and
blotted out; if they cannot, we must find them in all mankind alike, and
they must be clear in everybody; and if they may suffer variation
from adventitious notions, we must then find them clearest and most
perspicuous nearest the fountain, in children and illiterate people,
who have received least impression from foreign opinions. Let them take
which side they please, they will certainly find it inconsistent with
visible matter of fact and daily observation.

21. Contrary Principles in the World.

I easily grant that there are great numbers of opinions which, by men of
different countries, educations, and tempers, are received and embraced
as first and unquestionable principles; many whereof, both for their
absurdity as well oppositions to one another, it is impossible should be
true. But yet all those propositions, how remote soever from reason are
so sacred somewhere or other, that men even of good understanding in
other matters, will sooner part with their lives, and whatever is
dearest to them, than suffer themselves to doubt, or others to question,
the truth of them.

22. How men commonly come by their Principles.

This, however strange it may seem, is that which every day's experience
confirms; and will not, perhaps, appear so wonderful, if we consider the
ways and steps by which it is brought about; and how really it may come
to pass, that doctrines that have been derived from no better original
than the superstition of a nurse, or the authority of an old woman, may,
by length of time and consent of neighbours, grow up to the dignity of
PRINCIPLES in religion or morality. For such, who are careful (as they
call it) to principle children well, (and few there be who have not a
set of those principles for them, which they believe in,) instil into
the unwary, and as yet unprejudiced, understanding, (for white paper
receives any characters,) those doctrines they would have them
retain and profess. These being taught them as soon as they have any
apprehension; and still as they grow up confirmed to them, either by
the open profession or tacit consent of all they have to do with; or
at least by those of whose wisdom, knowledge, and piety they have an
opinion, who never suffer those propositions to be otherwise mentioned
but as the basis and foundation on which they build their religion and
manners, come, by these means, to have the reputation of unquestionable,
self-evident, and innate truths.

23. Principles supposed innate because we do not remember when we began
to hold them.

To which we may add, that when men so instructed are grown up, and
reflect on their own minds, they cannot find anything more ancient there
than those opinions, which were taught them before their memory began to
keep a register of their actions, or date the time when any new thing
appeared to them; and therefore make no scruple to conclude, that those
propositions of whose knowledge they can find in themselves no original,
were certainly the impress of God and nature upon their minds, and not
taught them by any one else. These they entertain and submit to, as many
do to their parents with veneration; not because it is natural: nor do
children do it where they are not so taught; but because, having been
always so educated, and having no remembrance of the beginning of this
respect, they think it is natural.

24. How such principles come to be held.

This will appear very likely, and almost unavoidable to come to pass, if
we consider the nature of mankind and the constitution of human affairs;
wherein most men cannot live without employing their time in the daily
labours of their callings; nor be at quiet in their minds without SOME
foundation or principle to rest their thoughts on. There is scarcely any
one so floating and superficial in his understanding, who hath not some
reverenced propositions, which are to him the principles on which he
bottoms his reasonings, and by which he judgeth of truth and falsehood,
right and wrong; which some, wanting skill and leisure, and others the
inclination, and some being taught that they ought not to examine, there
are few to be found who are not exposed by their ignorance, laziness,
education, or precipitancy, to TAKE THEM UPON TRUST.

25. Further explained.

This is evidently the case of all children and young folk; and custom,
a greater power than nature, seldom failing to make them worship for
divine what she hath inured them to bow their minds and submit their
understandings to, it is no wonder that grown men, either perplexed
in the necessary affairs of life, or hot in the pursuit of pleasures,
should not seriously sit down to examine their own tenets; especially
when one of their principles is, that principles ought not to be
questioned. And had men leisure, parts, and will, who is there almost
that dare shake the foundations of all his past thoughts and actions,
and endure to bring upon himself the shame of having been a long time
wholly in mistake and error? Who is there hardy enough to contend with
the reproach which is everywhere prepared for those who dare venture to
dissent from the received opinions of their country or party? And where
is the man to be found that can patiently prepare himself to bear the
name of whimsical, sceptical, or atheist; which he is sure to meet with,
who does in the least scruple any of the common opinions? And he will be
much more afraid to question those principles, when he shall think them,
as most men do, the standards set up by God in his mind, to be the rule
and touchstone of all other opinions. And what can hinder him from
thinking them sacred, when he finds them the earliest of all his own
thoughts, and the most reverenced by others?

26. A worship of idols.

It is easy to imagine how, by these means, it comes to pass that men
worship the idols that have been set up in their minds; grow fond of
the notions they have been long acquainted with there; and stamp the
characters of divinity upon absurdities and errors; become zealous
votaries to bulls and monkeys, and contend too, fight, and die in
defence of their opinions. _Dum solos credit habendos esse deos, quos
ipse colit_. For, since the reasoning faculties of the soul, which are
almost constantly, though not always warily nor wisely employed, would
not know how to move, for want of a foundation and footing, in most men,
who through laziness or avocation do not, or for want of time, or true
helps, or for other causes, cannot penetrate into the principles of
knowledge, and trace truth to its fountain and original, it is natural
for them, and almost unavoidable, to take up with some borrowed
principles; which being reputed and presumed to be the evident proofs
of other things, are thought not to need any other proof themselves.
Whoever shall receive any of these into his mind, and entertain them
there with the reverence usually paid to principles, never venturing to
examine them, but accustoming himself to believe them, because they are
to be believed, may take up, from his education and the fashions of his
country, any absurdity for innate principles; and by long poring on the
same objects, so dim his sight as to take monsters lodged in his own
brain for the images of the Deity, and the workmanship of his hands.

27. Principles must be examined.

By this progress, how many there are who arrive at principles which
they believe innate may be easily observed, in the variety of opposite
principles held and contended for by all sorts and degrees of men. And
he that shall deny this to be the method wherein most men proceed to the
assurance they have of the truth and evidence of their principles, will
perhaps find it a hard matter any other way to account for the contrary
tenets, which are firmly believed, confidently asserted, and which great
numbers are ready at any time to seal with their blood. And, indeed, if
it be the privilege of innate principles to be received upon their own
authority, without examination, I know not what may not be believed, or
how any one's principles can be questioned. If they may and ought to be
examined and tried, I desire to know how first and innate principles
can be tried; or at least it is reasonable to demand the MARKS and
CHARACTERS whereby the genuine innate principles may be distinguished
from others: that so, amidst the great variety of pretenders, I may be
kept from mistakes in so material a point as this. When this is done, I
shall be ready to embrace such welcome and useful propositions; and till
then I may with modesty doubt; since I fear universal consent, which is
the only one produced, will scarcely prove a sufficient mark to direct
my choice, and assure me of any innate principles.

From what has been said, I think it past doubt, that there are no
practical principles wherein all men agree; and therefore none innate.



1. Principles not innate, unless their Ideas be innate

Had those who would persuade us that there are innate principles not
taken them together in gross, but considered separately the parts out of
which those propositions are made, they would not, perhaps, have been so
forward to believe they were innate. Since, if the IDEAS which made up
those truths were not, it was impossible that the PROPOSITIONS made up
of them should be innate, or our knowledge of them be born with us. For,
if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without
those principles; and then they will not be innate, but be derived from
some other original. For, where the ideas themselves are not, there can
be no knowledge, no assent, no mental or verbal propositions about them.

2. Ideas, especially those belonging to Principles, not born with

If we will attentively consider new-born children, we shall have little
reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them.
For, bating perhaps some faint ideas of hunger, and thirst, and warmth,
and some pains, which they may have felt in the womb, there is not the
least appearance of any settled ideas at all in them; especially of
THAT ARE ESTEEMED INNATE PRINCIPLES. One may perceive how, by degrees,
afterwards, ideas come into their minds; and that they get no more, nor
other, than what experience, and the observation of things that come in
their way, furnish them with; which might be enough to satisfy us that
they are not original characters stamped on the mind.

3. Impossibility and Identity not innate ideas

"It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be," is certainly
(if there be any such) an innate PRINCIPLE. But can any one think, or
will any one say, that "impossibility" and "identity" are two innate
IDEAS? Are they such as all mankind have, and bring into the world with
them? And are they those which are the first in children, and antecedent
to all acquired ones? If they are innate, they must needs be so. Hath a
child an idea of impossibility and identity, before it has of white or
black, sweet or bitter? And is it from the knowledge of this principle
that it concludes, that wormwood rubbed on the nipple hath not the same
taste that it used to receive from thence? Is it the actual knowledge of
IMPOSSIBILE EST IDEM ESSE, ET NON ESSE, that makes a child distinguish
between its mother and a stranger; or that makes it fond of the one and
flee the other? Or does the mind regulate itself and its assent by
ideas that it never yet had? Or the understanding draw conclusions
from principles which it never yet knew or understood? The names
IMPOSSIBILITY and IDENTITY stand for two ideas, so far from being
innate, or born with us, that I think it requires great care and
attention to form them right in our understandings. They are so far from
being brought into the world with us, so remote from the thoughts of
infancy and childhood, that I believe, upon examination it will be found
that many grown men want them.

4. Identity, an Idea not innate.

If IDENTITY (to instance that alone) be a native impression, and
consequently so clear and obvious to us that we must needs know it even
from our cradles, I would gladly be resolved by any one of seven, or
seventy years old, whether a man, being a creature consisting of soul
and body, be the same man when his body is changed? Whether Euphorbus
and Pythagoras, having had the same soul, were the same men, though they
lived several ages asunder? Nay, whether the cock too, which had the
same soul, were not the same, with both of them? Whereby, perhaps, it
will appear that our idea of SAMENESS is not so settled and clear as to
deserve to be thought innate in us. For if those innate ideas are not
clear and distinct, so as to be universally known and naturally agreed
on, they cannot be subjects of universal and undoubted truths, but will
be the unavoidable occasion of perpetual uncertainty. For, I suppose
every one's idea of identity will not be the same that Pythagoras and
thousands of his followers have. And which then shall be true? Which
innate? Or are there two different ideas of identity, both innate?

5. What makes the same man?

Nor let any one think that the questions I have here proposed about the
identity of man are bare empty speculations; which, if they were, would
be enough to show, that there was in the understandings of men no innate
idea of identity. He that shall with a little attention reflect on the
resurrection, and consider that divine justice will bring to judgment,
at the last day, the very same persons, to be happy or miserable in the
other, who did well or ill in this life, will find it perhaps not easy
to resolve with himself, what makes the same man, or wherein identity
consists; and will not be forward to think he, and every one, even
children themselves, have naturally a clear idea of it.

6. Whole and Part not innate ideas.

Let us examine that principle of mathematics, viz. THAT THE WHOLE
IS BIGGER THAN A PART. This, I take it, is reckoned amongst innate
principles. I am sure it has as good a title as any to be thought so;
which yet nobody can think it to be, when he considers the ideas it
comprehends in it, WHOLE and PART, are perfectly relative; but the
positive ideas to which they properly and immediately belong are
extension and number, of which alone whole and part are relations. So
that if whole and part are innate ideas, extension and number must be so
too; it being impossible to have an idea of a relation, without having
any at all of the thing to which it belongs, and in which it is founded.
Now, whether the minds of men have naturally imprinted on them the ideas
of extension and number, I leave to be considered by those who are the
patrons of innate principles.

7. Idea of Worship not innate.

That GOD IS TO BE WORSHIPPED, is, without doubt, as great a truth as
any that can enter into the mind of man, and deserves the first place
amongst all practical principles. But yet it can by no means be thought
innate, unless the ideas of GOD and WORSHIP are innate. That the idea
the term worship stands for is not in the understanding of children, and
a character stamped on the mind in its first original, I think will be
easily granted, by any one that considers how few there be amongst grown
men who have a clear and distinct notion of it. And, I suppose, there
cannot be anything more ridiculous than to say, that children have this
practical principle innate, "That God is to be worshipped," and yet that
they know not what that worship of God is, which is their duty. But to
pass by this.

8. Idea of God not innate.

If any idea can be imagined innate, the idea of GOD may, of all others,
for many reasons, be thought so; since it is hard to conceive how there
should be innate moral principles, without an innate idea of a Deity.
Without a notion of a law-maker, it is impossible to have a notion of a
law, and an obligation to observe it. Besides the atheists taken notice
of amongst the ancients, and left branded upon the records of history,
hath not navigation discovered, in these later ages, whole nations,
at the bay of Soldania, in Brazil, and in the Caribbee islands, &c.,
amongst whom there was to be found no notion of a God, no religion?
Nicholaus del Techo, in Literis ex Paraquaria, de Caiguarum Conversione,
has these words: Reperi eam gentem nullum nomen habere quod Deum, et
hominis animam significet; nulla sacra habet, nulla idola.

And perhaps, if we should with attention mind the lives and discourses
of people not so far off, we should have too much reason to fear,
that many, in more civilized countries, have no very strong and clear
impressions of a Deity upon their minds, and that the complaints of
atheism made from the pulpit are not without reason. And though only
some profligate wretches own it too barefacedly now; yet perhaps we
should hear more than we do of it from others, did not the fear of
the magistrate's sword, or their neighbour's censure, tie up people's
tongues; which, were the apprehensions of punishment or shame taken
away, would as openly proclaim their atheism as their lives do.

9. The name of God not universal or obscure in meaning.

But had all mankind everywhere a notion of a God, (whereof yet history
tells us the contrary,) it would not from thence follow, that the idea
of him was innate. For, though no nation were to be found without a
name, and some few dark notions of him, yet that would not prove them to
be natural impressions on the mind; no more than the names of fire,
or the sun, heat, or number, do prove the ideas they stand for to be
innate; because the names of those things, and the ideas of them, are so
universally received and known amongst mankind. Nor, on the contrary, is
the want of such a name, or the absence of such a notion out of men's
minds, any argument against the being of a God; any more than it would
be a proof that there was no loadstone in the world, because a great
part of mankind had neither a notion of any such thing nor a name for
it; or be any show of argument to prove that there are no distinct and
various species of angels, or intelligent beings above us, because we
have no ideas of such distinct species, or names for them. For, men
being furnished with words, by the common language of their own
countries, can scarce avoid having some kind of ideas of those things
whose names those they converse with have occasion frequently to mention
to them. And if they carry with it the notion of excellency, greatness,
or something extraordinary; if apprehension and concernment accompany
it; if the fear of absolute and irresistible power set it on upon the
mind, - the idea is likely to sink the deeper, and spread the further;
especially if it be such an idea as is agreeable to the common light of
reason, and naturally deducible from every part of our knowledge, as
that of a God is. For the visible marks of extraordinary wisdom and
power appear so plainly in all the works of the creation, that a
rational creature, who will but seriously reflect on them, cannot miss
the discovery of a Deity. And the influence that the discovery of such a
Being must necessarily have on the minds of all that have but once
heard of it is so great, and carries such a weight of thought and
communication with it, that it seems stranger to me that a whole nation
of men should be anywhere found so brutish as to want the notion of a
God, than that they should be without any notion of numbers, or fire.

10. Ideas of God and idea of Fire.

The name of God being once mentioned in any part of the world, to
express a superior, powerful, wise, invisible Being, the suitableness of
such a notion to the principles of common reason, and the interest men
will always have to mention it often, must necessarily spread it far and
wide; and continue it down to all generations: though yet the general
reception of this name, and some imperfect and unsteady notions conveyed
thereby to the unthinking part of mankind, prove not the idea to be
innate; but only that they who made the discovery had made a right use
of their reason, thought maturely of the causes of things, and traced
them to their original; from whom other less considering people having
once received so important a notion, it could not easily be lost again.

11. Idea of God not innate.

This is all could be inferred from the notion of a God, were it to
be found universally in all the tribes of mankind, and generally
acknowledged, by men grown to maturity in all countries. For the
generality of the acknowledging of a God, as I imagine, is extended no
further than that; which, if it be sufficient to prove the idea of God
innate, will as well prove the idea of fire innate; since I think it may
be truly said, that there is not a person in the world who has a notion
of a God, who has not also the idea of fire. I doubt not but if a colony
of young children should be placed in an island where no fire was, they
would certainly neither have any notion of such a thing, nor name for
it, how generally soever it were received and known in all the world

Online LibraryJohn LockeAn Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 1 and 2 → online text (page 6 of 34)