Opposition to Innate Ideas

Locke’s Essay was, in part, a protest against Descartes’s philosophy. It was not Descartes’s dualism that Locke attacked but his notion of innate ideas. Despite Hobbes’s efforts, the notion of innate ideas was still very popular in Locke’s time. Especially influential was the belief that God had instilled in humans innate ideas of morality. Locke observed that if the mind contained such innate ideas, then all humans should have those same ideas, and clearly they do not. Humans, he said, are not born with any innate ideas, whether they be moral, logical, or mathematical.

Where, then, do all the ideas that humans have come from? Locke’s (1706/1974) famous answer was as follows:

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Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, other passions (emotions)—like love, desire, joy, hatred, sorrow, anger, fear, despair, envy, shame, and hope—were all derived from the two basic feelings of pleasure and pain. Things that cause pleasure are good, and things that cause pain are evil. For Locke, the “greatest good” was the freedom to think plea- surable thoughts. Like Hobbes, his theory of human motivation was hedonistic because it maintained that humans are motivated by the search for plea- sure and the avoidance of pain. For Locke then, the information that the senses provided was the stuff the mind thought about and had emotional reac- tions toward.

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