Category: innate ideas

We read a very important extract from the preface to Leibniz’s ‘New Essays on Understanding’ in which he responds to Locke’s rejection of innate ideas. Leibniz believes that Although the senses are ‘necessary for all our actual knowledge, they aren’t sufficient to provide it all.’ He doesn’t think that experience alone is enough to explain the way we able to understand the world and believes that we must be contributing something from our side‘ By this he means we must have certain abilities or at least potential abilities built into us when we are born.

He uses the analogy of how a block of marble might be veined in such a way as to have a sculpture of Hercules ready to be shaped from it, whereas a neutral block without the veins could produce anything. He says that This is how ideas and truths are innate in us – as inclinations, dispositions, tendencies, or natural potentialities‘.

As Hume believed that all ideas were faint ‘copies’ of the sense ‘impressions‘ that they originated in, he was able to propose a method for solving certain philosophical problems by tracing the ideas these problems involved back to their original ‘impressions‘. If an idea could not be traced back to its original sense ‘impression‘ then it must be empty, meaningless and not worth pursuing. 

I got you to try to apply this ‘method’ to the notion of  ‘a time when nothing happens’. This caused a lot of confusion and ‘debate’, but eventually we all agreed (I think) that because we could not have experienced a time when nothing happens, we cannot have a sense impression to base our idea on and therefore the idea was empty and meaningless. 

It is confusing because we ‘think’ we can imagine such a time, but we tend to imagine ourselves or someone ‘observing’ nothing happening, but of course the observation itself is something happening.

So we agreed that what we actually experience as ‘time’ is in fact change and ‘time’ as a ‘substance‘ separate from change does not exist if Hume is correct. 

You went on to apply this method to love / hate and innate ideas and of course you could find the impressions that the ideas of love and hate come from, but not those for innate ideas. This would have made Hume happy. Well done people!

We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.

Hume believes that;

we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or ideas’.

For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’

So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’

Today I tried to speed you up a bit. You did the following:

1. You tried to answer the very easy question, ‘What is the relationship between thought and reality?’  This is what we’ve been trying to do all along in case you hadn’t noticed. It is the question at the heart of epistemology.  The way to approach a question like this is to define your terms: what do we mean by ‘relationship’, ‘thought’ and ‘reality’? 
Then think about whether there is anything anything implied by the question that might prejudice your answer? Are there assumptions built into the question? Yes. Lots of them.
Most of you had a good stab at answering it and that’s the most important thing.

2. As a an anecdotal follow up to our discussion of innate ideas, I explained how Mr Scarisbrick’s view of human nature informs his political stance. As mine does my own. Even though I don’t think we have one. A ‘human nature’ that is.

3.  We read a little more of Locke on innate ideas and how he thought that experience occured in the womb. Which is interesting. Isn’t it?

4.  We read some of the text book as preparation to reading some Hume, and saw how he thought that as all ideas come from experience it is possible to ‘spot’ pointless abstract theories by tracing their origin and seeing if they can be traced back to experience. 
His example of trying to conceive of ‘a time in which nothing happens’ caused some debate and confusion. and we will have to return to it, so I’ll save my feeble explanations for later. 

5.  I told you about the homework which is below. 

We ought to record, so we don’t forget, that we saw that Locke had several arguments against the notion of innate ideas and they went something like this:

1. If any idea were innate in all human minds then surely certain ideas would be universally accepted and agreed on. But they’re not.

2. It makes no sense to speak of an idea being in our minds without us being aware of it. How can we have ‘understandings’ that we don’t understand. Surely the whole point of an idea is that it is ‘had’. (As in, “I’ve just had an idea!” said Clive.) 

3.  The argument that we only come to knowledge of these ‘innate’ ideas when we develop our ‘reason’, is again non-sensical and seems circular’ according to Locke. (And Sam.) Because in order to know innate ideas we have to have reason, but the evidence that we have ‘reason’ is our knowledge of innate ideas.

We also worked through some stuff from Gareth Southwell’s ‘Theory of knowledge’, unit 2, ‘Rationalism’, and tried to work out what ‘a priori’ ideas were. As ever things were less straightforward than they seemed and we veered from thinking some things were to nothing was to back again. (Will was best at this back and forth business, but that’s a sign of a thinking man!).

Eventually we worked out that we need to distinguish two ways of understanding of ‘apriori’:
1. ideas that are innate but may have to be ‘found’ through the use of our ‘Reason’ or brought out through ‘experience’ or ‘teaching’ (like Plato’s Socrates and the slave boy).
2. ideas that are true ‘before’ (in the sense of independent of or outside of experience) like maths, geometry etc.