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Innate Ideas Essay, Research Paper

Innate Ideas

Descartes vs Locke

In this paper I will discuss the Descartes vs Locke debate on innate ideas, also giving insight on what an innate idea means. Each philosopher takes a very different stand on the issue and each point of view will be thoroughly examined. The main question at hand here is, where do our ideas come from?

The controversy and basis of the argument is that some philosophers and others believe that human beings have innate knowledge or ideas. The others deny it. What seems to be black and white turns grey when one asks, what is it to have innate knowledge or an innate idea? Therefore, when analyzing the debate over innateness, we must look at what we mean if we say someone knows something or has ideas innately (Stich 1).

For the purpose of understanding, we can look back on historical caveats. Plato, for example, seemed to believe that all knowledge is innate. The problem with Plato s view is, only part of what we think we know, is known innately (2). Plato does not try to enlarge the concept of innateness to cover all knowledge, but rather he tried to minimize the concept until it fits what we know innately.

According to Webster s dictionary, innate means existing in

or belonging to an individual from birth, or, belonging to the essential nature of something. When trying to define innateness, Descartes says he is using it in the same sense of the word as when we say certain diseases are innate. So what does it mean to have an innate disease? A disease is prefaced with a unique set of symptoms. Therefore, there is a relationship between symptoms and the disease itself.

We could safely say that a person could have a disease all along but not know it until the symptoms appeared. This occurrence is actually quite common. It also draws a parallel to innate knowledge. Those who advocate the doctrine of innate knowledge are often willing to attribute such knowledge to a person even though he has not yet come to believe the proposition he is alleged to know (4). In other words, people who believe in innate knowledge would say that a person has innate knowledge but may not be aware of it quite yet.

It gets slightly blurry when we recognize that there are two sorts of innate infirmities. There are those whose symptoms are present at birth and those whose symptoms that appear later in life. Unfortunately, it is often unclear whether a person is afflicted with an innate disease or susceptible to a non innate disease.

In short, one can have a disease innately without showing its symptoms at birth. Similarly, one can have a belief innately without believing it at birth.

because it is often hard to determine if someone was born with a

disease or if they developed it later in life. If you do not see the symptoms until later in life it may be hard to tell. You could have had the disease since birth and just began to get symptoms now or you could have just developed the disease. This is the same as innate ideas or knowledge because if an idea or knowledge occurs later in life it is hard to determine if they had that idea all along or if that idea was just learned.

As we can see, the account of innate belief on the analogy of

innate disease is not as direct as Descartes may have thought. I

can now see that there is no clear cut answer as to what exactly innateness is. I can see and understand the correlation between innate ideas and innate diseases, yet I do not think that relationship clearly defines innateness. The reason I do not think it clearly defines innateness and innate ideas is because innate disease is not clearly defined itself. So to define one thing with something else not clearly defined is not explanation enough for me. Trying to figure out what innateness really means helps me see how controversial this argument actually is.

I will preface the Descartes vs Locke debate by touching on the Aristotelian theory. This theory believes that all of our ideas are, or are composed of, ideas of properties of bodies which we have experienced in sensation, or ideas of mental operations which we have experienced in ourselves (72).

The Aristotelian theory sees the human mind starting off as a

blank tablet, having no ideas to begin with. This means nothing that perceives, imagines and understands things. Instead

everything in the mind comes from the outside through sense perception. These are sensible forms. Forms by having which the mind is aware of sensing heat and cold, softness, hardness and colors. Other forms are intelligible forms such as body, apple, dog and being. These come into the mind through sensible forms. Sometimes, we become aware of things as they occur. They are not present in the mind until the mind begins to operate.

In essence, this theory believes that all of our ideas are or

are composed of forms that first entered our awareness in

experience of objects that had them.

Descartes would agree that the presence of an idea in one s mind requires an explanation but he rejects the Aristotelian theory of perception and the way they believe we get our ideas. Furthermore, he says:

Any man who rightly observes the limitations of the senses and what precisely it is that can penetrate through this medium to our faculty of thinking must needs admit that no ideas of things, in the shape in which we envisage them by thought, are presented to us by the senses (75).

Descartes was in favor of a scheme of mechanical explanation. He believed that the motions in the human body of the perceiver do not resemble the ideas of

forms of our ideas of primary qualities do not come into the mind from the outside in sense perception, as the Aristotelian theory states. Therefore, if our ideas of primary and secondary

qualities do not enter from the outside in sense perception then Descartes believed that no ideas enter that way.

This explanation proves to Descartes that, in fact, they must all be innate. What Descartes thinks is innate though, is not actual awareness or thought of the quality, but a factual or dispositional property of our minds (76). He does not believe that forms come to the mind from sensible objects. The mind must innately have specific pre dispositions to form all the ideas of

sensible qualities which it is capable of having (77).

Although Descartes makes some strong points there is contradiction in what Descartes says about innate ideas. On one hand, Descartes argues that all ideas are innate yet he makes reference to ideas that are adventitious and fictitious. He explains adventitious ideas as those in which their occurrence in our mind is occasioned by the action of bodies that we perceive. He explains fictitious ideas as those ideas the mind forms voluntarily (77). This is a clear contradiction to his theory because if all ideas are innate then how could the mind form ideas voluntarily? Also, how could the occurrence in our mind be occasioned by the action of bodies that we perceive? I believe that these factors severely hurt Descartes argument. I feel this almost prove that all ideas are not innate. If they were, the notions of adventitious and fictitious ideas would not exist.

Nevertheless, Descartes holds that all our ideas are innate in us in the sense that we are born, not with a capacity to receive them from the outside, but with a power to form each of them without

receiving them from outside (78).

Locke’s empirical beliefs are completely opposite of Descartes . Locke denies that we have innate ideas. He views the human mind at the beginning of existence to white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas (79). In doing so, Locke attacks the idea of innate ideas with a deductive argument. Locke says, if any principle is innate, then it is imprinted on the mind, implying our awareness of it. But, he says, if children

and idiots are not aware of any such principle meaning that they are not imprinted on the mind, and therefore they are not innate. This is a difficult argument for me to ingest. The problem with the first part of the argument is with the awareness. I think that if an idea is innate it is imprinted on the mind but I do not think that means you have to be aware of it. The second part of the argument has even more flaws to me. First of all, the use of children and idiots is unclear. What constitutes and idiot and why are they the same as children. Are children idiots? Obviously all children are not idiots because some children are smarter than adults. When discussing so-called idiots, do we mean someone with brain damage? If so, then we cannot fairly consider them in this analogy. They could have had the idea innately but because of the brain damage we cannot evaluate them.

Locke s disbelief in innate ideas reflects the ideas of the Aristotelian theory, the blank slate, as I spoke about earlier. If this is true, then where do we get the ideas from than? Locke

said we get our ideas from experience.

Locke believes that the first source of our ideas is through sensation of physical objects. The second source of our ideas is through our awareness of the operations of our own mind through reflection. To clarify, he does not claim that all of our ideas come from sensation or reflection, but he does claim that all of our simple ideas come directly from sensations or reflections. Other ideas are formed from simple ideas by mental operations of compounding, comparing, and abstracting.

Furthermore, Locke breaks qualities into primary and secondary qualities. He defines primary qualities as being utterly inseparable from the body. Examples of these qualities are solidity, extension, figure, motion and rest, and number. Whatever state it is in, alterations or changes that occur will not affect primary qualities. Locke illustrates this with an example using wheat. He says when a grain of wheat is divided into two it still has certain qualities being solidity, extension, figure and mobility. If you keep dividing the grain of wheat those certain qualities will still remain. In essence, division can not affect these primary qualities.

Secondary qualities, on the other hand, are much different. Secondary qualities are not qualities in the objects themselves,

rather they give us the ability to produce sensations in us by their primary qualities. Examples of secondary qualities are colors, sounds, tastes, etc. These qualities are evoked by the senses (Solomon 208).

The forms of our sensory ideas of secondary qualities do not

literally come into the mind from external material things because they are not present in them at all.

After illustrating the key points of both Descartes and Locke I will further clarify the main disagreements between the two. For example, Locke says, All our simple, non sensory ideas are

ideas of reflection. The ideas arise from our observation employed…about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves (81). To sum up the content of

Locke s ideas, Locke himself said,

All our ideas are either simple or composed of simple ideas, and we cannot have a simple idea which is an idea of anything but a property of bodies which we have experienced in sensation or a mental operation which we have experienced in ourselves (82).

Descartes would strongly deny this claim. Descartes argues that we do have simple ideas that represent things that we have not experienced in sensation or self-awareness.

Although I do not think it is necessary to bring the idea of God into this argument, it is relevant to point out that Descartes and Locke agree that we have an idea of God as an infinite

substance. Descartes says this idea is innate. This of course goes along with everything Descartes believes in. To Descartes the idea of God would have to be innate because he believes all ideas are innate. Locke, on the other hand, believes that the idea of God is a complex idea, compounding our idea of infinity with knowledge.

Although there are many disagreements between Descartes and Locke there is a parallel. The parallel lies between Descartes fictitious and adventitious ideas and Locke s complex ideas and ideas of sense. Descartes fictitious ideas correspond to Locke s

complex ideas. Both are ideas the mind forms out of simpler ideas. And Descartes adventitious ideas correspond to Locke s ideas of sense. Both occur in the mind by sensory stimulation but not literally from the outside.

Empirical matters never end in certainty and I am also left

uncertain. Locke says that innateness implies imprinting which implies awareness. Locke believes that if this is true then the reciprocal must also be true. Non awareness implies non

imprinting which implies non innateness. The question is, can something be innate and not be imprinted? Although Locke does not define innate and imprinting well, I do not believe something can be innate and not imprinted. I feel this way because I think innate and imprinted mean the same thing. I think that in order for something to be innate it must be imprinted on the mind. On

is imprinted. As I discussed earlier, you can have a disease and be unaware of it. Although that argument is not perfect it does explain how you could have an idea and not be aware of it.

The Descartes vs Locke debate on innate ideas is very complex and involved. To understand where our ideas come from and if they are innate, we first had to try to define innateness. We saw that

Descartes was trying to use the word innate the same way for both ideas and disease. Although it was not fully clear I could see the relationship between innate ideas and innate disease. Descartes and Locke s opposing viewpoints in essence were that, Descartes believed that all ideas were innate and Locke believed that all ideas came from experience. I believe that Descartes gave a better argument and Locke had more inconsistencies. I mentioned earlier my reasoning for this statement. So where do our ideas come from? No one really knows.

Works Cited

Solomon, Robert C. Introducing Philosophy. Seventh edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt, Inc. 2001. 208.

Stich, Stephen, ed. Innate Ideas. Berleley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1975. 71-86.


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