The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

By Margaret P. Munger | Go to book overview
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John Locke (1632–1704) enjoyed maintaining an air of mystery about his life, at one point
spending five years in Holland under the assumed name Dr. van der Linden because of po-
litical turmoil in England (though he claimed his sudden preference for Dutch living was
the beer). Locke's father was a minor attorney, with an influential client who was able to
sponsor the boy's admission to the Westminster School in London. A scholarship allowed
Locke to further his education at Christ's Church College at Oxford University, where he
received not only a classical education, but also extracurricular instruction from anti-
authoritarian scientists who were practicing the new methods of concrete observation and
experiment. Robert Boyle, famous for the eponymous law relating pressure and volume in
gases, became one of Locke's lifelong friends and advisers. In later years, the two helped
found the Royal Society, Britain's most important scientific organization. Locke's career in-
cluded work as the personal physician to Lord Shaftesbury, a diplomat, and a commission-
er on the Board of Trade. He wrote several important treatises on government and spent 19
years developing and polishing his Essay. For his epitaph he wrote, “A scholar by training,
he devoted his studies wholly to the pursuit of truth. Such you may learn from his writings,
which will also tell you whatever else there is to be said about him more faithfully than the
dubious eulogies of an epitaph.”



Chapter 1

Of Ideas in General, and their Original

1. Idea is the object of thinking.—Every man being conscious to himself, that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about, whilst thinking, being the ideas that are there, it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas, such as are those expressed by the words, “whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephant, army, drunkenness,” and others. It is in the first place then to be inquired, How he comes by them? I know it is a received doctrine, that men have native ideas and original characters stamped upon their minds in their very first being. This opinion I have at large examined already; and, I suppose, what I have said in the foregoing book will be much more easily admitted, when I have shown whence the understanding may get all the ideas it has, and by what ways and degrees they may come into the mind; for which I shall appeal to every one's own observation and experience.

2. All ideas come from sensation or reflection.—Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, From experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is

From John Locke “Of Ideas in General, and their Original.” In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (pp. 59–70, 92–107).
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. (Original work published 1689)


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