Learning from Six Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume - Vol. 2

By Jonathan Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 23 Knowledge of Necessity

170 Innate Knowledge: Introduction

After the Introduction to the Essay, Locke plunges into an attack on the view that some of our knowledge is innate: 'It is an established opinion amongst some men that there are in the understanding certain innate principles, . . . characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being and brings into the world with it' (I.ii.1). Some commentators think he was attacking a version of the doctrine of innate knowledge that nobody had ever accepted, but we need not settle that issue in order to learn from his attack and from Leibniz's replies to it.

Innatism tries to explain how we come to know certain things. In recent decades, largely through Chomsky's influence, innatism has been invoked to explain how we know certain things so easily, so quickly, so young, or with so little evidence. The grasp that young children have of the grammar of their native language cannot (it is argued) come simply from their applying general intelligence to the linguistic data they confront; so Chomsky postulated that we have something like an abstract grammar built into us as part of our biological birthright. Nobody thinks that grammar could not be known otherwise; general intelligence could do the job, given enough time and opportunity, but the evidence indicates that it does not.

The innatism that exercised Locke and Leibniz was meant to explain how we know certain things at all. There is no obvious and earthy source for knowledge that:

For any proposition P, if (if P then not-P) then not-P.
We ought not to lie, cheat, or betray our friends.
There is an almighty and omniscient God who loves us.
Logic, ethics, theology—three areas with famous epistemological problems which some have tried to solve by supposing that the relevant knowledge is built into us, not acquired by learning. Locke sees no need to suppose this, because:

A man, by the right use of his natural abilities, may without any innate principles attain a knowledge of a God and other things that concern him. God having endued man with those faculties of knowledge which he hath, was no more obliged by his goodness to plant those innate notions in his mind, than that having given him reason, hands, and materials, he should build him bridges or houses. (I.iv.12)

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