In contemporary philosophical debate, perhaps no philosopher has had as much influence as John Locke. For at the core of Locke’s epistemology was an attempt to explain what humans are justified in believing and how we can and do come to such justified conclusions. As he acknowledged at the beginning of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, humans possess the defining characteristic of stubbornly maintaining conflicting opinions in regards to truth claims—a characteristic that Locke sought to explain. Thus, in pursuit of discovering why there is disagreement about even seemingly basic postulations, Locke hoped to provide an account of in which cases humans could claim to be certain and equally in which cases humans could only probabilistically guess due to human limitation. In his words, “If we can find out what the scope of the understanding is…that may teach us to accept our limitations and to rest content with knowing only what our human condition enables us to know” (I. i. 4). Accordingly, Locke’s argument against innate ideas rests upon the notion that innate ideas do not exist because everyone would necessarily assent to innate ideas, yet there are no ideas that all humans assent towards. In Locke’s view, in the absence of innate ideas, all knowledge is derived from experience. Herein, Locke’s argumentation against innate ideas will be scrutinized in more detail, and it will be shown that humans do in fact have innate ideas—or at the very least innate dispositions to assent to certain patterns during deliberation. Part I will consider Locke’s distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘capacity for knowledge,’ reason, inclinations and dispositions. Part II moves on to address Locke’s differentiation between the possibilities of ‘innate laws’ and ‘laws of nature,’ and will also briefly hone in on whether Lockean moral ethics are compatible with his rejection of innate ideas. And finally Part III will present an adequate nativist account—ultimately revealing that Locke has limited success in arguing against innate ideas.

Part I

            As aforementioned, Locke considers it paramount to distinguish between innate ideas and the innate capability of acquiring knowledge. Locke does not deny that man has such innate capability, but he still maintains that there are no innate ideas. For if one argued that everything the mind is capable of assenting towards proves innate knowledge, then all knowledge would be classified as imprinted and innate—and this simply does not follow since new concepts are learned through experience on a daily basis. In this, Locke appears to think he is objecting to a rationalist claim when he is in fact not fully doing so—Descartes, for instance, had admitted that to describe an idea as ‘innate’ merely means that there is an ability to call it up (Greenlee 1972: 253). Hence we can, at times, lack awareness of innate ideas. This consideration will be revisited later, but nevertheless Locke anticipates the objection that, “men know and assent to truths when they come to the use of reason, and this is enough to prove truths innate,” and replies that this amounts to saying that the use of reason enables a man to learn what he already knew—which is illogical (I. ii. 6). But where Locke missteps is in assuming that the acquisition of the ability to reason does not constitute an innate idea. Surely reasoning, albeit not accessible until some years after birth, would classify as an idea—perhaps the idea from which all other justified ideas stem. Locke may reply that this conception distinguishes the ability to reason and the capability to acquire knowledge when no distinction is warranted, but there is certainly a distinction by the sheer fact that reason is developed after our capability to acquire knowledge already existed. The infant, unconsciously, has the capability to know that it needs nourishment; reason seems to subsequently—yet still innately—offer justification and agency to some innate inclination.

            An additional issue for Locke is the objection, most notably raised by Leibniz, that there are innate human dispositions. Locke claims that there is nothing that humans universally assent towards and that this is reflected by the fact that there is no claim that all humans would agree to or act upon in the same manner. The issue is similar to Locke’s potential problem with reasoning: by insisting that the capacity for knowledge is innate coupled with the apparent necessary chains linking capacity for knowledge to the development of reasoning and dispositions—independent of experience—, dispositions are necessarily connected to the innate chain making them innate as well. The strict innatist or even empiricist could object, since reasoning and dispositions develop from and apparently after innate capacity for knowledge, but nonetheless Lockean empiricism cannot account for the chain that never leaves the mind. Writes Greenlee, “Locke evinces neither awareness of nor an implicit concern with a distinction between a disposition to grasp a meaning as distinguished from a capacity to come to understand the meaning” (Greenlee 1972: 257). Developed dispositions implicate a fixed way of behaving humanly and, even if there is no particular universal disposition, which is debatable, the universal development of dispositions in itself is troublesome for Locke.


Part II

            In addition to distinctions between capacity, reason, and disposition, Locke also sets out to differentiate innate laws from laws of nature. In short, Locke denies that innate laws exist because there must be a law-maker and laws entail duty, rewards, and punishment, but he accepts laws of nature as, “between something imprinted on our minds in their very origin and something we can come to know of through the proper use of our natural faculties” (I. iii. 13). In this instance, Locke attempts to differentiate innate laws from laws of nature when, in fact, laws of nature are innate laws. His argument against innate law is that there are no innate laws that have a law-maker, duty, rewards, and punishment—yet innate laws of nature meet all of these qualifications. We do not come to know this “through the proper use of our natural faculties” because there is no ‘proper’ use of these faculties; we have an innate need for things such as food or drink independent of properly ‘configuring’ our faculties. Collectively storing food as a society for those vulnerable to starvation may stem from observing the pain of those starving and would classify as an idea from experience, but the feeling of vulnerability to starvation is innate and must classify as an innate disposition to always seek nourishment. We may lack the awareness to conceptualize our hunger, but that hardly means we are not inclined to seek food before we have the cognitive ability to reflect upon the concept of food. Alas, laws of nature are innate laws and, since law implies duty, we seek to act upon the idea of necessary fulfillment—consciously or otherwise.

            Briefly, since Locke’s moral ethics are fundamental to his philosophy, a consideration of their compatibility with the prospect of no innate ideas—and no innate human ethic—is warranted. Many of the ancient philosophers argued that humans are inclined to seek happiness and avoid misery but, as Locke points out, “this has to do with our wants, not with our moral beliefs” (I. iii. 3). Furthermore, if morality was innate, then acting against what is naturally imprinted in our minds would never seem to be self-justified—yet people often act amorally for a multiplicity of reasons. Writes Locke, “I can’t see how anyone should ever confidently and serenely break them [moral rules if they were innate]” (I. iii. 9). Thus the difference between innate law and moral law lies in the fact that the agent ‘cannot do otherwise’ in regards to innate law independent of other considerations, but he or she can regarding an everchanging moral code. So the agent may starve himself for political reasons—by appealing to moral justification—but the agent would never starve himself while only considering (again this does not have to necessarily be consciously) the innate disposition to nourishment. Consequently Locke’s assessment of morality holds, but it dually further amplifies the existence of innate laws independent of our moral conscience.


Part III

            In conclusion, Locke’s argument against innate ideas does not appear to completely withstand criticism. Perhaps there are no innate moral ideas, but man does innately develop reasoning and dispositional abilities from the capacity for knowledge—even if the particular reasonings and dispositions vary from man to man. Nevertheless, even if it is ceded that reasonings and dispositions will vary, a doctrine solely based upon experience and capacity for knowledge is not going to suffice. Experience cannot account for all knowledge because we only experience a mere fraction of possible experiences. Therefore, as held by Leibniz as well, dispositions do not only appear to solely develop from the mind, they also appear to interact between the mind and outside experience in order to make widespread generalizations (Greenlee 1972: 255). At least a third innate principle tying together capacity or capability for knowledge and experience must exist, and whether that more closely mirrors Leibniz’s dispositions or the stronger Kantian categories of thought, Locke does not adequately account for the vast hole in between capacity for knowledge and experience that stifles his theory. In summation, Locke’s rationale lies in his assertion, “that certainly can never be thought innate, which we have need of reason to discover,” but as has been shown, there are innate laws and dispositions that certainly develop independent of reason and discovery (I. ii. 9).

Greenlee, D., “Locke And The Controversy Over Innate Ideas”, Journal of the History of Ideas. 33. 2. (1972). 251-264.

Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, England: Scholar Press. (1690).