John Locke (1632-1704) was one of the greatest philosophers in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century. Locke grew up and lived through one of the most extraordinary centuries of English political and intellectual history. Locke is often classified as the first of the great English empiricists. This reputation rests on Locke’s greatest work, the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The most important of his goals is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was first published in 1690.
It is really the first attempt in the new scientific age to work out a psychological theory. Locke’s views were under influence of two his contemporaries Descartes and Newton. According to Descartes, our knowledge of the world around us is not direct, that means that we know the things only through the relation of these things to something else what we know directly. Descartes believed that perception occurred when physical objects act upon our sense organs, these in turn act upon the brain and, then this provokes a perception in the mind.
Descartes believed that God bestowed us with “innate ideas”, such as mathematics truths, which help us to understand physical world. However, John Locke was the main antagonist to the concept of innate ideas. Locke argued that the mind is in fact devoid of all knowledge or ideas at birth, a blank sheet or tabula rasa. He argued that all ideas do in fact come via empiricism. Locke also attacked the idea that an innate idea can be imprinted on the mind without the owner realizing it.
If to use the song analogy, we may not be able to recall the entire song until we hear the first few words, however we were aware of the fact that we knew the song and that upon hearing the first few words we would be able to recall the rest. Lock would not accept the idea that we can know something yet not know that we knew it. Locke ends his attack upon innate ideas by suggesting that the mind is a tabula rasa and that all ideas come from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded. Locke’s vision of physical world was based upon the assumption described by Newton.
According to that assumption, physical objects are just arrangements of tiny, imperceptible and indivisible atoms. Similarly our knowledge is just arrangement of ideas. The key concept in Locke’s account is the concept of an idea. The concept of idea in Locke’s theory of the mind is as fundamental as was the concept of particle in the corpuscular physics of that period. It played a similar role: just as the micro-particles were thought to be atoms out of which all physical things are composed, so Locke thought some ideas were atoms of the mind.
Locke intended to mean by “idea” something much more precise than concept or thought. Locke attempted to present precise definitions of what is an “idea”, thus: a) “It [idea] being that term which I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express ? whatever it is, which the mind can be employed about in thinking” (Essay, Book I, Chapter 1, paragraph 8). b) “Whatsoever ? is the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding, that I call an idea” (Essay, Book II, Chapter 8, paragraph 8).
But such Locke’s attempted definitions do not tell us what ideas are, they simply tell us how they relate to the mind. We are told, for example, that ideas are “the immediate object of perception”. That is, whenever we perceive anything, what we are immediately aware of is, in Locke’s view, an idea. According to Locke, ideas exist in minds and it must mean that any physical object is in mind, what is not definitely true. So, Locke’s claim that ideas are the immediate object of perception must be treated carefully.
It only gives us a clue of what he meant if we first suppose that the immediate objects of perception are mental entities, not physical ones. Such falseness of trying to define something in terms of its relations rather than by its intrinsic properties one can encounter in psychology. It is called the fallacy of constitutive relations because it is based upon the false view that what something is, can be defined by its relations to other things. For example, some psychologists would define “ability”, such as verbal ability, as how good one is in using words or verbal concepts.
But verbal ability is that feature of our mind that causes our verbal performance. It is not that performance itself. Defining it in terms of performance defines it in terms of what it causes, not in terms of what it is. We have not defined anything until we have said what it is. Part of our problem in trying to understand Locke is that he does not tell us exactly what ideas are. If all we know in the first instance are ideas and if everything we know is based upon these ideas, then the very concept of something which is not an idea in our minds, would be a concept impossible for us to understand.
Descartes could say that we innately have the concept of something that is not an idea in our minds. By his rejection of innate ideas, Locke got into a vicious circle. So we cannot speculate that there is a world beyond our ideas because according to Locke all we ever experience are ideas. Thus, the concept of something beyond the circle of ideas is a concept that we could never form or comprehend. If Locke is right, then we are trapped behind the veil of ideas and cannot ever know that we are trapped. If Locke’s theory were true, we could not understand it.
Worse than that, we could not even coherently formulate it. Locke always talks of ideas of this or that, e. g. , ideas of white or ideas of circularity. When he wants to mention an idea, he only ever describes it as the idea of something. His ideas are always ideas of the sorts of qualities we find from the common sense perspective in the physical world. As a result, the term idea is deprived of its intrinsic feature. So characterized idea becomes totally incoherent, for it has no intrinsic character, only relations.
It is always a relative or relational feature because it always points to something else. Franz Brentano (1874), the Austrian philosopher and psychologist, called it intentionality. As a result, if an idea is a phenomenal entity located in the mind, then in being aware of it alone, we can only be aware of its intrinsic character. If we have no other access to physical qualities, we can never know the relationship between ideas and what they are ideas of. The flaws of Locke’s theory have influence on modern psychology which is overfull with such theories.
For example, theories that talk of cognitive “representations” in the mind or brain and suppose that such representations are the immediate objects of experience make the same mistake as Locke did. Such theories penetrate almost the entire area of modern psychology. Many see the concept of representation as indispensable. Representational theories not only make knowledge of the external world impossible; they make any concept of an external world incomprehensible.
T. H. Leahey (2004). A History of Psychology (6th edition). Prentice Hall.