An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke

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In the fourth book of An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingLocke tells us what knowledge is and what humans can know and whatthey cannot (not simply what they do and do not happen to know). Lockedefines knowledge as “the perception of the connexion andagreement or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas”(IV. I. 1. p. 525). This definition of knowledge contrasts with theCartesian definition of knowledge as any ideas that are clear anddistinct. Locke's account of knowledge allows him to say that we canknow substances in spite of the fact that our ideas of them alwaysinclude the obscure and relative idea of substance in general. Still,Locke's definition of knowledge raises in this domain a problemanalogous to those we have seen with perception and language. Ifknowledge is the “perception of … the agreement ordisagreement … of any of our Ideas” — are we nottrapped in the circle of our own ideas? What about knowing the realexistence of things? Locke is plainly aware of this problem, and verylikely holds that the implausibility of skeptical hypotheses, such asDescartes' Dream hypothesis (he doesn't even bother to mentionDescartes' malin genie or Evil Demon hypothesis), along withthe causal connections between qualities and ideas in his own systemis enough to solve the problem. It is also worth noting that there aresignificant differences between Locke's brand of empiricism and thatof Berkeley that would make it easier for Locke to solve the veil ofperception problem than Berkeley. Locke, for example, makestransdictive inferences about atoms where Berkeley is unwilling toallow that such inferences are legitimate. This implies that Lockehas a semantics that allows him to talk about the unexperienced causesof experience (such as atoms) where Berkeley cannot. (See Mackie'sperceptive discussion of the veil of perception problem,in Problems from Locke, pp. 51 through 67.)

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(1632–1704)—the founding figure of the school of philosophy developed primarily in 18th-century England known as empiricism—wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in addition to other influential books and a voluminous correspondence. The Essay is a vastly larger work than one might expect from its classification as an essay; in fact it constitutes one of the indisputably great works in the history of philosophy, and ranks among the most influential.

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While in exile Locke finished An Essay Concerning HumanUnderstanding and published a fifty page advanced notice of it inFrench. (This was to provide the intellectual world on the continentwith most of their information about the Essay until PierreCoste's French translation appeared.) He also wrote and published hisEpistola de Tolerentia in Latin. Richard Ashcraft inhis Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises ofGovernment suggests that while in Holland Locke was not onlyfinishing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and nursinghis health, he was closely associated with the English revolutionariesin exile. The English government was much concerned with thisgroup. They tried to get a number of them, including Locke, extraditedto England. Locke's studentship at Oxford was taken away from him. Inthe meanwhile, the English intelligence service infiltrated the rebelgroup in Holland and effectively thwarted their efforts — atleast for a while. While Locke was living in exile in Holland, CharlesII died on Feb. 6, 1685 and was succeeded by his brother — whobecame James II of England. Soon after this the rebels in Holland senta force of soldiers under the Duke of Monmouth to England to try tooverthrow James II. Because of the excellent work of the Stuart spies,the government knew where the force was going to land before thetroops on the ships did. The revolt was crushed, Monmouth captured andexecuted (Ashcraft, 1986). For a meticulous, if cautious review, ofthe evidence concerning Locke's involvement with the English rebels inexile see Roger Woolhouse's Locke: A Biography (2007).

“An essay concerning human understanding” / by John Locke. // IN:  / edited by S.E. , Jr. – Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1946. – p. 363-475.

: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689).38th Edition from William Tegg, London; scanned in three separate excerpts from early in the work.John Locke's classic work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding laid the foundation of British empiricism and remains of enduring interest today. Rejecting doctrines of innate principles and ideas, Locke shows how all our ideas, even the most abstract and complex, are grounded in human experience--attained by sensation of external things or reflection upon our mental activities. A thorough examination of the communication of ideas through language and the convention of taking words as signs of ideas paves the way for his penetrating critique of the limitations of ideas and the extent of our knowledge of ourselves, the world, God and morals. This abridgement, based on P.H. Nidditch's acclaimed critical edition, retains in full all key passages, thus enabling Locke's arguments to be more clearly followed. The new introduction by Pauline Phemister provides valuable background on Locke's essay, illuminating its arguments and conclusions. The book also includes a chronological table of significant events, select bibliography, succinct explanatory notes, and an index--all of which supply additional historical information and aids to navigating the text.

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