Volume one contains books I and II of Locke’s essay. In book I, Locke directly attacks the theory of innate knowledge held by Descartes and other continental rationalists. He argued that, at conception, the human mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa). All the ideas and principles in the mind were created by each person’s experience of the world. Descartes and the other continental rationalists held that knowledge could be reached through pure reason, apart from experience, because the human mind had innate principles—ideas and concepts that were there from birth.
In book II, Locke puts forward his theory of ideas. He argues that all ideas come from two different types of experience: sensation and reflection. He distinguishes between simple ideas (red, round) and complex ideas (apple). He also distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities. A primary quality is something which is actually attributable to a thing (solidity) and a secondary quality is a quality which the particular thing produces in the human observer (such as smell). Locke uses his understanding of simple and complex ideas to form an argument for the existence of God.
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John Locke (1632–1704) was born in Wrington, Somerset, to a Puritan family. He attended Christ Church, Oxford, where he earned a BA, an MA, and a Bachelor of Medicine. After studying medicine, he met the Earl of Shaftesbury and became involved in Shaftesbury’s Whig movement. In 1683, he fled to the Netherlands to escape prosecution over his supposed involvement in the Rye House Plot. Most of his published works were written while he was in exile in the Netherlands. He returned to England and continued to work with the Whig party until his death in 1704.
Many political philosophers consider Locke the father of classical liberalism. One of the first British empiricists, his main works focus on political philosophy and epistemology. His work had a major influence on Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as on many of the founding fathers of the United States (including Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson). His concept of natural law and the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property are reflected prominently in the Declaration of Independence.
Locke is also credited as one of the founders of British empiricism. He taught, contrary to Continental rationalism, that humans cannot have a priori knowledge. In other words, the only sure knowledge that humans can have is based on experience. One must experience—observe, interact with—in order to know. He believed that the human mind was blank (tabula rasa) at the beginning of life. One’s experiences “wrote” on this blank paper, creating knowledge. Locke’s theory of knowing (epistemology) is considered by some philosophers to contain the seed of the Western concept of self.