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Innatism: A Critique of John Locke’s Denial of Innatism

A Critique of John Locke’s Denial of Innatism


          The human quest to know has really gone too far as to justify the very first statement of Aristotle in his metaphysics “παντες ανθροποι του είδεναί ορεγονται φυδει.”[1] (All men by nature desire to know). This quest has given birth to philosophy, epistemology.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that enquires into the scope, nature, process and source of human knowledge. Albeit epistemology is a necessary part of philosophy; it has cut across the thoughts of philosophers throughout all the epochs of philosophy.

Although sometimes latent, there is always an implicit theory of knowledge in the philosophies of different ages; each with its own peculiarity. Each era has elements which characterized their philosophy and enquiry. Hence Batista Mondin observes: “The Ancient period, medieval and modern periods are characterized by Cosmocentricism, Theocentricism and Anthropocentricism respectively.”[2]

Hence, from the above, one may infer that what informs the epistemology of each epoch is its concentration of man’s search centered on the world, on God and on man respectively.

As this quest for knowledge continued, there existed a particular school whose philosophical attitudes were skeptical. They believed and taught that the human mind is incapable of attaining truth. They admitted the fact that human mind is restricted from attaining the truth of things. This group was known as the Sophists. It was really this group that triggered the search for certainty of human knowledge.

After them, some philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle expressed their views about knowledge and its origin. Socrates believed that the human mind has some truth in it. It only takes but the process of dialectics to bring to limelight this truth which is innate in the mind. Thus, Socrates was the indirect originator of innate ideas, though Plato is generally regarded as the father of innatism.

Socrates had a pivotal influence on Plato that he basically developed his philosophy from Socrates. Among all his theories of knowledge is the celebrated theory of the world of Forms. Here he said that the human soul existed in the previous world (the world of Forms). This previous world, he regarded as the real world and the empirical world he called a reflection of this real world. According to him, in the real world the human mind was furnished with some ideas (innate ideas) which it in turn remembers in the empirical world. Therefore, the human mind only remembers the form of things which it acquired in the ideal world.

In his own theory of knowledge, Augustine was concerned more with overcoming skepticism. He employed the principle of contradiction to reply to them. According to him, the mind knows that a thing cannot be and at the same time not be. Still in response to the skeptics, he posited the argument that a doubter must exist for him to doubt. B.I. Ewelu puts it clear when he is commenting on this argument: “… a doubter at least is sure of his existence, he must exist in order to doubt: si fallor, sum (if I doubt, I exist).”[3] Hence, a skeptic cannot but admit this fact since he must exist for him to doubt. His being aware of this shows that man can know things for certain. Besides these argument is that of rebuffing. This according to Ewelu holds:

If the skeptic holds that we cannot know anything for certain, it implies that he is certain of this, if he is not certain that human mind is incapable of knowing truth for certain, then he has no grounds for his position.[4]

With the above arguments, Augustine proved the skeptics wrong by positing that the human mind is capable of knowing truth for certain.

This argument on knowledge continued down to the modern era when it was re–ignited by the radical revolution of René Descartes. Through his methodic doubt, he tried to establish afresh, ignoring the previous proposition that, he exists. He sought to establish fact that he exists and that his mind is capable of attaining certain truth. Hence he said:

Because I wished to give myself entirely to the search after truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to adopt an apparently apposite course and to reject as absolutely false everything concerning which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see whether afterwards there remained anything in my beliefs which was entirely certain[5]

     Modern philosophers were specifically occupied with the problem of human knowledge. This continued till the emergence of the celebrated work of the popular 17th century British empiricist, John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding. In the book I of this Essay entitled “Neither Principles nor Ideas are Innate”, he mercilessly criticized innate ideas. For him:

it is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles, some primary notion κοίνατ εννοίαι, 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. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition if I should only show (as I hope I shall in the following parts of this Discourse) how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions, and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principle8

From the above assertion, Locke was extremely attacking the world of form of Plato by denying totally that the mind is devoid of any idea when coming into the world. He boasted to explain the origin of all human knowledge through experience, thereby subscribing to empiricism. With John Locke’s essay, the gap between rationalism and empiricism was pronounced.

Despite this gap, the two camps, Rationalism and Empiricism have common origin as C. Mascia tries to portray

The common origin of rationalism and empiricism consists in the phenomenalist’s prejudice that man does not know things directly but grasps only the impression these objects make upon him[6]

The essay of John Locke triggered the expansion of the chasm between the two camps; denying the acquisition of knowledge through innate ideas, he resorted to doctrine of acquiring of all knowledge through experience.

With Locke’s stand on empiricism, the question becomes; If Locke holds that all knowledge can be attained through experience, how can some meta-empirical realities be explained? There are some characters exhibited by children before the age of cognition. How can such characters be explained empirically, given that they have not yet attained the age of cognition?

These are the questions that this four–chaptered work seeks to x–ray. And as well taking into cognizance of the fact that all knowledge does not come either from experience alone or originally from the mind alone but the two, reason and experience are needed for the attainment of truth.


1.0               EXPLICATION OF TERMS

There are some terms which we shall be coming across in the course of this essay, such as innate ideas, innatism, principles, rationalism and empiricism. For an easy flow of thought, there is need for a brief explanation of each of them. This chapter will be containing the explication of these terms


Innate denotes inborn, existing naturally before, belonging to the nature of a thing. The Webster’s dictionary defines innate as follows:

Existing in or belong to some person or other lying organism from birth: belonging to the assented nature of some thing: originating in, derived from or inherent in the mind or the constitution of the intellect rather than derived from experience[7]

From the above, it presupposes that when something is innate, it means that the thing exists and belongs to some person. By extension, it refers to that thing belonging essentially to the nature of the thing that possesses it. The thing be it ideas, originates in, derives from and inheres in the mind or is constituted of the intellect and not from experience.


Webster’s dictionary says it “is a belief in innate ideas”[8]. It is the belief that certain ideas are present in the mind at birth. This is a term appropriated in philosophy by Plato and later by John Locke in their respective theories of knowledge.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica defines innate idea in philosophy as “An idea allegedly inborn in the human mind as contrasted with those received or completed from experience.” [9]

The doctrine postulates that at least certain ideas, say ideas of God, infinity, substance must be innate, because no satisfactory empirical origin of them could be conceived. It flourished in the 17th century and found in Rene Descartes its most prominent exponent. The theory took many forms, some held that:

A new born child has an explicit awareness of such ideas, others more commonly maintain that ideas have some implicit form, either as a tendency or as dormant capacity of their formulation which in either case would require favorable experiential conditions for their development[10]

     Innate idea has other definitions by other people: Angeles Peter A. defines it as “ideas which a person is born with or less strictly, which are at least not learned, abstracted or compiled from sense perception” [11]

  1. R. Dagobert traces innate idea to its Latin origin “Innatis” meaning “Inborn.” According to M.S. Sasa, Dagobert defines innate idea as:

the powers of understanding given in the very nature of mind. Such ideas …are spoken of as a priori. Ideas, which are inborn, and come with the mind such as God or immortality. More generally …ideas which all men as human and rational, necessarily and universally possess. [12]

Many thinkers seem to believe in the reality of innate ideas and this belief is what is referred to as innatism.


1.3   IDEA

According to the Webster’s Dictionary, idea is:

a presentation of sense, concept of representation, an archetype or subsistent form: a transcendent universal: the form giving cause: form an immediate object or a compound of immediate objects of sensation or reflection, an impression of sense or imagination especially percept: a representation or construct of memory and association as distinguished from direct impression of sense, a transcendent but non-empirical concept of reason, noumenon: the highest category: the complete and final product of reason[13]

The above definitions of ideas are according to the definition given to the term “idea” by the rationalist and empiricist philosophers. Besides these welcomed definition another definition given to it by this dictionary brings out well what we want to portray in our work. It goes thus: “an object of the mind existing in apprehension, conception, or thought: notion, thought, impression”[14]

From these definitions, ideas cannot only be a product of a concept in the mind but as well a product of impression (experience). Therefore, the notion of idea in Plato and Locke are here encapsulated.


Principle is here defined as

A general or fundamental truth: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption on which others is based or from which others are derived: elementary proposition. Something from which another takes its origin: a basic or primary source of material or energy: ultimate basic or cause.[15]

Therefore, principle is seen as truth which can be general or universal as well as fundamental. It can be viewed as paradigm or rudiments which can be used to shape a group or the society. When the term principle is used, it could mean principles like “a thing cannot be and at the same time not be, or what is and what is not, is not (principle of non–contradiction)”. It could be viewed as a doctrine which is made objective or universal. It is objective or universal because it is believed that it is always at the disposal of everybody. John Locke sees principles in the book one of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding as “Both speculative and practical (for they speak of both) universally agreed upon by all mankind”[16]

From the above, principle can be speculative of practical. It is speculative in that it can be based on guessing or on opinions that have been formed without knowing all the facts; and practical, in that it can be connected with real situations rather than with ideas or theories.



The term “Empiricism” comes from the Greek word “Έμπειρια” meaning experience. Empiricism in philosophy is defined as:

An attitude expressed in a pair of doctrines that all concepts are derived from the experience to which they are applied, and that all knowledge of matters of fact is based on, or derived from, experience[17]

According to this doctrine, all claims to knowledge of the world can be justified only by experience. This belief was triggered off in a quest to knowing the source of true knowledge. While some say that true knowledge is beyond the physical, some project that all knowledge can be got through the sense or experience. The doctrine of Empiricism is propagated by a group of philosophers called empiricists. They are normally called British Empiricist because it started from there, specifically from John Locke.

Empiricism is the name given to the doctrine that beliefs are to be accepted and acted upon, if it is confirmed by actual experience. As a result, empiricism is then opposed to the claims of authority, intuition, imaginative conjecture and abstract theoretical or systematic reasoning as sources of reliable belief.

Rationalism is its most fundamental antithesis. In their theory of meaning, they hold that words can be understood or the concepts requisite for any articulate thought possessed, only if they are connected by their users with things that could be experienced. Secondly, their philosophical theory of knowledge views belief or at least some vital classes of belief as depending ultimately and necessarily on experience for justification. Therefore, instead of saying “Jane is kind”, empiricism insists that one says “Jane is seen performing acts of kindness.”

The first known empiricists were the sophists who in their philosophical inquiries were concerned with such relatively concrete entities as men and society, rather than with speculative fields explored by their predecessors. The stoics and Epicureans though were principally concerned with ethical questions, had empiricist tendencies. Others were William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell etc.


The term “rationalism” originates from the Latin word “ratio” which means reason. In philosophy, rationalism is a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. In contrast to empiricism, it tends to discountenance sensory experience. For the rationalists, realty itself has an inherently rational structure. As a result, there are truths especially in logic and mathematics, also in ethics and metaphysics, which the intellect can grasp directly.

Rationalism makes upholds deductive method.

Against the tabula rasa view, rationalists believe in the presence of innate ideas:

According to the extreme rationalist’s doctrine, all the truths of physical science and even history could in principle be discovered by pure thinking and set forth as the consequences of self-evident premises [18]

Rationalists hold that the materials of knowledge are derived deductively from fundamental elementary concepts and not from experience. Besides Plato, the famous proponents of rationalism are Rene Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian von Wolff.

Most of the ideas, which rationalists project as innate ideas, are mainly based on moral principle. Rationalists who are ethicist adopted the doctrine of epistemological rationalism in the field of morals. With this adoption, they hold that “The primary moral ideas (good, duty) are held to be innate and the first principles of moral (e.g. the Golden Rule) are deemed self evident.” [19] With this stand, they believe that possession of reason provides an adequate motive for moral conduct.

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[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics quoted in P. Iroegbu, Metaphysics: The Kpim of Philosophy. Owerri: International University Press Ltd., 1995, p. 142.

[2] B. Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology. Bangalore: Theological Publication, 1985, p. 37.

[3] B.I. Ewelu, Private Language Thesis and Its Epistemological Import ( A Study in Philosophy of Language), Enugu: Delta Publications, 2008, p. 35.

[4] Ibid.

[5] R. Descartes, Discourse on Method (Fourth Discourse). quoted in J.Omoregbe, A Simplified History of Western Philosophy, Vol.2, Ikeja: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited, 1991, p. 8.

[6] C.Mascia, History of Philosophy, in B.O Eboh, Theory of Knowledge. Nsukka: Fulladu Publishing Company, 1995, p. 54.

[7] P.B, Gove et al, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of English Language Unabridged. Massachusetts: Merriam Webster Inc. Publisher, 1993, p. 1165.

[8] Ibid.

[9] J.E., Safra et al, New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol.6. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 1768, p. 319.

[10] Ibid., p. 320.

[11] P. Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy, quoted in M.S Sasa, A Critique of Innatism in John Locke’s Theory of Knowledge, Benin: Teredia Publication, 2003, P. 8.

[12]   M.S Sasa, A Critique of Innatism in John Locke’s Theory of Knowledge, Benin: Teredia Publication, 2003, P. 8.

[13] P.B, Gove et al, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of English Language Unabridged. op. cit., p. 1122.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 1802.

[16] J.Locke, “Neither Ideas Nor Principle are Innate.” in D.C. Abel Fifty Readings in Philosophy. New York: 1994, p. 127.

[17] J.E. Safra et al, New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol. 6.op. cit., p. 480.

[18] Ibid., p. 953



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