Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding

Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding-76
So that, to be in the understanding and not to be understood; to be in the mind, and never to be perceived; is all one as to say, anything is, and is not, in the mind or understanding.

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For nobody, I think, ever denied that the mind was capable of knowing several truths.

The capacity, they say, is innate; the knowledge acquired.

These have so settled a reputation of maxims universally received that it will, no doubt, be thought strange if any one should seem to question it.

But yet I take liberty to say, that these propositions are so far from having an universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known.

– It is an established opinion among some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primarily notions, 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 principles.– For, first, it is evident, that all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them; and the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent, which must needs be the necessary concomitant of all innate truths: it seeming to me near a contradiction to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul which it perceives or understands not; imprinting, if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain truths to be perceived.For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind’s perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible.He therefore that talks of innate notions in the understanding, cannot (if he intend thereby any distinct sort of truths) mean such truths to be in the understanding as it never perceived, and is yet wholly ignorant of.For if these words (“to be in the understanding”) have any propriety, they signify to be understood.Doubtful expressions, that have scarce any signification, go for clear results to those who, being prepossessed, take not the pains to examine even what they themselves say.For, to apply this answer with any tolerable sense to our present purpose, it must signify one of these two things; either, that, as soon as men come to the use of reason, these supposed native inscriptions come to be known and observed by them; or else, that the use and exercise of men’s reasons assists them in the discovery of these principles, and certainly makes them known to them.– There is nothing more commonly taken for granted, than that there are certain principles, both speculative and practical (for they speak of both), universally agreed upon by all mankind; which therefore; they argue, must needs be constant impressions which the souls of men receive in their first beings, and which they bring into the world with them, as necessarily and really as they do any of their inherent faculties.- This argument, drawn from universal consent, has this misfortune in it, that if it were true in matter of fact that there were certain truths wherein all mankind agreed, it would not prove them innate, if there can be any other way shown, how men may come to that universal agreement in the things they do consent in; which I presume may be done.But then, to what end such contest for certain innate maxims?If truths can be imprinted on the understanding without being perceived I can see no difference there can be between any truths the mind is capable of knowing in respect of their original: they must all be innate, or all adventitious; in vain shall a man go about to distinguish them.

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