So the mind at birth is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and is informed only by “experience,” that is, by sense experience and acts of reflection. Locke built from this an epistemology beginning with a pair of distinctions: one between SIMPLE and COMPLEX ideas and another between PRIMARY and SECONDARY qualities. Simple ideas originate in any one sense (though some of them, like “motion,” can derive either from the sense of sight or the sense of touch). These ideas are simple in the sense that they cannot be further broken down into yet simpler entities. (If a person does not understand the idea of “yellow,” you can’t explain it to him. All you can do is point to a sample and say, yellow.) These simple ideas are Locke’s primary data, his psychological atoms. All knowledge is in one way or another built up out of them.
Complex ideas are, for example, combinations of simple ideas. These result in our knowledge of particular things as an apple-derived from the simple ideas “red-spherical-sweet. Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualit...
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A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY – D.W.HAMLYN (168-178)
Locke’s Essay is very much an epistemological work. This is a very modest description of his aims, but the work is really much more than this, attempting to establish in a general way the limits of the human understanding. Locke purpose is to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent, without meddling with the physical consideration of the mind. He is concerned about the limits of the human understanding, a preoccupation which was to become common in the philosophy that followed his.
Locke confines knowledge to ideas, and even on the view that ideas are acts of mind that seems unacceptable. Locke seems to think; however, that he can square that view with the belief that we have knowledge of separate existences.
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