There is something about English philosophers that I really love. Germans? An angry people. The French are incomprehensible. Americans are wrong but figure they’re close enough. But the English? They do philosophy right. They are all gentlemanly, modest, charming—and correct.
Locke is no exception, and he stands astride English philosophy and history like a giant. He may be the greatest English philosopher ever, and it’s a competitive field. He wrote brilliantly about politics, epistemology, and economics. He was a great doctor and tried to have the King of England assassinated in his spare time. For a lark, he became father of America (the Constitution is based on his ideas).
Apart from the Constitution, if you ask me, Locke’s most important contribution is his defense of empiricism and his idea of the soul. He takes the idea of the soul away from the religious and the wacky, and he wipes it clean; if you don’t see yourself as tainted with sin or capable of learning everything important without leaving the house, you have Locke to thank.
In this passage from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke is doing epistemology, and he is attacking some of those philosophical nutters—people like Descartes. They are called ‘rationalists’, and they believe (more or less) that the truest knowledge can be found through introspection and pure thought. They do not believe in science, or ‘empiricism’—the practice of basing our ideas on external facts.
Locke is going after ‘innate ideas’. These are ideas that we are all supposed to have, or are all supposed to be able to discover with a little introspection.
Ethical, logical, geometric, and mathematical ideas are the kinds of things that seem innate. Locke, though, thinks that they cannot be. He believes that when we are born, our minds are ‘blank slates’, or ‘tabula rasa’, and everything we know, we learned. You, if you’re like almost everyone I know, agree.