An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, decoded


Rationalist philosophers think that we have ‘innate ideas’—ideas that we are born with, or which were stamped into our minds. I think I can explain how we have these ideas without having to say they are innate. If I can do that, then I think everyone will agree that we do not have innate ideas at all. Nature is too parsimonious to duplicate faculties. There would be no reason to put ideas of colour in our minds when we have the faculty of sight.

The rationalists think that there are certain principles that are universally agreed to, and therefore that we must have been born with them. These ideas have ‘universal assent’.

This idea of universal assent does not prove anything of the kind, if I can show that there are other ways we could have got these ideas. And I can.

Worse, the rationalists’ own argument can be turned against them. If there is no such thing as universal assent, then there are no innate ideas. There are two propositions that everyone is said to agree to: “What is, is,” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”. The problem is, not everyone agrees to these two propositions—and therefore, these propositions show that there is no such thing as an innate idea. I think that most people have not even heard that “What is, is” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”.

Children and idiots, for instance, do not know those propositions. And that is that! A single counter-example is enough to disprove this idea of universal assent and the idea of innate truths. It seems like a contraction to me to say that there are truths imprinted in our minds that we do not know about, or that there are truths we know but cannot perceive or understand. If imprinting means anything, it means that there are truths we know and perceive. If, therefore, children and idiots have souls or minds with those impressions upon them, they must perceive them. They must know and assent to these truths. Since they don’t, it is evident that there are no such impressions—it just doesn’t make sense to say that we possess some truth in our minds but do not know it. Minds are for knowing.

Some rationalists will say that we have an innate capacity to know, and that this capacity for knowing is innate, and therefore that our ideas are innate. That is cheating. If we talk like that, everything a person ever comes to know through education and life was always actually innate, and, in fact, all the things she never came to know were innate, too.

Let me be clear: if we know something, we know that we know it. We cannot have knowledge that is unperceived or not understood.

To avoid this criticism, my opponents usually say that people know and assent to innate ideas when the are old enough to use reason. I answer:

Rationalists must mean one of two things: either people become aware of these innate ideas when they start to think, or the use of reason helps them find innate ideas.

If they mean that reason helps them discover these principles, their argument, clearly stated, is this: If reason discovers a truth, and if reason makes us firmly believe it, then that truth is an innate idea and was naturally imprinted on the mind. Universal assent, the characteristic of innate ideas, amounts to no more than this: innate ideas are those certain facts we conclude. That means that all the truths of mathematics, for instance, no matter how obscure, are innate.

But how could reason be necessary to discover things that are supposed to be innate? Innate ideas are the very ideas that we are not supposed to need to discover. Innate means ‘No need to discover’! We may as well say that reason is necessary for the eyes to see. If we have innate ideas that we need reason to find, then we are really saying that we both know things and do not know them.

The rationalist might say mathematical proofs and other truths are not obvious, and that makes them different from other innate truths. I agree! Maxims and mathematical demonstrations are different from each other. Math requires proof; maxims are obvious and do not require proof. But this makes the rationalist’s subterfuge clear: no reasoning at all is required for a priori truths, and math is not a priori. Limiting the innate ideas to the obvious destroys the bounty of nature that rationalists are so fond of.

Rationalists say that we know innate ideas when we come to “when we come to the use of reason”. As soon as children become intelligent, they also know and assent to these maxims, in other words. This is false and ridiculous. First, obviously, a priori truths are not in the mind when we start to reason. Children learn to think long before they learn “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”. In fact, the illiterate and savages grow quite old not knowing that “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”. I do think that reason is necessary to discover ideas like these, but I do not think that these ideas arrive in the mind at the same time as the faculty of reason.

What the rationalist really means is this: nobody knows a priori truths until after they learn to think. But that doesn’t prove very much.

Even learning innate ideas at the same time as we learned to think would not prove that innate ideas are innate. If we started to speak at the same time that we learned these innate ideas, would rationalists say that speaking proved them to be innate?

I agree that we do not know self-evident maxims until we begin to use reason. But I deny that they spring to mind when we start to use reason, and I deny that that would prove them to be innate.

What we really mean when we say people “assent to these ideas when they come to the use of reason,” is this: Abstract ideas and general names come after children practice on more familiar and particular things, and after adults realize that their kids are capable of rational conversation. Obviously, this does not show that these abstract ideas are innate.

The mind actually works much differently. First, the senses let in particular ideas and furnish the ‘empty cabinet’ of our minds or memories. The mind grows more familiar with the ideas bit by bit, and some get lodged in our long-term memory, and they get names. Next, the mind abstracts from the particular ideas and by degrees learns the general names of things. This is how the mind gets ideas and language, and gets the objects on which it uses its discursive faculty—the faculty that uses argumentation and logic.

In a child, the use of reason become more and more obvious day by day as it learns about greater numbers of things. If we watch someone learning, though, we see that their ideas are not innate. Children learn about the things they see most often, and they learn that some things are alike and some things are different. They learn this even before they can speak or think—certainly about the things that matter to them, ideas like sweet and bitter.

We assent to clear ideas, not ideas that are innate. A child does not learn that 3+4=7 until she learns about seven and equality. Once she knows these ideas, she will assent to the equation, but not because the idea is innate. She will assent because the idea is obvious and because she has learned what each of the terms means. Our minds move from the small to the large, too; a man knows that 18+19=37 in the same way that he knows 1+2=3, but a child learns one before the other, because the ideas of ‘eighteen’, ‘nineteen’, and ‘thirty-seven’ take longer to get to.

The fact that propositions need to be heard and understood before being assented to shows that ideas are never innate. Most people do not know the innate ideas they are supposed to possess until they hear them proposed by someone else. Then they assent to them. Doesn’t this show that proposing an idea prints it clearer in the mind than nature did? If so, then a person knows a fact better after he has been taught it. If this is so, then it would be very unwise to make innate ideas the foundation of our knowledge, as rationalists want to do.

Obviously, people first learn of these self-evident truths when they are taught them. Anyone taught them must know that he can no longer deny them—not because they are innate, but because they are true, and he could no longer think otherwise.

To conclude, I agree with these defenders of innate principles—that if they are innate, they must have universal assent. If something is innate, then all people will assent to it. But, by their own confession, rationalists cannot hold that there are innate principles, because these ‘innate’ ideas are not universally assented to. People who do not understand and people who would understand but have not yet heard to propositions do not give their assent.


Every person knows that she thinks, and what she thinks about. We think about whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephants, armies, and drunkenness.

How do we get these ideas? Many people say that we get them stamped upon our minds before we are born. I think that what I have already said about this will be more accepted once I have proved my theory.

Imagine the mind is a white piece of paper. How does it come to get ideas? Where do we get all the variety of human thought? In a word: experience. All our knowledge is about either objects of sensation or the operation of our own minds. That is all. These are the two fountains of our knowledge, and from them all ideas spring.

First, our senses give our minds several different perceptions of things, according the the ways that things affect the senses. We have ideas of yellow, white, heat, cold, hard, soft, bitter and sweet, and all the other sensible qualities. External things give us these ideas. Most of the ideas we have come straight from our senses. I call this source of ideas, ‘sensation’.

The other fountain from which experience furnishes the understanding with ideas is the perception of the operations of our own minds. This gives us another set of ideas, such as perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and so on. Every person has the source of these ideas within herself, in a kind of internal sense, which is similar to the external sense. So, since I call the other sense, ‘sensation’, I call this one ‘reflection’. By this, I mean the notice the mind takes of its own operations.

These two, sensation and reflection, are the sources of all ideas. I include emotions, too, as a kind of reflection.

The understanding has no other source of ideas.

Nobody can find an idea within themselves that did not originally come from one of these two sources.

Children do not come with innate ideas. They find them everywhere. When their eyes and ears are open, senses force themselves on the child. And if, for instance, a child were raised in a black-and-white world, she would have no more idea of scarlet or green than she has of the taste of an oyster or pineapple.

We only get new ideas from new objects.

The more things we encounter, and the more diverse they are, and the more we think about those things, the more ideas we get. The operations of our minds are plan and clear once we start to contemplate them, but it is easy to just go through life without stopping to think about how we think. We can spend our whole lives walking a clock every morning without ever wondering how it works. Our minds are just the same.

Most children do not think about their own minds, and some people never stop to think about themselves. Youth is full of diversion and novelty, and it is only in old age that we have the time to think about thinking, and even then many do not.

If you follow a child from its birth, you will find that it gradually awakens to the world as it experiences more things. After a while, it comes to know objects, then friends and strangers. And so, by degrees, the child enlarges, compounds, and abstracts ideas, and reflects on these operations.

When do people start to have ideas? When the start to sense. An impression on some part of the body produces a sensation in the mind. These are the building blocks of perception, remembering, consideration, reasoning, etc.

In time the mind comes up with new ideas: the ideas of reflection. Still, all the towers of intellect have their foundations in sensation and reflection. No matter where the mind wanders, it always started here.

In this part the understanding is passive; whether it gets this foundation for knowledge is not in its power. Other sensations stick themselves into our minds, and no person is ever totally ignorant of them. The mind can simply neither forget nor ignore some simple ideas any more than a mirror can refuse to reflect.

Though all the qualities of an object are mixed together in the thing itself, when they reach us, they enter the mind alone and unmixed. When I hold a candle, I sense many things from only one object: whiteness, coolness, softness. I see motion, and colour, and all of these ideas are distinct. The simple ideas, even though they are all mixed together in the same object, are as perfectly distinct as if they came from different objects. The coolness and hardness in one piece of ice is as distinct as the smell and the whiteness in a lily or the taste of sugar and the smell of a rose. Simple ideas each have a single uniform appearance or conception in my mind, and cannot be broken down into other ideas.

These simple ideas come into the mind in only one of those two ways. The understanding can repeat, compare, and unite them and can create new and complex ideas, but it cannot create any completely new simple idea. Not even a genius can create a new simple idea; nor can a genius take one apart. The power of man is to compound and divide the material of in his mind, but he does not have the power to create new matter or to destroy even an atom of the ideas already there. Try to imagine a flavour you have never tasted, or a scent you have never smelled. Blind people have no ideas of colours, nor do deaf people have any idea of sounds.

Once children begin to remember ideas, they learn to use signs, and when they learn to speak and make sounds, they use words to show others their ideas. Children sometimes learn words and sometimes make them up, as anyone who spends time with them will know.

We do not have an infinite number of names, though, so we cannot create a new word for each particular thing. Eventually, we generalize and start creating general names by abstraction. The mind considers particular things away from their circumstances in time and place and so on. We take ideas from particular things and make them representatives of their kind through abstraction, then give them general names. So, we see that chalk is white and snow is white, so we come up with the idea of whiteness. We use these simple concepts to organize and sort real things.

So far, we have only been concerned with the simple ideas that the mind receives passively. But the mind can frame and create new ideas from these building blocks by combining simple ideas, comparing them side by side, or by separating them from their accompanying ideas by abstraction.

Combined simple ideas are ‘complex’ ideas. These are ideas like beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, and the universe. These are simple ideas all rolled together and baked into one big idea that we consider one thing and call by one name.

This faculty of the mind is very powerful. The mind can build infinitely from the blocks sensation gave it. Still, all the ideas is builds with came from only two places: from things themselves and from the mind’s recombination of those simple ideas.