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Locke, Blake, and Wordsworth: Understanding Experience

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William Blake, in his work There Is No Natural Religion, and William Wordsworth, in his poem 1799 Prelude, challenge John Locke’s understanding of the nature of the self by offering alternative theories as to the ways in which we as humans perceive and interpret our experiences. Blake—and to a lesser extent Wordsworth—refutes Locke in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, offering contrasting opinions as to how the self is formed. Locke’s view of the self is rooted in his belief that humans are born into the world as tabula rasa, a blank slate. He believes formation of the self is passive and empirical in nature, consequent of tangible experience. This suggests that as we perceive our experiences with the objective facts of the material world, our mind is passively constructing complex ideas from our perceptions, resulting in a reality that is limited to what has been directly experienced. Wordsworth and Blake oppose Locke’s tenet of a passive mind, asserting a mutually exclusive theory: the presence of an active mind. Through the presence of an active mind, a creative imagination emerges, therefore allowing perceptions beyond Locke’s empirical worldview to appear. Thus, while Wordsworth and Blake agree with Locke in that as humans we perceive and experience the material world, both assert that our ability to perceive extends far beyond what our passive Lockean self would allow, instead declaring an intrinsically creative imagination.

Locke’s idea that Man comes into the world as “tabula rasa” was born from the study of the scientific empirical method of discovery, which is in contrast to the doctrine of theologians who professed that Man, held an innate knowledge. Locke professes that knowledge is formed from sensation and reflection. Sensations are what we experience in the material world; Locke writes that the mind comes to be furnished via “experience,” which is defined as the past or current experiences of one’s life (Locke 21). The act of reflection is the way in which the mind perceives these experiences. Locke states, “These two, I say viz– external, material things, as the objects of SENSATION, and the operations of our own minds within, as the objects of REFLECTION, are, to me, the only originals, from whence all our ideas take their beginnings” (22). Thus, Locke believes our experiences, and therefore ones sensations can only be derived from objective, material things. It is from these raw sensations where simple ideas such as “yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard” originate, which our mind then reflects upon via its own operations: “perception, thinking, doubting, believing” (21). This pattern of sensation and reflection is how Locke understands the identity of the self to be shaped. Hence, there can exist only objective realties, as our mind is only able to perceive the raw, actual facts of our surroundings. And so it can be said that according to Locke’s beliefs, the nature of self is inherently empirical as our perceptions, and therefore our sensations are limited to objective, material things.

William Wordsworth and William Blake, however, hold perceptions of the self which contrast with Locke’s. They did not understand the mind solely as a collection of experiences; instead, they sought to understand what innate forces shaped the way in which one interprets the world. Both Wordsworth and Blake directly challenge the notion of a passive mind by arguing the presence of an active mind, which allows for the emergence of a creative-imagination. Wordsworth does not disagree that we perceive through our senses; however, he chooses to introduce an external force, which he argues is the source of our active mind. Wordsworth writes: Blessed the infant babe—… Doth gather passion from his mother’s eye Such feeling pass into his torpid life Like an awakening breeze, and hence his mind… Is prompt and watchful, eager to combine In one appearance all the elements (Wordsworth, 20) Wordsworth suggests our life to be “torpid,” or passive before the mother instills the intangible “passion” within us. It is from this passion that his sense of self and his sense of knowledge are formed through nature. And thus, nature nurtured his “eager” and creative mind as a child.

Furthering these ideas, Wordsworth demonstrates enhanced perception through a reflection upon his youth. Rowing in a stolen rowboat, Wordsworth personifies nature, as he believes nature is both encouraging him to take the boat and rebuking him for doing so: “lead by them,” he steals a boat in “an act of stealth / And troubled pleasure…” (94). The “troubled pleasure” are the feelings he felt from acting on “The passions that build up our human soul” (95). Wordsworth believed that nature punished him for this transgression when a “creature” appeared: “As if with voluntary power instinct / [it] Upreared its head” and “with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing / strode after me” (94-95). This personification of nature demonstrates that Wordsworth interprets his surroundings through creative imagination. While Locke’s perception of this event would have been limited to objective facts, Wordsworth is able to perceive the cliff with “undetermined sense,” resulting in the operations of his mind working in “unknown modes of being” (95). Therefore, his mind is allowed to construct complex ideas beyond what Locke believes possible. Even though what Wordsworth perceives the “creature” to be is seemingly unclear, it appears to exceed material facts of the outside world. In fact, he uses this event to provide an example of subjectivity resulting from creative imaginations. That is, an “eager” mind allows humans to perceive beyond what is purely “material” and, as a result, colors experiences based upon the past. Applying Locke’s ideas, it is seen that as the mind experiences, its reflection upon these perceptions is tainted by the creative imagination. Therefore, as the self encounters new experiences, our perceptions of them will be influenced by our past. Considering the text directly, however, Wordsworth suggests that he is recognizing nature’s attempts at demonstrating a sense of morality to him: a sense of right and wrong. Therefore, it is through the use of an external figure, the mother, that Wordsworth is able to demonstrate an awakening of the creative imaginations within us, which allows us to see and perceive beyond what is “material” or fact. And thus yielding from Wordsworth’s beliefs are realities that become increasingly subjective through our attainment of experiences.

In a manner similar to Wordsworth’s, Blake challenges the idea of a passive mind by proclaiming the presence of a “Prophetic and Poetic character” within us. Blake goes further in challenging Locke when he proclaims, “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception” (Blake 89). Furthermore, within Blake’s writing, he makes two distinctions: “the ratio of all” and “the Infinite” (89). “The ratio of all” is synonymous with Locke, as it represents the ratio of our past experiences, or rather the ratio of what is material or objective. Thus “the Infinite” represents the perceptions that extend beyond “the ratio of all.” More precisely however, “the Infinite” is perceived by the active mind through the creative imagination in order to combine ideas beyond what would be possible in a Lockean world. Blake verifies this by writing, “he who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only”(89). Therefore, if one is only able to see “the Ratio” then he is limited to his empirical self and thus his reality becomes increasingly objective. However, if one is able to see the infinite then one must be able to experience or perceive the infinite, allowing the “Prophetic and Poetic character” within him to perceive beyond what is objective and material. This ability results in an increasingly subjective reality. Unlike Wordsworth—who wrote that our passion, creative imagination and active mind were direct results of an external force, the mother—Blake believes “the Poetic or Prophetic character” is inherently within us (89). This is demonstrated as he writes that if it were not for such a character, the “Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again”(89). Thus, he argues that without this character, our perceptions would become limited to “the ratio of all things” and would begin to “repeat the same dull round,” or the passive nature of Locke’s sensation and reflection. Therefore, through our ability to see the infinite rather than solely the ratio, Blake demonstrates how our creative imagination—the Prophetic and Poetic character—perceives beyond the objective facts of the material world, thus resulting in the coloring of our experiences and subjective realities.

Wordsworth and Blake both challenge Locke’s view of a passive, objective self by asserting the presence of a creative and active self. Wordsworth demonstrates this through an active imagination and passion, while Blake asserts an inborn spirit that is more than our collective experiences. As a result, the ability to perceive beyond what would be possible according to Locke creates a heterogeneous human experience among all beings. This subjectivity allows for a diversity of beliefs and allows us to assign significance or meaning to an experience that is uniquely our own. The ability to find meaning in an event based upon past experiences, and thereby grow the mind, allows for a self to emerge greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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