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“The Current State of John Locke’s Theory on Knowledge Acquisition”

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“Our knowledge in all these enquiries reaches very little farther than our experience” (Essay). Locke asserts the principle that true knowledge is learned. As humans, our knowledge about the world around us and the subjects within it come from a study of our surroundings. Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa,’ or “blank slate” is inconsistent with the human mind and psyche. He asserts the premise that humans are not born with knowledge about anything and that the only way humans acquire knowledge is through their own experiences. Locke’s theory of human knowledge and the acquisition of that knowledge does not allow for the probability of an individual who possesses an innate genius and natural ability toward a particular subject or talent, for example: the natural artist. This does not mean that Locke’s theory fails because it does not cover all possibilities. His theory is weakened when he asserts that knowledge only comes from the five senses (Essay ch.iii). Therefore, knowledge is acquired through a human’s ability to see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. Locke dismisses the innately talented and the musical and artistic genius of his day. However, Locke’s theory is consistent with the typical Empiricist’s theory that insight comes from what one can experience (Studies p.1). Empiricism “is a collective name given to a variety of philosophical doctrines concerned with human knowledge. Empiricists believe that knowledge comes exclusively through experience and that humans are born completely without knowledge” (Locke 1). Therefore, modern day Empiricists must stretch their existing theory to allow for exceptions to their conclusions. If Empiricist’s would embrace this idea of innate knowledge and talent that exists among members of society, they would strengthen the theory of knowledge through the senses.

There are many documented cases of unusually talented children with musical and artistic abilities that far exceed the talents of their predecessors. Oprah Winfrey dedicated an entire show to children of unusual genius. The children ranged in age from four to sixteen years old. One particular child, of middle school age, displayed several different pieces of artwork on the stage. Her artwork has been compared to Rembrandt and Picasso. She is far more gifted than the majority of adult painters. In fact, she is so talented that her art teacher did not believe that she had painted a picture turned in as an assignment. He was convinced a very talented adult had painted the pictures for her. One day after school, he made her paint a picture and she produced on of equal greatness as the one before. She claimed she never took one art lesson. One day she picked up a paintbrush and started to paint a picture and consequently, she and her family discovered her exceptional talent as an artist. Considering this scenario, Locke’s theory of knowledge acquisition would be poured down the drain with the dirty paint water from the young girl’s paintbrushes. Locke claims that the “mind can not cannot have its own ideas independent of sense-perception” (Studies 1). It is apparent that this young girl’s talent stemmed from a natural inclination toward art and painting. She did not sit in on a single art class and she was never taught how to paint. It is impossible to reconcile Locke’s theory with the case of this young girl. She has a natural talent for art.

Swami Krishnanaanda, in Studies in Comparative Philosophy, points out that the “truth of mathematics and logic are not exclusively derived from sense-experience. Though the material necessary for the formulation of mathematical and logical laws is received by us through sensations, the laws themselves are not got from empirical observation; they are inherent in the mind itself as its essential make-up and method of working (p. 5). Mathematics and the rules of logic are innately understood by a human through the process of abstract thought. Abstract thinking is not natural and fails to be empirical because it cannot be experienced through the five senses. This method of thinking forces a person to understand complicated rules and symbols on an unnatural level. If this type of thinking were natural, everyone would be able to think and understand mathematical principles on an abstract level. If abstract thought were analogous to natural thought, than all humans would be able to understand trigonometry when they are taught the subject in the classroom. However, because mathematics and logical reasoning cannot be comprehended in a natural way, only a select number of people can fully grasp the principles these subjects have to offer.

Locke’s conception of knowledge has been interpreted to include “facts, which are things said or done, not dreams, visions, opinions, or even deductive systems” (Restoration Review 2). The problem with this definition of knowledge is that facts are only made factual because society ultimately comes to an agree that they are facts. If society did not agree that the ‘sky is blue’ for example, than those who observed the sky to be blue would only possess the opinion, not the factual knowledge that it is blue. Therefore, facts only become facts through consent, not observation. This assertion is supported through considering the different denominations of Christianity. Mormonism for example, does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God. They only recognize Jesus as a prophet because Mormons, as a group, consents to this realization. The Baptist denomination, however, acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God because the Baptist convention accepts Jesus to be so. Neither denomination observed Jesus’ relationship to God, nor did they experience this conception with their five senses. Rather, they accept this idea as truth or ‘gospel’ because their groups have consented that this was true. Even if the two groups observed the relationship of Jesus and God through their sensory experiences, than the two groups would have come to the same conclusion: either Jesus is the son of God, or he is a mere prophet, not both. The mere disagreement of the two groups on the same topic suggests that they gained their knowledge by agreement, consent, opinion, and tradition, not through the senses of their individual congregants.

Locke acknowledges the apparent dichotomy in the understanding of what he considers an ‘experience.’ In fact, he acknowledges the premise “our observations may be employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds”(Internet Encyclopedia 5). Therefore, Locke states that our five senses can take in or experience the external world. For example, one can taste a fine champagne-based dill sauce and comprehend its Moet and Chandon base. Locke goes further with his premise to include the ‘internal’ precepts of the mind within the scope of his definition of ‘experience.’ This would include, for example, the internal thought process that must take place before the next sentence of this paper is written. If knowledge must be acquired through the five senses in order to be understood, than a sixth sense must be created in order to understand originality of ideas and invention. Einstein, for example, invented several mathematical concepts, based on the knowledge he acquired through experience. However, his original ideas were not causally linked to the knowledge he acquired through the study of physics just because his ideas involved the subject of physics. A child may paint a picture in an impressionistic style, without any prior training to paint that way. Just because his painting qualifies as what society classifies as “impressionistic” does not mean that his ability to paint in this manner is at all related to a training in the style.

Locke’s theory dismisses the concept that ideas can be original. According to Locke, ideas naturally flow from one’s sensory experience, and therefore knowledge, of a subject. However, only a select number in any population are equipped with the ability to take the knowledge they have acquired one step further in order to develop an original idea or invention. On the other hand, the definition of an original invention is that it is new and has never been created before. Locke acknowledges this argument through his second theory of knowledge acquisition: reflection. Locke defines reflection as a concept where “we turn our mind on itself” (Spark 1). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke states that humans receive ideas “as thought, belief, doubt, and will” (Essay Book II). If doubt is supposed to be an object of how humans understand the world, than Locke’s theory is insufficient in that it does not account for doubt that has no rational basis. Locke believes that doubt can only result from experiences that cause doubt. Therefore, according to Locke, doubt cannot be unfounded because it is directly related to one’s sensory experiences. This theory can be countered by the very existence of phobias. Some humans are afraid of heights, dogs, and small spaces without any prior experience with the very object that caused their doubts and fears. Therefore, doubt can be unfounded and unexplainable. Doubt may arise from a force other than a person’s encounter with it. For example, one may be afraid of heights without ever leaving the ground. One may also be afraid of flying without ever having travelled by means other than motor vehicle.

Contemporary philosophers evaluate Locke’s ideas in the context of how humans perceive the world around them. They have coined the term “veil of perception” to describe the wall or the “veil of ideas between us and the world” (Spark 2). Thus, according to Locke, an original idea is a natural result of one’s perception of a subject. This assumes that the knowledge acquired by humans does not remain static, but rather acts as a synthesis upon which ideas are built. Therefore, when humans acquire knowledge through observation, within the field of science, for example, the knowledge he gains does not remain in the same form that he received it in. Rather, the knowledge evolves into ideas and later inventions. This theory still does not explain why some people use their knowledge productively and others do not. Quite frankly, an answer to this theory would require non-empirical conjecture. When knowledge evolves into ideas, it becomes abstract thought because the idea that results is original and unique to the individual that conceives it. Often times, the ideas that result from acquired knowledge do not follow a logical set of steps that ultimately produce a final product or in this case idea or invention. The fact that one’s thought pattern skips logical steps that lead to a logical conclusion, that in this case is an invention, does not discount the notion that ideas cannot result from spontaneous and unlearned knowledge. For example, researchers and doctors studied the same concepts as Albert Einstein for years, as did the researchers before them. However, for some reason that defies the empirical acquisition of knowledge, Einstein was able to instinctively expedite the creation of theories of physics. Locke’s theories cannot explain the genius that is Albert Einstein or the artistic genius of a middle-schooler.

Locke’s theory forces one to examine the origin of genius and whether the concept is learned, as Locke concludes, or biological. Steven Allen, in his “Observations on Genius”, states that genius does not originate from perspiration, as Edison once suggested, but rather, the thoughts and ideas of geniuses come easily, requiring little to no work at all (Allen 1). Society has agreed that geniuses do exist, thus we use the word ‘genius.’ Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa’ does not allow for the possibility of genius. In fact, it does not even explain the capacity for one individual to exhibit unusual talent while another does not. His theory cannot explain the five-year-old from MENSA that can add up columns of large numbers in a small amount of time. It does not account for the adult that can square a particular number one hundred times in a blink of an eye, or another person who can read the United States Constitution once and than recite it from memory verbatim. This, of course, only considers and evaluates the term ‘genius’ in the most classic sense. These are individuals that society has agreed are geniuses. For example, this would include Michelangelo, in the art world, and Einstein, in the sciences.

Abstract theory, therefore, cannot be explained by empirical means. Abstract concepts such as calculus, which involves a lofty amount of symbols, involves a part of the human brain that is capable of processing and understanding information on an unnatural and abstract level. Genius, therefore, is understood to be a unique thought process, unexplainable by the laws of natural order. If it was natural, genius would be more common. However, true genius in its classic form, is extremely rare and exists in very few members of the human population. Thus, genius is a deviation from what is natural and therefore an unnatural occurrence in the population, according to Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa.’ Suppose Edison was correct and accurate when he stated that genius is “ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This would mean that if everyone in society worked as hard as they possibly could, than they would exhibit some form of genius. If this were true, than hard work would equate to genius and laziness would equate to stupidity. Locke would agree with this, but it is simply unrealistic and short-sighted. It does not account for the fact that some members of the population are born with an intrinsic genius.

Steven Allen would therefore agree that genius can better be explained by biology and genetics, rather than the tabula rasa theory (Allen id). Genius can be better understood in terms of chemicals and brain structure, instead of the blank slate theory or religious doctrine. In fact, a posthumous dissection and subsequent analysis of Einstein’s brain was performed to determine if there were any marked differences between his brain and that of a ‘normal’ person. It was discovered that his brain was “fifteen percent larger than an average human brain and that it possessed a higher number of glial cells, the cells that support and nourish the network of neurons. This subsequently increased the metabolic speed of Einstein’s thoughts and brain waves” (Cardoso 1). Even though the relationship between the level of intelligence an individual possesses and his genetic makeup has long been debated, Einstein’s case cannot be ignored. Einstein possessed particular biological characteristics that set him apart from a person with average intelligence. Scientists are hesitant however, to claim that there is a definite causal link between intelligence and the biological and genetic makeup of an individual.

Locke also proposes the notion that knowledge runs out at some point, that it is a limited concept (Essay). Locke proposes that, even though knowledge comes to the individual through experience, it is that experience that limits an individual’s capacity to understand everything he experiences. Locke’s theory does not account for the possibility of unsupported claims. For example, an individual can invent the idea of the internet without the understanding of how it works in cyberspace. Just because our experiences do not provide a lit path that leads to a logical conclusion or result, does not mean that the result cannot be achieved by other means, i.e. by using logic and deductive reasoning. For example, if there are three seats in a row and child A occupies seat one and child B occupies seat three and child C occupies neither seat, than it can be concluded through deductive reasoning, that seat two will not be occupied by a child. Even though this scenario did not explicitly state that seat two would remain empty it implied that it was empty because the other two seats were occupied. Even though one’s experiences may only produce lemons, it is natural to produce lemonade from the facts that are experienced by an individual through his senses.

Understanding, knowledge, and genius can also be understood through religious theory and doctrine. If one believes that God created all things, than it can be concluded that knowledge is God’s creation. In addition, if one believes that God is in control and that man was made in God’s image, than the knowledge an individual possesses is unique to his person because God made each person different and unique. Therefore, one may logically conclude, if a person is classified as ‘genius’ or ‘idiot’ than it is because God created them to be so. Therefore one’s knowledge and intelligence is part of the divine order. Therefore, in Einstein’s case, he was supposed to be a quantum theorist and was intellectually capable of being so because God created some individuals to be average and others to be exceptional, as part of his divine order. This religious perspective asserts the claim that humans are not equal. Just because God created individuals with special talents and individuals with a natural tendency towards idiocy, does not mean it is to the detriment of that individual because this would presuppose that God wanted the worst, not the best for his creation. This would seem, on the other hand, to say that God is unaware of the stigmas that society gives to those people with less intelligence and the obvious benefits that society gives to people with unusual talents and genius. This premise cannot be true because God knows all, because God created all. Locke believes that “humans are the property of God” (Locke’s Idea). Therefore, God created some humans to be rich and other humans to be impoverished. This notion ignores the existence of freewill. According to the Christian concept of free will, God gave all humans the right to choose whether to believe in him or not to believe in him. Therefore, if humans do not believe in certain religious doctrines, than they are following their own imperfect path in defiance of the divine order. However, God wants the best for his creations, and that is why he gave humans the right to choose their path in life, through the teachings of God. Therefore, if an individual is born into poverty, it does not mean he must remain in poverty. If an individual is impoverished, he must work as hard as he can to reach his fullest potential. Just because a human is born in a particular state, does not mean that he must remain in that same state. In addition, if he works hard to improve upon his original state, his very act of improvement does not show defiance to God, but rather utilizes the free will that God gave him to improve the lives of himself and his family. Therefore, when a person works to improve his original impoverished condition, he is working in accordance with the divine order, not against it.

Locke’s theory of ‘blank slate’ and his empirical understanding of reason and knowledge is insufficient when one considers the biological possibilities of genius and talent and the role that genetics and brain structure can play in one’s intelligence. Locke states that all humans are born without any prior knowledge and that as one ages; he acquires knowledge about the world around him through each of his five senses. Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ fails to embrace theories that are more than mere exceptions to his doctrine of knowledge acquisition. Locke does not even care to acknowledge the theories that contradict his theory. In fact, his theory would be stronger if he reconciled the natural born genius with the human born with a ‘blank slate’, an empty head. Religious doctrine and theory play a role in describing not how certain humans acquire knowledge, but why they acquire it, while others are at an apparent disadvantage and are not as fortunate to be on the ‘gifted’ end of the divine order. Since all things in the world stem from God, all knowledge stems from God, which therefore creats a class inequality in society. People with more intelligence usually acquire special training and are in greater demand in a capitalist society than common, unskilled laborers of merely average intelligence. God however, gave each human a place in life, in terms of an existence rich or deficient in intellect. God created a divine order with his creation, however he gave his creation the capacity, through free will, to achieve the best possible outcome for himself. This is not in defiance of religious doctrine, but rather, it falls right in line with God’s order in the universe. Locke acknowledges God’s existence and even goes on to state that the state should not establish a formal religion because the state must operate by force, or ‘coercion’ which goes against the passively resistant nature of religious doctrine in general (Notre Dame 5). Locke’s theory about how humans acquire understanding about the world around them should expand to include, or at least reconcile itself with, the existence of genius.

WORKS CITED

Gottfried, Paul. “Distrusting John Locke.” Chronicles Magazine, January 2001. Internet Available: http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/Chronicles/January2001.

“John Locke (1632-1704),” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001. Internet Available: http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/l/locke.htm.

Sell, Alan. “John Locke and the Eighteenth Century Divines,” Review. Internet Available: http://www.uwp.co.uk/book_desc/1409.html.

Krishnananda, Swami. Studies in Comparitive Philosophy: John Locke, Rishikesh, India, 2004. Internet Available: http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/com/com_lock.html.

Locke, John. “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Edited by Peter Nidditch, Penguin, USA, 1998.

“Locke on Religious Intolerance by the State,” The Philosophy Circle. Internet Available: http://articles.philosophycircle.com/index.php?k.html.

“An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”

Nuovo, Victor. Review of God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke’s Political Thought. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Harris Manchester College. May 4, 2003. Internet Available: http://ndpr.icaap.org/content/archives/2003/5/nuovo-waldrom.html.

Unauthored. An Essay on How Locke’s Idea of Reason is Unreasonable. 2004. Internet Available: http://killdevilhill.com/lockechat/messages2/203.html.

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