Background of the Study

The human quest to know has really gone too far as to justify the very first statement of Aristotle in his metaphysics (Aristotle 142) (All men by nature desire to know). This quest has given birth to philosophy, epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that enquires into the scope, nature, process and source of human knowledge. Albeit epistemology is a necessary part of philosophy; it has cut across the thoughts of philosophers throughout all the epochs of philosophy.

The first problem encountered in epistemology is that of defining knowledge. Much of the time, philosophers use the tripartite theory of knowledge, which analyses knowledge as justified true belief, as a working model. Rival analyses of knowledge have been proposed, but there is as yet no consensus on what knowledge is. This fundamental question of epistemology remains unsolved. Though philosophers are unable to provide a generally accepted analysis of knowledge, we all understand roughly what we are talking about when we use words such as œknowledge. Thankfully, this means that it is possible to get on with epistemology, leaving unsolved the fundamental question as to what knowledge is (www.theoryofknowledge.info).

Although sometimes latent, there is always an implicit theory of knowledge in the philosophies of different ages; each with its own peculiarity. Each era has elements which characterized their philosophy and enquiry. Hence Batista Mondin observes:

œThe Ancient period, medieval and modern periods are characterized by Cosmocentricism, Theocentricism and Anthropocentricism respectively (Modin 37).

Hence, from the above, one may infer that what informs the epistemology of each epoch is its concentration of mans search centered on the world, on God and on man respectively. As this quest for knowledge continued, there existed a particular school whose philosophical attitudes were skeptical. They believed and taught that the human mind is incapable of attaining truth. They admitted the fact that human mind is restricted from attaining the truth of things. This group was known as the Sophists. It was really this group that triggered the search for certainty of human knowledge.

When philosophers describe knowing as a conscious act, they mean that there is an immediate apprehension of an object by a subject that becomes aware of it. But such awareness is not yet knowledge until the subject interprets or judge if in sense perception (until he says mentally œthis is, œthat is or œthis is not or œthat is not so and so). In the same way, the relationship of the subject and object is present in the consciousness of our own bodies, in our feelings of bodily pleasure or pain, (though we spontaneously believe in some sort of a unity or continuity of the object with the subject). Here, we are the knowing subject and our bodies are the known object. This idea dates back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers and to Plato and Aristotle who try to give an objective understanding of the human mind or consciousness, soul, psyche or spirit that was seen as the noblest part of a person.  For Plato, the human soul œas the king of heaven and earth (œPhilebus 28c, Plato 1105) is an independent entity detachable from the body. For Aristotle, the soul is the functional organization of living things. It is the form or aspect of the body not detachable from it; such that there are different souls for different things and hierarchies of souls (Aristotle 2201).

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle expressed their views about knowledge and its origin. Socrates believed that the human mind has some truth in it. It only takes but the process of dialectics to bring to limelight this truth which is innate in the mind. Thus, Socrates was the indirect originator of innate ideas, though Plato is generally regarded as the father of innatism.

Socrates had a pivotal influence on Plato that he basically developed his philosophy from Socrates. Among all his theories of knowledge is the celebrated theory of the world of Forms. Here he said that the human soul existed in the previous world (the world of Forms). This previous world, he regarded as the real world and the empirical world he called a reflection of this real world. According to him, in the real world the human mind was furnished with some ideas (innate ideas) which it in turn remembers in the empirical world. Therefore, the human mind only remembers the form of things which it acquired in the ideal world.

In his own theory of knowledge, Augustine was concerned more with overcoming skepticism. He employed the principle of contradiction to reply to them. According to him, the mind knows that a thing cannot be and at the same time not be. Still in response to the skeptics, he posited the argument that a doubter must exist for him to doubt. B.I. Ewelu puts it clear when he is commenting on this argument: œ¦ a doubter at least is sure of his existence, he must exist in order to doubt: sifallor, sum (if I doubt, I exist) (Ewelu 35).

Hence, a skeptic cannot but admit this fact since he must exist for him to doubt. His being aware of this shows that man can know things for certain. Besides these argument is that of rebuffing. With the above arguments, Augustine proved the skeptics wrong by positing that the human mind is capable of knowing truth for certain. This according to Ewelu holds:  œIf the skeptic holds that we cannot know anything for certain, it implies that he is certain of this, if he is not certain that human mind is incapable of knowing truth for certain, and then he has no grounds for his position (Ewelu 35).

With the sixteenth and the post seventeenth century philosophy, there was a radical move from an objective to the subjective understanding of the soul such that the question of the soul turns into an analysis of the mind or of thought. From now on, the focus of philosophy shifted to epistemology and man became the center of reality. In this way, philosophers of some certain persuasions began to set the philosophical agenda to understand the objective world on the foundations of rationalism. These philosophers “ Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz contend that our intellectual life is and ought to be directed by the faculty of reason as the best and surest route to knowledge. Here, thinking becomes the crucial question. The argument on knowledge continued down to the modern era when it was reignited by the radical revolution of René Descartes. Through his methodic doubt, he tried to establish afresh, ignoring the previous proposition that, he exists. He sought to establish fact that he exists and that his mind is capable of attaining certain truth. Hence he said:

Because I wished to give myself entirely to the search after truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to adopt an apparently apposite course and to reject as absolutely false everything concerning which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see whether afterwards there remained anything in my beliefs which was entirely certain (Descartes 8).

In Descartes, there is a relational conception of thinking or thought. Each thought is a relation between the self and the object of thought. The self as the foundation of knowledge is in an enclosed circle, a prison from which it becomes impossible to escape. Leibniz tells us that the rational minds are œimages of the divinity itself (Locke 223) – as well as the capacity most directly tied to human flourishing. Indeed, Spinoza writes that:

œin life, therefore it is especially useful to perfect as far as we can our intellect or reason. In this one thing consists mans highest happiness or blessedness (Locke 588).

With the rise of the empirical philosophical currents in the 17th century, adherents of the British philosophers – Locke, Berkeley and Hume began challenging the rational intellectual tradition. Underlying this challenge was a deep and pervasive skepticism regarding the capacity of reason to provide us with substantive knowledge of how things are. In searching for ways to get out of the Cartesian circle of the self, these British philosophers argue that reason offers us little or nothing more than tautologies and prepositions about the world devoid of factual content such that the question was: Are the objects of thought created by us? Do we ever in our knowledge reach reality?

Modern philosophers were specifically occupied with the problem of human knowledge. This continued till the emergence of the celebrated work of the popular 17th century British empiricist, John Lockes Essay concerning Human Understanding. In the book I of this Essay entitled œneither Principles nor Ideas are Innate, he mercilessly criticized innate ideas. For him:

it is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles, some primary notion κοίνατ εννοίαι, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man which the soul receives in its very first being and brings into the world with it. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition if I should only show (as I hope this study shall in the following parts of this Discourse) how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions, and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principle (Ibid 8).

From the above assertion, Locke was extremely attacking the world of form of Plato by denying totally that the mind is devoid of any idea when coming into the world. He boasted to explain the origin of all human knowledge through experience, thereby subscribing to empiricism. With John Lockes essay, the gap between rationalism and empiricism was pronounced. Despite this gap, the two camps, Rationalism and Empiricism have common origin as C. Mascia tries to portray the common origin of rationalism and empiricism consists in the phenomenalists prejudice that man does not know things directly but grasps only the impression these objects make upon him (Mascia, 54). The essay of John Locke triggered the expansion of the chasm between the two camps; denying the acquisition of knowledge through innate ideas, he resorted to doctrine of acquiring of all knowledge through experience.

With Lockes stand on empiricism, the question becomes; If Locke holds that all knowledge can be attained through experience, how can some meta-empirical realities be explained? There are some characters exhibited by children before the age of cognition. How can such characters be explained empirically, given that they have not yet attained the age of cognition?

These are the questions that this five chaptered work seeks to x“ray. And as well taking into cognizance of the fact that all knowledge does not come either from experience alone or originally from the mind alone but the two, reason and experience are needed for the attainment of truth. In the same way, this study is not to say who is wrong and who is right. This work will be focused on the possibility of reconciliation. To reach this goal, there will first be definitions of knowledge in general and ideas as origin of knowledge, then, on the light of each argument, there will be the critique.  The main questions to be answered include: What is knowledge? What is the origin of knowledge? What can we learn through the objection of Lockes view on knowledge?

Statement of the Problem

John Locke contended what he called œan established opinion among some people during his time. This established opinion says Locke is œthat there are in the understanding certain innate principles, some primary characters as it were, stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being and brings into the world with it.(Locke 5).

But this presumption appears to be as old as philosophy itself. The fathers of ancient western philosophy, Plato and Socrates, subscribed fully to this view. In his dialogue in the Meno, Plato has argued that knowledge is purely remembering what the soul knows in the other world (Locke 58; Stumpf 7). This string of innateness of knowledge has continued unabated till the modern time. From Augustine in the Middle Ages, down to Descartes the acclaimed father of modern philosophy and to the contemporary era, this assumption, has continued to present itself in different ways and guises. The way the contemporary philosophers look at it, differs greatly from the way early philosophers like Plato or even Descartes himself did (Locke 58).

Worried by the pervasive doctrine of innateness, John Locke subjected this œassumption to the crucibles of reason in his popular book Essays Concerning Human Understanding. Perhaps J. Locke borrowed from the Scholastics the idea that, there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. Hence Locke asserts œit seems to me a near contradiction, to say that there are truths imprinted on the soul which it perceives or understands not: imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else, but the making of certain truths to be perceived (4). Locke was of the view that if these truths are imprinted in the mind from birth that even children and idiots or imbeciles would be aware of them. But we know that in real life it is not so.

Those who support the theory of innatism have often argued from the point of view of the idea of God and morality. For them this is a knowledge which everyone is aware of. It appears that the proponents of innatism of knowledge exploited greatly the belief that man by nature is a religious being and the necessity of morality for the progress of any society. However Locke has beautifully shown in his book that these principles are not inborn, but are acquired through life experience (Saas 2). But was John Locke entirely right? This remains to be shown. The avalanche of criticisms that have been leveled against his (˜tabula rasa) theory of the mind is indicative of the imperfections of Lockes views. Locke is even accused of belatedly and probably unknowingly subscribing to innatism when he said œit will be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition, if I should only show how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties may attain to all the knowledge they have without the help of any innate impressions (Ibid 1). This is a sign of the difficulty Locke had to tackle in other to prove his case that all our knowledge is dependent on experience. But is it true that all our knowledge is product of experience? If it is product of experience, how do we explain those ideas that are not given through experience, and yet often we make claims to them? If it is all product of experience, how do we explain inductive knowledge? How do we explain what Kant called apriori knowledge? How do we even explain intuitive knowledge? For those who refrain from going to school because they believe that knowledge is completely innate, what then is the role of experience? Do they want us to believe that educated people are already made up before even they come into the world? Here lies the paradox of accepting knowledge as completely innate or in other words ascribing to knowledge as purely product of experience. This study seeks to critique John Lockes theory of knowledge.

Aim and Objectives of the Study

This study is aimed at critiquing John Lockes theory of knowledge. To that effect the study explores the following objectives:

  • To examine John Lockes perception about innatism.
  • To examine human epistemology theories.
  • To show how empiricism is based on rationalist ideas.
  • To critique John Lockes empiricist epistemology.

Significance of the Study.

This Study contributes to the existing information on the problem of epistemology, especially John Lockes idea of epistemology and the problems associated with. The work will aid further researchers on information needed to strike a balance between innatism and empiricism.

Scope and limitation of the Work

The theory of knowledge and major argument against innatism is x-rayed by Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For this reason and for the sake of this research, it would center on this essay. Effort is therefore made in the literature review to discuss all works that have relationship with John Lockes critique of innatism. This would eventually set the stage for a thorough appraisal and criticism of Lockes view.

1.6       Methodology of the Study

This study adopts expository method in the examination of both the primary and secondary source of information. The primary source of data for this study is the original text of John Locke on epistemology which includes Treatise Concerning Human Understanding. The secondary source of data will be through journals, proceedings and books on epistemology.

Definition of Terms

There are some terms which we shall be coming across in the course of this essay, such as innate ideas, innatism, principles, rationalism and empiricism. For an easy flow of thought, there is need for a brief explanation of each of them. This chapter will be containing the explication of these terms


A discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology and it is a search for general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means (Merriam Webster Dictionary).


Knowledge is the combination of vivid and clear idea in the mind that one obtains through information or experiences with good interpretation. No matter how we get the idea, the important thing is for the idea to be vivid and clear then it can be called knowledge (Descartes 2).

Innate Ideas

Innate denotes inborn, existing naturally before, belonging to the nature of a thing. The Websters dictionary defines innate as follows:

Existing in or belong to some person or other lying organism from birth: belonging to the assented nature of some thing: originating in, derived from or inherent in the mind or the constitution of the intellect rather than derived from experience (Gove et al. 1165).

From the above, it presupposes that when something is innate, it means that the thing exists and belongs to some person. By extension, it refers to that thing belonging essentially to the nature of the thing that possesses it. The thing be it ideas, originates in, derives from and inheres in the mind or is constituted of the intellect and not from experience.


Websters dictionary says it œis a belief in innate ideas. It is the belief that certain ideas are present in the mind at birth. This is a term appropriated in philosophy by Plato and later by John Locke in their respective theories of knowledge. The New Encyclopedia Britannica defines innate idea in philosophy as œAn idea allegedly inborn in the human mind as contrasted with those received or completed from experience (Safraet al. 319).

The doctrine postulates that at least certain ideas, say ideas of God, infinity, substance must be innate, because no satisfactory empirical origin of them could be conceived. It flourished in the 17th century and found in Rene Descartes its most prominent exponent. The theory took many forms, some held that:

A new born child has an explicit awareness of such ideas, others more commonly maintain that ideas have some implicit form, either as a tendency or as dormant capacity of their formulation which in either case would require favorable experiential conditions for their development (Ibid 320).

Innate idea has other definitions by other people: Angeles Peter A. defines it as œideas which a person is born with or less strictly, which are at least not learned, abstracted or compiled from sense perception (Angeles 8). R. Dagobert traces innate idea to its Latin origin œInnatis meaning œInborn. According to M.S. Sasa, Dagobert defines innate idea as: The powers of understanding given in the very nature of mind. Such ideas ¦are spoken of as a priori. Ideas, which are inborn, and come with the mind such as God or immortality. More generally ¦ideas which all men as human and rational, necessarily and universally possess (Sasa 12).

Many thinkers seem to believe in the reality of innate ideas and this belief is what is referred to as innatism.


According to the Websters Dictionary, idea is: a presentation of sense, concept of representation, an archetype or subsistent form: a transcendent universal: the form giving cause: form an immediate object or a compound of immediate objects of sensation or reflection, an impression of sense or imagination especially percept: a representation or construct of memory and association as distinguished from direct impression of sense, a transcendent but non-empirical concept of reason (Gove et al. 1122)

The above definitions of ideas are according to the definition given to the term œidea by the rationalist and empiricist philosophers. Besides these welcomed definition another definition given to it by this dictionary brings out well what we want to portray in our work. It goes thus: œan object of the mind existing in apprehension, conception, or thought: notion, thought, impression. From these definitions, ideas cannot only be a product of a concept in the mind but as well a product of impression (experience). Therefore, the notion of idea in Plato and Locke are here encapsulated.


Principle is here defined as a general or fundamental truth: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption on which others is based or from which others are derived: elementary proposition. Something from which another takes its origin: a basic or primary source of material or energy: ultimate basic or cause (Ibid 1802).

Therefore, principle is seen as truth which can be general or universal as well as fundamental. It can be viewed as paradigm or rudiments which can be used to shape a group or the society. When the term principle is used, it could mean principles like œa thing cannot be and at the same time not be, or what is and what is not, is not (principle of non“contradiction). It could be viewed as a doctrine which is made objective or universal. It is objective or universal because it is believed that it is always at the disposal of everybody. John Locke sees principles in the book one of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding as œBoth speculative and practical (for they speak of both) universally agreed upon by all mankind (Locke 127). From the above, principle can be speculative of practical. It is speculative in that it can be based on guessing or on opinions that have been formed without knowing all the facts; and practical, in that it can be connected with real situations rather than with ideas or theories.



The term œEmpiricism comes from the Greek word œÎˆÎ¼Ï€ÎµÎ¹ÏÎ¹Î± meaning experience. Empiricism in philosophy is defined as: An attitude expressed in a pair of doctrines that all concepts are derived from the experience to which they are applied, and that all knowledge of matters of fact is based on, or derived from, experience (Safraet al. 480).

According to this doctrine, all claims to knowledge of the world can be justified only by experience. This belief was triggered off in a quest to knowing the source of true knowledge. While some say that true knowledge is beyond the physical, some project that all knowledge can be got through the sense or experience. The doctrine of Empiricism is propagated by a group of philosophers called empiricists. They are normally called British Empiricist because it started from there, specifically from John Locke. Empiricism is the name given to the doctrine that beliefs are to be accepted and acted upon, if it is confirmed by actual experience. As a result, empiricism is then opposed to the claims of authority, intuition, imaginative conjecture and abstract theoretical or systematic reasoning as sources of reliable belief. Rationalism is its most fundamental antithesis. In their theory of meaning, they hold that words can be understood or the concepts requisite for any articulate thought possessed, only if they are connected by their users with things that could be experienced. Secondly, their philosophical theory of knowledge views belief or at least some vital classes of belief as depending ultimately and necessarily on experience for justification. Therefore, instead of saying œJane is kind, empiricism insists that one says œJane is seen performing acts of kindness. The first known empiricists were the sophists who in their philosophical inquiries were concerned with such relatively concrete entities as men and society, rather than with speculative fields explored by their predecessors. The stoics and Epicureans though were principally concerned with ethical questions, had empiricist tendencies. Others were William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell etc.


The term œrationalism originates from the Latin word œratio which means reason. In philosophy, rationalism is a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. In contrast to empiricism, it tends to discountenance sensory experience. For the rationalists, realty itself has an inherently rational structure. As a result, there are truths especially in logic and mathematics, also in ethics and metaphysics, which the intellect can grasp directly. Rationalism makes upholds deductive method. Against the tabula rasa view, rationalists believe in the presence of innate ideas: œAccording to the extreme rationalists doctrine, all the truths of physical science and even history could in principle be discovered by pure thinking and set forth as the consequences of self evident premises (Ibid 953).

Rationalists hold that the materials of knowledge are derived deductively from fundamental elementary concepts and not from experience. Besides Plato, the famous proponents of rationalism are Rene Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian von Wolff. Most of the ideas, which rationalists project as innate ideas, are mainly based on moral principle. Rationalists who are ethicist adopted the doctrine of epistemological rationalism in the field of morals. With this adoption, they hold that œThe primary moral ideas (good, duty) are held to be innate and the first principles of moral (e.g. the Golden Rule) are deemed self evident. With this stand, they believe that possession of reason provides an adequate motive for moral conduct.

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