putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence

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Innate Ideas


Okay, so I haven’t posted anything exactly philosophy-related in several weeks. So in order not to disappoint and stay true to the bio of the guy who set up this blog, I thought it would be fun to revisit some John Locke! He is most known for, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, his treatment of innate ideas. This concept of innate ideas was especially important to those who took up the position that there are foundational truths in our network of knowledge, which are essentially given to us at birth, which we use to further reason out and understand all of the things which we perceive in the world. It doesn’t take any sort of previous experience with the associated concepts or phenomena to come to a knowledge of these truths. Locke wants to reject these kinds of claims outright for many different reasons, but I will take a closer look at one of his more interesting objections in what follows.

To be as clear possible, it’s always a good idea to start with definitions. Here is Locke’s for innate ideas: “some primary notions, koinai ennoiai, 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.” As one of the central figures in empiricism – or the idea that sensory experience is to be the main source of human knowledge – Locke is concerned with how we can explain the acquisition of knowledge in terms of impressions or imprints which we receive from perceiving objects in the world. Innate ideas are one of the first challenges which Locke seeks to overcome in developing his philosophy in the Essay. They are problematic in that it would seem that the foundational truths which we are given are outside of our capacity to know through perception, in virtue of us already being given them.


Locke finds cause for concern in all of this talk and goes on the defensive in arguing against innate ideas. He puts an emphasis on the faculty of reason, saying that it is this which is first required in order to recognize and assent to any truth that one can conceive of. His examples are a couple of the logical absolutes: an object, a, is what it is (a=a) and the same object cannot be both what it is and not what it is (a =/= b & ~b). He argues that there is no denying, upon discovery via reasoning, the truth of both of these two claims. But this is exactly the point – that it requires one to first reflect, and in so doing it is posing a threat to the notion of innate ideas. Locke more or less argues that something which is innately imprinted on the understanding need not be discovered, because it should be a truth which the subject is already actively conscious of, if it is to be considered innate. It needs to meet this condition if the truth is considered to be an impression naturally (innately) made on the understanding. Otherwise, the impression is without any substance and cannot be said to have made any real imprint. Locke draws a further distinction, stating that if we are restricting our focus to just the capacity for having knowledge – as it is fleshed out through the application/discovery of reasoning – this would still be insufficient for an innate idea, because, then, “all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate.” He thinks the actual innate ideas, if they exist, are the ones which deserve proper philosophical inquiry and this former line of reasoning only amounts to an “improper way of speaking.” It distracts us from the main question at hand.


He justifies all of this further by making counterexamples, which are a child and an idiot. Both of these subjects have rationality, to some degree, even in its developmental or affected stages, and so each can use one’s mind to make inferences, deduce further pieces of information from a set of given facts. But there will always be a subset in any given population, he argues, that will not be conscious and/or assent to the truth of either of the two claims above. There are two points here: One, of there not being universal assent, and two, a reliance upon others to help them along in learning the relevant pieces of information (names, concepts) in order for them to understand the truths for themselves. As far as the former point, Locke believes that an innate idea must be universally imprinted on man’s understanding for it to be truly innate. But, as I’ve said before, there are always outliers, people who simply don’t readily know or understand what seem to everyone else to be elementary truths. Hence, the child or the idiot just doesn’t have ‘it’ in them, in this case, to know that a red light means stop when they cruise on by; that being, the innate idea. But also, there is a stumbling block lodged up within someone when they just can’t be taught something. It’s hard to think about, but we can intuitively agree in saying that some things will just never get through to someone, despite our best efforts and careful presentation of the facts. Locke would suggest that if it were really innately imprinted on their soul, then one wouldn’t need assistance to discover the truth for him/herself. All of these points are ones which he thinks stand as evidence against the claim that innate ideas exist.


My take on Locke’s argument is that it is cleverly constructed, and that there are several good points made, but unable to dismiss the position completely. The thought here is that there are certain dispositions which we all have which often subconsciously get expressed in our actions. To be sure, these are altogether separate from the capacities which Locke argued against, in that a disposition would be defined as a product of a thought which, while not necessarily deliberate, is drawn out from preexisting ideas and their associated desires. Even the newborn child, whose brain had not developed enough to qualify as rational, still somehow primitively knows that s/he desires the love and affection of his/her mother, despite not having a concrete thought in mind which reflects this. It somehow is “wired” to react in a favorable way when it experiences the love of its mother. So I think that although it might not necessarily be termed, in the strict sense which Locke offers us, an innate idea (as something derived purely through reason), I believe that there remains a comparable concept which we can use to describe our observable behavior. There is a psychological component to the question which is clearly pertinent, and it is always a learning experience if a question such as this is analyzed through the perspectives of various schools of thought.


I’m in agreement with Locke’s claim that we don’t always universally assent to intuitively true maxims. The problem here in not assenting, which would make us doubt the notion of an idea’s innateness, is appropriate to the question. What I mean is that we need to necessarily assent, or positively affirm, some idea – so as to make it our belief – for it to be actually present in our understanding, because part of what it means for such an idea to be understood, is that it needs to be a part of us; it needs to be positively taken up within our mind anytime it is recalled in our memory. In short, the idea must be believed. And beliefs, by traditional standards, necessarily are more than passive tendencies to agree or disagree with a claim if asked about it. They need to be unfettered in all of our daily dealings, being sparks of our own initiative. So with Locke’s suggestion, I can’t see any way around the point that innate ideas must be assented to, in order for them to be innate. The issue interestingly transitions into being one of personal identity more than anything, and I think that this is the foundation for the epistemology which Locke depends upon. It is an important question in any case, but here we cannot go any further in assessing the concept of innate ideas from Locke’s perspective, as a mind which takes in phenomena through impressions and sensations, because of the pattern by which our personal beliefs are formulated. I must say, his argument is surely sound in this regard.


So after all of this, I think that we’ve brought the subject of Locke’s Essay into the fray, thrown him into the crosshairs of the debate on innate ideas. I would argue in the end that while he may have certain dispositions based on our human nature, we should side with Locke insofar as to say that these are not innate to us until we have done some of the work and reasoned out the impressions which we receive to fashion a set of beliefs for ourselves. This is a bit of a tangent to the question of whether humans, from the outset, are imprinted with certain innate ideas. General speaking on the latter point, I believe that Locke was incorrect, and that we do have, in a very abstract sense, some very broad ideas about love, justice, beauty, etc. – because this is what it means to be human. Whether or not these principles are innate in us, or if it is societally/culturally inherited is what we may disagree on, but even so, there is value in having the discussion. I personally find it gratifying, and I hope to someday chip away at that tabula rasa enough to see the core of my beliefs etched in the model of truth as it really is, as it actually exists.




I think it’s time I did some more writing again. There’s been something there which has just been simmering in my mind for quite some time. I think there’s something difficult in knowing that some people just run away from today’s world before giving themselves a chance to find their place. I see it as a conflict which takes place more and more every day. What’s troubling is that there’s really no escape at the end of the road, despite how much one might like there to be one. Whether it’s a religious conviction, an immersion into creating one’s art, a pair of headphones, a really good book or wherever else you might go to lose yourself, it doesn’t seem to accomplish much of anything if one doesn’t ensure that one is marking one’s trail, looking back to see that there is a clear foothold to step back on to to return to the grind house which is reality.

Escapism is a dead end road.

There’s no easier way to say it, because it’s true. Rather than being dogmatic about it, though, I would argue it in this way: Even if one truly were to escape into that which brings him/her the most comfort, this peace would more or less equate to some sort of forlorn stupor, which wouldn’t manage to have any demonstrable impact on one’s own sensibilities – making it a callous sort of self-debilitation. What I mean here is that if the goal of escapism is to decrease one’s stress in life, by decreasing one’s level of self-consciousness, then there is a divide – a wall – being put up which others perceive you to be building between them, which, in turn, causes them to feel distant from you. Eventually, if one pulls one’s self away by wide enough of a margin, then one will irrevocably defeat the very goal which one had set out to pursue; one’s self will be all that one has left, given the right amount of time and enduring number of blank stares.

The psychology is not very simple, and I won’t necessarily claim to know it off-hand, but it’s obvious that people don’t connect well with people who they think are self-absorbed. After all, there’s nothing really there on the other side reaching out to connect with them. But what kills me is trying to relate to someone like this anyway, when I know in all honesty that there’s just nothing I can really do if they won’t help him/herself. At the same time that this is tragic, I feel like it’s a growing pain that one needs to go through in order to realize one’s self’s true value. A value which helps consolidates one’s self and others into a community, or network, instead of a collection of disparate islands which one finds one’s self drifting between during one’s day.

So don’t try to lose yourself too much, or you’ll actually get what you want. There are plenty of people out there willing to talk you out of yourself, and frankly, that’s a good thing.

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Can we act for reasons we don’t have?

In recent developments in action theory, there have been two major philosophers who have disagreed over the specific questions of the nature of reasons that one has to act, and whether these reasons are traceable to an individual’s motives. On the one hand, Bernard Williams suggests that all reasons one has for acting are reasons given that they derive themselves from elements from the individual’s inner motivations – or subjective motivational set (S) (which includes her: desires, wants, values, commitments, etc.) This is the internalist approach to reasons. On the other hand, John McDowell argues against Williams with the opposite interpretation. He believes that there are reasons that are untraceable, or outside of, one’s existing motivations, which yet and still act as reasons for the agent’s action. This is the externalist position. These views are clearly mutually exclusive because of the fact that an individual is relying on his S to produce reasons in one case and not in the other. While this may be so, I will show that McDowell’s contention with Williams over the possibility of external reasons is a good one, and furthermore makes the notion of an external reason more plausible. I will also increase the conceivability of one’s having an external reason by demonstrating how that these allow for one to perform certain kinds of actions that wouldn’t be otherwise possible under an internalist approach – thus giving a more holistic picture of action.

The contention alluded to above between Williams and McDowell is based, in large part, on the idea of how an individual can be moved to form the belief that she has an external reason. Williams holds that any reason one has for potentially being motivated to act in a certain way must arise through rational means, which he calls deliberation. As Williams point out in his paper entitled Internal and External Reasons, deliberation is of the “rational processes, [that] can give rise to new motivations,” (Williams, 108). What he means here is that, by reflecting on one’s S in a way that advances some of its aspects while at the same time pushes back others, the agent redefines her motives by producing new beliefs as to what is a proper reason for her to be guided by in action, in light of this deliberation.

Applying this notion of deliberation to external reasoning, then, Williams would go on to say that if an individual was to be moved to form a belief regarding an external reason, deliberation would have to be the necessary pathway for the belief to be thought of as rational. But the trouble presents itself when one attempts to conduct this deliberation since, at the time of deliberation, the individual cannot consult her current S in acquiring such a belief. Again, this is because an external reason is brought about independently of any reference to an agent’s S, and therefore precludes any deliberative route to forming the belief.

McDowell enters the argument by writing a written response piece to Williams called Might There Be External Reasons? McDowell, essentially charged with irrationality for favoring an externalist position, responds to Williams by suggesting that deliberation need not be the sole means by which one can have an external reason for acting. McDowell emphasizes that it is the end result of having the belief in an external reason that matters; not necessarily the pathway or means to getting to this conclusion. Using William’s terminology, McDowell would argue that the matter can still be “considered aright” (Williams, 109) regardless of how the belief concerning an external reason is formed, since the conclusion that was arrived at (the belief) was a true conclusion (McDowell, 72-73). In other words, an individual who has “considered the matter aright” is one who has established reasons-beliefs from which one is motivated to always act in the right way; similarly to if she had rationally deliberated. These reasons are in line with serving a motivation that, by its expression through action, fulfills their goal in any given situation.

Instead of resorting to an agent’s deliberative route for forming the foundation of the beliefs for an external reason, McDowell proposes a few alternatives that he thinks serve just as well in bringing about this belief. A couple notable examples he uses are: a religious conversion and/or inspiration from rhetoric. Albeit that all of these examples are irrational (McDowell, 74), they still, in his view, make it so that an individual can arrive at the belief pertaining to the external reason. Specifically, the individual, through any one of these kinds of experiences, transitions from a state of not being motivated by an external reason to being motivated by it (McDowell, 74), because each of these provide a means for her to gloss over her existing S in the process of forming the belief relevant to the external reason. In the wake of undergoing such a radically self-altering experience, the individual becomes enamored by a new belief that would ordinarily not be said to have belonged to her prior to her conversion. This belief, again, isn’t rationally explicable, yet it works in her favor if it leads her to see, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the “matter aright” and furthermore enables her to become motivated by the external reason.

My take on McDowell’s objection to Williams is that it succeeds in distinguishing between what one has reason to do, in virtue of whom one is, and what one has reason to do, in virtue of what is ultimately reasonable. By reasonable, I am entertaining the idea that there are reasons that are simply right reasons for acting, despite one’s desire to be motivated by them or not. For example, if an anti-patriotic, cowardly man was faced with the choice of either staying with his family during wartime by means of performing illegal activities or enlist in the draft that mandates him to serve, the man would plausibly have no inherent motivations that would be satisfied by his act of going to war. Let’s presume here that he knows that his entering into the army will result in certain, immediate death on the front-line. Nothing in him would suggest that he cares to die for his country or wants to be instantaneously killed (hence, his anti-patriotism and cowardliness), so his S doesn’t contain any elements that would serve as precursors to his forming a reason to be motivated to go to war. Yet this is what he does because of the fact that it serves a universal purpose that is reasonable beyond himself and even his country. In other words, despite not personally having any motivations that would be furthered by his development of such a reason, the man, in a profound sense, still reasons to go to war – being motivated by a reason that could be said to be external to him.

What this example and McDowell’s interpretation of external reasons are obviously assuming to be true is a normative, objective standard concerning reasons (McDowell, 76). That is to say that the external reasons that an individual is led to believe as being her reason (through a conversion or what have you) is a reason that is prescribed to be authoritative and telling of a right or wrong reason for action. This is its normative component. An external reason is seen to be objective since it derives itself outside of an individual’s S – it takes something above and beyond the subjectivity of the individual’s psychology to form the reason. I will now briefly illustrate how these assumptions in the externalist position are vital in overcoming a few limitations that I see under the internalist description of reasons.

McDowell’s defense of external reasons is ultimately successful in rebutting William’s objection that external reasons cannot be deliberated upon – and hence, are irrationally formed – not because he defends his view from this claim (because he does not), but rather because McDowell shows that, in a more significant sense, rationality becomes incumbent on an individual only in the course of her being brought to have an external reason. Williams could argue that his theory also allows for internal reasons to contain an element of rationality in virtue of their being followed, by the consistent traceability of the reasons from aspects of the individual’s S. But what makes this story incomplete are these cases, such as the example of the drafted soldier above, where with no matter how much time the individual spends deliberating, her S still cannot encompass certain reasons for being motivated to act in selfless, universal ways that owe themselves to an external standard. This is of course supposing that the particular individual does not already have generosity, in any way, subsumed within her S. An agent, following from William’s argument, cannot come to be motivated by reasons that serve an absolute good that is beyond what she takes good to be.

It is plain to me here that, although McDowell does assume controversial standards of objectivity and normativity in his belief of what characterizes external reasons, the resulting view of external reasons does a better job of explaining the facts, since it is able to explain the reasons behind more observable kinds of action that one can take. This is opposed to the internalist interpretation which, by making reasons out to be contingent upon one’s own psychology, consequently severely reduces one’s ability to understand why an agent acts a certain way when he is observed to act out of character. Surely one has had the experience of witnessing such an instance. It would seem that, in these scenarios then, the internalist could not supply any good reason whatsoever for the agent’s being motivated as he was. His “action” may have to be rendered a mere happening or occurrence for this reason. This type of situation is a strike against the internalist, in that it demonstrates incoherence in his theory of explaining the reasons for action. In consideration of this stumbling block, plus the quantitative advantage of explaining cases of universal acts, the externalist view should be granted as more plausible.  The deciding point that I am trying to make here is that, in addition to internal reasons, external reasons portray a more comprehensive, holistic picture of action. It is in the light of having this quality that actually bolsters the plausibility of there being external reasons.

In conclusion, I have first examined the philosophical rift between McDowell and Williams over the nature of reasons in order to provide a foundation for my argument of the plausibility of the existence of external reasons. It has been seen that Williams contention of a reason’s formation being irrational if it lies outside of deliberation is irrelevant for McDowell, because the latter has responded in a way that elucidated a sense of rationality that is above which Williams could muster from within the internalist position. However it be that McDowell’s species of rationality stems from his assumption regarding the objective/normative standards inherent in external reasons, this assumption manifests a quantitative explanatory advantage that cannot be dismissed; it rationalizes the observable facts of action better than the internalist can from his account. From this argument, I have developed an account of external reasons which should push the internalist to concede to their increased conceivability.