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“an Essay Concerning Human Understanding”

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John Locke (1632-1704) is one of the most important thinkers of the world; some have even considered him as the most notable English philosopher: in any case, his book “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690) is still arousing the interest of those concerned with the field of the philosophical reflection and especially the history of Western philosophy. Perhaps older or younger experts have been attracted mainly by his “realism”, the passion with which he supported the cause of sensory knowledge.

The main thesis of the famous empiricist is well-known: “nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu”. He rejects the doctrine regarding the existence of innate ideas, claiming that at birth our mind is like a white paper – “tabula rasa” – which is gradually inscribed with the data deriving from experience during our whole life. Locke wishes to underline the fact that our entire knowledge derives from experience through sensation and reflection.

Locke’s Educational Theory

This conception on the origins of knowledge is older, being also present in a specific form in the Greek philosophy, viz. in Aristotle’s “De anima” (“On the Soul”), 429b29-430a2, who could have taken it from his magister Plato (see, in this respect, the Dialogues “Theaetetus” and “Philebus”): “Or in the way that to be acted upon according to something common has been distinguished before, that the mind is in potentiality somehow the intelligible objects but in actuality nothing until it thinks. Thus it must be just as in a tablet in which nothing exists in actuality written down, which occurs in the case of the mind” (Polansky, 2007, pp. 453).

To the issue under discussion it is less relevant where John Locke found his basic principles, as it is more important that the theory under debate has a certain type of educational echoes, in the most direct manner possible. If at birth the child’s mind is devoid of any ideas, then the educator has a major role in shaping the personality of his pupil, whom he has to transform into a model of behaviour, training him step by step to face the demands of real life to the best of his abilities.

To investigate the opinions of the English philosopher our focus lies first on his work “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1692), a “treatise” on the education of a gentleman which one may place among the most important books on the philosophy of education in the Modern Age. The child is educated under the auspices of moral values to do good and avoid evil; or in forming moral conduct the educator cannot consider some alleged moral dispositions that the youngster may possess, i.e. a certain natural tendency towards good that would somehow be part of the educated “hereditary” endowments, as it were. The pedagogue has to build the child’s moral profile from scratch, to make him adapt to the demands of social life, searching for the best way to harmonise his interests to the interests of the community he lives in.

This may only happen to the extent in which the adult is conversant with the child’s psychology and his peculiar nature, as well as human nature in general. In the good old Protestant tradition, John Locke evinces the importance of discipline in human life and as a means of shaping human personality: education is supposed to shape mainly because the young being is malleable. Parents are urged to prove moderation in showing their love for the young ones, as John Locke favours the rational control of parental affection: a parent who loves his child wisely does not love the child’s mistakes, and thus does not allow him to overtly display rebellion. In fact, Locke reproves the indulgence shown by many adults where their offspring are concerned: “The great mistake I have observed in people’s breeding their children has been, that this has not been taken care enough of in its due season; that the mind has not been made obedient to rules, and pliant to reason, when at first it was most tender, most easy to be bowed. Parents being wisely ordained by nature to love their children, are very apt, if reason watch not that natural affection very warily; are apt I say, to let it run into fondness. They love their little ones […]: but they often with them cherish their faults too. They must not be crossed, forsooth; they must be permitted to have their wills in all things; and they being in their infancies not capable of great vices, their parents think they may safely enough indulge their little irregularities, and make themselves sport with that pretty perverseness, which they think well enough becomes that innocent age” (Adamson, 1922, pp. 28-29; Morère, 2005; Lurbe, 2006).

The stress laid on discipline and submission is an important element in the whole discourse of the Reformation spirituality, from Luther and Calvin to Immanuel Kant: the German philosopher, if one were to discuss only him, considers that man is the only being who needs education and may be educated, discipline being an indispensable and defining element in the development of our personality: discipline makes man what he is, humanizes him by determining him to dominate his animal impulses (Zöller & Louden, 2007, pp. 437; Sullivan, 1989, pp. 293).

Unlike the animal, who needs food, warmth and protection to grow and mature, man also requires care, and this supplementary need sets him apart from all the other living beings. Or, it is also John Locke’s vision that parents and teachers are called to take note of the peculiar nature of man: any treatise of pedagogy or philosophy of education is also intrinsically a treatise of anthropology.

It would be virtually impossible to accurately grasp the English philosopher’s perception of the pedagogical act without the accurate comprehension of his epistemology centred around the rejection of innate ideas. To get the accurate picture of the manner in which John Locke sees the role of education in modelling human manners it is not enough to have a careful reading of his work “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”: Locke also makes some interesting assertions in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. Thus, he refuses to admit that an individual at the beginning of his life would possess any sort of intuitive or spontaneous knowledge of the fundamental moral values, hence the educator has the noble and arduous task of building a second nature in man, making him a noble superior being. In the mind there are no innate (original) principles or primary notions — this idea was supported by Locke with arguments that are also relevant to his pedagogical doctrine: “For, first, it is evident, that all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them. And the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent which must needs be the necessary concomitant of all innate truths: it seeming to me near a 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 certain truths to be perceived. For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind’s perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible” (Locke, 1894, pp. 40).



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