Literature Study GuidesAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

John Locke

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John Locke

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At a Glance

John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding is an attempt to answer some basic yet profound questions concerning the human mind. Where do ideas come from? How do we know what we know? What is the difference between knowledge and belief? In four books of dense, detailed argumentative prose, Locke develops a theory of the human mind to address these fundamental issues. He famously describes the mind as a blank slate that accumulates ideas through experience, then tests and arranges them through reasoning and reflection. Although some of the Essay's central tenets have been challenged by modern research in psychology and linguistics, Locke's work remains impressive both for its scope and for its vivid, often surprising examples and analogies. Together with the Principles of Philosophy (1644), the masterwork of Locke's French predecessor René Descartes, the Essay is often seen as laying the groundwork for the modern philosophy of the mind. Locke's treatise is also important for the light it sheds on the interplay among philosophy, religion, and politics in 17th-century Britain.

About the Title

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke examines various popular and scholarly beliefs regarding knowledge—how it is obtained, how far it reaches, and how much we can trust our own understanding. The human mind, he argues, does not bring any ideas of its own into the world at birth. Instead, it is like a blank slate on which knowledge is gradually imprinted through experience.


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