112. Some Thoughts on John Locke’s Theory of Mind and Education

John Locke (1632-1704), in Book II of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) writes:

“Our observation employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected upon by ourselves, is that which supplies our understanding with all the materials for thinking. These two are the fountains of our knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.” (2.2.2)

This passage shows that John Locke was an empiricist or someone who thinks all knowledge must be directly or indirectly derived from sense experience. Unlike philosophers committed to rationalism, Locke argued there are no innate ideas or ideas present in the mind from birth. Ideas come only after we engage in sense experience and reflect on that experience. Locke did think there are innate faculties—such as understanding and memory—as well as personality dispositions. Some of these dispositions of character even come from God as this passage from Some Thoughts Concerning Education makes clear: “God has stamped certain characters upon men’s minds, which, like their shapes, may perhaps be a little mended; but can hardly be totally altered and transformed into the contrary” (para. 66). But in the Essay Locke argues that at birth our mind is like a sheet of white paper (2.1.2) or an empty cabinet (1.2.15) as far as ideas are concerned. This is not to say that all ideas come ready made into the mind. Locke certainly makes room, contrary to what some commentators have said, for the powers of imagination and creativity in his philosophy of mind: without these powers we couldn’t manipulate the simple ideas given in sense perception and form complex ideas out of them. But it is to say that all the elements of our ideas ultimately originate in sense perception. This, of course, calls to mind the famous, or perhaps infamous, “tabula rasa” doctrine—the doctrine of the mind as a blank slate. But it is imperative to note that Locke didn’t actually use the phrase ‘tabula rasa’ in his Essay; it has been attributed to him by critics going as far back as G. W. Leibniz. And, unfortunately, the doctrine typically attributed to Locke states that the mind is without structure, dispositions, and essential nature—and this, as we have seen, is simply false. Nonetheless, there are implications of Locke’s understanding of the mind which should be critically assessed. Let me briefly explore some connected to education and politics.

Locke’s theory of mind and its close connection with his empirical epistemology can have profound pedagogical consequences. Consider this passage from paragraph 167 of Some Thoughts Concerning Education: “It should therefore be the skill and art of the teacher, to clear their heads of other thoughts, whilst they are learning of anything, the better to make room for what he would instill into them, that it may be received with attention and application, without which it leaves no impression.” And: “Keep the mind in an easy calm temper, when you will have it receive your instructions, or any increase of knowledge. It is as impossible to draw fair and regular characters on a trembling mind, as on shaking paper.” At one point Locke actually refers to his pupil as a piece of paper or wax: “I considered [the son] only as white paper, or wax, to be molded and fashioned as one pleases” (para. 216). In the Essay a connection between passivity and simple ideas is made that illuminates these passages. Locke claims that a simple idea is one “in itself uncompounded, contains in it nothing but one uniform Appearance, or Conception in the Mind, and is not distinguishable into different Ideas (2.2.2). And, importantly, the mind “is wholly passive in the reception of all its simple Ideas” (2.12.1). So we see that learning, given this model of the mind in relation to its acquisition of simple ideas, will be most successful when the paper is clean, the wax is smooth, and the cabinet is empty. Only then can the educator instill simple ideas into the pupil’s passive mind leaving a lasting impression.

Now this approach may be appropriate in certain circumstances. But can this model of the active educator stamping the passive mind of a pupil be embraced as a general principle of acquiring ideas? Well, Locke, as an empiricist, supported the effort to see each student as a particular individual with various unique and innate traits. And his theory of the mind, as we have seen, does make room for the mind’s activity as it forms complex ideas and applies what it learns. Locke was all for active experimentation, investigation, and criticism—he was not advocating a general passivity in his pedagogical theory. But it appears that his descriptions of the mind fail to do justice to the mind’s active role in acquiring simple ideas. By way of contrast, consider this passage from John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) in which Dewey presents the “educational moral” of ideas as anticipations of possible solutions:

“It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets is not an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think.”

Here we see that the acquisition of any idea is the outcome of an active and problematic engagement with materials. For Dewey, the mind is active in the acquisition of facts. But it must be all the more active if it is to acquire an idea based on these facts. The pupil’s active engagement is the condition for the possibility of an educator indirectly facilitating the grasp of a new idea. If the basic thrust of Dewey’s vision is correct—or at least correct in some important cases—then Locke’s pedagogical strategies may prove inconsistent with theories of the mind that stress the active acquisition of ideas—even simple ideas.

We can also argue, as Paulo Freire has done in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)that a pedagogy emphasizing the active acquisition of ideas would prove fruitful in ways consistent with Locke’s social and political commitments. Wouldn’t this kind of pedagogy have positive political consequences? Locke, of course, was an eloquent and influential supporter of democracy. But at times it can be difficult to reconcile a pedagogy that makes room for minds as passive receptacles with the critical involvement so integral to a thriving democratic society. Wouldn’t this form of passive reception, over the years, develop habits more conducive to obeying authority than questioning it? And wouldn’t these habits then thwart the rational development of children?

At the very least, this overview should help us see the importance of thinking hard about how philosophical theories of the mind, knowledge, education, and politics connect and inform one another. A radical misunderstanding in our conception of the mind can lead to radical misunderstandings as far as education is concerned; and these misunderstandings can have far-reaching political consequences.

For my series that compares and contrasts the pedagogies of Socrates and John Dewey, go here. For my series on solitude and education, go here. For my thoughts on aesthetics and education, go here.

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