“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”
Above is a quote is from John Locke, an English philosopher and one of the most influential ‘enlightenment thinkers’. Emphasized in his essay ‘Concerning Human Understanding’ is the exploration and understanding of the acquisition of knowledge. According to Locke, no man should cross the limit that the human frame can acquire knowledge informing that the books we write have a limited supply of pages. More importantly presented in the essay is the idea that knowledge and principles aren’t innate at birth and are acquired through experience. He suggests that when introduced into existence our pages are blank – ‘tabula rasa’ – and that we initially have nothing to guide us with what we write and how we write it. Through experience and by being educated with what is morally correct we then are able to fill these pages, to flick through and read over them and therefore improving our understanding of these established ideas. Mary Shelley applies Locke’s theories and concepts to her novel ‘Frankenstein’, reflecting on the idea that there is a limit of knowledge to the morals of the novel. She applies this concept to Victor, who crosses this limit of knowledge by discovering the secrets of nature and suffers the consequences as a result of his mishaps. Mary Shelley also applies another of Locke’s theories and concepts to her novel, reflecting the idea of knowledge through experience and that knowledge and principles aren’t innate. She applies this concept to the creature, who as opposed to being introduced into existence with knowledge and principles gains them through experience, observing others to gain knowledge and developing principles based on how he perceives the world that has treated him so poorly. In this essay, I will be reflecting on the ideas that Locke has established in his essay and how Shelley has applied these ideas into her novel ‘Frankenstein’.
One of the purposes of Locke’s essay is for the reader to understand that there is a limit to the acquirement of knowledge, “to be more cautious in meddling with things that are beyond its powers to understand… to stop… at the extreme end of its tether… to be peacefully reconciled to the ignorance of things that turn out to be beyond the reach of our capabilities.” Locke tries to persuade the reader that they should understand the knowledge surrounding ideas already acquired and be satisfied with knowing that one cannot obtain knowledge which the human frame doesn’t allow. Those who are so certain that the knowledge they’ve acquired is correct are the kind that Locke detests. By effectively uses analogy in order for the reader to understand the limit of knowledge stating that “… it is useful for the sailor to know how long his line is, even though it is to fathom all the depths of the ocean.”. This analogy compares knowledge to the ocean and the human consumption of knowledge to a fisherman’s fishing line, insisting that a sailor should know the limit that his fishing line (human capabilities) can reach and know that it cannot reach the depths of the ocean (sea of knowledge).
Shelley implements this concept to the protagonist Victor, in that he has pushed the balance of the world by gaining knowledge of nature’s darkest secrets -by creating life from death- and as a result the world pushes the balance of his world, Victor suffering terrible consequences. Victor is aware of his ignorance towards this limit to knowledge and this is shown from both his decision to conceal himself from the watchful eyes of society and by warning Walton that he should “… learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” By trying to illuminate this idea that life an be created from death he is meddling with the world’s balance, endangering himself and the lives of others by aspiring to be greater than his nature allows. He understands that if he weren’t to chase this acquirement of knowledge and satisfy his tendency to be ” deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge “, he wouldn’t have crossed this limit that his human frame cannot allow and as a result would be happier, without the dangerous threat of negative repercussions. Victors perception of his quest for the acquirement of knowledge is clearly displayed when he claims that “… life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” He clearly desires to break past the designated boundaries of human knowledge, ignoring the concepts which Locke has implemented in his essay. By holding traits which Locke believes no man should hold, Victor is a direct contradicting disposition to Locke’s desired human being. Victor also believes this deluded unreality that by breaking through this limit of knowledge and sourcing newfound discoveries, he will be portrayed in society as higher than rudimentary beings. This fathomed fallacy he falsely holds, in reality, occurs in opposite effect to his foolish prediction. By using Victor Frankenstein as an example of a human who has ignorantly and wrongly crossed the limit to knowledge, Shelley therefore demonstrates that there is a limit to knowledge which no man should cross.
Another purpose of Locke’s essay is for the reader to understand that knowledge and principles aren’t innate at birth and that they’re acquired through experience, only being understood when one has the ability to reason. Locke therefore opposes against the belief of naturists who claim knowledge, skills and principles are innate and therefore chooses to side with the environmentalists in the nature vs nurture debate. By agreeing with the concept of ‘tabula rasa’ Locke disapproves with the naturism statement that “we enter existence with certain innate principles, letters printed on the mind of man.” This naturism concept of imprinted principles would mean that the coding of humanity is predetermined by a ‘god’ like entity and that we all function robotically and mustn’t operate against this imprinted manual for fear of this ‘god’s’ punishment, this, in his opinion not being the case. He battles with the concept of innate principles through evidencing concepts such as children not having innate principles because they have no thought or ability to reason and understand these beliefs. Locke enforces his opinion on innate principles by evidencing that “children and idiots have no thought—not an inkling—of these principles … if children and idiots have souls, minds, with those principles imprinted on them, they can’t help perceiving them and assenting to them. Since they don’t do that, it is evident that the principles are not innately impressed upon their minds.” In Locke’s eyes children and idiots are proof that principles aren’t innate because if they were, they cannot be ignored, must be already understood and assented to, which is far from the case because they cannot understand these principles because they don’t have the ability to reason.
Shelley implements this idea to the creature in that he is born with similar experiences as a developing child would as he has a blank slate and must learn and understand through experience. This child like mentality is shown when the creature mentions ” I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me; the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes on that with pleasure.” This is similar to a child’s early discoveries and undeveloped mentality, children being fixated on surrounding objects and people with pleasure just like how the creature is fixated on the moon. The creature isn’t born with innate principles which had to be followed and just like children, who have no thought, understanding or use of reason, he is initially ignorant and not assented to the truth of these principles. The creature initially has no understanding of right from wrong, not being able to reason and therefore understand the non-morals (ugliness is a sin and deformity isn’t accepted) and morals (you cannot just inhabit one’s dwelling if they have fled as this is stealing and trespassing) developed by society. The monster also isn’t born with bad intentions and a principle goal to bring destruction on others, he comes to grasp this principle and assent to it through his awful experiences with society. Locke however does agree that humans are born with innate tendencies such as fight or flight and curiosity, Shelley applying these innate tendencies to the monster in that he flees when the villagers attack him and when the creature curiously decides that he thrust his “hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain” displaying an innate curious tendency to the creature just like a child has a curious tendency to touch a hot oven. Shelley therefore reflects on the idea that there aren’t innate principles as Locke has discussed by implementing these ideas to the creature, using Locke’s evidencing concept of children not having thought or reason to assent to principles.
To conclude I have discussed two of Locke’s key ideas that he establishes in his essay. I have discussed how Locke coveys the reader that there is a limit which the human frame can acquire knowledge and that humans aren’t introduced into existence with innate principles. I have also explained how Shelley has implemented these ideas in her novel ‘Frankenstein’ in that Victor has crossed this limit of the acquirement of knowledge and that the creature isn’t born with the ability to reason and understand the truth of these principles, having a child like mentality. In my opinion I agree with Locke’s established ideas and admire how Shelley effectively implements these ideas into her novel.