“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, us humans shouldn’t cross the limit of acquired knowledge informing that the books we write have a limited supply of pages. Also importantly presented in his essay is the idea that knowledge and principles aren’t innate at birth and are acquired through experience. Once introduced into existence he suggests that 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, improve our understanding of these established ideas. Mary Shelley reflects Locke’s theories and concepts in her novel ‘Frankenstein’, reflecting on the idea that there is a limit of acquired knowledge to the novel’s morals. Primary protagonist Victor crosses this limit of acquired knowledge by discovering the secrets of nature and suffers the consequences as a result of his mishaps. Through Victor, us readers learn the moral of accepting that we can’t be greater than our human condition allows. Another theory of Locke’s reflected in Shelley’s novel is the concept of knowledge and principles gained through experience, not being innate at birth. Showcasing this concept is 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. Within this essay, I will be explaining the ideas that Locke has established in his essay and how Shelley has reflected these ideas in her novel ‘Frankenstein’.
One of the purposes of Locke’s essay is us readers to understand that there is a limit of acquired 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 us readers that we should understand the knowledge surrounding ideas already acquired and be satisfied with knowing that we 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 using the analogy “… 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” he enables us readers to understand the limitations of acquired knowledge. By comparing the limited acquirement of knowledge to a fishing line in an ocean, he insists that we should know the capability of our fishing lines and realise that it cannot reach the depths of the oceans of knowledge.
Shelley implements this concept of acquired knowledge having a limit 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 Victor suffering terrible consequences, the world pushing the balance of his life. Awareness of his ignorance towards this limit of acquired knowledge 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 can 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. Not chasing this acquirement of knowledge and satisfying his tendency to be ” deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge “, means he wouldn’t have crossed this limit that his human frame cannot allow and as a result, Victor would be much happier, without the dangerous threat of negative repercussions. 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.” Clearly desiring to break past the designated boundaries of human knowledge, he ignores the concepts which Locke has implemented in his essay. Certain traits are held by Victor which Locke believes us humans should veer from holding, Victor, therefore, being a direct contradiction of Locke’s desired human being. Victor also believes this deluded reality that by breaking through this limit of knowledge and sourcing newfound discoveries, he will be portrayed in society as higher than us rudimentary beings. This fathomed fallacy he falsely holds, in reality, occurring in opposite effect to his foolish prediction. Through using Victor Frankenstein as an example of someone who has ignorantly and wrongly crossed this limit of acquired knowledge, Shelley, therefore, demonstrates that there is a limit of acquired 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, only acquired through experience and understood when one has the ability to reason. Locke 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 any 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 be understood and assented to. Because they cannot understand these principles, not having the ability to reason, the concept of innate principles, in my opinion, is far from the case.
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.” Similarly, children fixate on surrounding people and objects with pleasure just like how the creature is fixated on the moon. Shelley, therefore, parallels the creature’s early discoveries and undeveloped mentality to a child’s early stages. Without being created with innate principles which had to be followed, just like children, the creature has no thought, understanding or use of reason and is initially ignorant and not assented to the truth of these principles. Due to initially having no understanding of right from wrong – not being able to reason – the creature cannot 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. Having a blank slate the creature isn’t born with bad intentions and a principal goal to bring destruction on others. Instead, he comes to grasp this principle and assent to it through his awful encounters with human society. Locke, however, does agree that humans are born with innate instinctual (fight or flight) and curious tendencies. These innate tendencies apply to the creature 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, by implementing these ideas to the creature, reflects on the idea that there aren’t innate principles as Locke has discussed, 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 to 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. Also explained is 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. I agree with Locke’s established ideas, him successfully persuading me to believe his opinions, and admire how Shelley effectively implements these ideas in her novel.