John Locke (1632-1704) is an English philosopher from the United Kingdom whose theories contributed greatly to the age of enlightenment. He contributed to the social contract theory and also famously developed the theory of mind, revolving around the concept of ‘tabula rasa’ which meant that when born,one’s mind is a blank slate. He is most recognized for his successful theory on ‘Two treatises of Government’, however I will be discussing his essay on the theory concerning human understanding.

  • Notes


“Since it is the understanding that sets man above all other animals and enables him to use and dominate them, it is certainly worth our while to enquire into it.”

  • The essay’s purpose is for the reader to understand human understanding by inquiring into the origin, certainty the extent of human knowledge and the degrees of belief and opinion.
  • Biological aspects of the mind and understanding are irrelevant in this essay, only considering the human’s ability to think various contradicting and conflicting opinions.
  • Why are we so confident that our opinions are right without certain knowledge? How does an idea come into the mind? How does understanding come to be equipped with ideas and notions that a man observes and is conscious of having in his mind? How secure and self evident is the knowledge that makes one understand ideas? Why is Frankenstein so confident that he has truly learnt the secret of the nature of life from death when he doesn’t truly understand it? How does this idea come into his mind because of a bolt of lightning and how does understanding and self evidence of this idea come to be equipped with Victor’s mind?
  • Locke wishes to persuade the busy mind of man “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.” The essay warns those who wish to learn more than their power can understand, relating to Victor in that he has crossed this limit of knowledge and being ignorant of his reaching beyond human capability.
  • Locke wishes for man to stop pretending we know everything, be less bold in raising questions and getting into confused disputes with others in which we defend opinions we have no distinct perception or understanding of. For man to rest content with knowing only what our human condition enables us to know. Victor is well educated, wishing to be portrayed as higher and gain more knowledge than others who dispute with him when in reality by crossing the limit of knowledge he becomes more isolated and lower value than others who rest with the knowledge that the human condition enables us to do. 
  • “Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.”
  • “My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention.”
  • ” 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.”
  • We should learn to discover how far our knowledge extends, illuminate the things we can understand and leave what we can’t understand in the dark. “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 quote means that you cannot understand everything and that one should know how far human knowledge can reach, there is a limit that shouldn’t be crossed. Victor has a desperate drive to relinquish his thirst for knowledge, attempting to illuminate what should remain in the dark. He doesn’t know how long his line is, that it cannot travel the depths of the ocean and that he cannot understand what his line cannot reach.
  • “I was capable of a more intense application and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.”
  • ” 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.”

Body 1: No innate ‘speculative’ principles

  • Locke believes the following statement is false. “We enter existence with certain innate principles, letters printed on the mind of man.” All of mankind hasn’t agreed on certain moral and non-moral principles which should be followed. The creature isn’t born with bad intentions and innate morals to bring destruction onto others and develops them through experiences and by observing others. He learns what is immoral (murder and trespassing) and what is moral (help others and gain knowledge and understanding through experience and reason).
  • Children and idiots don’t follow these innate principles, having no thought or understanding. If imprinted principles were innate in infants and children, it would mean that they cannot be ignorant, they are already understanding, knowing and assenting to the truth of these principles… which is far from the case. The creature is born with similar experiences as a developing child would as he has a blank slate and must learn and understand through experience. He isn’t born with innate principles had to be followed, children, who have not thought, understanding or reason, cannot be ignorant and must understand and assent to the truth of these principles. The creature has no understanding of right from wrong, not being able to 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. This therefore proves that there aren’t innate principles as Locke has discussed.
  • “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.”
  • Certain innate truths aren’t known or assent to at precisely the same time when men acquire the use of reason. Though truth can only arise in one’s mind with the use of reason (reason meaning the ability to form general abstract ideas, understand general words and to be capable of rational conversation.) The creature doesn’t have the ability to reason at the beginning of his existence and therefore cannot come to common ground with Victor until later in the novel, when he learns how to form general ideas and understand words by observing the De-Lacey cottage.
  • “Other lessons were impressed upon me even more deeply. I heard of the difference of sexes, and the birth and growth of children, how the father doted on the smiles of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older child, how all the life and cares of the mother were wrapped up in the precious charge, how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge, of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds.”
  • There are natural tendencies imprinted in the mind eg. like and dislike things and have a curious nature Like most animals on earth, humans are born with the innate tendency to ‘fight or flight’ when danger is near, the monster expressing this tendency when attacked by the villagers, choosing to flee as opposed to fighting and sticking up for himself.

Body 2: No innate ‘practical’ principles

  • If moral rules were innate, how could man confidently break them (through robberies, murders, rapes and abandoning of children to the fields of wild beasts to starve) just because they aren’t threatened by punishment and censure. Though moral principles are accepted by criminals, they are confidently broken, proving that innate moral principles don’t exist as they wouldn’t be able to be broken. To further expand on this, this idea can be related to religion, since if there were innate principles set by god when man is introduced into existence, then the idea of god or a creator would also have to be innate, as there must be fear of punishment for breaking these rules, god having the power to punish man. If innate morals did exist, Victor would be fearful for breaking these innate morals as he would innately know that punishment would follow. Victor, therefore, has no innate morals, not being fearful of punishment whilst breaking society’s morals that you shouldn’t meddle with nature.


  • Use a variety of sentence starters and types of sentences in order to vary the essay’s structure.
  • Take out certain parts that aren’t necessary or take away the quality of the piece to create a more concise essay.
  • Split paragraphs into two to separate ideas.
  • Use a variety of language features effectively. – Analogy, alliteration, emotive language, hyperbole, imperative, jargon, metaphor, onomatopoeia, paradox, personification, rhyme, simile, juxtaposition, assonance.

Respond now!

About Lucas

"Writing gives you freedom to create your own world, your rules, your characters and your imagination"