Locke and Leibniz: The Innateness Debate

Dissertation, Rice University (1991)

One fundamental difference between the epistemic views of Locke and Leibniz as represented in Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding concerns the issue of innate ideas and knowledge. In countering Locke's arguments that innate ideas and/or knowledge are neither necessary nor even possible, Leibniz offers a defense of the doctrine which evidently presumes that Locke's objections are the result of a misapprehension. Once properly understood, Leibniz suggests, the doctrine of innateness reveals itself to be not only reasonable but indeed absolutely necessary to accounting for our knowledge. ;Leibniz's arguments are not, however, as compelling as he would perhaps like; indeed, certain critics have argued that due to the manner in which he expresses his views--as separate responses to each of Locke's objections, rather than as straight treatise--Leibniz fails to display a coherent theory of his own. The complexity of Leibniz's views and their ties to his metaphysics render their case against him even stronger. Contrary to the views of these critics, there does exist in Leibniz's thought a coherent theory of innateness. Leibniz's innate speculative truths, with which critics have generally been concerned, are explicated in terms of reflection upon the enduring properties of the soul. There also exists in Leibniz's system an analogous realm of innate moral knowledge, which is also worked out in terms of reflection. This interpretation of Leibniz's theory makes possible a meaningful comparison between his views and those of Locke. The substantial differences between the two systems can be traced to differences in the epistemic questions with which they were concerned. While Locke is concerned with explaining the psychological apprehension of truth, Leibniz's focus is with truth's ontological structure
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