Are There Any Innate Ideas?

This week in the Great Books Project, I finally broke down and scheduled Adam Smith. Are you ready to learn some economics?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Shipman’s Tale” through “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (GBWW Vol. 19, pp. 338-368)
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 275-280)
  3. Of Custom, and not Easily Changing an Established Law” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 97-105)
  4. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Introduction and Book I, Chapters 1-9 (GBWW Vol. 36, pp. 1-48)
  5. Optics by Isaac Newton, Book Three, Part I, Introduction (GBWW Vol. 32, pp. 507-516)
  6. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Book II, Chapters 1-13 (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 121-155)

We are almost finished with Newton, but we’ll be in the rest of these works for several more weeks. I hope you’re getting something out of them.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Cook’s Prologue” through “The Man of Law’s Tale”: The “Cook’s Tale” only runs about a page before breaking off; Chaucer never completed it. The “Man of Law’s Tale,” on the other hand, is complete and is longer than either the miller’s or reeve’s tale. This one is less well known than the others we’ve read to this point. Its theme of Christianity’s overcoming Islam and paganism are decidedly not in fashion these days. It’s a good story, though, and the divine punishment meted out to lechers on multiple occasions provides a nice contrast to the very vulgar treatment of sexuality in the two tales from last week.
  2. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book VIII: Section 44 contains a stark repudiation of the Homeric code: “Those who rather pursue posthumous fame do not consider that the men of after time will be exactly such as these whom they cannot bear now; and both are mortal. And what is it in any way to thee if these men of after time utter this or that sound, or have this or that opinion about thee?”
  3. “One Man’s Profit Is Another Man’s Harm” by Michel de Montaigne: In a short three paragraphs, Montaigne completely misconstrues the nature of trade without going so far as to condemn it. Or maybe it’s just the title of the essay that is misleading. Montaigne writes that no one would have an opportunity for profit if no one else were dissatisfied with anything. Of course, that’s not the same thing as saying that one’s profit harms another. It would be more accurate to say, “One Man’s Profit Comes from the Relief of Another’ Man’s Harm.” It’s too bad they didn’t know about marginal utility in the 16th century.
  4. state-of-nature-1A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Like other early modern political thinkers who speculated about the state of nature, and like evolutionary biologists today, Rousseau gives us an extended Just So Story about how things “must have happened” in order to give us what we have now. Of course, if any one of Rousseau’s assumptions about human nature are incorrect (and they are), it all falls flat. Did you notice his use of the term “perfectibility”?
  5. Optics by Isaac Newton, Book Two, Parts III-IV: I didn’t understand all of this, but the focus is still on color here. Newton writes that the color of objects is connected to their thickness or density, because that affects the way light is refracted through them or reflected off them. This is all in contradiction to Aristotelian and Cartesian physics. Newton also estimates the time it takes for light to travel from the sun to Earth.
  6. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Introduction and Book I: After an obsequious dedicatory epistle, Locke devotes his first book to disproving the concept of innate ideas, a notion that would no doubt dismay the creators of the popular Assassin’s Creed videogames. Seriously, it seems to me that Locke overlooks at least one obvious argue in favor of innate ideas and why they may be obscured in some people: the traditional Protestant doctrine of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Having come out of a Puritan background himself, it seems really odd that he would not try to address this line of argumentation.

Another fall semester has begun, and I’ve spent what seems like an inordinate amount of time trying to get my online classes up and running. To complicate things, we had an emergency medical situation in the faculty that required a shake-up of our original course scheduling, so I’m teaching one or two different courses from what I was expecting. Let it never be said that the college professor’s life lacks excitement!

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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2 Responses to Are There Any Innate Ideas?

  1. pnharris says:

    Locke’s argument against innate ideas is in conversation with Descartes’ maxim, “I think, therefore I am” and subsequent thoughts like “I can think of something greater than myself…. and therefore that too must exist.” Locke’s tabula rasa is an alternative starting point and not even one that contradict’s his Christianity as he later allows for the agency of the Holy Spirit to be the means of learning.

  2. Mises called it “The Montaigne Fallacy”

    I never heard of it called as such, until i read some article that claims a lot from Montainge are actually against interventionism. (I forget where but it’s from

    A few weeks ago, I got to read the essay in question. I never got the impression that he’s talking about any profit that’s gained at the expense of another. So yes, the title itself seems an exaggeration. It’s merely Person A recognizing Person B has a problem or need, and Person A profits by offering solution. In a sense, this characterizes Israel Kirzner’s view of entrepreneurship as a recognizing opportunities then creating value.

    The essay might have been problematic had Montaigne actually asserted that Person A caused Person B to have a problem (as in the case of manufacturing problems ala broken window fallacy) thereby inducing Person B to seek Person A’s services. That would be questionable!
    Even so, he had to prove that this applied in all cases.


    Leaving the context in which Montaigne wrote, “that one man’s gain is another’s loss” is an assertion that we could all relate in the modern world.

    Take the Fight Club character Tyler Durden’s quote: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

    Obviously, there’s a lot of anti-capitalistic undertones in that novel/film. Is it really the case that modern advertising is so bad that profits gained from it deserve to be characterized as someone’s loss? i don’t know how this ties to ‘conspicuous consumption’ idea, but defenders of the ideas of Liberty may have to note that the alternative may be worse than the so-called evils of capitalism.

    Sorry for the long rant, Dr. J.

    I just want to commend you for inspiring me to take the reading of the Great Books more seriously this time around.

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