Essay Concerning Human Understanding Apush

Not to be confused with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Title page of the first edition

AuthorJohn Locke

Publication date

(dated 1690)

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a work by John Locke concerning the foundation of human knowledge and understanding. It first appeared in 1689 (although dated 1690) with the printed title An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa, although he did not use those actual words) filled later through experience. The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influenced many enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley.

Book I of the Essay is Locke's attempt to refute the rationalist notion of innate ideas. Book II sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the secondary qualities that are "powers to produce various sensations in us"[1] such as "red" and "sweet." These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities. He also offers a theory of personal identity, offering a largely psychological criterion. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith, and opinion.

Book I[edit]

The main thesis is that there are "No Innate Principles", by this reasoning:

If we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them

and that "by degrees afterward, ideas come into their minds."[2] Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on nativism or the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting in the womb: for instance, differences between colours or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.[3]

One of Locke's fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there is no truth to which all people attest. He took the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truth, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions.[4]

Book II[edit]

Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – "the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got".

Furthermore, Book II is also a systematic argument for the existence of an intelligent being: "Thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth, that there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not!"

Book III[edit]

Book 3 focuses on words. Locke connects words to the ideas they signify, claiming that man is unique in being able to frame sounds into distinct words and to signify ideas by those words, and then that these words are built into language.

Chapter ten in this book focuses on "Abuse of Words." Here, Locke criticizes metaphysicians for making up new words that have no clear meaning. He also criticizes the use of words which are not linked to clear ideas, and to those who change the criteria or meaning underlying a term.

Thus he uses a discussion of language to demonstrate sloppy thinking. Locke followed the Port-Royal Logique (1662)[5] in numbering among the abuses of language those that he calls "affected obscurity" in chapter 10. Locke complains that such obscurity is caused by, for example, philosophers who, to confuse their readers, invoke old terms and give them unexpected meanings or who construct new terms without clearly defining their intent. Writers may also invent such obfuscation to make themselves appear more educated or their ideas more complicated and nuanced or erudite than they actually are.

Book IV[edit]

This book focuses on knowledge in general – that it can be thought of as the sum of ideas and perceptions. Locke discusses the limit of human knowledge, and whether knowledge can be said to be accurate or truthful.

Thus there is a distinction between what an individual might claim to "know", as part of a system of knowledge, and whether or not that claimed knowledge is actual. For example, Locke writes at the beginning of Chap. IV (Of the Reality of Knowledge): "I doubt not my Reader by this Time may be apt to think that I have been all this while only building a Castle in the Air; and be ready to say to me, To what purpose all of this stir? Knowledge, say you, is only the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our own Ideas: but who knows what those Ideas may be? ... But of what use is all this fine Knowledge of Man's own Imaginations, to a Man that enquires after the reality of things? It matters now that Mens Fancies are, 'tis the Knowledge of Things that is only to be priz'd; 'tis this alone gives a Value to our Reasonings, and Preference to one Man's Knowledge over another's, that is of Things as they really are, and of Dreams and Fancies."

In the last chapter of the book, Locke introduces the major classification of sciences into physics, semiotics, and ethics.

Reaction, response, and influence[edit]

Many of Locke's views were sharply criticized by rationalists and empiricists alike. In 1704 the rationalist Gottfried Leibniz wrote a response to Locke's work in the form of a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal, the Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain ("New Essays on Human Understanding"). Leibniz was critical of a number of Locke's views in the Essay, including his rejection of innate ideas, his skepticism about species classification, and the possibility that matter might think, among other things. Leibniz thought that Locke's commitment to ideas of reflection in the Essay ultimately made him incapable of escaping the nativist position or being consistent in his empiricist doctrines of the mind's passivity. The empiricist George Berkeley was equally critical of Locke's views in the Essay. Berkeley's most notable criticisms of Locke were first published in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Berkeley held that Locke's conception of abstract ideas was incoherent and led to severe contradictions. He also argued that Locke's conception of material substance was unintelligible, a view which he also later advanced in the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. At the same time, Locke's work provided crucial groundwork for future empiricists such as David Hume. John Wynne published An Abridgment of Mr. Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, with Locke's approval, in 1696. Louisa Capper wrote An Abridgment of Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, published in 1811.

See also[edit]



  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. 1st ed. 1 vols. London: Thomas Bassett, 1690.
  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.
  • Locke, John. Works, Vol 1. London: Taylor, 1722.
  • Clapp, James Gordon. "John Locke." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
  • Uzgalis, William. "John Locke." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 22 July 2007.
  • Ayers, Michael. Locke: Epistemology and Ontology. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Bennett, Jonathan. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
  • Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Fox, Christopher. Locke and the Scriblerians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Jolley, Nicholas. Locke: His Philosophical Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Lowe, E.J. Locke on Human Understanding. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Yolton, John. John Locke and the Way of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.
  • Yolton, John. John Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

External links[edit]

  1. ^Essay, II, viii, 10
  2. ^Essay, I, iii, 2.
  3. ^Essay, I, ii, 15.
  4. ^Essay, I, iv, 3.
  5. ^Arnauld, Antoine; Nicole, Pierre (1662). La logique ou l'Art de penser. Paris: Jean Guignart, Charles Savreux, & Jean de Lavnay. . See part 1, chapter 13, Observations importantes touchant la définition des noms.


The AP US History Exam

The APUSH exam is divided into four parts:  multiple choice, short answer (SAQs), document-based question (DBQ) and long essay question (LEQ).
On the essay portion of the AP US History exam, you will have 90 minutes to write two essays:
The period from 1607-1754 focuses primarily on the development of the Thirteen Colonies.  Check out my review of the Thirteen Colonies, a period summary from Jocz Productions, and a short introduction to Deism, the religion of the Enlightenment.
I have divided review videos for this period into domestic policy (Progressive Era, 1920s, Great Depression) and foreign policy (Imperialism, World War I, Interwar Period, WWII).
Welcome to my APUSH Review page!  The AP US History exam is a complex exam that tests students' content knowledge as well as their command of historical thinking skills.  Preparation for this exam is key both in terms of both reviewing content and understanding the mechanics of the exam.
The multiple choice section will account for 40% of your exam score.  You will have 55 minutes to answer 55 stimulus-based questions.  For some tips for conquering the APUSH multiple choice questions, check out my guide to AP history multiple choice questions:

Multiple Choice Questions


The short answer (SAQ) section will account for 20% of your exam score.  You will have 50 minutes to answer 4 short answer questions that are each divided into 2-3 distinct tasks.  Check out my guide for the APUSH SAQ section:

Short Answer Questions (SAQ)


The document-based question (DBQ) is the second most important part of the APUSH exam, weighing in at 25% of your total score.  You will be given seven documents to analyze and will be expected to write a thesis-driven essay using evidence from the documents and your knowledge of US History.  

The DBQ is graded based on a seven point rubric that I explain in detail in my video series on the APUSH DBQ:

Document-Based Question (DBQ)


The long essay question (LEQ) section will account for 15% of your exam score.  You will have a choice between two questions that address the same historical thinking skill.
The LEQ is graded based on a six point rubric with slightly different criteria depending on the thinking skill.

​My fellow APUSH teacher, Daniel Jocz, explains the rubric in this video:

Long Essay Question (LEQ)

15% Learnerator) is a great resource for students who are preparing for the multiple choice section of the APUSH exam.

CLICK THE LOGO to visit the APUSH review page at  Use the code RICHEY-FANS in order to get discount pricing on any order you make.

APUSH Period Reviews

I think that labeling historical periods with a number is diabolical, but when in Rome...

Meet Our Contributors

Many thanks to the teachers whose work has made this review experience possible!

1. Encounter, Exploration, and Early Settlement

The so called APUSH Period 1

Native American Cultures (1491-1607)

The new APUSH exam places greater emphasis than before on the period before the settlement of Jamestown.  My lecture on Native American cultures is helpful in examining the cultures of the major tribal groups that dominated North America prior to European settlement.

Colonial Encounters Series

I've posted video lectures on New Spain, New France, New Netherland, and the Thirteen colonies for students seeking to review the history of the earliest European settlements in North America.

2. Colonial America (1607-1754)

The so called APUSH Period 2

Period Summary by JoczProductions

Colonial Society and Economy

I break down the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies and HipHughes explains the Triangular Trade!

Religious and Intellectual Movements

The First Great Awakening was a religious revival that swept through the English speaking world in the mid-18th century.  Click the button below for a helpful "Need to Know" handout!
Not everyone in late Colonial America was swept up by the religious revival.  Some gravitated more toward the rationality of the Enlightenment.  Deism was a rational approach to religious thought that rejected "revealed religions" based on divine revelation through sacred texts, focusing on what is apparent about God through experience.

3. American Revolution & Early National America

The so called APUSH Period 3
The so-called APUSH Period 3 encompasses a period of nearly fifty years in which Americans resisted British taxation policies, won their independence, and created a new nation.  Here are some videos that may be helpful while reviewing.

4. The Age of Jefferson and Jackson (1800-1848)

The so called APUSH Period 4
The so called APUSH Period 4 encompasses several decades between the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 through the Age of Jackson and antebellum reform.

There is A LOT of material here and for students preparing for the exam, here are a few snapshots that will help students get a feel for the key events of the so called Period 4.

The Jefferson Years

These video lectures by HipHughes (and one VINTAGE lecture by me) highlight some of the key events of Thomas Jefferson's presidency:  the Election of 1800, the Marshall Court, and the Louisiana Purchase.

Foreign Relations (1800-1848)

These video lectures on Jefferson's Embargo (Tom Richey), the War of 1812 (HipHughes), and the Monroe Doctrine (JoczProductions) highlight the key foreign policy landmarks of the so called Period 4.

The Missouri Compromise

The Missouri Compromise was a key turning point in US History since it marks the first time that the expansion of slavery was debated as a contentious issue in Congress.  My two part lecture, as well as a collaborative rap video that I did with MrBettsClass, will be helpful in understanding the politics behind the Missouri Compromise as well as Jefferson's reaction to the debate and his bleak forecast for the young nation's future.

Andrew Jackson and the Second Party System

These videos on Jacksonian Democracy, the Second Party System, and the Nullification Crisis address the major political controversies of the Jacksonian period.

Antebellum Reform

These videos will give you a brief introduction to antebellum reform movements, including the Second Great Awakening, abolitionism, and the Seneca Falls Convention.

5. The Civil War and Reconstruction (1844-1877)

The so called APUSH Period 5
The Civil War and Reconstruction represents the halfway point of the AP US History course.  I have collected resources that will help students review the causes of the Civil War, the key events and turning points of the Civil War, and the Reconstruction years.

Causes of the Civil War

I have created an outline with notes on various causes of the Civil War that have been advanced by historians over the years.

The Road to Civil War

The Civil War

HipHughes and I explain three of the highlights of the Civil War:  the election of 1860, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address.


To get a great review of Reconstruction, check out these videos by my friend, HipHughes!

6. The Gilded Age (1865-1898)

The so called APUSH Period 6
The so called period 6 largely addresses the rise of American industry.

The Rise of American Industry

Here are a few short videos on the rise of American industry:

The Populist Movement

Check out these videos on Populism and the 1896 election by HipHughes!

7. The Early 20th Century (1890-1945)

The so called APUSH Period 7

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