Shaun A. Champagne: Leibniz on Innate Ideas

Leibniz on Innate Ideas

Shaun A. Champagne

G.W. Leibniz, in his book New Essays on Human Understanding,[1] argues for the existence of innate ideas.  In order to argue for this position, Leibniz uses the dialectical method.  Within the dialogue, Theophilus represents Leibniz (who is a rationalist), while Philalethes represents the position of John Locke (who is an empiricist).  For the sake of clarity, it is important to state the basic beliefs of both men.  Philalethes begins by denying the notion of innate ideas and innate principles.  He believes that all of our knowledge may be gained without the aid of innate impressions.  Theophilus, not only accepts innate ideas (especially Descartes’ innate idea of God) which could not originate from the senses, but he also says that all thoughts and actions come from within us.  Although this is his belief, he will “conform to the accepted ways of speaking” and say that we have innate ideas while the senses may be said to be mediate causes of our thoughts.[2]  This notion, which will appear several times throughout the dialogue, is (either directly or indirectly) the main focus of Philalethes' questioning.  Theophilus' main point is that many people (namely Locke) have “not adequately distinguished the origin of necessary truths, whose source is in the understanding, from that of truths of fact, which are drawn from sense-experience and even from confused perceptions within us.”[3]  It is evident that most of the dialogue is focused upon the exact nature of innate ideas.

                Leibniz first wants to show that an innate principle is a sort of inclination that we have within us.  Philalethes tells Theophilus that if he can name a proposition that is innate, then he should name it.  Theophilus answers that the propositions of arithmetic and geometry are innate ideas.  However, he makes it clear that it is not the actual knowledge that is innate in us, but only the potential knowledge.  To help one visualize how we might have potential knowledge, Theophilus compares it to the veins in a slab of marble which exist prior to being uncovered by the sculptor.  Theophilus continues by saying that these innate truths, existing within us without our awareness of them, are “tendencies or dispositions” rather than thoughts.  Philalethes is perplexed.  How can these truths exist in us without our mind having thought of them?  Again, Theophilus makes reference to the marble; it is not hard for us to conceive of the veins which exist within the marble prior to their being uncovered.  Theophilus goes even further when he puts his last two points together to conclude that if these innate truths do not need any thought and are “tendencies or dispositions,” then there is nothing preventing the possibility of truths existing within us that “have never and will never be thought about by us.”[4]

                Philalethes then questions the claim that there are general maxims that exist innately.  For we find no trace of these maxims in “children, idiots and savages.”  Theophilus answers by stating that innate principles only appear when attention is paid to them.[5]  Therefore, these people (children, idiots, and savages) do not show any traces of these truths due to their inability or unwillingness to focus upon the sense-experiences which unlock these maxims.  To make the analogy (of the veins, marble and sculptor as compared to the innate ideas, us and sense-experience) clear and complete, we should consider it this way:  Just as the sculptor chips away at the marble and reveals the veins that lie within, so does our sense-experience impact us so as to uncover the innate ideas which lie dormant in our understanding until then.  If the sculptor does not chip away at the marble, then the veins will remain hidden.  Likewise, if sense-experience does not affect us, then innate ideas will remain hidden within us.

                Essentially, Theophilus wants to show that there exists within us innate truths which are made evident by sense experience.  Philalethes not only questions this, but he also doubts that there are any innate truths on the grounds that such principles would imply universal agreement on the part of all people; yet, we find no such agreement.

                Accordingly, Philalethes constructs a two-part argument with the hopes of disproving innate ideas by showing that Theophilus’ assumption, “we witness the existence of common notions in the minds of all men,” is false.  First of all, Philalethes says that universal notions do not necessarily imply innate ideas.  Secondly, he says that we do not witness any truths that are agreed upon universally; some people do not even know about the two great necessary truths:  “Whatever is, is” and “It is impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time.”  Theophilus avoids these problems by saying:  (1) General acceptance of a principle by most people (as opposed to universal acceptance by all people) is only a sign that hints towards its innate origin.  Its being innate can only be proven when the certainty of the principle “comes from only what is within us.”  (2) Principles need not be known in order to be innate, they only need immediate acceptance as soon as they are made known.  To make his point, Theophilus uses the example that all people have within them an inclination to worship a “higher power” due to the wonders of the universe that we are witnesses to.  “A child deaf and dumb from birth has even been seen to worship the full moon.”[6]  The idea of God would be an innate idea; we are inclined to this notion due to our observation of nature.  From what we witness, we immediately worship due to this innate idea of a “higher power.”

                It is in the above argument that we are able to see a real clash between the empiricism of Philalethes (Locke) and the rationalism of Theophilus (Leibniz).  Philalethes thinks that he can disprove innate ideas empirically (and logically):  “If ideas are innate, then they would exist in all men.  It is obvious that there are no ideas which exist within all men.  Therefore, innate ideas do not exist.”  This argument is a valid one (modus tollens).  And in order to disprove this argument, Theophilus will have to show that one of the premises is false.  The premise Theophilus attacks is the second premise:  “There are no ideas which exist within all men.”  For Philalethes, this premise is the most certain; it is empirically obvious that not all men possess the “innate” principles, “It is impossible to both be and not be at the same time” and “There is a God.”  Theophilus refutes this by replacing the empiricism of this second premise with his rationalism.  Innate ideas, the fact that they are in all men, may be proved “by its being shown that their certainty comes only from what is within us.”[7]  Therefore, innate ideas, insofar as they are in the understanding (which all of us possess), are in all men.

                Two paragraphs ago, I emphasized the word ‘know’ for Philalethes and the word ‘inclination’ for Theophilus.  These two words are important in defining what it means “to be in the understanding.”  Philalethes says it is a contradiction to claim that innate ideas are in us without our knowing them.[8]  In other words, he is questioning what Theophilus means by the phrase, “to be in the understanding.”  But Theophilus again makes the point that an innate idea does not imply our constant awareness (or knowledge) of that idea; “to be in the understanding” does not signify actual knowledge.  Instead, we should recognize innate principles as potential knowledge.  By potential knowledge, Theophilus does not mean the capacity of our understanding to know certain truths.  But rather, he means our mind's inclination (or disposition) to accept the truths contained within our understanding once they have been uncovered by sense experience.[9]  Philalethes is strictly focused upon truths of fact, which are most certainly gained through sense experience; whereas Philalethes would simply call this knowledge, Theophilus would label it actual knowledge.  Philalethes, then, because he sees the possibility for only one type of knowledge where Theophilus sees two, is perplexed.  But as was pointed out earlier, Theophilus wants to distinguish between the origin of truths of fact and that of necessary truths (under which innate ideas are categorized).

                So Philalethes errs (according to Theophilus), insofar as he does not acknowledge a difference of origin when speaking of the necessary truths.  Theophilus explains later that the mind is capable of apprehending both truths of fact and necessary truths.  And while truths of fact have their origin in sense-experience, necessary truths must come from the understanding itself; no matter how often we experience a truth, we could never infer its necessity inductively.[10]  Therefore, this necessity must come from the understanding itself, due to its disposition to readily accept a particular truth.  Theophilus claims that only through reason are we able to know that a truth is necessary.  These necessary truths are what Theophilus would call innate ideas.  And these innate ideas are only potential knowledge (i.e., they are readily and necessarily accepted as true) until they become actualized  due to our sense experience.




St.  Anselm College

Manchester, NH



[1] G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, trans. by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 74-88.


[2] Ibid., p. 74.


[3] Ibid., p. 75.


[4] G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, trans. by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 86-87.


[5] Ibid., p. 87.


[6] G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, trans. by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 75-76.


[7] G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, trans. by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 76.


[8] Ibid.


[9] Ibid., p. 80.


[10] G.W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, trans. by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 81.