The Marble’s Veins: Locke and Leibniz on Innate Ideas

When it comes to the question of the origin of our ideas, it seems that the views of Locke and Leibniz could not be further apart. For Leibniz, ultimately all our knowledge counts as innate. For Locke, none of it does. Hence, Leibniz is usually cast as an ardent defender of innate ideas, while Locke is known for his uncompromising attack on innateness in Book I of the Essay concerning Human Understanding. In this paper, I argue that at least with respect to the origin of certain intellectual ideas such as unity, existence, or power (which Leibniz calls “metaphysical concepts”, and which John Yolton in his interpretation of Locke has termed “non-sensory ideas”) Leibniz and Locke are much more in agreement than they initially appear to be: For both, these ideas originate in our reflection on the self and its operations. Furthermore, I show that Leibniz’s “reflection account” in fact takes center-stage in his discussion of innateness in the New Essays. Contrary to what has been claimed in the literature, I argue that this account does not conflict with the dispositional account of innateness Leibniz is commonly thought to hold: Not only are Leibniz’s two accounts compatible, but they are at bottom the same, resulting in a broader and much more nuanced account of innateness which bears witness to Leibniz’s serious and productive engagement with Locke’s view.