The Enlightenment Task-
“I have always thought the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.”
I will be writing a response understanding how John Lockes theory, ‘Concerning human understanding’ relates to concepts in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein. How knowledge is obtained has been the question everyone has been trying to understand for hundreds of years. John Locke has been one of the few philosophers who’s has foundered a theory around this. I have noticed that the creature in Frankenstein seems to be an example of Lockes works, that the mind begins as a blank slate or tabula rasa. Only our experiences shape our personality and how and what we become.
English man John Locke lived from 1632 to 1704, he was one of the most famous philosophers and political theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries. John Lockes major contribution to the enlightenment period was foundering the tabula rasa theory, publishing the essay of ‘concerning human understanding’. The tabula rasa theory states that at birth the mind is born as a blank slate and that your knowledge comes form experience through out your life. He is also considered to be the ‘father of liberalism’ which comes from his other theory, based on the principle of liberty and equality foundering the U.S declaration of independence and constitution.
Locke believed that every human was born with their minds completely empty, this went against the philosophical tradition that at the very lest we are born with some rational understanding and desirers/intentions, referred to as human nature. Locke believed there was no human nature and everyone of us are the author of our own character, all men are created equal. This idea first came about when Locke meet Anthony Ashley Cooper who grew his career, Locke followed him to holland where he wrote his first book ‘concerning human understanding’, he then moved back to write many more books about government and human rights. He states that no knowledge is placed on us by god and there can be no innate ideas. He accepts that we have innate ability – like humans have the ability to speak, whereas animals don’t – but nothing else.
In the novel Frankenstein, Victor creates a large creature for a scientific experiment he has been working on for years. Once his work is finished the creature is left to fend for himself in the world, as Frankenstein immedity regrets creating him, hoping he will die out there alone. The creature not knowing any English or any of his capabilities, has the mind of a newborn child. Because of his differences (looks), society treated the creature as horrible as ever, forcing him to live in isolation to others and fight for his life. He taught himself everything about survival, also how to read and speak, by spying on a family that live in the woods and coping there actions. He later turns into a monster, killing all of Victors loved ones, payback for creating him and leaving him for dead.
Everything that goes on around the creature relates to John Lockes theory, his mind being a blank slate from the moment he was created, having to learn everything on his own out of the experiences he went through. Locke states that ‘No man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.’
An example of how he develops understanding from his experiences comes though this quote from Frankenstein, “I began to distinguish my sensations from each other. I gradually saw plainly the clear stream that supplied me with drink, and the trees that shaded me with their foliage.” he goes on to say he learns that these things are good and he will go back and experience them again, as he’s gaining knowledge. When he was first created he didn’t understand what water or trees were used for, it only because if his experience with them he has figured out what their purpose is.
An example from the text “I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me”. This quote is said by the creature when his is figuring out his senses, he learns that he can solve the problem of being cold by building a fire, he experiences the joy and warmth from the fire, building his knowledge.
The creature created by Frankenstein says that ‘misery made him a fiend’, as he believes that the people who hurt him made him they way he is. Locke believes that the way someone is treated by society determines the way someone becomes, good or bad. The creature had to learn the hard way that society didn’t like him as he was different, in one part in the text he saves a little girl from drowning in the river. The father saw the creature taking his daughter, the man immediately thought that he was harmful, the one who was drowning her, so he shot him in the shoulder. Once the creature went through this horrible experience, he lost all faith in humans and “vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind”. Because he thought he was being kind and he got hurt for doing what was right, so he only learnt not to trust humanity. He goes on to hunt down Victor’s family to get revenge on him and other humans, as his knowledge around what to do came from the bad experiences he had had “My feelings were those of rage and revenge”. From this novel we notice that the way society treats us has a massive impact on the person we become.
From this report I have discussed Lockes theory and how Mary Shelley reflects his ideas though her text Frankenstein. Hopefully from this report you have gained some understanding about how knowledge is obtained and how our experiences teach us how to act/think. The creatures experiences were influenced because of Victors abandonment towards him, because of this the creature experienced the outside world by himself. He had a lot of negative experiences with society, forcing him to hate mankind, all he had ever known was pain and hate when he interacted with humans. If Victor had looked after him and showed him society from a different point of view his experiences would have been different, mabye the creature would have turned out much better off.