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The Empiricist John Locke

Updated on April 7, 2017
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Nikki Alberta has a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Alberta. She is a freelance article writer, novelist and blogger.

John Locke (1632-1704)
John Locke (1632-1704)


John Locke (1632-1704) was an empiricist, and so, he relied on observable date to understand the world. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding he outlines how humans learn and develop. We are born as blank slates and all our experiences are added to that slate, without the need for innate ideas. “Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, a blank slate (tabula rasa) of while paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and bound… to this I answer in one word, from experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.” (DCH, p. 76-77)

Locke wants to refute the rationalists idea of innate ideas to show that all knowledge comes from experience. “Men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions, and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principles.” (DCH p.77). He suggests there is no reason to add the idea that we have innate ideas when we can do without. He makes use of Ockham’s Razor, what can be done with fewer terms is better than a theory done with more. As such “given two theories, both of which are compatible with all the observable data and both of which purport to explain the same theory, the referable theory is the one with the fewer theoretical entities.” (DCH, p.77-78).

Simple & Complex Ideas


Simple ideas are ideas that cannot be broken down into other components. (Color, Solidity). Ideas come through all the senses about external objects, yet this knowledge does not prove the existence of those external objects.

Complex ideas are a) Compounds of simple ideas, b) ideas of relations (larger, smaller) created by observing, comparing and contrasting objects, c) Abstractions (Conceptualism) where the mind separates out a specific feature of an idea and generalizes it. (Redness). We form these abstractions by recognizing commonalities in groups of objects. A rationalist simply confuses these abstractions as actually existing (Forms, innate ideas). After taking in simple ideas from external experience, we can reflect on that knowledge, which is our internal experience.

John Locke's Primary and Secondary Qualities

Primary & Secondary Qualities


Primary qualities are those that are necessarily imbedded in the physical world. (solidity, extension, number, figure, form, motion). These ideas are correct, as in they are caused in our minds by those qualities in the physical world and these ideas correctly represent those qualities.

Although we could easily argue with how correct our minds interpret these primary qualities. Motion is easy to debate given it is frame relative. When I am on a train and look outside it appears to my senses that the ground is whipping past me and I am at rest, even though I clearly know that is not true. In space, if an object is not accelerating or decelerating, whereby we would not feel motion, it would be impossible to tell if I am at rest while someone approaching is moving towards me, or whether I am moving towards the other while he is at rest. Or even more simply, while I am at rest, I actually am moving because the earth is moving, but I have no sense of that movement. With solidity our senses can deceive us, when we think glass is a solid, when it fact it is a very thick liquid. If someone has a migraine and has Alice in Wonderland Syndrome even such things as form and figure are not representative of reality, as form and figure shift, grow, stretch and warp. Someone who is delusional or hallucinating can see objects and people that to their senses have extension, figure, form and motion that are not really there at all. When we are dreaming we create a whole world of objects that do not exist, but we sense them to be separate from ourselves and real at the time. It may very well be that there is a reality outside of our minds but our ideas from primary qualities does not necessarily represent correctly the real world.

Secondary qualities are not found in the physical world but in our minds; “’such qualities, which in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, that is, by the bulk, figure, texture and motion of their insensible parts, as colors, sounds, tastes etc.’” (DCH, p. 80-81). These ideas do not correctly represent the physical world as in there is nothing like our ideas existing in objects in the physical world. This is an example of representative realism; realism holds that there is in fact a physical world out of our minds, and representative because the mind does not give us direct access to reality. It only represents reality, with some characteristics correctly representative of the world (primary qualities) while some features of the mind pertain only to the mind itself (secondary qualities). Here it does seem that secondary qualities are not found in the outside world, or within objects we perceive, as it is sense data we interpret and may differ from what others interpret. Color is an obvious example since some people are color blind completely, partly color blind and then animals perceive color differently than we do. Color then is something linked to our eyes and how they function.

While it is valid to say that we do, via our senses, get some data that accurately represents the world and other data that is subjective interpretations, it is rather hard to say which ones are valid and which are not. Especially if we are saying we are born blank slates and that experience is how we gain all our information of the real world. Our senses routinely fool us, the brain is designed to filter out information it does not think is important and form patterns even when there are no patterns. That is not to say such things as innate ideas are necessary, only that while it could be true all our knowledge is gained by experience, it does not mean our perceptions of reality are accurate and valid. Nevertheless, we can see how experience would give us simple and complex ideas about the world around us, from observations, relations and generalizations, but Locke’s theory only allows for limited knowledge.

Locke himself said that our idea of an object does not reflect on the reality of it, “It is evident the mind knows not things immediately, but only by intervention of the ideas it has of them." (Essay, IV, iv, 2.). Yet he did believe we could demonstrate the existence of our own being, the external world, and God. "We have knowledge of our own existence by intuition; of the existence of God by demonstration; and of other things by sensation," he wrote. (Essay, IV, ix, 2.). So we know we exist intuitively, and when it comes to Descartes we fundamentally know that we exist: “As for our own existence, we perceive it so plainly and so certainly that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof. For nothing can be more evident to us than our own existence. I think, I reason, I feel pleasure and pain: can any of these be more evident to me than my own existence? If I doubt of all other things, that very doubt makes me perceive my own existence, and will not suffer doubt of that....Experience, then, convinces us that we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence." (Essay, IV, ix, 2.).

We can also know the existence of God: "Man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being than it can be equal to two right angles....If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning, and what had a beginning must be produced by something else...." (Essay, IV, x, 3.) "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." (Essay, IV, x, 6.). Actually, when we consider our experience and the ideas about reality, yes, everything that happens had a cause, so there must have been something which caused the universe, which could be God or something else. Yet God would be eternal and from our experience of reality everything that has a beginning has an end, nothing lasts forever and so forth, thus why would we believe or have the idea of anything being eternal?

We know the external world exists via our senses, whether our senses are accurate or not, we are getting sense data from a real external world. The outside world is causes our sense data, we passively, with no effort on our part, absorb this sense data and therefore we are getting that from outside of ourselves. Another problem with using Ockham’s Razor to be rid of innate ideas is when Locke gets to the idea of substance which he states “something I know not what.” (DCH, p. 83). When Rene Descartes is unable to come to an empirical account of substance and identity he then suggested innate ideas. Yet, Locke cannot account for an empirical understanding of substance to replace the suggestion of innate ideas. So really all our knowledge is based on a reality that we have no real sure connection to.


Locke, John Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Palmer, Donald Does the Center Hold? Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996


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