Empiricism is knowledge that comes from experience of the
sensory world around us. It was developed properly in Britain in the 17th
and 18th Century, during the Enlightenment era. These centuries were
when people started to question their unexamined beliefs and turn to scientific
means for explanations. Empiricism moves away from the Platonic ways of
thinking which believes knowledge was of transcendence and onto knowledge
coming from experience. Sense perceptions are more truth-worthy on providing
knowledge than our minds. The mind cannot have knowledge without experience.
Empiricism is an inductive argument meaning it gives generalised
conclusions from its premises. Even if all the premises are true, inductive
arguments does allow for the premises to lead to a false conclusion. Rather
than a deductive method which has a specific conclusions by deducing it from things
that are known to be true meaning the conclusion is guaranteed to be true (Staff, IEP, n/a).
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) is known to be the ‘father of
empiricism’. Bacon rejects the
conventionalist idea of anticipatio naturae (anticipation of nature) and
naturae (the interpretation of nature) because the anticipation of
nature gives explanations of unobservable events
and predictions of observable ones. This anticipation just reinstates what has
already been said so does not produce any new knowledge. The interpretation naturae does not produce
knowledge but collects facts which Bacon argues is important as it goes beyond
the data we already have (Klein, 2003).
Bacon does not completely reject Aristotle’s theory on syllogism. This being an argument in which the terms in the conclusion do not have
to be used in the premises, similar to that of a deductive argument. Syllogism
does not start from sense perceptions which is why Bacon prefers his interpretation naturae as Bacon argues
one needs proof in order to find a conclusion (Klein, 2003).
British Empiricism led on from the modernity era started by
Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes argued that once we have doubted
everything, what we will be left with will be indubitable knowledge (Descartes, 1641). Thus differing from
empiricism as empiricism focuses on sensory data which lead to possible experience. Empiricism does not
doubt the sensory perceptions but rather uses them as proof to create arguments
for possible conclusions.
John Locke (1632-1704) wrote ‘An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding (1689) which determines the limits of human
understanding on what one can claim to know and what one cannot (William Uzgalis, 2001). Locke is known to
be one of the first English empiricists to be of influence (after Bacon and
Hobbes). He argued that before we are
able to analyse the world and how we can access it we have to know how we acquire
knowledge (Connolly, n.d.). To do this he defines his meaning
of ‘ideas’ as they are at the basis of understanding the human mind and of
knowledge. He defines his meaning of ‘idea’ as the sole thing upon which our
minds work. The origin of ideas is in experience (Garth Kemerling, 2011). Locke says the term
whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks”
(Essay I, 1, 8, p.
In Book I from ‘An Essay
Concerning Human Understanding’, Locke argues that we have no innate
knowledge but it is all gathered from experience. Differing from Descartes
theory of doubting the knowledge we already
have in order to rebuild it upon scientific grounds (Descartes,
One can argue that empiricism shows the advancement from the modernity era into
Enlightenment era as empiricism argues we gain knowledge from our experiences
rather than having always had it. It seems to me a more liable explanation of
knowledge as merely arguing knowledge is innate seems to assume a higher being
having given us that knowledge. Gaining knowledge from experience does seem
like a liable way in which we gain ideas about the external world.
In Book II, Locke argued we develop ideas of the world through our
experience of it – a clearly empirical argument. Furthermore in Book III, he
opens a discussion about language in that language can block our understanding.
Finally, Book IV considers knowledge, belief, and opinion. Our knowledge
consists of relationships between ideas and we should consider our beliefs in
relation to this (Connolly, n.d.).
Expanding on Book II from Essay,
Locke argues that for an object to produce ideas inside our minds then it
must have features that define it as such a thing (Connolly, n.d.). This is his idea of primary qualities
which are qualities that an object actually possesses. So say an apple is a
fruit so has seeds, is red and green coloured, has a thin layer of skin and has
a hard physique. These are all the primary qualities of an apple which we then associate
to the idea of the apple. Therefore making secondary qualities what our bodies
produce as ideas of the primary qualities. These secondary qualities come from
our mind and interact with the primary qualities of the object at hand (Connolly, n.d.). The shape and colour
of an apple interact with our taste senses and general ideas of what an apple
is. Locke argues our secondary ideas explain the experience of the primary
qualities which exist in the external world.
Locke argues we have two types of experience – outer and
inner. The former being associated with the five senses which is therefore sensations. The latter being reflections, this being like memories,
judgements, choice etc. We get ideas of reflection when we realise our inner
experience of our mind doing these things such as remembering a past event (Garth Kemerling, 2011). Locke argues
that the mind is a tabula rasa which means ‘blank sheet’. We have to experience the
forms of sensation and reflection which create simple ideas in order to then
develop them into complex ideas (Garth Kemerling, 2011). Locke argues that everything that can be
thought of can be broken down into simple ideas which are understood in
experience (Connolly, n.d.),
“Experience: In that, all our
Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our
Observation employ’d either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on
by ourselves, is that, which supplies our Understandings with all the material
of thinking.” (2.1.2,
Leading on from this, Locke argued these complex ideas is simply
putting ideas together. Complex ideas can also be further developed by
combining more complex ideas. There are three categories for complex ideas:
substances, modes and relations. The former meaning ideas that exist
independently so solid objects like sheep. If we can see many sheep it then
becomes collective substances. However once we start asking what matter they
are made of our ideas of substances becomes confused (Garth Kemerling, 2011) because they are no longer
external simple ideas but rather complex substances. Secondly modes which are dependent
existences. For example things like mathematical and moral ideas (William Uzgalis, 2001). This is the second
action the mind performs in bringing ideas together.
Thirdly, the idea of relations is Locke’s argument for how our
ideas relate to each other. This meaning how substances relate to each other to
form the idea we have of them. A blood-relative, take your father for example,
is someone who; is related to you, he is male and you have 50% of his DNA. One
must understand all these ideas in order to comprehend that the man is our
father (Connolly, n.d.). We gain knowledge
through our ideas. One could argue this is why exposing children to experiences
from an early age will further their knowledge as they begin to develop more
ideas of the world. The earlier a child understands their relation to say their
father, the better they will understand how ideas relate to each other and can
then understand the difference between random men from their father.
An issue with Locke’s theory on ideas is that he argues that
knowledge of the external world is gained through sensory perception and
therefore it is not a matter of analysing and knowing facts about our own
minds. Even though Locke argued knowledge is our thoughts and ideas (Connolly, n.d.). Meaning he
contradicts his arguments of ideas and knowledge as he says ideas come from our
understanding of substances and relations but knowledge can only be gained from
sensory perceptions of the external world. Yet he actively explains about
understanding the term ‘ideas’ and how relations are formed in the mind along
with secondary qualities.
Locke’s theory of particular and abstract ideas is put under scrutiny.
He suggests that particular ideas are simply ideas of a particular time or
place (William Uzgalis, 2001). The criticism comes
due to Locke’ theory of abstract ideas. This meaning that we have a general
abstract idea and we give it a general name. These general ideas are developed
through a process of abstraction (Editors, 2017). Locke provides
three reasons why we have abstract ideas. The first reason being it is too
difficult to try remember a different word for each thing and then secondly
when we give it a general term this would then make the communicative aspect of
language difficult as everyone has different experiences of things. Thirdly, abstract
ideas are needed for scientific means as general claims are made about how
things are (Editors, 2017). Locke argues that
abstract ideas explain how knowledge can be communicated and how we give terms
meaning (Flage, n.d.).
Empiricist George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) criticised Locke’s
theory of abstract ideas. Berkeley broke it down into three arguments: abstract
ideas cannot be formed, abstract ideas are not needed for communication or
knowledge, and these ideas are inconsistent (Flage, n.d.). Berkeley counter
Locke in the introduction to the Principles by arguing that we cannot form general ideas in the way that Locke suggests.
Berkeley argues that we cannot strip down certain qualities from an idea of a
particular to create a general abstract idea (Downing, 2011).
Berkeley also criticises Locke’s primary and
secondary qualities. He argues if one cannot find their distinction between
these qualities then one can question the theory (Flage, n.d.).
Berkeley argues one cannot grasp a primary quality without having grasped some
secondary quality also. The
sensations of the secondary qualities is related to primary qualities because
without these secondary qualities our understanding of primary qualities would
not create the full idea of it. Berkeley argues that these primary
qualities cannot exist apart from the mind (Flage, n.d.).
Locke’s assumption that the external world is an independent
existence is therefore flawed because our experiences of external objects are just
representations of primary and secondary qualities then, because these are not
distinct, they are developed from the mind. Locke fails to prove the existence
of an external world being distinct from our representation of them (Israel, 2017).
Berkeley therefore criticised Locke’s theory of causal
realism. This being the theory that we can determine the existence of the
external world (Klus, 2017).
Berkeley argued it is not consistent with empiricism because Locke’s theory
assumes that there is a chain of causes which start at external objects and
ends with the secondary qualities we experience. Furthermore, Berkeley argues
that if the secondary qualities exist in our mind then surely the primary qualities
must exist in the mind also (Klus, 2017).