Locke, Berkeley and Hume’s empiricist approach to knowledge and the conclusions they reach

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Empiricist philosophy arose out of doubts towards rationalism, in an attempt to search for a theory of knowledge that would be consistent with ordinary human behaviour. Instead of seeking absolutely certain knowledge about an alleged real world, empiricists have tried to discover where we get our information from and what degree of reliability it actually possesses. Rather than rejecting sensory data in favour of some completely certain knowledge about a non-visible realm, these philosophers have begun with our sense experience as the source and basis of what we know, and have tried to construct an account of knowledge in terms of a posteriori evidence.

Empiricism has been the major mover in Western philosophy, and its most influential peak came around the 17th and 18th centaury; a time when Locke, Berkeley and Hume, were contemporaneous. I shall assess the approaches of all three and look at the theories for knowledge that they came up with.

John Locke (1632-1704), a medical doctor by profession, tried to work out an explanation of our knowledge in terms of a posteriori sense experience. He studied the work of Descartes, the rationalist, and rejected the suggestion of ‘innate ideas’ or a priori knowledge. He believed that humans were not born with any form knowledge and said that just because something is universally agreed, its not necessarily true, and just because something is universally known, its not necessarily innate. This rejection of the a priori is central to Locke’s theory; stating that the mind is a blank sheet, written on by what comes to us through our a posteriori experiences.

He said that all ideas we come to have originated from either sensation or reflection. An ‘idea’ being a ‘mental image’, or a notion of an experience. Sensation is how we perceive through the senses. And reflection comes after sensation; it’s any mental activity such as wishing, thinking and so on.

In order to justify his empirical claims, Locke patiently tied to show how all our information derives either from experiences of reflection, or of sensation. The most basic elements of our knowledge are what Locke called simple ideas. These are ideas that are not compounded of any other elements. As examples of such ideas, Locke offered the taste of sugar or the small of a rose. These simple ideas are presented to us only in sensation and reflection. The mind has the power, we are told, to store up, to repeat, and to combine these basic ideas one it has experienced them.

These simple ideas come to the mind passively, however, those ideas that do not fit into this criteria are known as complex ideas, which come from the minds ability to combine various experiences it has had in the past.

Locke tired to show how the various parts of our knowledge come from different experiences such as sensation or reflection. A basic difficulty he ran into was that of showing which of our ideas are real, that is, which parts of our information ‘have a conformity with the real being and the existence of things’. We have a great many ideas in our mind that do not relate to anything that actually exists in the world, such as our ideas of mermaids and unicorns. How do we tell just from the examination of our ideas, which ones of them ought to be considered as real, and which are only the results of our imaginations? The answer Locke gave enabled him to work out a theory about the character and reliability of knowledge.

He divided the sensations that we have into two groups – the ideas of primary qualities, and the ideas of secondary qualities. The primary qualities are those items in our experience which must belong to the objects that we are experiencing, whereas the secondary qualities ‘in truth are nothing in the objects themselves, but the powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities’. For example, according to Locke, size and shape are primary qualities while the colour that we see in objects is not. The colour is a result of certain conditions, or as he called them, ‘powers’ in the objects, which act upon our minds so that we see colours. The distinction that Locke was trying to draw is that between the scientific description of an object, what properties scientists report an object has, and our ordinary experience of the same object.

But how much knowledge can we have by means of sensation and reflection, and how reliable will it be? Knowledge is the result of the examination of ideas to see if they agree or disagree in some respect. The first sort of knowledge is achieved by the examination of two or more ideas to see whether they are identical or different. For example, one could compare the ideas of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and immediately see that they are different. The second sort of knowledge about ideas deals with the co-existence of two or more ideas, that is, the discovery that two or more ideas belong together. This usually amounts to finding out that these ideas are part of, or caused by, the same substance. A third kind of knowledge about our ideas is the discovery that two or more ideas are related together in some manner. The fourth and last type of knowledge is the discovery of whether or not any of our ideas are experiences of something that exists outside our minds, that is, if they are ideas of some real existences.

Locke felt that these were all the kinds of knowledge we could possess, but how much of each kind and how certain will they be? The greatest degree of assurance we can have is when our knowledge is intuitive, that is, by simply looking at two or more ideas, we see immediately that something is true about them. This type of complete certainty, Locke claimed, we can have about truths like ‘white is not black’, which intuitively we see are true.

However, sometimes when we merely consider certain ideas together, we are unable to tell if they do or do not, have something in common, and must, instead, first connect the ideas we are comparing with some others before we can come to any knowledge. This process Locke called demonstration. Locke insisted the type of assurance we acquire through reasoning is just a string of intuitions. Each step in a proof is seen immediately by the mind to be certain, and so, if each part of a demonstration is certain, the conclusion will be also. However, it is often the case that in carrying out the chain of steps we leave something out, or do not notice there is no intuitive certainty between some steps. Because of these sorts of error, Locke said that we could not rely on demonstrative knowledge with the same degree of assurance that we have in simple intuitions.

Locke was willing to admit that only intuitions and demonstrations could give us knowledge we could be certain of. But in addition to these two, there is another degree of assurance, which although not as certain, is relied upon by nearly everyone. This is what Locke called ‘sensitive’ knowledge, which assures us of the actual existence of particular things. In spite of doubts raised by Descartes and the sceptics, we are still pretty sure that some of our experiences are of things that exist outside of our minds, while others are not. Locke insisted, that there is a common-sense assurance that we all have by which we know about the existence of things outside our mind. It may be false, but it’s sufficient for our ordinary purposes.

With these three degrees of certainty, how much are we actually capable of knowing? In what is probably the most important area of knowledge, we are most severely limited. When we examine what we can know about the real existence of things, Locke was willing to admit only one case that we can be intuitively certain of, namely, our own existence. In addition, we can have demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence. For anything else, we can only have sensitive knowledge, which extends only to the objects that are present to our senses. For those items that we do not have even sensitive knowledge about, we can never be sure whether they have real existence. All we can do is accept the limitations to our knowledge, and rest content in our ignorance.

In the course of working out his empirical theory for knowledge, and trying to show how knowledge derives from our sense experience, Locke revealed certain characteristics and difficulties of the empirical approach. In the first place, if all our knowledge comes from experience, then a good deal of the knowledge that philosophers such as Plato and Descartes claimed that we had, or could have, would have to be considered and fictitious.

Secondly, Locke’s attempt to develop his theory of knowledge indicated that the empirical approach might endanger certain difficulties. If all of our information is based upon the ideas that we acquire from experience, and our knowledge is about the agreement and disagreement of our ideas, how could we ever tell if our knowledge is actually something outside of us? Locke claimed that we had to suppose that there is something called substance, or substratum, that our ideas, or at least some of them, belong to.

The claim that by inspection of the ideas – and the arrangements and disagreements among them – we can discover truths about the real world also seemed questionable. All our ideas appeared to be on the same level: they are all in our mind. Then, the opponents asked, how can we tell which to take seriously, which to use as a basis for knowledge about the world, and which to discard as personal fantasy or imagination? The attempt to work out these implications of the empirical theory of knowledge appeared in the works of two 18th centaury philosophers, bishop Berkeley and David Hume.

Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) was born and educated in Ireland. The philosophical theory that he offered was intended, he wrote, ‘to demonstrate the reality and perfection of the human soul, and the immediate providence of a deity: in opposition to sceptics and atheists’.

Berkeley thought that some of the reasons behind scepticism and atheism were due to the theories of people like Locke, who he called ‘inconsistent’. Berkeley saw that as soon as we question the reliability of our sense information, we are drawn into paradoxes. He said that the problem is philosophers try to distinguish the nature of real things, from the experience of their senses. This sort of distinction leads to paradoxes and scepticism, which Berkeley feared would cause normal people to question truths they had hitherto held as self-evident – like their faith – hence atheism would be the ultimate outcome.

In Berkeley’s view, only the contents of our experience could be said to exist; he denied the existence of matter. He said that ‘things’ were merely a philosopher’s invention; all people see are the ‘ideas’ and so only these can be said to exist. ‘To be perceived’ Berkeley wrote, ‘is to exist’.

In order to advance his claims, including those of perception, Berkeley wrote the Three Dialogues, in which a discussion between Philonous (lover of mind) who represents Berkeley’s view, and Hylas (‘matter’) representing the opposition, takes place.

In the discussion, Philonous concludes that if things are perceived there must be a perceiver. Therefore I have a notion of myself. But, as things continue to exist whether I perceive them or not, there must be a Perceiver. Therefore I have a notion of God. Everything, therefore, is an idea in the mind of God.

In the Three Dialogues Berkeley set out to show that matter does not exist. He asked what do we perceive immediately by our senses. Only colours and shapes, sounds, tastes, odours, tangible qualities, and the like. Then what constitutes the reality of sensible things besides their being perceived? Hylas, the believer in some sort of material substance, insists that the real existence of sensible things is independent of their being experienced. Philonous then suggests, consider the case of heat. On Hylas’ theory, heat must exist outside of the mind, as something independent of our experience. But when we experience extreme heat, what we actually feel is a great pain, and no on believes that material substances contain pain. Hylas protests, and says that one has to distinguish between the pain that is in the mind, and the heat that is in the material object. Just try, Philonous suggests, putting your hand near a fire, and see if you feel two things, heat and pain, or only one thing, a pain. Hylas yields and is willing to admit that our sensible experience of extreme heat, a pain, exists only in the mind, and not in the object. He eventually concedes ‘that heat, and equally cold, are only sensations existing in our minds’.

To avoid the conclusion that Berkeley is aiming at, that the objects that we perceive are only ideas in our minds, and do not exist outside of, or independent of the mind, Hylas comes forth with Locke’s theory of primary and secondary qualities. The secondary qualities – such as colours, smells, and tastes – exist only in the mind. But the primary qualities – e.g., extension, motion, and gravity – really exist in bodies. Therefore some of our sense information is only of ideas in our minds, but some refers to the actual qualities of external, material objects.

Berkeley then tries to show that if one is a consistent empiricist, one will not be able to maintain this theory of Locke’s. If one admits that some of our sense experience consists of ideas which exist only in the mind, then one will have no basis for making an exception of the primary qualities. Exactly the same reasoning that convinces one that that the secondary qualities are in the mind, applies to the primary qualities as well. Our experience of size, shape, motion, and so on, varies depending on where we are, how we feel, and other factors. Thus the primary qualities appear to be just ideas in our minds, just as colours and sounds were, and so special reason can be given as to why we should regard our ideas of extension and motion as being real qualities in material bodies, if we admit that other qualities are only part of our experience and exist in us.

What Berkeley has shown, up to this point, is that if one seriously accepts the empirical theory of knowledge, all that we can know is what we experience. What we experience are not independently existing material objects, but rather a series of ideas. All that we can know about these ideas is that we perceive. Hence, we cannot tell from what we see, if they exist apart from minds which perceive them. In fact, as he pointed out, we cannot even conceive or imagine, in terms of our experience, what it would be like for our sensations to exist apart from being thought of. Thus, in Berkeley’s famous phrase, the existence of things consists in their being perceived, or as he put it in Latin, ‘esse est percipi’ (literally, ‘to be is to be perceived’).

This explanation that Berkeley presented is called immaterialism. All that we can perceive is an idea. Ideas can only belong to minds, and cannot have existence independent of minds. Since the ideas I am aware of do not depend on my wishes, these ideas must have some kind of existence apart from my mind. But ideas can only belong to some mind. If I am not responsible for the idea that I perceive, and cannot invent and control my ideas at will, then there must be some other mind that possesses, controls and maintains the ideas. And so, Berkeley claimed, there must be some universal mind, or God, in whose thoughts the ideas are located. Thus the things that I perceive exist distinct from me in the mind of God, and do not leap in and out of existence when I perceive them. My house is always perceived by God. Hence, although the house is only an idea, it continues to exist whether I perceive it or not, since God always perceives it.

Berkeley claimed that his strange theory was the only theory to be in accordance with ordinary common -sense beliefs. Other views ended up denying what everybody knew and was sure of, his view, on the contrary, combined the best elements of philosophical reasoning, and common sense. Philosophers like Locke and Descartes had concluded that ‘the things immediately perceived are ideas which only exist in the mind’. On the other hand, ordinary people believe that ‘those things they immediately perceive are real things’. Berkeley insisted that his theory did not lead to any of the sceptical and paradoxical conclusions that he had shown were involved in the theories of knowledge offered by previous thinkers.

Some thinkers, who took Berkeley’s arguments seriously, were willing to admit that he had made out a good case, and had offered a series of proofs which might ‘admit of no answer’, but at the same time, they saw that Berkeley’s reasoning also ‘produced no conviction’. But one of the philosophers who came shortly after Berkeley pursued his reasoning to an even more disastrous and shocking conclusion, and thereby exposed some of the limitations of all empirical theories of knowledge.

This was the Scottish sceptic, David Hume (1711-76). His philosophy seems to have grown out of a deep interest in scepticism, and an extreme doubt that philosophers were capable of discovering the truth about any matter whatsoever. He also held the conviction that what was needed in order to uncover what knowledge, if any, we are capable of, was an inquiry into what he called ‘the science of man’. This would examine the processes by which we think and try to find out how people form their views, and come to believe that what they do about the nature of events.

His philosophy completes the empirical movement. He began by taking a scientific method and applying it to the mental world, rather than the physical one. Hume believed that understanding human nature would lead to an understanding of the nature of human knowledge. He showed how our natures affected our beliefs. He was known as the supreme sceptic. A sceptic says that we cannot know, and Hume’s philosophy states clearly that we cannot know about either the world or ourselves. Hume was not dogmatic; he did not provide beliefs, merely criticized existing beliefs. He criticized knowledge of the world, knowledge of the self and knowledge of God. His criticisms were so devastating that they completely undermined many of the basic, commonsense assumptions people need to lead their daily lives.

Hume set about demonstrating reason as a principle. Reason, he declared, was no more than a habit or a custom. If I apply my mind to the world and decide something is so, it is on the basis that is had always been so. But it need not necessarily be so and may not continue. In other words, we cannot help believing, but we must not think our belief is grounded in reason. In his ‘Treatise’ Hume divides human understanding into impressions, which are what we receive through our senses, and ideas, which are memories or ‘faint images’ of impressions, which we combine in thinking and reasoning.

As our ideas are ultimately derived from impressions, our knowledge is limited. Our imagination might appear boundless, but even something as fabulous as a centaur is no more than a combination of the impressions ‘man’ and ‘horse’.

Hume agreed with Locke and Berkeley that we can never really know what is going on outside of ourselves. He went on to demolish the cherished belief in cause and effect, which had proved necessary both to science and religion. In his view, causation was an idea, not an impression. If you see a match burst into flames or a rock shatter a window, what you see is a match, then a flame; a rock and then broken glass. We can never see the one actually cause the other. Because we see two events occur together and because, in our experience, they always occur together, we assume that one has caused the other. But Hume argues that just because these two things have always happened together, it does not follow that they will always happen. Therefore we cannot deduce effects form an object and what usually happens does not necessarily always happen. Hume offers a psychological, not a scientific, explanation for cause and effect and says that the best we can say is that we see conjoined events.

Hume’s next target was Descartes’ idea of the self. Hume claimed that the idea of the self was an idea and did not come from any direct impression. Berkeley claimed that they were not thoughts without a thinker, no perceptions without a perceiver, but Hume declared that there were only thoughts and only perceptions. If I look inside myself I find only thoughts and perceptions, so how can there be said to be a self, which exists? And if there is no self, it follows there is no soul and no immorality. Hume’s ‘scientific method’ destroyed many of the assumptions science was built on. Hume had demolished much of the basis of thought; stating that there is no cause and effect, there is no principle of reason, there is no certainty in induction and that the existence of matter depends on our imaginations.

Science was built, it transpired, on faith and not on certainty. By shrugging and declaring that ‘nature is too strong for principle’, Hume showed that such empirical conclusions had to be laid to one side, since life had to be lived on some such bases as the ones he has taken apart. Hume is, perhaps, the most influential British philosopher who ever lived. His arguments have never been successfully refuted. He showed that it is absurd to be logical to the limit, but by going to the extremes, he showed where the limits are. We know from Hume that we cannot know, but, like Hume himself, we must live as though we can.

Beginning with Locke, those philosophers who developed theories of knowledge maintaining that all knowledge comes from sense experience were led gradually to Hume’s conclusion. If our only source of information about the world is the impressions that we gain through our senses, then a great deal of what we think that we know turns out to be illusion. What we gain through our senses are qualities such as colours, sounds, and shapes. As Berkeley showed, there is nothing in our sense experience that shows us that these qualities belong to any so-called material, or external objects. All that we see are the qualities themselves. As Hume showed, our experience does not contain any necessary relations or connections between the various items of our sense experience. Any connections that we impose upon our experiences are due, not to what we see, but to our mental habits or propensities.

The attempt to construct an adequate theory of knowledge raises some of the most difficult problems that human beings have to cop with, and whether anyone has succeeded in settling all these problems is a matter in dispute. Possibly the trouble is that no on has been able to develop a theory which is both credible and consistent. Some of the more believable theories appear to have grave inconsistencies, whilst some of the most logical theories appear to be unbelievable.

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