In this essay I will be exploring the basic principles of British Empiricism and the importance of Locke’s ‘Theory of Ideas’ in relation to the ideas and problems that it eventually gave rise to. The notion of Empiricism itself is one that brings with it agreement from some and great criticism from others. Through reading and dissecting different texts by both Philosophers Locke and Berkeley, I will give an insight on both sides of the argument of the relevance of Empiricism within society both back when it was first spoken of and now.
British Empiricism was a philosophical movement between the 17th – 18th century in which all knowledge was declared as coming from experience; i.e. sensation and reflection. It’s methodology was centered on observation, experimentation and measurement rather than abstract theorising based on belief. Because of this, it grew in popularity due to the development of scientific thought occurring at the time which rejected the traditional Platonic thought which saw knowledge as beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience (transcendent). As well as this, there was an ongoing political upheaval in England which meant people were becoming more and more detached from the old social and political securities in which they were bred into. One of the principal philosophers associated with this movement is it’s key exponent and founder, John Locke (1632 – 1704). He considered it his purpose to enquire into the original, certainty and extent of human knowledge and did so by offering an analysis of the human mind and it’s acquisition of knowledge. In his most important work ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1689) he talks of how we acquire ideas through our experience of the world. ‘The understanding is like the eye in this respect: it makes us see and perceive all other things but doesn’t look in on itself (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 1: Innate Notions, p. 1). By this he means that although we may believe to have true knowledge on things, unless we understand how exactly we perceive these thoughts then we can not have full understanding of them. It is through his insight that people realised we have to know about ourselves before we can really know about anything else.
Through experiencing things we gain knowledge from them. The interaction with external objects allows our mind to build an idea of them; this immediate perception of something is what the contents of our mind is based upon. ‘Our senses when applied to particular perceptible objects convey into the mind many distinct perceptions of things, according to the different ways in which the objects affect them.’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book 2: Ideas, p.18) Here Locke is implying that ideas are the result of sensations themselves. By seeing things such as colour and motion or touching something and identifying it’s warmth or texture (stimulation of the senses) we build an idea of that particular object/being and provide ourselves with a sense of knowledge to which we can compare to in future and ultimately expand our knowledge more. The ideas are born through experience and by reflecting upon them we expand our knowledge and ultimately understand how we perceive things. We construct complex knowledge from simple ideas. ‘The qualities that affect our senses are intimately united and blended in the things themselves, but it is obvious that the ideas they produce in the mind enter (via the senses) simple and unmixed.’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book 2: Ideas, p. 23) Further acknowledgement that all knowledge is derived through experience, as repeated reflection on simple ideas eventually results in a more definite grasp on what it means to truly know something.
This is enforcing what was spoken about in the first book, when discussing how there are no ideas in the mind that have not at some point been experienced as new ones; ‘consider whether there are any innate ideas in the mind before impression from sensation or reflection’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book I: Innate Notions, p. 16). Again, Locke is stating that it is experience of sensation and the act of reflection which allows knowledge to be gained and shape the way we think.
In ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ Locke also speaks of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities in which ideas resemble their particular causes. ‘Whatever the mind perceives in itself, I call an idea; and the power to produce an idea in our mind I call a quality of the thing that has that power.’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book II: Ideas, p.30) By this he is referring to the sensations or perceptions in our understandings that are caused by the object itself. The primary causes include size, shape, number, texture and motion. When discussing primary qualities Locke states they are ‘ones that a body doesn’t lose, however much it alters’. In this he means that regardless of circumstance, the object itself retains all of these qualities throughout it’s perception. As well as these, there are secondary qualities which include sound, taste, odor and colour. Locke describes these as ‘qualities that are nothing but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book II: Ideas, p.30). By this he is implying that these secondary qualities are merely the results of the primary ones having the power to produce sensations within ourselves to be perceived as something separate. Again, returning to the notion that all knowledge comes from experience, as it is when we have experienced something that we are able to produce a sensation and further develop our perception of it. Primary qualities create ideas which resemble their causes whereas secondary qualities do not.
As well as this, Locke speaks of a process called ‘abstraction’. He describes it as when ‘an idea taken from a particular thing becomes a general representative of all of the same kind’ (Locke, An Essay…, Book II: Ideas, p. 41). In this, he is referring to how general ideas are formed through particular impressions gained from finding common features between individual objects. The mind itself generalises particular ideas to make it easier to distinguish between those that have greater differences, regarding separate things as having the same qualities to group them together in our minds and make them easier to understand. An example of this might be how many people often regard things that are yellow and bright in colour – such as the sun or daffodils – as being inherently happy or having positive undertones. All of the minds general ideas are made through this process.
However, the way in which our minds perceive things and form simple, general and even complex ideas can cause problems in relation to our knowledge of the world and other people. Another philosopher associated with this movement of British Empiricism is George Berkeley (1685 – 1753), who, although agreeing with Locke in many instances, within his work ‘A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’ (1710) expressed some criticisms of his beliefs on knowledge itself. In particular, he was critical of Locke’s theory of abstraction; he cites in this text when discussing the formation of knowledge that ‘it doth not appear to me that those notions are formed by abstraction in the manner premised’ (Berkeley, A Treatise…, Introduction, p. 6) referring to the suggestion by Locke of how general ideas are made into being. Rather, he finds that things being in their own nature and sharing common features are in their own nature ‘particular and rendered universal.’ As well as this, Berkeley’s argument is that Locke’s account does not allow for the abstraction of ideas through the primary and secondary qualities stated. ‘Extension, figure and motion are only ideas existing in the mind, and that an idea can be like nothing but another idea’ (Berkely, A Treatise…, Part 1, p. 14). He infers that the latter of these qualities can exist only in the mind and therefore cannot be definite if the primary cannot too; the idea itself is a contradiction as it denotes sensible qualities of colours, sounds and tastes into something dependent on it’s form. ‘I desire any one to reflect and try, whether he can by any abstraction of thought, conceive the extension and motion of a body, without all other sensible qualities.’ (Berkely, A Treatise…, Part 1, p. 14) Again, by saying this he is inferring he disagrees with Locke as his theory is a contradiction due to these secondary qualities being inconceivable when absent from the primary ones themselves.
Ultimately, Berkeley rejected Locke’s ideas because of his belief in idealism.