Locke and Berkeley
The “British Empiricists” were:
These notes cover Locke and Berkeley. There are separate
notes on Hume.
John Locke held all the following views:
Epistemological empiricism: Nihil in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu.
(“There’s nothing in the intellect that wasn’t previously
in the senses.”)
According to Locke, the mind at birth is a tabula rasa
No ideas are innate. Locke
applies Ockham’s Razor to innate ideas: we can explain everything we
know without invoking innate ideas (our senses are enough); so innate
ideas are unnecessary.
Metaphysical nominalism: only particular things exist (not concepts,
abstractions, Forms, etc.)
Psychological atomism: according to Locke, the ultimate building
blocks of knowledge are simple, discrete perceptual units (his “simple
“Simple” here means “from a single sense,” and thus not able to be broken down
into smaller constituent parts.
Three kinds of complex ideas are built from simple ones:
compounds (“red house” = "red" + "house");
relations (“taller than,” “loves”)
“abstractions” (see below) which lead us to
general ideas, e.g., “blue”, “dog”
“Abstraction” is the name of a mental process by which general
ideas are generated from particular ideas.
You see Lassie, Spot, Fido, etc., and you notice they’re all
somehow the same, and your recognition of this resemblance
causes you to “abstract” the general idea of “dog” from all
these specific cases of individual dogs.
Note that abstraction is only possible if we have some innate faculty of
recognizing resemblances — a problem for Locke, who rejects all innate ideas.
Hume, later, defends the notion of resemblance as an innate “principle of association of ideas.”
is the view that concepts are general ideas that arise by abstraction
from real similarities in nature.
For example, a conceptualist would say the concept of “dog” – as
well as any other general concept – arises by abstraction in the manner described above.
is Locke’s view that we experience objects indirectly through “representations”.
The mind represents the world, but does not duplicate it. Descartes
also held this view.
Representative realism is opposed
to naïve realism, the view that the mind literally duplicates or “mirrors”
are measurable using numbers (e.g., size, weight). They
represent the world as it is “objectively”, the same for everyone.
Secondary qualities result from the interaction of sense data with our
sense organs, i.e., they are “subjective”. They represent nothing
about world as it is, but only about the world as it appears
to each of us individually and privately.
The problem of substance:
Recall that for Descartes, we have
an innate idea of substance, as shown in the argument of the wax.
Both Descartes and Locke conclude there’s a real substantive world
“out there” that has certain qualities (the primary qualities). The
primary qualities are qualities of the underlying “substance” (from
sub (under) and stance
But if Locke is committed to the view that
all knowledge comes from the senses, he can’t allow that we know substance, since we have no sensation
of substance (we have sensations only of the qualities). Thus an essential
element of Locke’s empiricist philosophy remains unsupported (and
unsupportable) by Locke’s empiricist principles.
One reason Locke is significant in the history of philosophy is
that his views have appeared to have relativist implications. Relativism is the view that no one can
have perfectly objective knowledge. “Objective” here means “the same for everyone.”
(See separate notes on Relativism.)
Relativism seems to follow from Locke’s epistemology
because according to Locke, all knowledge comes from the senses. Since
everyone has a unique set of sense experiences, no two people will have
exactly the same sense experiences. If knowledge comes only from the senses,
no two people will have the same knowledge, and as long as people ground their
beliefs in their sense data, nobody’s beliefs are “better” or “truer” than anyone else’s.
Although many philosophers today believe that no one has
perfect objectivity – no one has the God’s eye view, or, as Thomas Nagel puts it,
“the view from nowhere” – most would say that ordinary sense perception does
reveal a similar (if not identical) world to us, and that some beliefs about this world are
(objectively, empirically) more reasonable than others. E.g., on the basis of our shared
sense data, it is reasonable to believe that if I jump off the Empire State
Building, I will get hurt. So even if no one has perfect objectivity, you still
can’t believe whatever you like.
Locke is also important for his influence on views like
behaviorist psychology, which says that because we cannot have sense experiences
of other people’s mental states, we can have no knowledge of others’ mental states.
(Do you think this is true, or even plausible?) Psychologists today almost universally
reject these claims of behaviorism.
Scientists today also almost universally reject Locke’s
naïve empiricist claim that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa. Brain physiology
is clearly pretty similar from individual to individual. In the course of normal
development, innate brain structures give rise to common human perceptions
and behaviors. For example, the brain comes with standard-issue equipment
to learn language, and all normal humans manifest language.
Although some of Locke’s empiricist views have been modified,
and others rejected, this does not show the empiricist approach wrong;
on the contrary, investigators have modified and rejected Locke’s views
simply because those views are not supported by the available empirical evidence.
George Berkeley held all the following views:
Locke did not apply Ockham’s razor vigorously enough. Berkeley
applies Ockham’s razor to Locke’s notion of substance.
Experience is the source of most knowledge (except knowledge
of self and knowledge of God). So Berkeley is an empiricist, but with
an interesting idealist twist.
All and only perceptions (qualities) are experienced.
According to Berkeley, all experience is conscious, or, in
other words, mental; we experience only “ideas”.
Thus we never have
direct experience of things themselves.
Thus our experience does not support the view that there
are things outside the mind at all.
So-called “material” things are really just
clusters of ideas.
Thus, there’s no way to distinguish primary and secondary
qualities. All qualities are secondary (the object for me). Measurable
qualities (so-called “primary” qualities) are just as “subjective” as
color and taste, since all qualities are “in my head”.
Thus, to be is to be perceived (esse est percipi).
But our experiences appear to be consistent with the experience
of (supposed) “other people”. Also, things appear to exist continuously;
they don’t appear to flash in and out of being depending on whether
they’re being perceived. This
inter-subjective agreement and apparent continuity of perception is
due to the watchful attention of God – the great perceiver who never
looks away. We can thus derive knowledge of the existence of God from
a transcendental argument (God must exist for our experience to be what
Berkeley also accepts the Cartesian view that we know our
own existence innately.
What is the problem of substance in Locke?
What role does God play in Berkeley’s metaphysics and epistemology?
How does Berkeley’s empiricism differ from Locke’s? (Be sure to give Berkeley’s
reasons for disagreeing with Locke.)
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