Locke and Berkeley

Sandra LaFave

The “British Empiricists” were:

  1. John Locke (1632-1704)

  2. George Berkeley (1685-1753)

  3. David Hume (1711-1776)

These notes cover Locke and Berkeley. There are separate notes on Hume.



John Locke held all the following views:

  1. Epistemological empiricism: Nihil in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu. (“There’s nothing in the intellect that wasn’t previously in the senses.”)

  2. According to Locke, the mind at birth is a tabula rasa (blank slate).

  3. 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.

  4. Metaphysical nominalism: only particular things exist (not concepts, abstractions, Forms, etc.)

  5. Psychological atomism: according to Locke, the ultimate building blocks of knowledge are simple, discrete perceptual units (his “simple ideas”).

    “Simple” here means “from a single sense,” and thus not able to be broken down into smaller constituent parts.

  6. 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”

  7. “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.”

  8. Conceptualism” 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.

  9. Representative realism” 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” external reality.

  10. Primary qualities 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.

  11. 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 (standing)). 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:

  1. Locke did not apply Ockham’s razor vigorously enough. Berkeley applies Ockham’s razor to Locke’s notion of substance.

  2. 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.

  3. All and only perceptions (qualities) are experienced.

  4. According to Berkeley, all experience is conscious, or, in other words, mental; we experience only “ideas”.

  5. Thus we never have direct experience of things themselves.

  6. 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.

  7. 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”.

  8. Thus, to be is to be perceived (esse est percipi).

  9. 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 it is).

  10. Berkeley also accepts the Cartesian view that we know our own existence innately.


Sample Essay Questions

  1. What is the problem of substance in Locke?

  2. What role does God play in Berkeley’s metaphysics and epistemology?

  3. How does Berkeley’s empiricism differ from Locke’s? (Be sure to give Berkeley’s reasons for disagreeing with Locke.)


Sandy's X10 Host Home Page | Sandy's Google Sites Home Page
Questions or comments? sandy_lafave@yahoo.com