The debate between empiricism and rationalism seems to be the parallel equivalent of the debate between Catholicism and

Protestantism. Both are opposite extremes of one another, conflicting on nearly every foundation on which they are built. Being a devout Protestant himself, it is interesting to find that Locke’s theory of the origin of knowledge directly contradicts his own faith. For Locke, our knowledge is founded and derived entirely “from experience” (Locke, 7). This theory also brings about the assumption that experience is the sole origin of ideas. Everything we can think and know—ideas—can be synthesized and made certain based on experience. Experience is divided into two “fountains of knowledge from which all…ideas…do spring” (7): sensation and reflection. Before reflection can happen, people must experience sensation. By using sensory organs, such as our eyes, nose, ears and our central nervous system, we can “convey into the mind several perceptions of things” (7) and how “objects do effect them” (7). From these sensations “we come by those ideas we have of [color, temperature, texture and taste]” (7). All human beings are capable of sensation (so long as they have sensory organs), which explains why all human beings have ideas. Evidence of this universal human ability is also seen in individuals who have fewer sensory organs than a normal person. Despite being blind and deaf from a young age, Helen Kellar was still able to have ideas. Ideas obtained through sense are known as simple ideas, since anyone may experience them easily. As universal as it may be, the concept of sensation does not address why some people have more ideas than others. Through sensation, people are able to engage in the other side of experience: reflection. When a person reflects on an idea obtained through sensation—a simple idea—it becomes refined (7). Reflecting expands the simple idea of what something is into refined ideas of why and how something is. People can obtain the simple idea that fire is hot through the senses, but through reflection they can refine this idea into concepts of temperature and even molecular combustion. The process of going from sensation to reflection is not made clear by Locke, just that “[i]n time the mind comes to reflect…about the ideas gotten by sensation” (11).


A person’s ability to reflect defines how many ideas a person has, or how much knowledge they have. This does not entirely explain the issue of why some people are more apt at reflecting than others. It can be said that people are more apt at reflecting than others because circumstances provide more opportunity. The more sensory ideas you reflect upon, the more ideas you will have. It is easily determined that the more a person experiences, the more a person will reflect, but why one reflects more than others is not explained by Locke. It is doubtful that this question can be easily answered, but logically it seems that the lifestyle of a person is a determining factor. In Locke’s time, people who could read and write would naturally be more likely to reflect than the illiterate. The educated part of society would almost be forced to reflect on a daily basis whereas the uneducated would have less opportunity to do so. Not everyone was given the same opportunity to reflect, yet had they been, would everyone have an equal level of reflection? The answer to this question is easily found in today’s society. Today, in the western world, the playing field is more level compared to the past. Everyone is given the opportunity to read and write, yet reflection is still more apparent in some individuals than others. This shows that lifestyle is clearly not the only determining factor as to why some people reflect more than others. In directly avoiding this question of why some people reflect more than others, Locke leaves his argument open to some criticisms. If we’re all blank sheets and have the same pen then why do we reflect differently? Why do some people reflect while others do not on the same sensory ideas? Saying that, “[i]n time the mind comes to reflect” (11), that it just happens, is not enough to satisfy these crucial questions. For now, let us not “meddle with the physical consideration of the mind” (1). Let us avoid the question of why and accept that since everyone has the capacity to reflect then everyone should theoretically be able to attain the same level of knowledge. Everyone has the same tools to reflect—whether they do or not does not matter. According to Locke, what matters is that each person determines his own level of knowledge.


Locke’s empiricist ideas implicitly contradict the Protestant doctrine of which he was a devout follower. Instead, this theory connects with Catholic doctrine—a religion he vehemently opposed (Kierans). Catholic doctrine in Locke’s day no doubt implied that “[s]alvation was… something which could be earned or merited through good works” (McGrath 103). Through this belief people would consequently believe that they alone were in control of their fate. Essentially, for a person to be accepted by God and admitted into heaven, he had only to confess his sins and do good works. Through these good works a person could be certain about his ascension to heaven. Of course, this is completely contrary to the Protestant views which Locke held. For Protestants, the Catholic idea that an individual is in control of his fate takes away God’s role in salvation. Good deeds are indeed necessary for salvation, but it is impossible for a man to do good because “man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil” (Luther, Scholastic, 68). A man can only do good works if God, through his divine grace, enables that man to do so. “It is false to state that man’s [natural] inclination is free to choose between [good works and evil works]” (Luther, Scholastic, 68), but through God’s supernatural grace it is possible to change man’s inclination. From his theory about the origin of human ideas, Locke implies that the level of knowledge a person has is totally dependent on the individual person’s ability to reflect on what he has sensually experienced. By stating that experience is the sole origin of knowledge, Locke also dismisses the possibility that God has a role in the individual’s level of knowledge. To dismiss the possibility of God’s role is, in many ways, contrary to Protestant doctrine. Instead, Locke’s empiricist theory is a close parallel to Catholic doctrine. Though Locke’s theory does not exactly refer to salvation, it still has some Catholic themes: that an individual is able to earn, or determine his own knowledge. This is similar to Catholic doctrine which implies that an individual is capable of earning his own way into heaven. As we can see, Locke’s theory


suggests that God has nothing to do with man’s ability to have ideas. Man has the sensations, man does the reflecting and thus man has the ideas. As previously mentioned, Protestants are against the Catholic idea that man is in control of his own salvation. Likewise, Descartes is opposed to Locke’s theory that man has total control over how much he knows. For Descartes, God plays a crucial role in man’s ability to have ideas. His main argument being that “God…endowed [man] with [innate] ideas” (Descartes 34). From these innate ideas comes man’s ability to reflect and expand his knowledge. Innate ideas act as a foundation in which all other ideas are built upon. Without them, man would seriously be limited in his reflections. Without these innate ideas, man would be no different than animals. But because God “impressed [these innate ideas]…upon [man]…[we] have…been made in [H]is image” (Descartes 34-35). Descartes’ theory also provides an answer to the crucial question Locke left open: Why do some people reflect more than others? This is easily answered with the concept of innate ideas. God simply provides men different levels of reflection based on the innate ideas He gave them. Similar to Protestant doctrine that man can only do good because God enables him to, Descartes’ theory suggests that man can only reflect and expand his knowledge because God enables him to. Both of these cases crucially depend on God, whereas Locke’s theory and Catholic doctrine do not require God as a necessity. Through the examination of both his theory and his Protestant beliefs, we can see that Locke’s origin of knowledge (experience) was contrary to Protestant doctrine. Contrary to Locke was Descartes, who, despite being Catholic, supported Protestant doctrine through his theory of innate ideas. In many ways Locke’s theory that ideas can come from experience is feasible, but his view that all ideas come from experience is not entirely convincing. Likewise, Descartes’ theory that all ideas are innate is equally hard to accept. I think that believing “all [ideas] must be innate or adventitious” (4) is the wrong perspective to take. In many ways, both theories can


support each other. I like to think that we are all indeed blank pages, but Someone gave each of us a title.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.