You are on page 1of 14


John Locke and David Hume are both empiricists, so this means they are of the belief that all knowledge is derived from experience. This means that there is no innate a priori1 knowledge. Locke claimed that our minds at birth are tabula rasa (a blank slate). By this he means that before birth we have no prior knowledge of anything. When asked, if the mind knows nothing at birth, how do we know things? Locke said “To this I answer, in one word, from experience”. So, to summarise, at birth our mind is void of anything, and as life goes on we gain knowledge and ideas through experience, and this is how we furnish our blank minds


Sense Impressions

Hume claims that all of our ideas are not originals, but rather just copies of the original sense impressions. He says “my ideas of ‘white’ and ‘cold’ are faded copies of sensing white and cold by, for instance, originally seeing and feeling snow”. He says that because the original experience was so forceful and vivid, it impresses upon your mind a copy of itself, like a stamp does. Hume is saying that ideas depend upon sense experience, and he proves by saying “A blind man can form no notions of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects”.

• I can therefore only have an idea if, and only if I have experienced a corresponding sense impression in the first place.

We can question this method by asking: how can we have the idea of a unicorn if we’ve never experienced one? Hume answers this by saying that you have 1) experienced a horn and… 2) experienced a horse. You have simply combined the two ideas together to form a complex idea.


Knowledge without experience

• So, to conclude, to really understand anything we must first have a first hand sense impression of it. Take a mountain for example. We could never really comprehend what a mountain is until we have experienced it. Trying to describe something we have never experienced would just be empty words.

Criticisms of Locke & Hume on ideas
What is the sense data theory? The sense data theory says that the perceiver does not experience the object itself, but rather a representation of the object. So, the perceiver sees a perception rather than the real thing.

Perceiver object


Empiricism presents us with two questions: 1) Is there an external world, beyond sense impressions, at all? 2) Even if there is, in what way could our ideas be said to reflect that external reality?

Empiricists who hold onto the sense data theory have difficulties proving the existence of the external world. This is because the sense data theory says that you only perceive a perception, and not the object, so there is no way of proving that the object really exists, only that your personal perception exists. This also means that it has difficulty in explaining the possibility that multiple people can share the same ideas Another problem empiricists have is that they take for granted that a person’s sense impression is their own, and cannot be another’s. My sense impressions are mine, yours are yours, and neither of us can have the others. We find problems in this when it comes down to knowing exactly what something is. This is because our words we have, stand for ideas, and these ideas stand for sense impressions. Sense impressions (after scepticism) stand for themselves. This means that, since you sense impressions are different to mine, our words mean different things. If two people smell a bun and both describe it as cinnamon, even though you’re using the same word, your meaning different things due to different sense experiences. When I think of cinnamon I could be thinking of a cinnamon stick,

whilst your cinnamon could relate to the smell of a pudding. Neither sense is exactly the same, for they are our own sense impressions that we can not share. This all points to the fact that;

This leads to certain implications.


Because empiricists think that all of our ideas derive from our sense impressions, this can lead to certain implications: 1) The external world might not exist and even if it did it is unknowable 2) I can never share ideas with others, and neither can they share ideas with me. I appear to be completely self-contained!

Implication 1 comes from the train of thought that if all our ideas are sense impressions, and sense impressions are merely representations of the object, then we can never truly have knowledge of the external world. • Implication 2 implies something else:
• -


If all of our sense data is private… we cannot share ideas with anyone else

• Then how do I know that everything in the world isn’t all constituted in my mind? • If this is the case then everything in the world, everything and anything I experience and any ideas I have come from me, and everything in the world is inseparable from me! • If everything in the world is constituted in and only in my mind, and inseparable from me, then this can only lead to one thing...

• •

• •

Therefore, Empiricism is leading us really far away from common sense! It’s leading us down a road where everything we think about is really ourselves! This is preposterous, for it takes reality away from our sense impressions, which is the root of our problem anyway. Therefore this point is ignorable. Empiricists are trying to prove that there are mind-dependent objects, and that people can share ideas, so let’s go from there. In ignoring the idea that idea’s are copies of exclusive sense impressions this closes of the possibility of sharing ideas. We can also question other aspects of the empirical philosophy. Are ideas really just copies of sense impressions at all? Can we have ideas without the need of the initial sense impressions? You can understand and have an idea of something without experiencing it. Descartes uses the example of a Chiliagon (a thousand sided shape) to explain. He says that he can understand what a Chiliagon is even though he has never experienced one. He can distinguish the difference between that and other Polygons. Descartes was a rationalist.

But, in a way, everyone might agree that in some form or another sense impressions are necessary for ideas, if you consider that sense impressions is just another way of saying ‘experience’ as it is commonly understood.


• Tabula rasa (veined marble), is a theory which is built upon the notion that experience is necessary. • It was suggested by Leibniz, who says that “the experiences gained through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling unlock the innate ideas in us’ He referred to this as Veined marble. • An example of this would be that of a Greek sculptor sculpting Hercules out of veined marble. The sculpture of Hercules is already in the veins of the marble, and the sculptor is needed to carve away the outer marble to get to the veins inside. • In the analogy, the veined marble is the innate knowledge, and the sculptor is the experience needed to unlock the pre-existing knowledge.

The Role of words • Words are thought of as merely labels for different things and objects to most people. Therefore, words gain their meaning by naming things. • Philosopher Jonathan Swift ridicules this idea by pointing out that if you were having a conversation with someone you would have to have examples on hand for every words you use, otherwise how would they know what you’re meaning? • Empiricists maintain the notion that experience alone can produce ideas. They ‘prove this’ with Hume’s example of a blind man gaining notions of colours only after his sight is given to him. • But, if you consider how we learn, then you realise a lot of things you know you have never experienced, but rather have been given the knowledge by teachers, friends or a role model of some sort. • When we are learning things, a teacher will often correct us or point us in the right path. We may learn something wrong. For example, if we believed 2+5=7 and this is what we have experienced on our own, without the teacher showing us our mistake, we may never realise and continue to believe we are wrong. • The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is a major miscalculation. A better saying would be that practice makes permanent. In which case, if we by ourselves learn something through experience which is wrong, unless we have teacher to show us our mistake, we will keep this wrong notion within us. • We could not rely on sense impressions to correct our own false knowledge.

• • • •

After coming to the conclusion that sense impressions alone are not enough to acquire all of our ideas, we know that we must draw upon what is already known, either by us or others. A problem we are immediately faced with after coming to this conclusion is what if what we already know is wrong? If you think of an equation, and ‘know’ that 2+3=4, then this is wrong. You need a clear idea of something, and then you can discover the truth. So, to get the correct answer to the equation, you must first have a clear idea of what’s involved. In such situations, we also use our understanding. But, what is a clear idea of something? It is the idea of what something ought to be, an accurate representation of what it is.

• • •

• •

• •

• •

Descartes believed that the sun was not what everyone else believed at his time to be, a heavenly essence, or a small light in the sky but rather something several times larger than the earth. He based his ideas upon the reasons of astronomy. His belief then was perfectly rational. Bacon believed that ‘mathematics is the key to science...’ Galileo did an experiment with an inclined wooden plane, and a smooth bronze ball and timed how long the ball took to travel a certain distance. What he really wanted to observe and prove was ‘mathematically reducible motion’. He came to the conclusion that the world is moving bodies expressed mathematically. Descartes agreed with Galileo, believing that the only way to read the world is done through maths. Descartes said he knew this a priori, and shows it by considering the idea of a stone. He first considered the variable properties of the stone, such as its hardness, heaviness, colour and temperature. But, he goes on to class these as accidental properties belonging to the idea of the stone. He narrows down the ‘essence of the stone’ to nothing more than something extended in length, breadth and depth. The essence is mathematically conceivable extended in space. Descartes thinks he knows then, just by thinking about it, the essence of bodies. Galileo and Descartes agree this is done using the language of mathematics: the exercise of pure reason.

• Another example is that of the wax. Descartes also points out that even after the wax has melted, we still know that it is wax. Even though all the qualities that we sense have changed, we innately know that it is the same wax. • Descartes says that innate ideas are clear and distinct, and cannot be confused by the sense. • He reflects on his own analysis on the idea of the Chiliagon. He realised that although he cannot gather a clear image of what it is through sense impressions and imagination, he can still conceive the idea clearly, independently of his sense and imagination clearly. • We can still work with these ideas grasped intellectually with our innate rational capacity. • Leibniz helps Descartes out. He says:

“A corpuscle hundreds of thousands times smaller than any bit of dust which flies through the air, together with other corpuscles of the same subtlety ca be dealt with by reason”

It is your intellect and reason which keeps your understanding free from confusion, much like a mathematician. Descartes therefore deduces as a certainty that there is a necessary symmetry between innate understanding and the real structure of the universe. This means he is able to understand how the universe ought to be, and therefore he has a clear idea of the universe. Descartes moves on to say that this symmetry is sustained by God, because God is supremely perfect, and because of this he would not deceive us. Spinoza is a lot more radical than Descartes, and says that we are all just a part of God’s infinite intellect...!

Criticisms of Rationalism

Rationalism has two stands; 1) Innate ideas/ knowledge

2) The use of reason alone can
provide the knowledge of the world


• •

• •

The problem with the reasoning alone providing the knowledge is evident with how we exert our reasoning. Galileo did a scientific experiment, but the problem is: it is an experiment. These are needed by the rationalist to confirm or correct hypothesis. Hume points out though that this is restricted by sample, and that this in turn leads to generalisation. Scientific generalisations are based on inductive arguments, which are never logically justified by evidence. The problem being this cannot be considered clear cut proof. Another problem for rationalism is the continuous use of God to answer problems that arise within its theories. There are multiple problems with using God to support your arguments. Descartes stated that all of our innate knowledge comes from God! The Problem with this is the fact that if all of us received our innate knowledge from God, then surely all of us would have the same knowledge. If this is the case then all of us would be at the same ability with math, which evidently we are not. Also, Descartes has the idea that God exists within us innately, then surely we would all have belief in God, but we don’t.

• Hume says that the innate knowledge Descartes claims is merely connections between ideas in the world and is not substantive enough knowledge of the world.

Relation of ideas Matters of Fact
Relations of Ideas are a priori, as they do not rely on experience of any kind in the universe Matters of fact are entirely dependant on experience, and are therefore a posteriori

These ideas are presented to us by; A) Intuition sense

A) Outward

We can just see the truth is impressed upon

• Where an experience

of the proposition when given the sense to which causes us facts. idea. B) Demonstration sentiment

our outward

to have an

B) Inward

the use of knowledge our inward senses

an impression on

found by intuition to show something a corresponding idea. that cannot be known otherwise.

causes us to have

Relations of ideas are Analytic propositions because they could not have different outcomes or truths. Therefore they are Necessary. • Matters of fact are Synthetic propositions for although they are true, they could have been otherwise. This makes them Contingent.

Hume regards anything that does not fit into his fork as either Sophistry or Illusion.


The Question we are faced with now is “How can we make sure our thoughts accurately capture reality?”
• Our ideas are about the world supposedly, but how do we know that what we think accurately captures reality? • Often our ideas can turn out to be false or misleading. • Empiricists John Locke and David Hume would say that the only ideas we get are through our sense experiences smell, touch, taste, hear and see, and that because of this we will avoid ambiguity.

The problem with this we find is that sense data theory, leaves the independent world entirely unknowable to us, and is therefore not a good theory.

• Rationalist Descartes would counter this by saying you have to look at the underlying nature of the object or event.

The problem here is that Descartes does not trust his own theory in case he is being deceived by a powerful Demon... He tries to use God to say that God would not allow him to be deceived, but again he cannot use this because you need God to prove the truth of innate ideas, and vice. Neither of these we can prove without the other, so we negate both.

• So, if both Descartes Rationalist theory and the empiricists Locke & Hume’s theories are wrong, what other theories do we have to turn to?

Here we turn to Emmanuel Kant, and his Synthesis

• •

• •

• • • •

Emmanuel Kant begins by looking at how we normally look at the world. So far, everyone seems to have conformed to the thought that all of our knowledge has come from or conform to objects. Kant also points out that any attempt to prove this has always ended in absolute, unequivocal failure! He analyzes what is necessary to experience things. He notes that whilst he is experiencing reading writing and thinking, that he must be doing it within space and time. Is it possible that you can experience things outside the concept of space and time? Apparently not... in which case in order to experience anything, space and time become necessary dimensions needed to experience anything. But, if this is so, you could not experience the concept of space and time because you must first have the dimensions of space and time. This means that must have ideas of space and time a priori because otherwise you could experience anything. But, not all the truths we experience are analytic, and this means that since we know these things a priori through space and time, then we can

have... • This analysis led Kant to the analysis that the mind had three categories:
1. Sensibility – mind can be receptive to objects and events

(intuition) 2. Understanding – the mind can think, imagine and Judge (so it has concepts) 3. Reason – the mind has the power to make logical references.

• •

He points out that these powers need something to work on, otherwise they are idle. They need to be activated otherwise the raw sensations remain unintelligent. But, how are these three powers unified into one? Kant says that we have a body made up of a priori rules which synthesises experience into an integrated whole. So, Kant has founded a new synthesis which harmonises Empiricism with Rationalism! He says that empiricists were right in thinking that ideas were in some way grounded in experience, otherwise they would be empty. And the rationalist were right to think that a priori knowledge was possible, only instead of a priori revealing the structure and anatomy of things (noumenon), it reveals the structure their experience must have (phenomenon).

Kant showed us that the mind has more active power than first thought by Hume, who thought that the mind was more of a passive model. • Kant introduced that the mind had a certain schema. Of course, his schema is not definitely the correct one, but schemas do seem to be influential on how we think. • A good way to explain this would be an example.

Here is a picture. Tell me what you see? A Duck? A Rabbit? Now I have said both you can see both. Neither is wrong, yet you can see both there. The picture does not change, only the idea and the way you look at it does. Whatever you see first is affected by a schema. • But, how do we get these schemas, and how do they affect our day to day living?

• Sapir and Whorf both agree that at birth our minds are blank slates. Therefore, at birth no particular schema has precedent over another. • This means that as we grow up we gain/ are given a schema from our environment and community. • Everyone speaks differently, and think differently to one another. But within certain groups and communities people talk and think the same, if not very similarly. • Our schema is heavily influenced by our environment and community. As we grow up, we experience things from our community and environment, which impose themselves on us and help to create our schema. • The way people talk using language effect the way you use language and think in your head. If you are brought up with swearing parents, swearing becomes a comfortable part of your vocabulary. If not, then hearing someone swear will have more effect on you. • Whorf points out that we cannot remove ourselves from our culturally biased schema, because we cannot help how our mind works. • Also, if we all look at the world through this schema lens, yet no person has the same lens. How do we know what lens is best? • No schema can accurately show the world in its purity for everyone sees it differently. Therefore no schema is any greater than another. • But, can we choose our own schema for ourselves? Look at the world through a different lens so to speak? • Quine says that when we talk about the world we are already imposing onto it some conceptual schema specific to our own special language. • Therefore, we are unable to check another interpretation and decide which one we like best.

• • • •

So to make sense of the world and communicate to others and ourselves our understanding we use language. But, every language in the world is different. Does this then mean that speaking in different languages means using different schemas? If so, could learning another language and speaking multiple languages mean I can look at the world in different schemas? Or does it just mean that these languages have changed my own personal schema?

Political Correctness
• Another thing to observe is political correctness. • In a way, it is really just a way of trying to find a purer schema for language. • But, if this is so, does that then mean that some words are not what we first thought? Think about some changes in our own society right now:

• You can no longer say Merry Christmas on the radio, but rather happy holidays! • Ba ba black sheep is now sung ba ba RAINBOW sheep!

• You are not allowed to wear crosses at the airport! Does this then mean that saying Merry Christmas on the radio is meant to be some racial attack on other cultures, or an insult in some way? Has black become some sort of bad word? Is wearing a cross no longer an expression of your faith, but an insult to other religions? No, of course not! Black is merely a label for a colour. Anything other racist meaning has been attached to it by some people’s schema, in this case political correctness. Saying merry Christmas is merely wishing people happy holidays but to a particular culture.
Christians do not mean to offend anyone, and any references to that have been added on to it again by political correctness, and other people schema’s making them believe it is in some way racist to say this.

As for the cross, it is merely an expression of loving God. Again this is just a part of some people’s schemas, and yet again other people have in their schema lens something which makes them take it as some personal insult. The cross in itself is merely an object. The symbolism is added to it by a schema, and offense taken by it is from another schema.