Empiricism, or the belief that knowledge is achieved through the senses, was a popular belief amongst some of the greatest modern philosophers. Perhaps the most prominent Empiricists were John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, all of whom are regarded as some of the most influential philosophers of the last 500 years. Each of those philosophers can be considered Empiricists due to the importance of experience throughout their philosophical principles. More specifically, Locke’s empirical views can be seen in his idea of the primary and secondary qualities of an object.
Berkeley’s empiricism is evident in his critique of Locke’s concept of abstract ideas. Lastly, Hume can be considered as the most consistent empiricist of the group as he did not waver from experience being the source of knowledge and at the root of reasoning. His views are evident in his concept of humans having perceptions and impressions and his idea of “self”. John Locke’s empirical views are evident throughout his philosophical principles.
Locke believed that there were no such things as innate thoughts and that the only way a person could obtain knowledge about something is through directly experiencing it. This is especially evident in his explanation of objects having primary and secondary qualities. Locke suggests that all things posses two qualities about them: primary qualities and secondary qualities. Primary qualities consist of traits that are completely within the object such as the shape of a ball. This primary quality about the ball will not change even when viewed from a different perspective because that is the physical structure of the ball. On the contrary, a secondary quality is a trait that requires perception by an observer.
Secondary qualities are relative to the observer and change depending on the observer’s perspective or the physical differences between observers. For example, the color of the ball can change depending on the lighting in the room or due to an observer being color blind. In his 4th book of his Essay, Locke writes,“We cannot demonstrate the certain equality of any two degrees of whiteness; because we have no certain standard to measure them by, nor means to distinguish every the least real difference, the only help we have being from our senses, which in this point fail us.
” (Locke, Book 4, Chp 2, #13). In other words, he is saying that the secondary quality of the color white cannot be scientifically quantified because each individual’s perception of the color is different which prevents us from being able to determine the true “whiteness” of the given object. Locke makes this distinction between primary and secondary qualities in a response to the idea of innate thoughts, or thoughts that are naturally ingrained in our minds without having to experience them.
Further, Locke is suggesting that innate thoughts are simply common experiences. Locke also believed that the primary qualities of an object were things that could quantified and measured by the Newtonian science of the time. Lastly, Locke’s concept of primary and secondary qualities indicates that he is an Empiricist because they show that he believes that we need past experiences in order to have an idea about different objects. Without experiencing the color red previously, we wouldn’t have an idea of how red a ball is. George Berkeley’s philosophical methodologies and principles reflect empiricist ideas as well.
This is evident in his critique of John Locke’s concept of abstract ideas. According to Locke, we can come up with an abstract view of, say a cat, by taking our experiences of many different cats and extracting from them common properties that all cats have. This abstract idea therefore applies to all cats despite their size, breed, or coat color. Berkeley argued that these abstract ideas cannot be thought about in our mind without creating an image of a particular cat in our minds. One cannot imagine a cat that is neither big or little, of no specific breed, or colorless.
Berkeley addresses this idea in his book A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, saying, “Whether others have this wonderful faculty of ABSTRACTING THEIR IDEAS, they best can tell: for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself, the ideas of those particular things I have perceived. ” (Berkeley, 10). In other words, Berkeley is saying that unlike others who claim to be able to come up with abstract ideas, he is only capable of imagining these “abstract ideas” with previous particulars that he already experienced at some point.
The author of our textbook, William Lawhead summarized Berkeley’s critique quite nicely, saying “We can think of, speak about, and imagine only particular things. ” (pg 322). Furthermore, George Berkeley’s critique of abstract ideas reflects his empiricist views because they show how important experience is to his concept of ideas. To Berkeley, one cannot come up with abstract ideas because we always draw on previous experiences to give us an idea of what we’re thinking about. This is a more strict version of Empiricism compared to Locke’s.
David Hume’s concept of perceptions are simply the contents of our consciousness, similar to what Locke would call an idea (Lawhead, 336). Hume further breaks down perceptions into two categories: impressions and ideas. To Hume, all original experiences are considered impressions. These impressions remain as “copies” in our mind and we draw upon them when we have a similar experience later on in life. These “copies” of the original impression are what Hume calls an idea.
In his work, Treatise of Human Nature, Hume says “When we search for the characteristic, which distinguishes the memory from the imagination, we must immediately perceive, that it cannot lie in the simple ideas it presents to us; since both these faculties borrow their simple ideas from the impressions, and can never go beyond these original perceptions. ” (Hume, Section 5). In other words, Hume is saying that when one is trying to think about a characteristic of an object we always revert back to the original impression that we previously had in our mind from a past experience. Further, Hume is saying that even simple ideas about an object are faint memories of our previous experiences.
David Hume can be considered the most consistent Empiricist especially when considering his idea on a person’s perception of self (or lack thereof in this case). Lawhead described this simply by saying “Hume maintains that when we introspect we only find some particular perception of one sort another. If you focus on your experience right now you find puzzlement, tiredness, heat, anger.. What you don’t find is a self. ” (pg 340). This is an extremely empirical way of looking at one’s self. Hume is such a consistent.
Empiricist that he goes so far to say that we cannot have an idea of our self, because our minds always revert back to previous experiences of other perceptions. In addition to this, Hume suggests that we cannot even be certain about things such as the sun rising tomorrow. To Hume, the only reason that we know the sun will rise tomorrow is because of all of the past experiences and perceptions that we’ve had of the sun rising each morning.
Therefore, we can only be certain of things that we have experienced. These two beliefs by Hume are evidence that he was the most strict Empiricist of the group mentioned above. John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume can all be considered Empiricists due to the prevalence of experience in their philosophical principles.Locke’s experience oriented principles can be observed in his idea of primary and secondary qualities of an object. Berkeley’s can be seen in his critique of Locke’s abstract ideas, which Berkeley suggests do not exist. Lastly, David Hume, who can be considered the most strict Empiricist, demonstrates his empirical views in his concepts of impressions and idea and his lack of self perception.