Empiricism by nature is the belief that there is no knowledge without experience. How can one know what something tastes like if they have never tasted it? For example, would someone know that an apple is red if they have never actually have seen one. Someone can tell you an apple is red, but, if you never have seen one, can you really be sure? Empiricists use three anchor points in which they derive their opinions from. The first of these points is; the only source of genuine knowledge is sense experience. An easier way to understand this is to compare the mind to a clean sponge.
As the sponge touches things, it takes with it, a piece of everything it touches. Without this, the sponge would remain clean and be void of anything other than its own material. With this conclusion, empiricist believes we must be content with the knowledge we have at hand, rather than things we have not yet been privy to. The second anchor point is; Reason is an unreliable and inadequate route to knowledge unless it is grounded in the solid bedrock of sense experience. Empiricists believe that all of our words meanings are derived from our experiences.
Everything can be traced back to a single moment in our lives. Empiricists understand that reason is necessary in helping us make our experience intelligible, but reason alone cannot provide knowledge. The third anchor point is; there is no evidence of innate Ideas within the mind that are known apart from experience. What this means is the mind does not possess ideas that are not backed by experience. In no case are there a priori truths that can both tell about the world and are known apart from experience.
When asked the three epistemological questions the three empiricists all have different answers. The first of these questions is; is knowledge possible? John Locke (1632-1704) states “Knowledge, however, is not something lying out there in the grass; it is located in our minds. So to understand knowledge we have to analyze the contents of our minds and see what they tell us about the world” (pg. 93). Locke believes that all of our known truths are made up of simple ideas. Simple ideas are what make up the rudimental elements of everything else we know to be true to us today.
For example, they consist of ideas such, hot and cold, soft and hard, bitter and sweet. They also give us experience through are own mental operations such as, reasoning, willing, knowing, and doubting. These ideas are then related to each other which is how the mind would come with up with the more complex ideas that are involved in critical thinking. Another of the classic empiricists is George Berkeley (1685-1753), who believes that knowledge is possible. He believed that “it was only through experience and not reason that we have knowledge of reality” (p. 99).
The best way to describe what Berkeley was trying to say would be found in what we call today idealism. Idealism by definition is a position that maintains that ultimate reality is mental or spiritual in nature. He believed that reality is made up in many individual minds rather than one cosmic mind. Hence, when Berkeley says that we have an idea of something he is not necessarily referring to a particular concept but to the experience of our memory of the combined ideas. The third empiricist is David Hume (1711-1776) and he does not answer this question as easily as the first two have.
He believes that knowledge is possible but is limited by what we cannot know about the world outside of our own experience. Since we can only know the contents of our individual minds, knowledge would and can be different for each person. Hume believes that sensory data is key for any individual in order to know something is real. For example, if two people were sitting together, one possessing the ability to see and hear and the other does not, could the one the latter really know that a car drove by and that fact that it was red?
Examples like this one are why Hume believes that knowledge is possible but limited to each person’s individual experiences in the world. The second epistemological question is; does reason provide us with knowledge of the world independently of experience? John Locke says the answer to this question is no. He uses arguments discussed in the third anchor point of empiricism to support this idea. Locke does not believe that reason alone can provide knowledge because we do not possess innate knowledge that we are not aware of.
To best describe this Locke proposes this model: “Suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? When man has painted on it with endless variety, how does it have all the materials of reason and knowledge to this question I answer, in one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded, and from that, it ultimately drives itself” (p94). Therefore, without these experiences Locke believes that we would not possess the concept of reason and because of that reason alone cannot provide us knowledge of the world.
Berkeley’s answer to the second question is no as well. He believed that it was only through experience and not reason that we have any knowledge of reality. Since our experiences differ from each individual, reality too will differ for each individual. These ideas as he calls them are the concrete contents of our minds. These ideas are provided through experience and not reason. Therefore, we can not posses’ knowledge through our reasoning because that reasoning would be based off of these ideas. Hume’s answer to this question again, is no.
Reason can only tell us about the relationship between our own ideas. In other words, reason can map the connections between our ideas we have in our minds, but it cannot connect those ideas and the external world. The knowledge we possess was attained through years of experience. The reason that we posses is to determine the relationships of these experiences or “truths”. There is no reason without truths, so how can reason alone tell us anything? The fact of the matter is that there would be no reasoning with these truths, therefore, reason alone cannot tell us anything about reality.
The third epistemological question is; does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Locke believe it does, but he says we must get clear on what parts of our experience objectively represent reality and what parts only reflect our own subjectivity (pg. 96). This is better explained by what Locke breaks down into two parts. One is primary qualities, which means the properties that are objective, or independent of us. These qualities are the properties of an object that can be mathematically expressed and scientifically studied, that is, the properties of solidity, extension, shape, motion or rest, and number.
The second is secondary qualities, which means; the properties of an object that are subjectively perceived, that are the effects the objects has on our sense organs, and whose appearances are different from the object that produces them, that is, the properties of color, taste, smell, and texture. The first would be inherently true for all, while the other would differ from each individual. We must posses the ability to distinguish between these two on order to understand if these truths are our own opinion or inherent truths. Berkeley uses a view known as representative realism to explain his opinion on the matter.
Representative realism means; the view that we do not directly experience external objects, but their primary qualities (such as shape and size) produce ideas in us that accurately represent these real properties of the objects (p. 102). Berkeley uses this point of view to explain that in a way, our knowledge, which is based on our experiences does in fact represent our own realities. Therefore, he believes that to a degree we are able to derive an accurate account of reality through how we experience the world. According to David Hume it is not possible for our knowledge to truly represent what reality really is.
He believes that “the only certainty that we can have concerns the relationships of our own ideas. Since these judgments only concern the realm of ideas, they do not tell us about the external world” (p. 108). This means that any knowledge about reality must be based on a posteriori judgments. These judgments are made by Hume because he believes there is no way to have a true reality through knowledge because you only gain knowledge through experience. In conclusion, Hume states that many empiricists discovered that reality is an impossible goal to understand.
Overall, Empiricists believe that there is no knowledge without experience. While their individual views may differ, their fundamental ideas are used to make conclusions about theories in the world. Each of these men have ideas about how knowledge is used and what it creates for each person. Through each of these theories it is apparent that knowledge and reality are difficult to access in such a complicated world. References Lawhead, William F. , The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach, Second Edition. McGraw-Hill, 2003.
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