Descartes vs Locke

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Descartes vs Locke

Socrates once said, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing. ” Several philosophers contradicted Socrates’ outlook and believed that true knowledge was in fact attainable. This epistemological view however had several stances to it, as philosophers held different beliefs in regards to the derivation of true knowledge. Rationalists believed that the mind was the source of true knowledge, while in Empiricism, true knowledge derived from the senses. Rene Descartes, a rationalist, and John Locke, an empiricist, were prime examples of epistemologists who were seen to differentiate greatly within each of their philosophies.

However, although Descartes and Locke’s ideas did contrast in that sense, they both shared common concepts that helped mould the basis of their ideas. Descartes and Locke both agreed that there were things in life that exist that we can be certain of. For Descartes, human experiences did not provide sufficient proof of existence. He indicated that through his Dream Conjecture and his Evil-Demon Theory (Paquette 205). Descartes stated that we cannot be certain if reality is a dream or not, thus questioning our existence (Paquette 205).

In his Evil-Demon Theory, Descartes claimed that for all he knew, an evil demon could be putting thoughts into his head, making him think that reality was true when it was in fact false (Paquette 205). Ultimately, all this thinking resulted in Descartes coming to the conclusion that the one thing we could be sure of existing is the mind (Newman 2010). This can be seen through his most famous quote, “I think therefore I am (Kaplan 2008). ” Descartes claimed that since he was able to doubt and think using his mind, his mind must exist (Paquette 205). Similarly, Locke was also sure of existence.

He believed that every object was made up of primary qualities as well as secondary qualities (Paquette 212). Secondary qualities rely on how a person senses the object subjectively, and is experienced differently depending on the individual (Paquette 212). Examples of secondary qualities include colour, taste, and sound (Paquette 212). Primary qualities, however, are objective and include aspects such as an object’s height and weight (Paquette 212). Through this, Locke claimed that the existence of objects can be made certain due to the primary qualities it possesses (Paquette 212).

Similar to Descartes, Locke believed in a sense of existence. However, in his view, the facts from the primary qualities proved the object exists because the object exists within itself (Paquette 212). Descartes and Locke also believed in some sense of the external world. Descartes claimed that there is in fact an external world, however it does not exist outside people’s minds (Paquette 206). Since Descartes was a rationalist, he believed that the only method to acquire true knowledge was solely through the mind (Moore 2002). Through the process of doubting existence, Descartes realized that the mind exists (Paquette 205).

He went further into thought and concluded that since he, an imperfect person, has knowledge of perfection, something perfect has to exist to have put that knowledge in his mind. From there he claimed the existence of God (Newman 2010). Descartes then stated that a perfect god would not deceive his people, indicating that the material world exists (Newman 2010). Therefore through this thinking process, Descartes came to the conclusion that the real world is of the mind, and the external world is everything else that falls into the material world made by god (Newman 2010). Like Descartes, Locke also believed in an external world.

As an empiricist, Locke relied heavily on the senses to provide true knowledge (Moore 2002). He shared Aristotle’s belief that the mind is a blank slate, also known as tabula rasa, at birth (Paquette 211). Our sense experiences thereafter provide us with knowledge to fill in those slates (Paquette 211). In Locke’s “Representative Theory of Perception,” also known as Epistemological Dualism, he stated that material objects exist and are separate entities from human beings (Paquette 227). However, he also believed that objects exist in the mind as psychological entities (Paquette 227).

Locke concluded that people can taste, smell, touch, and see the external world which, in turn, becomes impressions in our minds (Paquette 227). Descartes and Locke are thus seen to be similar in the sense that they both believed in an external world. Descartes and Locke both had a process for understanding knowledge as well. As a rationalist, Descartes believed in innate ideas; that all humans were born with some knowledge (Paquette 206). This differentiates from the empirical view that the mind is a blank slate at birth (Paquette 211).

Descartes also used intuition and deduction to establish truth (Kaplan 2008). He believed that intuition is direct knowledge which can be known without ever sensing or experiencing it (Paquette 206). Deduction however, is where you start with a premise, or a statement you believe to be true, and then determine more truths based on that origin (Paquette 206). As shown, Descartes focused on the thinker and the thinking process when determining true knowledge (Paquette 206). Rather than a thinking process, Locke believed that understanding knowledge came from a process based on our senses (Paquette 211).

He believed that when the external world triggers any of our five senses, those experiences turn into sensations (Paquette 211). Those sensations then turn into impressions in our mind, thus adding knowledge onto the slate in our mind which was once blank (Paquette 211). He claimed that our mind reflects on the impressions we received from our sensations (Paquette 211). Locke then stated that those reflections turn into an idea which can be either simple, or made up of a bundle of simple ideas called complex ideas (Paquette 211).

Like Descartes, Locke is seen to use a process for finding knowledge as well. There are many aspects to Rene Descartes and John Locke’s philosophies that are clearly distinct from one another. However, it is essentially incorrect to claim that rationalist Descartes and empiricist Locke bear no similarities. The two epistemologists are seen to share a similar base within each of their philosophical ideas. Through the many differences between Descartes and Locke, their basic concepts of existence, the external world, and the process for obtaining knowledge are quite similar to each other.

This connexion illustrates that although the ideologies people possess on life vary to a great extent, there can always be some sense of a common ground that brings us all together. Works Cited Kaplan, R. Philosophy – In our time. BBC – Homepage. BBC News. , 2008. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. ……<http://www. bbc. co. uk/radio4/history/ Moore, B. Philosophy | Glossary. Online Learning Centre. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, ……2002. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <http://highered. mcgraw-……hill. com/sites/076742011x/student_view0/chapter6/glossary. html>. >…………. Newman, L. Descartes’ epistemology.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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