John Locke

John Locke John Locke (1632-1704) was born in Wrington, England to Puritan parents who fostered his education in theology and politics. He attended the Westminster school, and then entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he received a scholarship. Locke studied classical languages, metaphysics, logic, and rhetoric there. He developed friendships with Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, both of whom influenced his views. In 1690, he wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, this is considered his greatest work.

The essay tries to set limits on human understanding. Locke attempts to answer two questions. The first question is where we get our ideas from. The second question is whether we can rely on what our senses tell us. The Essay also classifies knowledge into three degrees.

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These are the intuitive, demonstrative, and the sensitive. Finally, the Essay divides the ways ideas can be related into four categories: identity or diversity, relation, coexistence, and finally real existence. Part of Locke’s theory is that women are equal to men, this will be discussed in the second part of my paper. To understand why Locke wanted to explain where we get our ideas from, it is important to understand what sect of philosophy he was a part of. Locke belonged to an eighteenth century group of British philosophers which included George Berkeley and David Hume. These three philosophers shared a view called empiricism.

Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge and ideas come from the senses. Thus, a new born baby is a blank slate until its first sensory experience with the world. Aristotle was the originator of the empiricist way of thinking. Empiricism directly conflicts with Plato, and the rationalist way of thinking which states that humans are born with a set of innate ideas about the world. As Locke explains in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, humans gain all ideas and knowledge by interacting with the external world with their senses, and by reflecting their new gained knowledge. By senses, Locke is referring to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, feeling, and hearing.

Locke’s definition of reflection is the way the mind actively processes the information given to it by sensation. In reflection, the mind continues to analyze what it has sensed. This analization includes trusting, not trusting, or rationalizing the sensory experience and thereby parlaying even more knowledge and ideas out of the experience. Locke believed that simple sensations of something eventually led to a complex idea of that thing. He thought that we could only perceive simple parts of the whole which would eventually lead up to the entire thing. Locke writes, Combining several simple ideas into one compound one; and thus all complex ideas are made.

An example of this could be a child’s first experience with a chocolate chip cookie. The child sees that the cookie is round, she notices the brown color, and the dark chocolate spots that make up the chips. The child is really not capable of understanding a cookie yet, though. In another experience with the cookie, the child reflects upon her past experience and builds upon it. This time, she feels the rough texture, and tastes the sweet confection.

Only after the child experiences all the sum of the cookies parts is she able to own the idea of cookie. One aspect of knowledge that Locke was concerned with is what can be called false knowledge. This is knowledge that can not be traced back to simple sensations. Even the words God and eternity are being misused and misconcepted because nobody has experienced these things. Locke does not totally disbelieve that there is a God and eternity though, because he later reasons in the Essay that, Nothing cannot produce a Being; therefore Something must have existed from Eternity.

The second question Locke attempts to tackle is whether we can rely on what our senses tell us, or is the world the way we perceive it. To help answer this question he divided sensations into primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are described as those that do not change when the substance is divided. This includes solidity, extension, figure, and mobility. Secondary qualities are those that are subject to change in a substance, such as colors, sounds, and tastes.

Thus, all people see primary qualities in the same way, but not everyone views the secondary qualities in the same way. For example, although two children see the same round cookie, one might think that it tastes good and the other may despise the taste of it. It is through these qualities that Locke attempted to judge whether we can rely on our senses to correctly perceive the world. After Locke established how ideas are formed, he developed a classification system that renders the knowledge into degrees. The three degrees that Locke established are intuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive.

The first degree, intuitive, is considered blatant knowledge. Locke states, This part of knowledge is irresistible, and, like bright sunshine, forces itself immediately to be perceived. Intuitive knowledge is the most obvious and assured that human beings are aware of. The second degree of knowledge, demonstrative, is the type of knowledge that may be derived from reasoning. This may require weighing ideas against one another or relating ideas to each other.

The most important rule that makes demonstrated knowledge valid is that each step must have intuitive evidence, or proof. Finally, sensitive knowledge is in a class of its own. Sensitive knowledge is made up of faith and opinions, the belief in God, for example. It would seem that this type of classification would juxtapose Locke’s empiricism way of thinking. To justify sensitive knowledge, Locke asks,[is there any man] when he actually tastes wormwood, or smells a rose, or only thinks on that savour or odour? What Locke asks is what man can do these things without considering that there might be a God.

Locke made the statement Knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas. This means that we gain knowledge by relating two items of knowledge. To help us understand he divided this agreement or disagreement into four kinds: identity or diversity, relation, co-existance, and real existence. Identity or diversity is the simple way that we, at first sight, distinguish one thing form another. Locke gave the example blue is not yellow to describe identity.

Without this type there would be no knowledge, because the building blocks to reasoning, imagination, and distinct thoughts lie on identity and diversity. Abstract relations between ideas is finding how two ideas are the same, or related to one another. Locke’s example of relation is Two triangles upon equal bases between two parallels are equal. The triangles are equal because their properties are related to each other. Co-existance refers to how the known attributes of a particular substance make that substance what it is. It is important that the characteristics of the substance are fixed, truthful fact. Locke gives the example of gold.

Gold always occurs with Yellowness, weight, fusibility, [and] malleableness, and this makes the word gold what it is. Finally, Locke talks about real existence. This category is where the realization of ourselves, God, and sensible things lay. Real existence is the category that all knowledge which does not lie in one of the other three categories lie in. Locke had a particular interest in the equal rights of women.

This was a very unusual and unpopular position to take in the eighteenth century. Locke wrote, The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only have the law of nature for his rule. Of course this passage applies to governments and refers to slavery, but Locke acknowledges that it also refers to woman’s rights. Locke was also quoted as saying, in reference to mothers power over their children, if we consult reason or the Bible, we shall find she has an equal title. Locke thought that since women have the ability to reason, they have the right to be treated as equals.

Locke also thought that the injustice in the male-female relationship was an artificial creation, and thus could be reversed. Locke was an influence on John Stuart Mill, a man who was a forerunner for women’s rights. Because of Locke’s found view of women and his place as the most important philosopher of his time, he is looked on today as one of the most respected characters in history. Philosophy Essays.


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