Locke: All Ideas Come From Sensation and Reflection

by PDS

In my last post I briefly summarise some of Locke’s arguments against innate knowledge. We shall now turn to Locke’s own view (see here for primary source). He starts of by noting that we have various ideas in our minds, some of which can be expressed in words such as “heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet.” Locke asks how we gain these ideas, as he rejects the doctrine that the mind has these ideas in an innate manner. In fact, Locke sees the mind as “whitepaper, void of all character, without any ideas“, and goes on to ask the question: “How comes it to be furnished?

Locke’s answer is experience. We experience in the first instance by observing external sensible objects: we see a chair, or smell perfume, or touch a door handle. In the second instance, we reflect internally on our observations with our minds. With these two aspects of experience, external and internal, we gain understanding and knowledge.

All the ideas we have” says Locke come from these two aspects. Locke then goes on to unpack these in greater detail. He explains that when our senses take in “particular sensible objects” they cause perceptions in our minds. The colour yellow for example is a quality of a sensible object which produces this perception of yellow in the mind. This process Locke calls sensation.

The second aspect of experience Locke calls reflection. The mind operates on the ideas it has gained and reflection seems to refer to our conscious reflecting on these operations. Locke puts it this way: “the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got;- which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas“. These reflections produce ideas, says Locke, such as ” perception, thinking, doubting, believing” and many others. Notice that these ideas don’t directly come from sensation, but they do rely ultimately on perceiving external objects.

With this ‘highly’ condensed summary of Locke’s empiricism, lets briefly turn back to Butler’s introduction. It does appear that Butler argues on the basis of a type of empiricism. We are told to “join abstract reasoning with the observation of facts“, to use “Experience together with reason“, and not to form our knowledge upon reason alone. According to Butler, we are to “turn our thoughts to what we experience.” That said, it will take more research to determine to what extent Butler followed Locke’s theory of knowledge.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Butler does not set out a systematic epistemology, or seek to do so; his work is primarily aimed at persuading his readers of the truth of Christianity and to live virtuous life. In my next post then, we shall explore Butler’s first argument for the former: an argument for the truth of life after death.

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