John Locke: The Empiricist Theory of Knowledge: Summary
Understanding and knowledge is what makes man superior to all other beings according to John Locke. However, the bounds of this understanding and knowledge are questionable. Is some knowledge innate? How certain can we be about beliefs and the knowledge we have? John Locke attempts to give some insight as to the answers of these questions in his work, The Empiricist Theory of Knowledge.
John Locke does not believe in innate knowledge, one of the more argued areas of philosophy. Innate knowledge must be known by everyone with a soul, and universally agreed upon. "Children and idiots" are not in accord with the idea of innate knowledge because they "have not the leastÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ though of" (p138) knowledge considered innate. So then, if there is no innate knowledge, then how does the mind gather knowledge? All knowledge is gained through experience or is eventually derived from experience. There are two different areas of experience, sensation and reflection.
Sensation is the more concrete sort of experience most people associate with experience. Sights, sounds, taste, smells, and everything that can be gained through the senses contributes to this sort of external experience. Reflection, on the other hand, is more of an inward sort of experience. Reflection is composed of thoughts and ideas that are processed within the mind. It is from sensation and reflection that, "all our ideas take their beginnings." (p140)
These ideas can form things in the mind, similar to things that exist, and giving similar impressions and perceptions as things we sense. These ideas can become representative of all beings of a similar kind. Locke's example is that of the color white, and how the word and idea of "whiteness" is used for different objects, yet the meaning stays the same, i.e. white snow, white milk, etc. This is abstraction, the association of ideas with certain qualities that can be used to convey the same meaning between people. "Whiteness" is generally accepted as the same thing between most people, but sometimes there are different ways to perceive things, in these situations, the mind must make a decision on how to perceive something.
When the mind instantly makes the decision itself, without any thought or intervention, it is known as intuitive knowledge. Green is always green, and white will never be mistaken for green, for example. However, there are times where the mind must consciously think in order to make a decision, which is when reasoning is called into play. Reasoning is "the intervention of other ideas"(p143) which the mind takes into account in order to determine whether to agree or disagree with a perception. Such a procedure requires demonstration to prove that something is in agreement or not. The mind must go through the steps to make the decision, which is known as demonstration. When demonstration is combined with intuition and sensation, you have the "three degrees of knowledge"(p145), each with different evidence and certainty.
We may have three degrees of knowledge, but how do we know whether something truly exists? We can determine our own existence through intuition. However, everything else's existence must be determined through sensation. It is through our senses that we determine if something exists outside of our mind.