John Locke's Theory of Empiricism

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Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

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Jeffrey Perry

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John Locke's theory of empiricism asserts that knowledge and legitimacy are validated through experience. See how this applies to the concept of being a blank page, or 'tabula rasa', and understand his beliefs on sensation and reflection. Updated: 11/03/2021

Testing a Theory

Two people are standing outside of a locked door. One person says, 'I have the key! I know it's the correct key because I've tested it in the lock, and it works to open the door.'

The other person says, 'I have a key, too. I've never tried to open the lock with it, but I know it will work because I have a gut-feeling about it.'

Whose key do you think is the most likely to work? The second person's key might end up working, but you would probably feel most confident in using the first one that has been tested.

Some philosophers believe that testing and experience, like having tried a key in the lock, are the only ways we can legitimately claim something is true. They believe this approach to be the most effective way to understand even complicated aspects of the world.

In this lesson, you'll consider what John Locke has to say about this topic in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

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  • 0:01 Testing a Theory
  • 1:02 Empiricism
  • 1:53 Tabula Rasa
  • 2:37 Sensation and Reflection
  • 3:55 No Innate Ideas
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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One of Locke's main goals in the text is to determine what can be claimed legitimately and what cannot. How do we develop our knowledge?

A simple way to express his view is: Knowledge comes from experience. This is the perspective of empiricism, a major school of thought within epistemology. It may help to remember what the term empirical means based on how it starts with the same letter as experimental, an approach that values experiencing and testing.

So in his view, actually experiencing the world through our senses is the only way to arrive at a conclusion and to know the truth about something. A person testing a key in a lock would be a legitimate way to come to the conclusion, 'My key opens the door.'

Tabula Rasa

Locke saw a human being as a blank slate or blank tablet at birth. The Latin phrase often used to describe this concept is tabula rasa. To Locke, this means that we come into the world without any understanding inside of us, like a blank piece of paper where nothing has been written yet. We can only reason based on what happens to us and what we learn.

So if a human being is a tabula rasa from day one, they can only know things based on interactions with the world. It may help to remember the views of John Locke by thinking of how we might test a key in the lock of a door as a way to develop knowledge.

Sensation and Reflection

You might wonder if Locke is saying that because we never interacted with a particular object like a camel, for instance, that we can't say anything is true about that object.

Locke isn't saying we have to see a camel to know something about it. We don't have to physically experience something to gain knowledge of it. For instance, we may learn things from someone else who has experienced them, and then claim knowledge about those things.

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John Locke's Theory of Empiricism Quiz

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According to Locke, knowledge comes from experience that is either:

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Additional Activities

Group Discussion for John Locke's Theory of Empiricism:

Discuss with your classmates some of the major implications of John Locke's theory of empiricism. Do you believe his theory is legitimate? Why or why not? Does Locke's theory reflect any broader intellectual shifts in western Europe during the 17th century (1600s)? How could it transform the ways human beings interact with the world and seek truth? Do you think that established authorities, such as leaders of church and state, felt threatened by theories of empiricism? Why or why not?

Writing Prompt for John Locke's Theory of Empiricism:

You are a parish priest in the Church of England in the late-1600s. Recently some of your parishioners have come to you with hard questions about a new theory of "empiricism." Write a sermon outlining the key concepts of this theory, and why, as a faithful person, this may be dangerous for believers. Ultimately, as a religious leader, where does ultimate knowledge come from?

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • If we are born with no innate knowledge, how do we grow to understand the world and our place within it?
  • What is the difference between sensation and reflection as described by John Locke?
  • What was John Locke's goal in writing his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding?

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