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.
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.'
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.
Locke highlights two main ways we gain knowledge: sensation and reflection. Sensation involves the use of the senses to obtain information, like seeing the color of a camel or tasting a lemon. Reflection, on the other hand, uses an internal sense, our own consciousness, to think about what we experience.
For example, if you know the shape that a key needs to be to fit the lock, we could reflect on whether another key of similar shape would fit even if we've never used that key in the past.
Reflection can also involve our memory. A person who says that they've used a key to open a particular door in the past is using their memory to come to the conclusion that the key will work today.
No Innate Ideas
It might be hard to disagree with the idea that testing a key in the lock of a door is the best way to know if it works. That's a no-brainer, and something we'd all agree is a good approach in the real world.
What some philosophers debate is whether knowledge comes mainly from experience itself, or if it's actually our capacity to reason that is the stronger basis for knowledge.
For Locke, the answer is clear: experience. There are no innate ideas inborn in humans, no knowledge present from the start. As a tabula rasa, we can only develop knowledge based on sensations and reflections.
Locke's approach to empiricism involves the claim that all knowledge comes from experience and that there are no innate ideas that are with us when we are born. At birth we are a blank slate, or tabula rasa in Latin.
Experience includes both sensation and reflection. Sensation is the use of the senses to obtain information, like seeing the size, shape, color and smell of a camel. Reflection, on the other hand, uses an internal sense, our own consciousness, to think about what we experience, like considering whether a certain shaped key will open a door. Reflection can also involve our memory, as when we reflect back on whether a key worked in the past.
After you've completed this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Define empiricism, tabula rasa, sensation and reflection
- Explain John Locke's theory of empiricism using these concepts
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
John Locke's Theory of Empiricism Quiz
Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.
According to Locke, knowledge comes from experience that is either:
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?
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack