Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 8

(Read Part 7 of the series.)

Empiricism and Idealism         Locke and Berkeley)


Born some eighteen years before the death of Descartes, the Englishman John Locke claimed that reason was not the principal means for finding out about the world, as the earlier philosopher had contended. Instead, he advocated an empirical approach to knowledge, i.e. using one’s senses actually to see what is the case. This is the only means for obtaining raw data and we use reason subsequently to make sense of it. Only then can it become knowledge. He believed his own purpose in life was to enquire into human knowledge to discover its limits and the extent to which we could be certain of it.

Unlike modern, evolutionary psychologists, he believed that we are effectively born with no innate knowledge, a metaphorical ‘blank slate’. All of our knowledge and understanding is therefore built upon information derived from our senses. Everything we know or think about ultimately comes from experience. The limits of what we can know about reality are fixed by the abilities of the senses and the associated mental equipment.

As an aside, there is a danger of wondering what all of this has to do with the meaning of our lives. Is it not all simply airy imaginings, arguing about concepts that have little relevance in our everyday world? Well, no. If we are wondering what we ought to do, we are bound to ask ourselves what reasons there might be for acting in one way rather than another. Any grounds for such reasons must come from our existing knowledge about the world and our place in it. This knowledge can only arise from a few sources. The main ones are by reasoning from a more basic set of premises (which is what Descartes was doing) or by observing the world and drawing conclusions or making inferences in a broadly scientific way (which is what empiricism proposes). Therefore we do need to be aware of this and decide for ourselves how trustworthy the data might be, even if we do not actually make any significant investigation into them. (The term for ‘source of knowledge’ in Advaita is pramANa and, if you search for this term, you will find several pages of articles which discuss them in more or less detail.)

Locke believed that external objects had what he called ‘primary’ qualities, which were aspects that could be measured scientifically such as length, mass, velocity and so on. Those aspects such as smell and taste, he called ‘secondary’ qualities and he said that these were not ‘intrinsic’ to the object itself (they could not be measured scientifically) but were simply a subjective interpretation in our mind, triggered by the primary qualities.

He said that we can only ever be aware of these qualities, which are effectively transactions between an actual object and ourselves as the subject; we cannot know anything about the matter itself independent of these characteristics nor of ourselves independent of these experiences. Most importantly, the conclusions of this approach meant that we can never know any absolute truths about the universe, only develop possible hypotheses that seem to explain our observations. Once we accept this, we can stop wasting our time trying to understand things that are forever beyond our ken.

He recognised several varieties of knowledge. The most certain type of knowledge that we have is ‘intuitive’, as in the certainty with which we know that 2 + 2 = 4. We may not be able to say how we know this to be true but we have no doubt about it. Sometimes, we can see the truth about something by reasoning from something that is intuitively obvious via several steps, each of which, in turn, is also intuitively obvious. In this way we can arrive, by what he called ‘demonstration’ at some new knowledge that we did not have to begin with. This knowledge is almost as certain as the first, though we might make a mistake in the reasoning process.

A third type is that which arrives via our senses, ‘sensitive’ knowledge, which has a quality about it that is different from something that is simply remembered or dreamt. The smell of a flower, for example, may be brought to mind but is so much more immediate and positive when we actually go out into the garden and put our nose to the flower. Here however we know that the senses can be mistaken, as in an optical illusion, so that the knowledge is less certain. But in general the difference in quality between actual sense and remembrance of it gives us a high degree of confidence of the existence of external objects.

With these three types of knowledge, then, we discover that we can be directly certain of only one thing, namely our own existence – to this extent he agreed with Descartes. Beyond this, we could demonstrate, he thought, the existence of God. But as regards everything else, we could only know those things about which we could derive sensitive knowledge. If they were not accessible to our senses, then we couldn’t find out anything about them at all and could not even be sure of their existence.

As regards how we ought to act, Locke believed that the aim of all our desires is to achieve happiness, which is effectively the ultimate pleasure. Things are ‘good’ to the extent that they bring about pleasure or minimise pain. But, believing in God as he did, he also insisted that we should exercise control over our desires so as to live a virtuous life – breaking the commandments would lead us to hell. God has provided us with senses for acquiring data and from these we derive beliefs and He has given us the faculty of reason in order to be able to turn this into knowledge.

The idea of using reason to validate the moral instructions of the bible did not go down very well with many of his contemporaries, who thought this tantamount to encouraging atheism. They also preferred to think that the basic principles of morality were somehow innate rather than instilled into us during childhood. (More about morality later.)


Bishop George Berkeley in particular objected to Locke’s classification of qualities into primary and secondary. This suggested that our senses were unreliable; that reality was one thing while our senses told us something else. Such ideas could only lead us into doubt and scepticism. If the ordinary person saw that philosophers, who had devoted their lives to studying the nature of knowledge and reality, were coming up with ideas that were contradictory to all of their experience and common sense, it could only lead to atheism.

He showed that, if we accepted the empiricist view that all of our knowledge derives from experience then we are inevitably led to deny any objective reality to the world. We can only ever know anything via our senses. Locke had said that there were real objects possessing primary qualities but Berkeley argued that our awareness of primary is really no different from our awareness of the secondary qualities. We are only aware of form, size and motion and so on as a result of sight and touch, and these are ultimately only perceptions in our minds just the same.

That this is all subjective can be shown by the fact that our interpretation depends upon where we are and what we are doing at the time. We can easily misjudge the size of something if there is no known object in the vicinity with which to compare it. If we ourselves are moving, we can mistake the degree to which another object is moving. Everything about a supposed external object is in fact in our mind and there can never be any independent validation that it exists other than when we are aware of it.

It is pointless trying to argue that an object has certain qualities that we cannot perceive and that these are the cause of our perceptions since, by definition, this could never be proven. Furthermore, it would not make any sense to say that our ideas and impressions are like the supposed real object because we are attempting to claim that the object exists relatively unchanging over time whereas our thoughts are transient and change frequently. Our sensations are like sensations, which only exist within living things. We cannot even imagine something, with qualities other than those that we perceive, existing alone without someone to perceive them. As soon as we imagine it, it is by definition an idea in our minds. And if qualities that we cannot perceive did exist, again by definition, we could never be aware of them.

Berkeley argued that all of this followed from the Empiricist assumption that all of our knowledge derives from experience. Since that experience itself comes from sense data alone and all these consist of ideas in mind, we can only ever experience ideas and never any ‘real objects’. Everything that we perceive is an idea and ideas cannot exist outside of the mind. (This includes the brain itself, so that the brain is in the mind, not vice versa!) As he famously put it, ‘to be is to be perceived’.

But he did not claim that the contents of a room disappeared when he left it (nor that we disappear when we are in deep sleep). He also acknowledged that he was not able to dictate how particular objects appeared, as one might expect to be able to do if they existed entirely within one’s own mind. He believed that objects appear to continue to exist independently of any specific observer because the ‘ideas’ actually exist in the mind of God.

Thus his claim was that there are only two elements to our perceptual experience: the perceiver and the ideas in mind that he perceives. There are no such things as ‘material objects’. This theory was called Immaterialism or Idealism (nothing to do with the pursuit of ideals but the theory that what is real is effectively contained within our minds or ideas). Needless to say, most people find his claims fantastical to say the least, despite the fact that they are unable to find any obvious counter arguments. In fact, at the time, Berkeley believed his theory corresponded most clearly with common sense and said that it was held alike by ordinary men (the ‘vulgar’) and philosophers.

In fact, so-called objects in dreams seem perfectly real whilst we are still in the dream; it is only after we wake up that we feel them somehow to be different. Furthermore this difference is not based upon the belief that dream objects are ‘only in our minds’ whereas waking objects consist of matter. Our perception of the relative reality of waking objects is based upon such things as their seeming duration in place and time. E.g. the table that was in the room next door will almost certainly still be there next time that we go into the room in the waking state but quite likely will not if it is a dream. Also, in the waking state, objects tend to remain the same, whereas in a dream a table might well change into a rhinoceros before our very dream eyes. Finally, the amount of control that we can exert over objects differs. E.g. we may be able to throw the dream table/rhinoceros into orbit or be unable to budge it at all whereas the waking table will usually behave in a predictable fashion.

We do not typically use the idea of matter at all when we identify an object as real or imaginary. Matter is simply a rationalisation after the fact of the observed behaviour and is not necessarily a useful concept. And, of course, we can never see ‘matter’, we only experience different physical properties.

And why should matter exist? Just because we perceive round plates and windows does not mean that these things are partly made out of roundness; this is simply one of the properties that we discern. Similarly, the word ‘material’ is used to describe a particular set of properties, such as solidity, shape, colour, texture and so on. It is mere linguistic convenience to talk of something called ‘matter’ that exhibits these sorts of properties.

It should be noted that Idealism is not the same as Advaita (although there are some points of similarity). Advaita accepts the existence of objects independent of the perceiver from a vyAvahArika viewpoint. They are neither in the mind of the perceiver, nor in the mind of Ishvara. To this extent, Advaita is a realist philosophy, not an idealist one. The universe is a ‘manifestation’ of Ishvara, i.e. objects (and jIva-s) are a physical part of Ishvara, like the web is a physical manifestation of the spider. From a pAramArthika viewpoint, of course, all is mithyA. There are neither objects nor perceivers.

Go to Part 9