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Origins of knowledge 2016 revision 1. concept empiricism
Key Topic: discussion
• The origin of concepts and the nature of
knowledge: where do ideas/concepts and
knowledge come from?
• There are two (historical) schools of thought
about this question.
– Name the two schools of thought.
– Specify some thinkers who support either account.
– What initial difficulties can you foresee for either
Task: initial definitions
• What is the difference between ideas or concepts
• Ideas or concepts = mental contents, notions,
something that you think. John Locke:
"whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding
when a Man thinks."
• Knowledge = propositions that are true,
believed, justified – hence, something that you
know for sure because it can be articulated into
Concept Empiricism, Concept Innatism
Knowledge Empiricism, Knowledge Innatism
• CE vs CI
– ALL ideas are derived only from experience.
– SOME key ideas are innate to us.
• KE vs KI:
– ALL synthetic knowledge is a posteriori, ALL a priori
knowledge is merely analytic or tautologous.
– SOME synthetic knowledge is a priori.
Label with the correct terminology,
and give an example
• A statement that is empty, useless, because it
tells you nothing new about the world.
• A statement that is not self-evident or true by
definition, and so one that tells you something
new about the world e.g.
• Knowledge that is true independently of
• Knowledge obtained only after experience e.g.
• A statement that is true by definition e.g.
Concept or Idea Empiricism
• All concepts or ideas are
derived from experience
and none come from any
• Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley,
Hume etc – all belong to
this school of thought.
• Key empiricist notions:
1. Mind at birth = ‘tabula
2. ‘Impressions’ ‘ideas’
3. Simple ideas complex
John Locke: the ‘tabula rasa’
Question: what might the blue arrow stand for?
John Locke: The Tabula Rasa and the Empty Cabinet
The ‘tabula rasa’ idea
Let us then suppose the mind [at birth] to have no ideas in it, to be like white
paper with nothing written on it. How then does it come to be written on? From
where does it get that vast store which the busy and boundless imagination of
man has painted on it - all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I
answer, in one word, from experience. Our understandings derive all the materials
of thinking from observations that we make of external objects that can be
perceived through the senses [‘by sensation’] , and of ‘the internal operations of
our minds, which we perceive by looking in at ourselves [‘by reflection’].These
two are the fountains of knowledge, from which arise all the ideas we have or can
The ‘empty cabinet’ idea
‘The senses at first let in particular ideas and furnish the yet empty cabinet, and
the mind growing familiar by degrees with some of them, they are lodged in
John Locke, ‘Essay concerning Human Understanding’ (1689) Book II – Of Ideas, Chapter i: Ideas in general, and their origin
What writes the story of your life, fills your mental cabinet?
Tabula Rasa Theory: (Some of)
Locke’s reasons for holding this view
1. [Explains why new-born children know nothing] “If you look carefully at the state of a new-born
child, you will find little reason to think that he is well stocked with ideas that are to be the
matter of his future knowledge. He gets ideas gradually; and though the ideas of obvious and
familiar qualities imprint themselves before the memory begins to keep a record of when or how,
ideas of unusual qualities are different…”
2. [Explains ignorance] “I think it will be readily admitted that if a child were kept in a place where
he never saw any other but black and white till he was a man, he would have no ideas of scarlet
or green - any more than a person has an idea of the taste of oysters or of pineapples if he has
never actually tasted either.”
3. [Explains cleverness and stupidity] “How many simple ideas a person has depends for ideas of
sensation on what variety there is among the external objects that he perceives, and for ideas of
reflection on how much he reflects on the workings of his own mind…That is why it is quite late
before most children get ideas of the operations of their own minds, and why some people never
acquire any very clear or perfect ideas of most of their mental operations. Their mental
operations are there all the time, like floating visions; but until the understanding turns inward
upon itself, reflects on them, and makes them the objects of its own thoughts, they won’t make
deep enough impressions to leave in the person’s mind clear, distinct, lasting ideas…”
4. Explains how concepts are formed and why we have the ones we do.
5. Explains why we don’t agree about abstractions such as God etc
6. Explains why different peoples around the world both agree about things, and disagree about
• What reasons does Locke give to support
concept empiricism? (He gives six…)
John Locke: impressions and simple ideas
Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk. 2, Ch.2, Sec. 1 and 2
To get a better grasp of what our knowledge is, how it comes about, and how far it
reaches, we must carefully attend to one fact about our ideas, namely that some of them
are simple, and some complex. The qualities that affect our senses are intimately united
and blended in the things themselves, but it is obvious that the ideas they produce in the
mind enter (via the senses) simple and unmixed. …The coldness and hardness a man feels
in a piece of ice are as distinct ideas in the mind as the smell and whiteness of a lily, or as
the taste of sugar and smell of a rose. And nothing can be plainer to a man than the clear
and distinct perception he has of those simple ideas, each of which contains nothing but
one uniform appearance or conception in the mind, and is not distinguishable into
These simple ideas, which are the materials of all our knowledge, are suggested and
supplied to the mind only by sensation and reﬂection. Once the understanding has been
stocked with these simple ideas, it is able to repeat, compare, and unite them, to an
almost inﬁnite variety, and so can make new complex ideas as it will. But no-one,
however quick and clever, can invent one new simple idea that wasn’t taken in by one of
those two ways. Nor can any force of the understanding destroy those that are there.
Write a definition and give an example of a ‘simple idea’.
What’s the connection between sensory impressions and simple ideas? (Issue: is there
really that much of a difference?)
John Locke: what are complex ideas?
Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk. 2, Ch.7, Sec. 1 and 2
So far we have considered only ideas that the mind receives passively, namely
the simple ones that come to it from sensation and reﬂection. The mind can’t
make any such simple idea for itself, and can’t have any idea that doesn’t
wholly consist of them. But while the mind is wholly passive in the reception
of all its simple ideas, it acts in various ways to construct other ideas out of its
simple ones [by]
• [Compounding] - combining several simple ideas into one compound
one; that is how all complex ideas are made.
• [Comparing] - Bringing together two ideas, whether simple or complex,
setting them side by side so as to see them both at once, without uniting
them into one; this is how the mind gets all its ideas of relations.
• [Abstracting] - Separating them from all other ideas that accompany
them in their real existence; this is called abstraction, and it is how all the
mind’s general ideas are made.
By what methods are complex ideas made?
John Locke: what are complex ideas?
Essay concerning Human Understanding, Bk. 2, Ch.7, Sec. 1 and 2
[So the human mind can] unite ideas together, or set them side by
side, or wholly separate them, [just as the human body] cannot make
or destroy rocks, but can assemble them to make a wall, or dismantle a
wall that has been made from them. Ideas thus made up of several
simple ones I call complex. Examples are the ideas of beauty, gratitude,
a man, an army, the universe. These are all complex ideas made up of
simple ones, but the mind can if it wishes treat each of them by itself
as one uniﬁed thing, signiﬁed by one name.
By being able to repeat and join together its ideas, the mind has great
power to vary and multiply the objects of its thoughts, inﬁnitely
beyond what sensation or reﬂection provides it with.... The basic raw
materials of all its compositions are simple ideas…[but] it can by its
own power put together the ideas it has, making new complex ones.
Write a definition and give an example of a complex idea
What product is:
– A good metaphor for the
empiricist account of
– Made in Billund,
Denmark, by the town’s
– A popular children’s toy?
– named from the Danish
leg godt, meaning "play
Hume on Sensations and Thoughts
EVERY one will readily allow, that there is a considerable difference
between the perceptions of the mind, when a man feels the pain of
excessive heat, or the pleasure of moderate warmth, and when he
afterwards recalls to his memory this sensation, or anticipates it by his
imagination. These faculties may mimic or copy the perceptions of the
senses; but they never can entirely reach the force and vivacity of the
original sentiment. The utmost we say of them, even when they
operate with greatest vigour, is, that they represent their object in so
lively a manner, that we could almost say we feel or see it: But, except
the mind be disordered by disease or madness, they never can arrive
at such a pitch of vivacity, as to render these perceptions altogether
undistinguishable. All the colours of poetry, however splendid, can
never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the
description be taken for a real landskip. The most lively thought is still
inferior to the dullest sensation.
What’s the difference between thoughts and sensations?
Hume on Ideas versus Impressions
Here therefore we may divide all the perceptions of the mind into two classes
or species, which are distinguished by their different degrees of force and
vivacity. The less forcible and lively are commonly denominated Thoughts or
Ideas. The other species want a name in our language…Let us, therefore, use
a little freedom, and call them Impressions…all our more lively perceptions,
when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.
All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind
has but a slender hold of them…On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all
sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid: the limits between
them are more exactly determined; nor is it easy to fall into any error or
mistake with regard to them. When we entertain therefore, any suspicion
that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is
but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that
supposed idea derived?
What is the relationship between impressions and ideas?
What is the connection between ‘impressions’ and the ‘tabula rasa’?
What’s Hume’s killer question?
• What’s the connection between Humean
Empiricism and Berkeleian Idealism?
David Hume: our thoughts seem unbounded…
Nothing, at first view, may seem more unbounded than the thought of
man, which not only escapes all human power and authority, but is not
even restrained within the limits of nature and reality. To form
monsters, and join incongruous shapes and appearances, costs the
imagination no more trouble than to conceive the most natural and
familiar objects. And while the body is confined to one planet, along
which it creeps with pain and difficulty, thought can in an instant
transport us into the most distant regions of the universe… What
never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived; nor is any thing
beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute
What’s Hume’s ‘second view’? (Why does he hold it?)
Hume: but our most elaborate ideas are built
from simpler ones
But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall
find, upon a nearer examination, that …all this creative power of the mind
amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing,
augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and
experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent
ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted. A
virtuous horse we can conceive; because, from our own feeling, we can
conceive virtue; and this we may unite to the figure and shape of a horse,
which is an animal familiar to us. In short, all the materials of thinking are
derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the mixture and
composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. Or, to express
myself in philosophical language, all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are
copies of our impressions or more lively ones…
What examples does Hume give of complex ideas? How does he explain
how they are formed?
So: another strength of Concept Empiricism
Using the following script, say something
Thought seems unbounded… yet Ideas
[are] faint and obscure…ideas [are] feeble
perceptions…not restrained within the
limits of reality…Suspicion…philosophical
words without meaning…‘From what
impression…’…‘Consign it then to the
flames: For it can contain nothing but
sophistry and illusion.’
What might another advantage of (the Humean account of)
Concept Empiricism be?
Could this advantage actually be somewhat of a limitation?
Plan 6-paragraph essay
Have 5 keywords/3 key points/3 key quotes/images for each
• ‘All ideas are derived from experience.’ Discuss.
– Definition of concept empiricism
– Tabula Rasa idea
– Impressions simple ideas
– Simple ideas complex ideas
– Strengths of concept empiricism: Locke’s reasons for
holding the view.
– Strength that might also be a limitation: limits of
– Conclusion: How plausible is CE?