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What makes a claim of truth legitimate? Look at what philosopher John Locke has to say about this topic and what he considers to be central to the development of knowledge.

Testing a Theory

Two people are standing outside of a locked door.

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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.

Empiricism

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.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.

Lesson Summary

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.

Learning Outcomes

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

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