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Influential Figures in My Life: Locke, Berkeley and Hume

March 18, 2013


These three figures from the late 17th century and the 18th century are collectively known as the empiricist philosophers. They developed a tradition of philosophy that was to have a more cooperative relationship with science. It was a mutual relationship with science and philosophy informing each other in their advancement and progress. This approach to philosophy and science was a source of some of the great successes of British scientists throughout the 18th and 19th century. Charles Darwin in Biology, Adam Smith and many others in Economics, Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in the theory of Electricity and Magnetism.

My interest in them was sparked by a philosophy debate in my course in my first year at university about our knowledge of the external world. It is something we take for granted, that things exist externally to our senses. But it is something, given the empiricist philosophy, which is very hard to prove through rational arguments.

John Locke had an argument regarding a distinction between primary and secondary qualities of an object. So, for instance, an objects primary qualities are its extension in space, whilst its secondary qualities are the things we add to this basic extension by adding colour, sound, touch, smell and taste to an object. However, for George Berkeley even the primary qualities such as extension are things we come to understand in a similar way to the secondary qualities. They are based on an association of ideas like anything else, and so they provide no ground for belief in an external world. There are no abstract ideas. This was the central argument of Berkeley. We had to accept this proposition to be a thoroughgoing empiricist. Despite this Berkeley did still believe in a world external to our senses. This was provided by God, who was always perceiving the world even when we weren’t. So the external world was an idea in the all-seeing eye of God.

At this point David Hume comes along to take empiricism to an even further level. He comes to adopt a scepticism about any rational explanation for the existence of the external world, or even for the persistence of our own self over time. We must act as if these things exist, and we cannot live without believing them for all practical purposes, but it remains the case that we cannot give a rational proof for them. This leads to the famous quote of David Hume, “Reason is the slave of the Passions”. So we end up with a scepticism on two levels. A scepticism about our knowledge of certain things, and a general scepticism about our ability to have knowledge of things that we must nevertheless take for granted as existing. So a scepticism emerges about the power of rational thought itself.

This challenge to rational thought was taken up by Kant, but that is a subject for another day. I want to talk now just about the personal influence these views had on me.

I remember getting a copy of John Locke’s Essay out of the Lancaster University Library. It was an impressive musty tomb of a book. He gave many persuasive arguments against the existence of innate ideas in order to set up his empiricist concept of the tabula rasa. We are born as a blank tablet, on to which are sense experience of the world is impressed and built up over time as we grow up. Leaving aside the ultimate correctness of the view, it was very thought provoking to imagine such a state, as it allows you to consider and sift through all of your beliefs and ideas about things and see just how you formed them, and came to believe them over time. So much of his views rang true to me and that book had a big influence on me.

My next experience is of reading the dialogues between Hylas and Philinous of George Berkeley. I loved to read in dialogue form. It was such a great way to develop arguments and address all the claims and counter claims. Though few have managed to use the dialogue form successfully besides Berkeley in this work and Plato in many of his dialogues. The arguments completely persuaded me in favour of the idealist view he argued for. There really was no world unless someone was perceiving it. And when no one was perceiving it, God or a spiritual presence was the reason the world maintained its stability. I don’t still believe all of his specific idealist views anymore. But the basic idea of the primacy of perception. A view expanded and taken further by later philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. This view I do continue to agree with. A view, incidentally, that also appears in many understandings and interpretations of Quantum theory and the theory of relativity.

My memory of reading David Hume is of a very systematic approach. This did not appeal to me as much. On reflection I think this was because I like to see in writing someone who is actively thinking the problem through. But with David Hume, you feel the problem is not thought through for each individual case, but is just subsumed under his general system. It is ironic that someone who argued against the influence of rational theories on our experience of the world, has developed one of the most restrictive rational theories. And one that has influenced more people  in the modern world than any other. Here I am referring to his distinction between analytic and synthetic truth. Such is a classic case in philosophy where we cannot see the wood for the trees. Concepts can grip us on so many different levels, which is why it is as important to remain open to the influence of our concepts on our beliefs and our world view, as it is of our sense experience of the world.

This then is where I find myself now, looking back at the great empiricist philosophers. An obsessive focus on sense experience can lead us to a scepticism about our rational faculties. But the rational faculties remain there, organising and sifting through our experience and casting it into a firm mold to give us a stable and secure picture of our surrounding world. (A firm mold which becomes more difficult to break out of as we get older incidentally). Awareness of this remains important to philosophy. For our subject matter is not just the world, but our perception of the world, and the language and concepts we use to describe the world.

All three have helped me in my personal development in thinking through problems in a philosophical manner. They have given me an interest in the history and philosophy of science, which I have since pursued in many ways. Most of all they gave me a great appreciation and respect for them and a desire to follow in their footsteps. As these people didn’t just think about things as a distraction or an academic pursuit. They thought about things as a way to form their core views and beliefs about the world.

  1. Lovely. I got to know Locke pretty late (in my mid-twenties) and I was impressed by the amount of issues he tackled, setting the playground for most of the philosophy of mind done in the 20th century. I’ve never been so fond of Berkeley, though my father seems to love him…

    • Yes, I don’t think Berkeley objectively is as good a philosopher as either Locke or Hume. But his dialogues just came at the right time for me, and he does offer something a bit different. For someone who was a materialist growing up, to read Berkeley in the dialogues argue so persuasively for idealism was a revelation.

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