In his journal, John Locke believes that the knowledge a human being possesses comes from the five senses and is not inborn. This, he insists, comes from experiences of everyday life. He brings forth the aspect of empiricism in contemporary philosophy when he explains facts like, “when we see is when we believe”. He has a strong argument furnished by ideas like the brain is a blank slate which is only filled with ideas via experience. He lays emphasis on the minds substance and not its capability when he says that the only thing we are born with is the ability to receive and interpret information or control it.
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The journal, “Knowledge is Ultimately Sensed” by Locke is a collection of essays written about the epistemology of knowledge gained through our senses. In these essays, he argues in favor of empiricism, and against rationalism. Locke discusses the theory of innatism, which is basically the theory that human beings are born knowing certain things. He also discusses the innate principles, and how the mind is like a blank slate at birth and how we only gain knowledge through experiences and the ability of senses.
In the introduction, Locke talks about understanding and human knowledge. He says that, “understanding is what sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and gives him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them; it is certainly a subject, even for its nobleness, worth our labour to inquire into” (Locke 255). Here, he means understanding is what sets man apart from other creatures as it makes us see and perceive things in certain ways. He then proceeds to talk about the certainty of human knowledge; he believes that human beings do not have a set limit to the understanding of knowledge. He accepts as true the fact that human beings are capable of understanding a variety of different things at the same time. This is supported by the following quote, “if by this inquiry into the nature of understanding, I can discover the power thereof; how far they reach; to what things they are in any degree proportionate; and where they fail us” (Locke 256). By this Locke is trying to figure out how far our understanding actually extends.
Locke goes further to examine an example of a servant who would not attend to his business due to insufficient lighting. The servant pleaded that he needed sunlight to accomplish his tasks effectively. Locke disputes this by saying, “the Candle that is set up in us shines bright enough for all purposes. The discoveries we can make with this ought to satisfy us” (Locke 256). Here, he despises those who give in to defeat. He shows us that, we can know nothing at all if we cultivate the servant’s notion. This is because; the servant had little light but refused to work, although it was sufficient enough to get the job accomplished. In this context, he meant that, although we may have very little to work with, it is enough to get us started.
The next part of the essay is Locke’s criticism of the innate principles. According to spark notes, “Locke’s argument against innate theoretical principles can be captured in three sentences: If, in fact, there are any innate principles, then everyone would assent to them. There are no principles that everyone assents to. Therefore, there are no innate principles” (Locke 257). He goes further to say that:
It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being, and it brings into the world with it (Locke 257).
This idea is one that Locke believes is taken for granted by mankind. He says there are speculative and practical principles, both of which are universally agreed upon by all mankind. Locke goes on to say that, “I shall begin with the speculative and instance in those magnified principles of demonstration, ‘Whatsoever is,’ and ‘It’s impossible for the same thing to be and not to be,’ which of all others, have most allowed title to innate” (Locke 258). These are two ideas that rationalists would believe to be among to minds of all rational beings.
In the next part of the essay Locke discusses the possibility of innate moral knowledge. He says, “Whether there be any such moral principals, wherein all men do agree, I appeal to any who have been but moderately conversant in the history of mankind, and looked abroad beyond the smoke of their own chimneys” (Locke 261). Here there are claims that there is no universal consent” (Locke 261).
In the last parts, he makes several points regarding reason, faith and decisions which turn out in the current world as helpful guidelines in the human approach towards knowledge. He advises human beings to believe in their own verdicts and to believe in the probability of any proposition they have. He points out that the recurrence of one testimony cannot add to it additional credence than if it were read just once. Locke’s idea here was principally meant for the remark of the ancients. It also had a bearing on the all-purpose idea regarding discarded authority and a human being’s trust in oneself. This is extremely significant to the current era, particularly in this period of instantaneous messaging and the internet. It is put in the context where one testimony can be availed 1,000,000 times very fast and with no confirmation of facts. The author believes it is forever important to distinguish between an assortment of sources substantiating something and several sources repeating one report.
Conversely, another author (Descartes) comes up with interesting contradictory thoughts. He believes, Knowledge is not ultimately sensed. He says the notion that, knowledge is ultimately sensed is false for the reason that, if we doubt our own sensory perceptions then it would make our beliefs false.
Descartes says senses are at times deceptive and that it is wise not to have faith in anything that has ever deceived us. He says any beliefs on senses are subject to doubt as senses can be deceptive. Descartes, “then gives an example of where he dreamt that he was found dressed seated near the fire, when in reality he was lying in bed” (Descartes, 245). He explains that what goes on during sleep is not comprehensive or distinct. He goes further to say that when we differentiate wakefulness from sleeping we will be astonished by the diference. Descartes shows that, he was deceived in to believing he is awake even while dreaming. According to Descartes we cannot rely on our senses because we might be dreaming as we speak.
He then talks about the existence of corporeal objects. The objects in our dreams must be based on something of actual existence. Descartes believes that corporeal objects are the cause for some of his ideas. He then says that Geometry and the like are very simple sciences and they don’t take any measures to see if things actually exist or not. He says “whether in his asleep or not 2 + 3 will always be 5 and a square will never have more than 4 sides” (Descartes 245).
Descartes goes ahead to say he believes in an “all-powerful God”. He then asks, “How do I know I am not being deceived all the time I perform this simple addition or while counting the sides of a square” (Descartes 245). As we can see from this, Descartes may not even be sure whether or not he’s certain of these matters and if the God he believes in is deceiving him. He then supposes that God is good and would not deceive. Basing on this we would come to the conclusion that the first author is right. This is because the second author’s ideas are based on doubtfulness and falsehood, which means they do not have strong reference points. This is further evidenced when he says “a thing which thinks is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses which also imagines and feels (Descartes 249). Here, he means imagination is another attribute of one that thinks, even if everything one thinks is false, it cannot be denied that one has the ability to imagine. This last attribute (sensation), he believes, is much like thinking. He says even if every sensation that is felt is false; one still is able to sense things. Therefore, as much as the author tries to make us understand what goes on with the mind and senses, and how one should trust or not trust everything, or even the possibility that one can be deceived, I don’t really believe his facts have a strong basis.
Locke, John. Knowledge is Ultimately Sensed. Journal of philosophy 1.1 (2004): 254-264. Print.