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The Validity of Knowledge

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Lia Thompson Mr. Faria HZT 4U1 Wednesday January 18, 2012 The Validity of Knowledge This paper will explain the validity of John Locke’s Theory of Knowledge. Epistemology has been the topic of discussion for many philosophers over the centuries. The study of knowledge is important because as humans, it is necessary to understand where the basis for our knowledge originates. Locke, like many philosophers believed that all knowledge about the world is derived from sensory perceptions.

Empiricists such as Locke believe this “posteriori” view of knowledge. He explains in his theory that we are born with “blank slates” or Tabula Rasa, the term used in Locke’s theory in his writing, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (Locke 163). Philosophical arguments are as varied as the philosophers who construct them. For each theory, there is an opposing view. Rationalists, such as Rene Descartes would argue against Locke and his empiricist view of knowledge, believing knowledge to be innate.

Descartes believed that all humans are innately born with these truths without the aid of our senses as argued in his first, second and third Meditations (Descartes 3). Locke’s theory goes against not only Descartes views but Plato’s as well. But Despite the arguments against Locke’s empiricist view, he is most reasonable. I agree with John Locke’s theory of sensory perception because we would not be able to survive without our senses. John Locke was born on August 29, 1632 in a village in Somerset, England (John Locke-Biography).

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He wrote several major works that have made a big impact on today’s view of the world, but his major theory on knowledge was in his book, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, where he outlined his views as well as argued against rationalist’s view on innate knowledge. He wrote his book based on his belief that true knowledge is gained through experience, “a posteriori” (Velasquez 330). “Locke holds that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank sheet until experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials — simple ideas — out of which most of our more complex knowledge is constructed” (Uzgalis).

Reflection and sensory experiences go hand in hand because in order for our senses to be used, we must experience the world around us. Once we have experienced, for example the sweet taste of an apple, from eating it, we are able to reflect on what our senses were able to establish about it and gain truths about what we experienced. “Reason is our intellect, our power to think and make judgments based on our sensory experience” (Locke 59). Locke does agree that we as humans have reason but our senses are paired up with reason, as we are to reason what our senses are experiencing.

Locke created the theory of “Primary and Secondary Qualities” to explain his ideas about the differences between our perception of the world and what the world really is. Based on scientific research, humans are aware that not everything we perceive is the same as how other living creatures perceive it. Animals in comparison to humans may experience the same things as humans do, but the way they are perceived can be totally different. For example, it is scientifically proven that dogs cannot see in colour, so to them everything is in black and white.

Dogs still use their sight, but are unable to see the same colour humans can. Primary Qualities are measurable qualities by size, weight, shape etc. and will stay the same regardless of our perception. Secondary Qualities are the hidden powers an object has that can produce in us a sensory experience such as the colour we see in the sky. (Velasquez 333) We can understand his theory on Primary and Secondary Qualities because scientists are able through research to study other living things and their perceptions of senses.

Locke’s theories are a clear explanation to the many things we experience as human beings. Descartes was born on March 31st, 1596 in Touraine. After finishing school in 1612, it left him feeling unsettled and dissatisfied. He felt the need to travel, so he could discover new surroundings and he joined the army at the age of seventeen. He was in search of discovering more truth than he had found at school. Descartes lived in a time of great uncertainty as to what truth was, and what it wasn’t.

There were new scientific discoveries being made which were unheard of at that time, as well as the new protestant branch of Christianity that went against the old traditional religious beliefs. With everything around Descartes changing, he began to doubt all his prior knowledge (Velasquez 320). Descartes began to search for true knowledge, which was the beginning of Descartes’ first meditation on Doubt. He questioned the idea that we may all be unaware of our state of mind; are we dreaming, or are we awake?

Descartes concluded that there are no ways to tell whether or not we are awake or dreaming. So where did this idea come from? He went on to say that there must be something of a higher power deceiving him, an “evil genius” of deceiving nature creating this illusion for all to get caught up in. Descartes reasoned that, if this were the case, we couldn’t trust our senses at all because our senses are illusions. With this mindset, Descartes believed that the only basic truths are those that cannot be doubted. The undeniable truth he discovered was “I think, therefore I am” which he reasoned that even if he was being deceived about everything else, he could not be deceived that he was thinking he was deceived, therefore he exists” (Velasquez 321). In order for Descartes to rule out sensory perceptions, he would need to rely on another basis for our knowledge. Based on his inner reflection, he believed that knowledge is not learned, ideas are present in the mind at birth. “We have a priori knowledge – we are born with knowledge and truths without the aid of sense perceptions…”(Velasquez 324).

Descartes would argue against Locke’s sensory perceptions theory because to Descartes, our senses are invalid. In Descartes” second meditation, he uses an example of a piece of wax to prove our senses wrong. “Let us take, for example this piece of wax: it has been taken quite freshly from the hive, and it has not yet lost its sweetness of the honey which it contains; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it has been culled; its colour, its figure, its size are apparent; it is hard, cold, easily handled, and if you strike it with a finger, it will emit a sound” (Descartes 190-191).

Here Descartes explains, in every respect all physical aspects of the wax that is experienced with our senses. “But notice that while I speak and approach the fire what remained of the taste is exhaled, the smell evaporated, the colour alters, the figure is destroyed, the size increases, it becomes liquid, it heats, scarcely one can handle it, and when one strikes it, no sound is emitted…What then did I know so distinctly of this piece of wax? It could certainly be nothing of all that the senses brought to my notice, since all hese things which fall under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing, are found to be changed, and yet the same wax remains… it is mind alone which perceives…this piece of wax” (Descartes 190-191). Descartes explains that because the wax can transform, leaving us with different sense perceptions than before, it cannot be trusted as knowledge. Descartes was unable to grasp Locke’s concepts of sensory experiences and therefore rejects everything but the knowledge we are innately born with.

Although Descartes gives an adequate theory, his views do not stand up to Locke and other philosopher’s criticisms. To Locke, Descartes’ whole argument on innate knowledge and the ideas behind his meditations are weak, not only invalid because of their opposing views on how humans attain knowledge, but invalid in regards to his reasoning behind his theories. There are many things to point out about Descartes, based on Locke’s ideas. Locke understood the ideas of innate knowledge, but disagreed because he believes we are too much a part of this world to doubt its existence.

If innate knowledge were the only true way to have knowledge, people would not be having arguments of what is right and what is wrong. “[Descartes ideas of doubt are invalid] because there are none to which all mankind give a universal assent” (Uzgalis). Descartes’ explanation of existence of things states that because Descartes can think, and because thinking things exist, Descartes therefore exists. But this argument is invalid because this is the same as saying, “I am walking, hence I am the walking. The author, William Benton in the book, “Descartes/Spinoza” objected to Descartes’ second meditation on doubt by saying, “this is an assumption on Descartes part to say that which one understands is the same exercise of understanding…for the entity of understanding itself, is one thing and the essence is another” (Benton 135). This relates back to Descartes invalid argument because Descartes defense can be restated as a claim that he is thought.

One may think, but can never be the “entity” or the actual action of thinking. All of Descartes meditations on knowledge surround the main idea of innate knowledge and thought, “but whence comes our knowledge of this proposition, I think? ... we cannot think of leaping, apart from that which leaps, of knowing apart from a knower, of thinking without a thinker” (Benton 135). Descartes has no explanations of how we are able to come to thoughts on actions.

Actions can relate to the idea of innate knowledge because they both are thought, but are unseen to the senses, at least until the thought or action is indeed physically done. “But for example, willing fearing and denying always go hand in hand with something physical as the subject of those thoughts, you cannot have the knowledge of what scares you without experiencing it in some way” (Hutchins 138). Locke also expresses his opinion not on emotions that derive from experiences but with the nature of this world. For I imagine any one will easily grant that it would be impertinent to suppose the ideas of colours innate in a creature to whom God hath given sight, and a power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions of nature, and innate characters” (Uzgalis). If we know what the term “colour” means, that is some sort of knowledge, and so we are unable to identify colour unless we use our senses. We cannot believe we know the term colour, without actually experiencing it.

Just as the author in the book “Descartes/Spinoza” explains that one is unable to know what an actual angel looks like, but from our experiences through visual senses, we are able to construct ideas of what one might look like based on our visual surroundings. (Hutchins 136) Now this goes against Descartes ideas of thought and innate knowledge because, “Notice that in order for Descartes to doubt his beliefs, he needs a language in which to express his doubt. But then, if Descartes were to doubt his beliefs about what words mean, then he could not formulate any doubts at all.

He would be totally incapable to express his doubts. Thus the attempt to doubt anything would be necessarily self defeating” (Albert). Descartes’ arguments on doubt are self-defeating because Descartes does not believe anything exists but his mind, ruling out all language and terms used and formulated in this world. The example of wax used by Descartes to validate his view that sensory knowledge is the only knowledge, can be looked at differently to validate sensory experiences.

From an empiricist’s point of view, one would indeed gain knowledge by putting the wax near the fire because in doing so, one would understand what happens to wax when it is being scorched. By using the senses to experience the wax in a different form, one is able to reflect and learn from the experiment. Descartes theories have many flaws, therefore making his arguments invalid. Although there are many other rationalists that oppose the views of empiricism, Plato was another great philosopher who developed the very foundations of innate knowledge based on Socrates dialogue with the slave boy.

Socrates, being one of the significant founders of western philosophy, along with his student Plato was famous for imposing difficult thought-provoking inquiries to the fellow Athenian citizens. Although Socrates did not record any of his philosophical discussions or inquiries, his student Plato explains to us the works of Socrates. Plato, like Descartes believed that there was only one way to have knowledge. He believed knowledge was not acquired through the use of our senses, but merely obtained before we were born.

Plato went farther than Descartes by believing that our souls must have lived in another universe before being born in this one. This other universe would have been perfect where we would have been able to experience perfect objects and were able to experience all that was perfect in the prior universe. The reason we would have innate knowledge would be because when we were born into this imperfect world, according to Plato, all the perfect concepts of the previous world would still be within our souls. “Most rationalist philosophers have rejected Plato’s claim that before we were born we existed in another perfect universe.

But many rationalists have accepted Plato’s more basic insight: we do not acquire the basic truths of math and science by observing the world around us”(Velasquez 326). Although his beliefs about how we attained innate knowledge were not much accepted, he uses a dialogue between Socrates and Meno, the slave boy’s master to explain his beliefs on innate knowledge. “In Meno, Plato tells us how Socrates once made a slave boy “remember” his knowledge of geometry by showing him some imperfect figures drawn on the ground.

Socrates shows the slave boy a square that is supposed to be two feet by two feet in size. Socrates asks the boy to draw a second square that is exactly twice the size of the first square…the boy initially realizes that his first answer is wrong. If you double the length of each side of the square, you will get a new square that is exactly four times as big as the first square. Yet the boy knows this without making exact measurements… and even if the boy had measured the squares, they would probably not have turned out to be exactly the right sizes. So where did this boy’s knowledge come from? (Velasquez 324) In this summary of the dialogue, Plato argues that the boy’s knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem could not have come from observing the imperfect figures drawn on the ground. This proves that it must be knowledge that is already in our minds then, because Plato explains that the knowledge of mathematical theorems are not obtained through sensory experiences. It is impossible to rely on our senses to give us knowledge of math because there is no physical experience to go hand in hand them. This belief is the total opposite of Locke’s views because Plato denies any thing that relies on the senses.

In Plato’s dialogue involving the slave boy, there is some questionable material that can relate back to Locke’s beliefs of relying on our senses. Even though the slave boy was able to answer Socrates’ geometrical question, the dialogue stated that the boy hesitated and also made a mistake before arriving at the correct answer. “At first the boy says that if you double the length of each side of the first square, you will get a second square that is exactly twice the size of the first square…the boy quickly realizes that his first answer is wrong. (Velasquez 324) His knowledge was based on observation not innate knowledge. The boy was able to use his visual perception to determine the measurements of the squares. As Locke would say, “Reason is our intellect, our power to think and make judgments based on our sensory experience” (Locke 59). It merely takes reason and reflection to first observe the dimensions of square and then come to a realization about how to double the square. Although he was answering a question, Socrates used an example of an imperfect square and then asked him to solve the question.

The answer was discovered through trial and error. It was clearly not based on innate knowledge but visual senses. I agree with Locke’s theory because it is the most reasonable approach to the idea of gaining knowledge. With out sensory perception feeding us, we have nothing to base our knowledge on. We have been born with blank slate, but are still equipped with reason as human beings. One can relate scientific discoveries to sensory perceptions because all scientific knowledge comes from observations.

One cannot call something a scientific discovery if it does not have evidence to back up their hypotheses. The evidence used does not come from innate knowledge, but from observation, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting. If, according to Plato and Descartes, basic science and math were innately known, then science would not improve. If science were innate, scientists would not have a job, and everyone wouldn’t be arguing about their beliefs. Science is constantly discovering something new, constantly realizing that something once thought as true, turned out to be false.

For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is based on mathematical structures and therefore is valid in the eyes of a rationalist. But if this knowledge were innate it would automatically have to be true. Scientists just recently have discovered subatomic particles that defy the theory of relativity, as these particles move faster than the speed of light. If this is the case, it is impossible to say that innate knowledge is the only truth. The whole world would have to be in agreement and collectively accept things as they are, and the world is nothing like that.

We can all agree to this because we have all gained knowledge through the use of our senses. Knowledge itself is something that we as humans are still discovering, questioning and experiencing in our own way. John Locke helps us to see that knowledge is something gained individually, in our own ways, in our own time. We all have something in common and that is our ability to use our senses in such ways that we have been able to create magnificent pieces of art, unravel the mysteries of the universe, invent new and convenient strategies for the human race and so on.

All this made possible by the pursuit of knowledge. Works cited Books Hutchins, Robert Maynard// Rene Descartes// Baruch Spinoza. Great Books of the Western World: Descartes Spinoza. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952. Print. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Kenneth Winkler. Hackett Publishing Company, 1996. Velasquez, Manuel. "Chapter 5: The Source of Knowledge. " Philosophy. 10th ed. Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008. 320-33. Print. Websites Albert. "Criticisms to Descartes’ Cogito « Albert’s PHI101/103 Weblog. Albert’s PHI101/103 Weblog. 1 Apr. 2008. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. <http://ajfphi. wordpress. com/2008/04/01/criticisms-to-descartes-cogito/>. "John Locke - Philosopher - Biography. " The European Graduate School - Media and Communication - Graduate & Postgraduate Studies Program. 2010. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. <http://www. egs. edu/library/john-locke/biography/>. Uzgalis, William, "John Locke", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), URL = <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2010/entries/locke/>.

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