Descartes, Locke, And Hume Essay, Research Paper
Knowledge is said to be the relationship between a person and the world. While most philosopher agree with this basic definition, most all of them disagree about the fundamental nature of that relationship. Ren Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume have three distinct epistemic systems that all address the idea of knowledge and what it is. Ren DescartesRen Descartes was born in France in 1596. He is considered to be the father of modern philosophy. He saw a need for a coherent philosophical system so he decided to build one from the ground up. In 1641, he published Meditations on the First Philosophy in which he concerns himself with the question of what is certain knowledge and with the question of what is the relationship between the mind and body. Descartes was also a great mathematician and thought that he could use the process of mathematical method, mainly reason, to answer these questions concerning philosophical truths. In Meditation One, Descartes attempts to doubt everything in order to establish a firm foundation for knowledge. He reveals his most important doubtcaster to the principal that his senses provide him with the clearest access to truth. This is the evil demon doubtcaster. He gives credence to the possibility that he is being deceived all the time by “an evil genius, supremely powerful, and clever, who has directed his entire life at deceiving” him. (Descartes p.16) He brings in the possibility that our creator is inherently evil and has created a false world in which we all dwell, or believe we dwell. He finds it plausible that we are all living in a dream and we have never experienced reality. He can no longer give any credence to his senses and finds himself in a place of complete uncertainty. In Meditation Two, Descartes is trying to establish that the human mind is better known than the human body. The initial problem is that the only thing he knows for certain is that nothing is certain, therefor his first goal is to find just one thing that is certain. At one point he asks, “am I so tied to a body and to the senses that I can not exist without them?” He persuades himself that there is nothing in the universe and that therefore he himself does not exist. He comes to the conclusion that if he persuades himself of this (or the evil demon persuades him of this) then he necessarily exists. There is no doubt that he exists if he is being deceived. If the evil demon is deceiving him, then he exists because the evil demon cannot deceive something that does not exist.The problem that he is faced with now is that he has to show how you get from an inner truth (I seem to see light) to an external truth (I see light). This means that he will have to get his body back. To accomplish this he considers a physical piece of wax even though the evil demon might be deceiving him. At this point the piece of wax has a honey flavor, and it has the sent of flowers. It has a color, and a distinct shape and size. It is hard and cold and if you rap on it will emit a sound. He then put the piece of wax next to a fire which melts the wax and in turn, changes its contingent qualities. The wax no longer tastes of honey or smells of flowers. The original shape disappears and its size increases. It becomes a hot liquid you can hardly touch. And if you rap on it no sound is emitted. It looks, tastes, smells, feels, and sounds completely different from the original piece of wax. Each of the sensory qualities have changed or been transformed, yet the same piece of wax remains. After you remove everything that does not belong to the wax, it is precisely something extended, flexible, and mutable. If you ignore the senses, the wax is still wax; but if you focus on the accidental qualities, the two pieces of wax have nothing in common. This means that you cannot look to the senses for truth about physical objects. The wax is capable of innumerable changes even though the imagination is not capable of relating them, therefore this insight is not achieved by the faculty of imagination. Descartes concedes that he does not grasp what this wax is through the imagination, but rather perceives it through the mind alone. His imagination gives him finite pictures whereas the wax is infinite. When he distinguishes the wax from its external forms there might be an error in his judgment, but it is definite that he cannot perceive it without a human mind. If he judges that the wax exists from the fact that he sees it, then from the same fact that he sees the wax, it is much more evident that he himself exists. It is possible that what he sees is not wax at all, but it is impossible that while he sees or thinks he sees, he who thinks is not something. If he thinks or senses or imagines, then he and the nature of his mind necessarily exist.At the end of the Meditation Two, Descartes comes to the conclusion that nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than his own mind. He has discovered that even bodies are not accurately perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination, and are only accurately being perceived by the intellect. He also realizes that they are not distinguished through being touched, smelled, or tasted, but by being understood alone. It is the faculty of reason that gives the knowledge and lets the mind know the truths and essences of objects. John Locke John Locke was born in England in 1632. He is considered to be the founding father of British empiricism. Empiricists believe that we as humans have no innate ideas or perceptions of the world. They believe that our knowledge of the world comes from what our senses tell us. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1689, Locke concerns himself with two questions: where do our ideas come from and how reliable are our senses. In this essay, Locke directly critiques Descartes’ epistemic system and tries to establish his own foundation of knowledge. At the beginning of the essay Locke establishes his ideas that we are all born with a blank slate, tabula rasa, before we perceive anything. With this in mind he rejects the concept of innate ideas and claims that all we know of the world is what we experience through our senses. In Book II Chapter VIII, Locke draws a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Near the opening of the chapter, Locke defines his terms: idea and quality, and makes it clear that ideas are in the mind and qualities are in bodies. He defines idea as what the mind perceives in itself, or the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding. He defines quality as the power to produce any idea in our mind. He uses the example of a snowball to further clarify his definition of quality and idea. He says that the snowball has the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round and says that the powers to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball are qualities. He further defines ideas as sensations or perceptions in our understanding. The qualities are in the snowball, not in the idea of the snowball. All we have contact with is our ideas. So all we have in our mind is mental interpretations of the snowball. Locke then continues on to define primary and secondary qualities and distinguish them from each other. He first makes it clear that qualities considered in bodies are inseparable from the body. He explains this by showing how you can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from an body. He demonstrates this idea by considering a grain of wheat. If you divide a grain of wheat into two parts, each part still has solidity, extension, figure, and mobility. Even if you divide it again, those same qualities of the wheat stay the same. He goes on to call these primary qualities of body, which produce simple ideas in us of solidity, extension, motion, or rest, and number.
He defines secondary qualities as such qualities which are nothing in the objects themselves, but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities. Examples of secondary qualities are colors, sounds, and tastes. Then Locke runs into a major problem when he tries to show how primary qualities produce their ideas. He makes it clear that external objects are not united to our minds when they produce ideas in it, and yet we perceive these original qualities. He tries to figure this problem out, and decides that some motion must be continued by some part of our bodies to the brain to produce in our minds the particular ideas we have of external objects. He thinks that some singly imperceptible bodies must travel from the object to our eyes (for example), and thereby convey to the brain some motion, which produces these ideas, which we have of them in us.The secondary qualities of an object for Locke are the same as sensory qualities for Descartes, and Descartes’ essences and Locke’s primary qualities are extremely similar ideas of the same subject. For Descartes, essences belong solely to the object and this is the same for Locke’s primary qualities, but for Descartes essence of objects are placed in the mind by God. Locke distinguishes primary qualities from secondary qualities to avoid the Cartesian problem of the dream possibility (and the possibility of the evil demon). He wants the appropriate correspondence between what is in the mind and what is outside of the mind, and he wants to discover the difference between changeable and non changeable qualities. Locke, however, runs into another problem. He can not get a hold of primary qualities because he has no way to establish how we come to have ideas of them. He says that they have to come from somewhere even if there is no way to establish how we come to have these ideas. He can not devise a logical way that ideas correspond to the primary qualities. It is impossible for him to step outside his body (and senses) and prove that they exist.Locke leaves us with a fairly good model of knowledge. He says that we are born with a blank slate, with no innate ideas. We then get our knowledge of the world through ideas and qualities. The problem is that we only have indirect access to primary qualities through secondary qualities. When we see objects, we see a representation of that object in our mind. In our mind we develop the picture of that object through the observation of that object. We can never really see the object. It is always a representation. Locke says, on page 48, that you can compare the representation in your mind and the real object. He says that he can do this by stepping outside of his body and comparing the two. This is the major fault in his model of knowledge, but besides that, his other ideas are consistent and well proved. David Hume David Hume was born in 1711 in Scotland. He is considered to be the most important of the empiricists. In 1739, he published A Treatise of Human Nature anonymously in London. This work was not widely read and basically misunderstood. So, in 1748 he published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding under his own name. In this enquiry, Hume emphasizes his belief that all knowledge is based on our own experience and that each person’s experiences only exists in their own mind. He divides all the perceptions of the mind into two classes: ideas and impressions. He considers ideas to be memories of sensation, and impressions to be the cause of that sensation. For example, if you touch your tongue to a cold flag pole and it freezes, you get an instant impression. But after time has past you might recall the time that you froze your tongue to the flag pole. The impression that is being recollected is an idea. He then goes on to look at the relationship that different ideas have in the mind. He finds that there are three distinct relationships which he categorizes as resemblance, contiguity, and cause or effect. Hume also questions the idea that for all effects there is a cause. He calls this causality. He says that just because the cause happens before the effect, does not mean that there is always proof that the cause is accountable for the effect. He says that if there is such a thing as a causal relationship, then only reason can find it. Hume also divides all the objects of human reason into two kinds: Relation of Ideas and Matters of Fact. He states that Relations of Ideas can not be contradicted, so he puts the sciences of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic in this category. Relations of Ideas are based on definitions. He gives the example that 3 x 5 is equal to the half of thirty-six is a relation of numbers. (Hume p.15) He says that “propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is any where existent in the universe.” (Hume p.15) He concludes that to deny Relations of Ideas is to contradict reason. Hume defines Matters of Fact as that which is based on causality and needs empirical evidence. The contradictions of Matters of Fact are possible. His example of a Matter of Fact is that ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’. This statement however has no basis for truth other than the fact that it happened yesterday and the day before. The only basis for the truth of this statement is our own experiences. Reason only has power over geometry and mathematics.What Hume is trying to say is that there are no basic rules of truth in the world. Experience is not a legitamant factor to base rules on. All we know of the world is our experiences of it so we, therefor, do not know any truths of the world. If we do not know any truths of the world then it is not possible for us to have a foundation of knowledge. Although all our knowledge of the world comes to us from our experience, our knowledge cannot be justified by that experience. It is not possible for us to know truth when it is based on this experience.He is basically saying that we as humans have become slaves to the expectation of habit. He is trying to show us that we need to sharpen our awareness and be more open-minded as we were when we were children and we had not yet had many experiences. I would definitely say that I relate more to Hume than any of the other philosophers that we have discussed. I really respect his ideas about breaking free from habit. I think this can be related to many social issues involving prejudices. If we as people could look at every experience as a new one, we could open ourselves up for much greater opportunity. You can also relate this to racial issues. In order to get beyond prejudices, you have to let go of your preconceived notions. The problem is that human nature does not work that way. Everyday the mind takes in more and more information about the surrounding world. If the mind encounters this one thing everyday, it is going to start to expect it. It is extremely hard to break habit. Hume’s ideas are revolutionary, but they are too difficult to implement. It would call for a complete change in society. I am ready for it, but I can not say that it would work.