Berkeley and Locke on Human Knowledge

Experience and Knowledge

Locke argued that all our ideas have their origin in our experience. When we are born our mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa). Any experience is leaving an imprint on this slate (mind). When we experience anything through our senses our minds receive their perceptions. There is content in our mind because of our senses. Locke is famous for the following phrase: nihil in intellect quod prius non fuerit in sensu (there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses) (cf. Moore 2011, 114).
Between what we perceive in our minds and the qualities of the objects we experience there is a relationship of copy and object. Locke says that these copies are accurate. When we experience different objects we sense their size, weight, etc., and our mind receives these perceptions. Locke will work with the distinction between primary qualities (size, weight, shape) and secondary qualities (smell, color). In this overall experience of objects what we actually experience are our perceptions or ideas of those objects as our minds processes them. So, in the end everything is at the level of our minds where we have these copies or representations of the objects of our experience.

Perception and Reality

Berkeley argued against Locke by saying that this ‘indirect’ experience of things around us leads to us not knowing that these perceptions are accurate. If Locke’s theory is right we know about the objects surrounding us only at the level of the mind; actually we experience our perceptions. Berkeley goes further by saying that ‘the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together, cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them’ (Berkeley 1710, I.3).
‘The objects of human knowledge’ are ‘either ideas actually imprinted on the senses’ or ‘ideas formed by help of memory and imagination’ (Berkeley 1710, I.1). Thus, our knowledge is build up from perceptions perceived and organized by the mind (cf. Moore 2011, 115). We are left with ‘ideas or sensations’ (Berkeley 1710, I.4) in our minds. For us ‘the object and the sensation are the same thing, and cannot therefore be abstracted from each other’ (Berkeley 1710, I.5).

Berkeley, George. 1710. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Dublin: Aaron Rhames.
Moore, Brooke Noel, and Kenneth Bruder. 2011. Philosophy, The Power of Ideas. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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