A Critique of John Locke and David Humes' Theories of Knowledge

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

20 Pages, Grade: A



British philosophers, John Locke and David Hume, are considered empiricists. This is because they based their philosophies on natural science. Both philosophers contributed to the theory of knowledge with Locke coming up with sensations and reflections and Hume coming up with impressions and ideas as the cornerstones of their theories of knowledge. Their theories aim to show us that everything we understand is by virtue of its connection with experience. Experience, therefore is the source of knowledge for these philosophers.

This paper looks into empiricism both as a source and method of knowledge. The approach taken is by mirroring John Locke’s theory of knowledge with that of David Hume, identifying similarities, influence of Locke on Hume, the differences between them and a critique on the credibility of empiricism, as one of the sources and methods of knowledge.

The conclusion arrived at is that empiricist ideas can explain the physical world and what we know of it but there remains rationally derived knowledge. On this account, both empiricism and rationalism are credible sources and methods of knowledge.


In this paper, I seek to mirror John Locke’s theory of knowledge with that of David Hume. In order for us to understand the two theories in detail, it is important for us to note here that both John Locke and David Hume are classified as empiricist philosophers. Their principal focus and contributions are on the theory of knowledge or epistemology1.

Empiricism is the view that the source and test of contingent knowledge is the experience. ‘Experience’ here, means sensory experience in addition to introspective awareness of the contents and operations of the experiencer’s own mind2. Experience in this context is also defined as the process of gaining knowledge or skill acquired from seeing and doing things3.

Tied to this concept of experience we will deal with the concepts Sensation, Reflection, Impression and Ideas. But what do we mean by these concepts? Sensation refers to a feeling in one’s body resulting from something that happens or is done to it. It is also defined as general awareness or impression not caused by anything that can be seen or defined4. Reflection on the other hand is defined as the thought or memory of past events: consideration5.

Impressions are defined as deep lasting effects on the mind or feelings of somebody. They are also unclear or uncertain ideas, feelings or opinions. As for ideas, we mean a plan, formed by thinking: a thought or mental impression6. Having defined the above terms, we are ready to make a critical exposition on both John Locke and David Hume’s theories of knowledge.


John Locke (1632-1704) in his book Essay Concerning Human Understanding set out his task as ‘to examine our Abilities, and see what Objects our Understandings are, or are not fitted to deal with’7. To Grayling, A.C, this implies an inquiry into ‘the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge, together with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent’8. Grayling notes that Locke’s strategy was to agree with rationalism that certainty is a property of intuitive and demonstrative knowledge, then to assert the right of what Locke refers to as ‘sensitive knowledge’. That is, knowledge from the senses should be taken seriously9.

To Scruton, R, Locke wishes to show that everything that we understand (every idea) we understand in virtue of its connection with experience10. That is, the content of every idea we have is revealed by tracing it back to experience. Here, we already can see Locke proposing, an empiricist theory of understanding11. Put simply, all our ideas come from experience12.

Francks goes on to note that to Locke, when a child is born it knows nothing, its compared to a blank sheet of paper, waiting for life to write words on it, waiting to be ‘furnished’ with ‘ideas’. What do we mean by this? Here, Locke means that our minds get furnished by ‘experience’. That is, I learn what is warm by being warm; I learn what pain is by feeling it13.

So what is Locke telling us?

According to Locke, we arrive to our ideas from experience which is in two forms: observation of external sensible objects, and internal observation of the operations of one’s own mind. The former, refers to ‘sensation’, whereas the latter refers to ‘reflection’14. These ideas of sensation come to us through our senses-seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling things. In addition to the above, ideas of reflection come to us through activity of the mind as it observes its inner processes15.

Russell, B uses the concept ‘perception’ in place of ‘reflection’, in addition to ‘sensation’. According to him, perception is the operation of our mind-which may be called ‘internal sense’. Russell notes that, since we can only think by means of ideas, and since all ideas come from experience, then none of our knowledge can antedate experience16. To Locke, perception is ‘the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of the materials of it.’

Grayling goes on to note that since our minds have no other object than ideas, knowledge can be ‘nothing but the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas. In this alone it consists’ so Locke says. Moreover, when there is agreement or disagreement of two ideas and this is immediately obvious, Locke calls it ‘Intuitive knowledge’17. According to Locke, when reasoning to make the agreement, so that one does not instantly grasp relation but comes to it by steps of inference, Locke calls this ‘demonstrative knowledge’18.

The above, are types of knowledge according to Locke. But what else does Locke say about sensation and reflection? Scruton, from Locke’s ideas notes that the soul does not think until the senses have furnished it with ideas, sensation has a primary importance in delivering to us our theory of the real world19. Locke seems to treat sensations (including visual and other forms of sensory perception) ideas as a distinct kind of mental event-one from which we may receive ideas but is not itself a kind of idea20.

Francks, R , puts it this way, that in addition to our sensory concepts being acquired through the senses, (what Locke calls sensation), as we get older we develop another sense-another source of ideas. We learn what thinking is-or hoping, or remembering-in the same way we learn what colour blue is21. From our acts of thinking we learn what thinking is. In short, to Locke everything you can ever think, any thought you can ever have, no matter how original, creative or downright bizarre, can be traced ultimately to concepts acquired through experience22.

Locke’s ideas are really concepts: he writes of them as they were images clearly distinguishing them from complete thoughts or propositions23. So how does the mind work according to Locke? To him, the mind can compare ideas together-it can see, for example, the idea of big and the idea of large are (at least almost) the same whereas the idea of big and the idea of small are different24.

The mind can also abstract ideas from particular experiences and see what they have in common. It can produce the abstract idea of a person, out of the ideas of all the particular people it meets. It can also compound ideas together-mix them up in new and sometimes bizarre ways so as to produce new discoveries and inventions and also fantasies25.

From the concept of comparison, we derive simple and complex ideas. Scruton, R defines a simple idea as one like the idea of redness which cannot be analysed into its components. To Locke, it is ‘not in the power of thought to make or erase’ these simple ideas coming to us through sensation and reflection. In addition, all ideas that are not simple are complex, that is, if you define ‘a’ in terms of ‘b’, 'c’, ‘d’ et cetera then the idea of ‘a’ is composed of the ideas of ‘b’ , ‘c’, ‘d’26. This seems to foreshadow the foundationalism theory of justification.

Locke also distinguishes ideas of one sense, of more than one sense of reflection, and of both sense and reflection. For example, the idea of greenness is derived from the visual sense; idea of solidity corresponds to both visual and tactile experiences. The idea of imagination comes from inner awareness of the operations of the mind. The idea of action derives from all those sources working together27.

By Abstract ideas, Locke means Complex ideas are formed by bringing together separate ideas into a composite whole, or by separating ideas in such a way as to generate what is common to all of them. The general ideas are derived from particular ideas (or ideas of particular things) by a process of abstraction28.

In short, according to Russell, B, Locke tells us that we have three kinds of knowledge of real existence: our knowledge of our own existence is intuitive, our knowledge of God’s existence is demonstrative, and our knowledge of things present is sensitive. Locke assumes certain mental occurrences, which he calls sensations, have causes outside themselves, and that these causes, to some extent and in certain respects, resemble the sensations which are their effects29.

In conclusion, to Locke, all our knowledge derives from our ideas and if all our ideas are acquired from experience, then no-one has a monopoly of knowledge. What Locke has done above is provide for us materials of knowledge not any knowledge at all. To Locke, knowledge is not merely having ideas but as the ability to see the relations between them. To Locke, intuitions and proofs are the only things we can really know30.

‘So that, I think, we add to the former sorts of Knowledge, this also, of the existence of particular external Objects, by that perception and Consciousness we have the actual entrance of Ideas from them, and allow these three degrees of knowledge, viz. Intuitive, Demonstrative, and Sensitive: in each of which, there are different degrees and ways of evidence and certainty.’31

Let us now turn our attention to David Hume’s theory of knowledge.


David Hume’s (1711-1776) ideas are found in his works Treatise of Human Nature and in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding32 . His philosophy depends on a theory of meaning, designed to articulate fundamental empiricist views that there can be no concept except where there is experience33. This view is similar to that of John Locke.

Hume presented his philosophy as though it began from natural science of the human mind, being the results of observations which could be confirmed through direct introspection34. Put differently, Hume seeks a truly scientific account of human beings35.

According to Francks, R, Hume comes to the conclusion that any kind of rational investigation can ever be achieved. Hume employs the Newtonian method; we simply observe in an objective and dispassionate manner the facts of human nature and seek to discover the laws of its operation. This way, our theories will not be based on wisdom, not on what we have been brought up to believe, not what we find written in the books of Aristotle or the books of the Bible, but on the concrete data of experience36.

Hume’s first move is establishing basic elements of human thought, the atoms of the mental world, as the irreducible particles of thought. Just like Locke, Hume’s starting point is the position that everything we can understand-every mental object-is derived either directly or indirectly from experience37. He argues that what is given in the content of one of those experiences; if we strip everything we add to it on the basis of past experience is a bare, uninterpreted sensation38. Here, we encounter the concept sensation just like in Locke. But what are Hume’s views on knowledge?

Hume begins by separating the actual sensations we experience-‘impressions’-from the concepts we form from them-‘ideas’39. That is, deep lasting effects on the mind which inform our plan formed by thought. For example, seeing trees is an ‘impression’ and from it, we form ‘ideas’. These impressions correspond to what we should call sensations and perceptions40. The ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’ are two kinds of perceptions of which impressions are those that have more force and violence.


1 A.C. Grayling, Ed. Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, pg. 486

2 Ibid.

3 A.S. Hornby, Ed. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, pg. 422

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 A.C. Grayling, Ed. Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, pg. 488

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy, pg. 88

11 Ibid.

12 Richard Francks, Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, pg.150

13 Ibid.

14 A.C. Grayling, Ed, Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, pg. 488

15 Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy, pg.91

16 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, pg.557

17 A.C. Grayling, Ed , Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, pg.501

18 Ibid.

19 Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy, pg.91

20 Ibid.

21 Richard Francks, Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, pg.150

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy, pg.91

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, pg.558

30 Richard Francks, Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, pg.156

31 A.C. Grayling, Ed. Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject, pg. 501

32 Ibid, pg. 524

33 Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy, pg.123

34 Ibid.

35 Richard Francks, Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, pg.156

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Op. Cit, pg.123

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A Critique of John Locke and David Humes' Theories of Knowledge
University of Nairobi
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critique, david, humes, john, knowledge, locke, theories
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Mbogo Wa Wambui (Author), 2011, A Critique of John Locke and David Humes' Theories of Knowledge, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/703980


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