Comparative Analysis Of Epistemology Of John Locke And Rene Descartes

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Epistemology is used to describe a theory of knowledge that justifies what belief is from opinion. There are many debates on what epistemology actually is but the easiest way to look at it, is looking at John Locke and Rene Descartes. These two men have quite an opposite approach on how to justify a believe. Descartes believed for man to have a “justified” belief, he must be able to show it to be completely true. As of Locke’s epistemology, it is more built around a strict distinction between knowledge and a basic probable opinion or belief through his senses. So which of these great thinkers has the right idea? In my opinion, I agree with Rene Descartes on how being a rationalist is a better way to find the truth of the mind.

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When you first start looking at how Descartes came up with his theory of epistemology, it started when science, texts, and religion all began to get more attention. He says in Meditation One, “I first realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true,” so he has become more skeptic of all these new “truths” that were going around at the time. Descartes decided that he would not spend anymore of his time believing the beliefs that people are telling him when there was the slightest doubt. He then started searching for beliefs that could not be doubted. He would then know with one hundred percent certainty that it was true.

He soon starts to look at the beliefs that have been influenced by his senses. He says at the beginning of Meditation One, “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. ” The sense that has had him believing the beliefs of the world has also failed him at times. He then starts thinking about his dreams and how the experience he dreams about is not actually happening. This same experience we have in the dream is also the same experience we have when you are awake so this leads to our senses not being a reliable source.

He later starts to doubt the obvious truths like math and numbers. “For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three make five, and a square does not have more than four sides,” which he points out that there has to be a God because how else would he have the knowledge to know these simple ideas. Later he then moves to the idea that an evil genius is manipulating our thoughts, and we have the knowledge to know these simple ideas because he is putting it into our minds. It then comes to the belief that God is perfect then therefore he is not a evil genius. He gives us reasoning, which when used properly, can not make us go wrong. Therefore the only thing he knows for certain is that “I think, therefore I am” which means his mind is the only truth he knows for certain. Everything else there is no certainty.

Moving on to Locke, he says is more into the idea that a person is born with no ideas but receives knowledge from the experiences man has. These ideas of the mind come from sensation and reflection. The first way we experience is through sensations which are experienced through the five senses and the physical qualities. For an example, we see a dog, or smell flowers, or touch ice. We then reflect on these qualities that we experience externally and then internally which then makes us gain the knowledge about the idea.

After the sensation and reflection, he goes to the simple and complex ideas. These sensations/reflections we make apart of the simple ideas. Complex ideas are all products of the abstracting activity of mind operating upon simple ideas. Therefore, you come up with a complex idea when you take the simple idea, like the sensations or reflection and process it by the mind. So Locke’s simple theory of knowledge has only two sides, that all knowledge of the experience is traced to a simple idea and activities of the mind that is material of knowledged, cannot be reduced to just ideas.

Locke then goes into the aspect on characteristics which are the primary and secondary qualities. Looking at the difference between the two, the primary qualities are the extension part and occupy space. It is the actual object that is taking space. The secondary qualities are the changeable ones like the color, sound, and smell. These qualities are the causal properties that cause our ideas to exist in our mind. The ideas are sensations in our mind and the qualities are the properties of objects that cause us to have those sensations.

These qualities can not always be the case in some instances. For an example, in meditation two, Descartes wax argument come into play. He simple has a piece of wax which he examines it uses his five senses. He then takes the wax and places it close to a fire by ending it being melted. While he examines the honeycomb after it has been heated, all of the sense he used to examine it now different. For an example, the wax is now a different color than it was before but it is still the same piece of wax. Now all the secondary qualities that Locke has came up with is now changed from one instance to the opposite. The color, shape, hardness, smell, and even shape is all different but we still call it wax. So our very own senses can sometimes fail us which we cannot always trust our senses.

So throughout my reading of the differences between John Locke and Rene Descartes, I have reason to believe that Descartes has a better way of distinguishing what is true and what is not. Descartes epistemology is a better way to think in my opinion considering senses can deceive us, but perhaps some sensory knowledge is certain. Locke’s ideas of everyone being born without any knowledge at all is hard for me to believe so this is why I side with Descartes more than Locke.

31 October 2020

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