The British empiricists, Locke, Berkeley and Hume

Posted: November 27th, 2013





The British empiricists, Locke, Berkeley and Hume


Empiricism is the theory that states that knowledge is obtained only through the sensory experience. Philosophers argue that the mind processes and interprets what the senses perceive of the objects around them. This is proved by the existence of what is said to exist rather than what is thought to exist, for example it is known that there is day and night and is provable but there is no proof that the wind blows from west to east always. This essay focuses on empiricism theory as a way of explaining the human conduct by analyzing the three most important empiricist philosophers, Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and their use of empiricism as opposed to the other theories on human experiences.


To start as off is Locke who proposed that ideas are acquired through experience; he believes that the mind is a blank paper where all the sensory experiences are written and stored as a person grows and experiences more everyday. He further says that the experiences are as a result of sensation and reflection, which in both cases there are simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas are classified into primary and secondary qualities while complex ideas are a combination of simple ones and are classified under substance, modes and relation. In conclusion according to Locke all knowledge of things in existence is based on perception of ideas that are related to each other through experience.

The deduction theory claims that knowledge of some propositions can be known by intuition and deduction, and that these propositions regard to certainty in information of the external world. Yet the assumption of this knowledge being certain makes so much common information that is known doubtful, because a deceiver may intuit a false proposition. This theory contrasts with the theory of induction, which regards that certainty is not probable since the future may not be like the past, but hope to be due to its repetitiveness and comparison ( n.d)

Locke says that the basis of degree of assent is determined by its degree of probability, which suggest that any information declared to be true should be supported with evidence. This is in accordance to his theory of knowledge, which is obtained through sensory perception, in which experience of the information must be seen first. But certainty contrasts this theory, since the information has to be precise in which instances it is beyond the sensory perception

Locke is vehemently opposed to the innate ideas, which are ideas human beings posses at birth before experiencing any sensory perception and which assist their perception and thoughts. The other philosophers’ argument is that these innate ideas are responsible for the unique character in each individual, but Locke argues that this due to the different  timing of  exposure to different things.

Locke theory is all based on experiences that one perceives every day which enhances the quality of knowledge by comparing the different relations. In determining there are different shades of color purple, different colors must be perceived to be related to each other and analyzed in the mind to come up with this knowledge

The Locke’s theory has limitations, first he has no basis on which to differentiate these primary and secondary qualities or proof which one is more real than the other. The other limitation is that basing his theory on the probability may lead to skepticism, since experience comes with repetitions which become habits example the color of blood is red.

Locke writes that a power exists somewhere, which may be the cause of changes in nature, though his theory does not acknowledge that which is not experienced, it is a clear demonstration that the presence of God is distinguished through reasoning. This puts a limit to his theory on how self discovery since it’s not probable to perceive and experience self. In addition his theory limits the acknowledgement of substances since they are not perceived.

The distinction between primary and secondary quality is that, primary qualities are the actual representations of objects; they are part of the object and undisputed. For example a cow has four legs. While secondary qualities, are dependent on sensation or effect generated on seeing the object and are not certain. For example the taste of meat differs with individuals.

Berkley theory, which attempts to expound more on Locke theory, states that things exist only if they are perceived or by them doing the perception, in the sense that if no perception is being experienced, God perceives it instead. He undermines the existence of knowledge by arguing that only sensation is required to have a conscious( n.d). He supports Locke theory of perception to some extent, though his perception of habits or common occurrences in nature that human perceive are as a result of Gods doing which creates a subjective idealism. His view is that all ideas are generated from God and that the mere existence of humans is by Gods perception.

Berkeley criticizes the theory of Locke by saying that it may bring about atheism, because the theory is based on sensory perception and substances are not perceivable. Further he rejects the concept of primary and secondary quality, since he believes that material substances are ideas existing in the perceivers’ minds. The limitations on Berkeley theory on self is that there is no chance of self perception since senses are ideas that exist in our minds. The limitation on God is, He is a spiritual being and cannot be perceived.

Hume theory overrides the other previous empiricists, Locke and Berkeley, by ruling out the perception theory and replacing it with the experience .He argues that the habit of an event repeating itself does not necessary mean that it will occur again but is expected to because it had done so that in the past. He further distinguishes the contents of the mind as impressions and ideas, with impressions being the product of a direct experience and ideas are memories generated due to the original impressions. Hume states that the proper way to go about philosophy, is to explain why people believe what they do rather than speculate on human conduct without giving any illumination. This is why he rejects metaphysics and theology.

Hume’s thoroughness in empiricism is visible in his lack of assumption on human conduct. He chooses to apply the principle of causality which is not speculative, but rather it is based on observation and makes possibilities to be actualized and still after all this he sums it up with the induction reasoning that certainty of all this is not possible since the future may differ with the past (Spirkin, n.d). Unlike his predecessors Locke and Berkeley who use non-empiricist principles, that is substance and God respectively, Hume strictly uses empiricist principles to explain human experiences.


The understanding of human conduct in relation to the world is clearly explained by these three empiricists in their own theories. Locke being the first to state his theory, then Berkeley puts his theory in a better  perspective by expounding on it and lastly Hume takes a critical look at both Locke and Berkley theory and comes up with a more satisfactory  theory that is not based on assumption. Though Hume does not give a definite answer in his theory, he clearly gives a more satisfactory theory on human conduct than his predecessors attempted to.






















Works cited Classical Epistemology: From the Copernican Revolution (1600) to the 1848 Revolution in Germany., n.d. web November 24, 2011. British empiricism: the development from Locke through Berkeley to Hume Hume’s destruction of 18th century empiricism. n.d. web November 24, 2011.

Spirkin. A. The Principle of Causality., n.d. web November 24 2011.

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