Knowledge from Sense Experience

Published 06 Dec 2016

Where does our knowledge come from? This is a question that many philosophers try to answer. In the history of philosophy, there are two main camps that try to answer the question: the rationalists and the empiricists. The main difference between the two camps is that the rationalists believe that we get our knowledge from reason while the empiricists believe that we get our knowledge from sense experience. The basis of knowledge for one camp is reason while for the other camp is sense experience. Which of the arguments of these two camps are more convincing? I believe that the empiricists are more convincing than the rationalists. I believe that we can not know anything if we will not use our senses first. We need our reason but without anything to work on, our reason will not function.

What is empiricism? What are the arguments for it and who are the main philosophers who argue for empiricism?

As the book says, empiricism is the theory that all knowledge of actual, existing things is delivered through the five senses: our sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. The main proponents of empiricism are grouped into three: the classical empiricists who are Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, the modern empiricist John Locke and the radical empiricist David Hume. Locke, Berkeley and Hume are known as the British empiricists because they all came from the countries of Great Britain.

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How did these empiricists prove that it is mainly sense experience and not reason that is the basis of our knowledge? Why are they more convincing than the rationalists?

Aristotle argues that our knowledge of ideas come from our sense experience of the particular things. He is in a way reacting to the rationalist thinking of the Greek philosopher before him, Plato. He thinks that Plato’s world of forms and senses cannot be correct because the belief means that we have two realities: one that consists of the ideals, the eternal and unchanging things and the world of material things that we can perceive with our senses. Aristotle believes that the form and matter are not separate; that the form is actually in the matter. Let us take for example a material thing like a table. For Plato, there is the material table which exists in our reality outside of our minds and the form of the table, the “idea” of table which exists in our minds.

For Aristotle, this cannot be the case. As the book says of Aristotle’s argument, “The Form or essence of the table must be right there along with the matter of table, constituting it. . . How can the Form—that which is knowable about the table—makes the table knowable if it is not in the table?”(226) For Aristotle we get our idea of the universal things (our “idea” of universal Table) from our sense experience of the particular things (the particular table that we are looking on). By looking at particular and different tables with different colors, shapes and sizes, for example, we get the idea of the universal “Table” in our minds.

I think that Aristotle’s argument is stronger than Plato because it is hard to think about the world of Form that is outside of reality. The existence of the world of Forms that exists outside of the reality of the material things is very hard to prove. We can prove that there is a world of matter because we can see them and feel them but it is hard to prove that there is a world of Forms. Talking about caves and shadows does not help in proving the existence of the world of Forms. It is like looking for a sound argument to prove the existence of heaven. I think that it cannot be proved. It lies out of philosophy. It lies in our faith. This is the same with the world of Forms, or in my interpretation, the world of spirits.

Another argument that makes empiricism more convincing than rationalism is that of John Locke who argues against innate ideas. The rationalists believe that before we sense things that allow us to know, there are ideas that are already in our minds. The main proponent of this theory is Descartes. The book calls his theory the innate ideas theory. John Locke gives solid reason why Descartes is wrong. Locke says that if we have innate ideas then all of us should understand the most basic principle that “What is, is”. But this is not the case with the children. They cannot understand this principle which the book says is the Law of Identity. If there are innate ideas in humans, why don’t the children understand this principle? If there are ideas that are stamped on our minds even before first see the world or touch our mothers, then why don’t the children have an idea of the God, for example? Maybe they do but we cannot prove it because the children’s capacity to prove that they have innate ideas is not yet developed. We have no way of knowing.

Lock believes that our minds start as empty and they become filled with ideas through our sense experience and our mind’s working on the things that our senses put into it. For Locke, we learn through sense experience by the passive and active functions of our minds. Our passive minds perceive simple perceptions and our minds also function actively by combining, uniting and separating the simple perceptions. These become our complex ideas. If we look at it, Locke’s simple and complex ideas can correspond to Aristotle’s particular and universal ideas. The particular ideas, like the simple perceptions are derived from our sense perceptions of the outside material things. The universal ideas, like the complex ideas, are the ideas that we produce upon repeated sensing of the particular things.

Locke and Descartes, a rationalist, have one thing in common and this is that both of them believe in the dualism of mind and matter. There is a world out there that consists of the material things and there is the world in our minds that are made of ideas of the things that we have perceived. For Locke, we can only know the sensible qualities of those material things but we cannot know what really they are because we cannot step out of our minds into the outer reality so that we can know objectively the things as themselves. Locke believes that we cannot know material things out of us but only how they register to us as sensible qualities. We can only sense the sensible qualities of the table, not the table itself. We can see that the table for example is colored brown and is rectangular. We can see that it has four legs. When we touch the table, we sense that it is hard and it is smooth. We know that table because of these qualities but we cannot know the “table” in itself. This is one of the criticisms against Locke. This means that we can not have access to a real knowledge of the matter outside of ourselves.

I think that this criticism is valid but it does not destroy the argument of Locke. Is it really that important in our lives if we know the things in themselves? Isn’t it more important to focus on what we can know and not on the things that we can not know? And lastly, it suffices that we have our senses and that we have our reason to derive that the qualities that we see are the qualities of a table.

For Locke, the perceiver is important and it should exist for the sense experiences. The perceiver is the one who takes in the simple ideas from sense experience and processes them into complex ideas. But Hume, the last of the empiricists, takes the argument of sense experiences further. Hume believes that there is no perceiver. If I sense heat from the hot soup, for example, it means that I, the perceiver, exist. Hume does not believe so. He believes that all ideas should be derived from impressions. My idea of “hotness” for example is derived from my impression of a “hot soup”. For Hume, we cannot know the “I” because our idea of self are not derived from impressions.

Hume argues that our self, the perceiver, is only a bundle of different sensations. When I think of “I”, I think of only the sensations of “pain” or “love”. Sometimes “I” am “happy”, sometimes, “I” am “sad”. When I was young, I was sensitive to what people say about me but now I am different, I have become strong and confident. If we follow Hume, he will say that there is no unchanging and enduring self. The self always changes. It is a “passing parade of perceptions”. Hume concludes that we do not have a true “idea” of our self that we can derive from impressions since the impressions are not simultaneous. It is our minds who put changing impressions into one bundle. In short, our selves are not real. So for Hume, there is only the sensations, we can not be sure that we can know that matter that we perceive outside of us and we cannot be certain we can know that there is really an enduring “I”. This is why he is called the radical empiricist. He negates everything except our sensations.

It is hard to accept that I do not have any “self” because I feel that I have. But I think I agree with Hume. What I think of my “self” is just an amalgamation of passing perceptions. Hume’s argument is really mind-blowing because he rejects our knowledge of anything that is not derived from impressions. He does not think that there is an “I” which is completely the opposite of Descartes who believes that our innate idea is “I” think. There is an “I”, a mind who thinks.

Whose argument is more convincing Hume or Descartes? If we believe that we can know because of our reason, then we can be certain that there is an “I”. If we believe that we can know not mainly because of our reason but because of our sense experience, then we cannot be certain that there is an “I”. For Descartes, the only thing that he is sure of is that there is an “I” who thinks and with material things, he cannot be as certain. For Hume, the “I” is not real because it does not have a corresponding impression but only a series of what we think it is that changes over time. Our impression of “I” is not constant. The simple ideas do not combine simultaneously but they are always in constant flux. It is disturbing to think that I have no real “I” but I think that Hume destroys Descartes’ enduring, unchanging “I”.

I believe that our reason is important because it is what separates us from the animals and plants. But without anything to work on, our reason will not function. It is like the most intelligent word processor. Even if it has all the commands in store in it, if nobody will input the sentences and the paragraphs, then the word processor’s capabilities are put into waste. Before we can put our minds to work, there should something that we should put in our minds for them to function. It is impossible to think of nothing. How can our reason function without the “something” that we get from our senses? The mind must always have something to work on for it to work and we are indebted to our senses because they supply our minds with that something to work on. Our senses make it possible for our minds to work. Our senses make it possible for us to think and thus become rational humans.

Works Cited

  • Davies, Lloyd. Informal Learning: a New Model for Making Sense of Experience. Aldershot, England, Gower, 2008.
  • “Knowledge Gained Through Actual Experience (Empirical Research).” Knowledge Gained Through Actual Experience (Empirical Research),
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