Why is knowledge a useful process

On the process of human knowledge in John Locke and George Berkeley

Table of Contents

1. John Locke's theory of ideas
1. 1 generation of ideas
1. 2 types of ideas
1. 3 Relationship between ideas and reality
1. 3 Locke's philosophy of language

2. George Berkeley's theory of ideas
2. 0 Source and classification of ideas
2. 1 Berkeley's Philosophy of Language
2.2 Conclusion on Berkeley's criticism of Locke


The aim of the present work is to compare the philosophies of John Locke and George Berkeley in relation to epistemological questions for the generation of (general) ideas and their status with regard to their function in language. In view of the complexity of this topic, the historical circumstances at the time of origin of the works used are assumed for the reader, ie it is not explained in detail how the emergence of the natural sciences in England in the 17th century was expressed, since we are only concerned with their effects interested in the epistemology of the two philosophers.[1] Both theories are regarded as representative of the most popular philosophical directions in the philosophy of knowledge of this time; Their comparison is intended to provide the reader with a comprehensive picture of the epistemological research on this topic at the time.

For a better understanding of the different argumentation patterns of Locke and Berkeley, only a little historical background information is relevant with regard to the focus of this work: Due to the rise of the mechanical natural sciences of the 17th century "More and more phenomena are explained with the means of science without recourse to transcendent reasons and purposes ..." (Kreimendahl 1994, p.93) Berkeley feared that this would affect the "Eliminate God in favor of a purely mechanistic-materialistic and thus atheistic worldview." (ibid.). But the threat to religion posed by knowledge was only one aspect that Berkeley wanted to combat; Their negative impact on philosophy also had to be contained. Explanatory approaches to perception that "We ... seek to correct by means of reason" lead, according to Berkeley, not only to atheism, but also in "Hopeless skepticism ..." (Berkeley 2005, §1). Berkeley is now making it a task that "To find out principles, the all that doubtfulness and uncertainty, that absurdity and contradictions in the individual schools of philosophy have caused such that the greatest whites have considered our ignorance incurable, attributing it to the natural weakness and limitation of our mental powers. " (Berkeley 2005, §4). One of those wrong principles is for Berkeley "the opinion, the mind has the ability to form abstract ideas or concepts of things. " (Berkeley 2005, §6) [emphasis added. in the original], what about the "Abuse of language" (ibid.) lead. The exact presentation of this theory will be dealt with in detail in the middle part of this thesis. If one now looks at the main arguments of Berkeley's philosophy, it quickly becomes clear why he is considered to be Locke's adversary: ​​While Berkeley rejects a natural-scientific view of knowledge and thus pursues a strongly theologically motivated philosophy, Locke's theory is dominated by the former, when he as The origin of all our ideas does not indicate the spirit or the divine spirit, but the unconscious matter. In addition, unlike Berkeley, Locke's philosophy of language is based on the existence of abstract ideas in order to be able to explain general ideas and terms. The exact explanation with references can be found in the middle part of the thesis.

In the course of the following, the contradiction between the two philosophies in relation to the acquisition of knowledge is to be made clear above all; the resulting views regarding the generation and function of ideas and their status in language are also dealt with in the middle part of this thesis. As a basis for the presentation of Locke's theory of ideas will be Essay Concerning Human Understanding used after Peter Nidditch's translation from 1979, the positions referring to the book, the chapter and the paragraph in order. For Berkeley's philosophy that Principles of Human Knowledge, because in this work he refers directly to Locke's theory of ideas.

1. John Locke's theory of ideas

1. 1 generation of ideas

In order to be able to understand Berkeley's criticism of Locke's theory of ideas, Locke's philosophy should first be presented here in essence.

According to Udo Thiel, experience is the ultimate source of all our ideas for Locke. This is divided into "inner experience"("Reflection")which gives us general ideas of activities of the mind, and "external experience"("Sensation"), i.e. ideas that we gain through our perception of the outside world. The human mind can apply operations such as comparing, abstracting, etc. to the ideas conveyed in this way and thus form complex ideas that go beyond the actual experience itself.

(Thiel 1997, pp. 68-88, p.281)

But ideas can only arise in the human mind through the perception of the “forces” or “qualities” of objects in the external world. Locke differentiates here between “active” and “passive” force, i. H. there has to be an active force in the object that creates an idea in us, which we in turn passively receive. (Nidditch 1979, II.xxi.2) (Thiel 1997, p.203). Locke also calls these “forces” of matter “qualities”, distinguishing between “secondary” and “primary” qualities. He describes the connection between ideas and qualities, as well as their structure, in the following passage:

“Whatsoever the Mind perceives in it self, or is the immediate object of Perception, Thought, or Understanding, that I call Idea; and the Power to produce any Idea in our mind, I call Quality of the Subject wherein that power is. Thus a Snow-ball having the power to produce in us the Ideas of White, Cold and Round, the Powers to produce those Ideas in us, as they are in the Snow-ball, I call Qualities; and as they are Sensations or Perceptions, in our Understandings, I call them Ideas; which Ideas, if I speak of sometimes, as in the things themselves, I would be understood to mean those Qualities in the Objects which produce them in us ” (Nidditch 1979, II.viii.8) [emphasis added. in the original].

According to this definition, there are two types of qualities that give rise to ideas in us: on the one hand, the forces that are inherent in the object independent of consciousness, and on the other hand, those which we ascribe to the object based on our perception.[2]

-But what exactly, according to Locke, distinguishes the primary and secondary qualities?

Locke explains the primary qualities using the example of a grain of wheat:

"Take a grain of Wheat, divide it into two parts, each part has still Solidity, Extension, Figure, and Mobility; divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible, they must retain still each of them all those qualities. " (Nidditch 1979, II.viii.9) [emphasis added. In the original]

The main distinguishing feature is therefore that this class of properties persist in the body even if we do not perceive them, which in turn underlines his thesis that matter is independent of consciousness. Locke describes the difference between the primary and secondary qualities of objects and the ideas resulting from them as follows:

"... the Ideas of primary Qualities of Bodies, are Resemblences of them, and their Patterns do really exist in the Bodies themselves; but the Ideas, produced in us by these Secondary Qualities, have no resemblances of them at all. " (Nidditch 1979, II.viii.15) [emphasis added. in the original]

So we cannot make any reliable statements about the real nature of things, their “real essence”, since imperceptible particles, or corpuscles (see above), are the carriers of the primary qualities that are ideas in us as a perceiving subject, through various configurations of color, cold and shape. This circumstance has the consequence that when describing an object we fall back on the properties we perceive, which only exist in the perceiving subject, but not in the object itself.[3]


[1] Kreimendahl, Lothar: Major works of philosophy. Rationalism and empiricism. Reclam, 1994. Stuttgart. Pp. 89-92.

[2] Kienzle, Bertram: Primary and Secondary Qualities. In: Thiel, Udo (ed.): John Locke. Essay on the human mind. Akademie Verlag, 1997. (Classics Explaining, Vol. 6).

[3] Colman, John : Locke's theory of empirical knowledge. In: Thiel, Udo (ed.): John Locke. Essay on the human mind. Akademie Verlag, 1997. (Classics Explaining, Vol. 6). P. 203