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Locke’s Empiricism: The Logic Behind Ideas

For years, philosophers have pondered the issue of the intellect and the conceptualization of ideas. Locke’s view on the ‘idea’ itself centers on the fact that he made no distinction between the intellect and the imagination. Therefore, Locke stood to believe that the idea was a sensory image which is why many researchers refer to him as an imagist. Locke explains an idea as “Whatever it is which the mind can be employed about thinking” (Ayer 1991). As a result, many have concluded that Locke meant to leave the definition ambiguous, perhaps to allow individuals to make their own decisions. Others believe that Locke was following the same philosophical lines as Gassendi, who used the word in a more fantastical theoretical framework. However, this conclusion is challenged, given the fact that Locke rarely used the words fantasy or fancy when discussing ideas. According to Potter (1993), Locke “holds that ‘ideas’ are the objects of our thoughts about a world which includes material objects” (Potter 1993).

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Yet, Locke strongly encouraged people to refrain from thinking that their interpretation of objects and ideas were exactly as they appeared outside of the mind. He draws on the idea of the memory as a place to save, in a way, ideas, though, again, they are not perfect representations. Ayer (1991) uses the analogy of a bird and a song to explain this point. If the bird listens to a song and then produces it the next day, people may tend to say the bird memorized the song. Locke would say that the bird saved the song in its mind to use to compare the song he is singing. Likewise, children think when they have something to think about. They produce their own mental images, but these images are not exactly like those they see. Thus, Locke’s idea is a sensation that is saved through retention in mind (Ayer 1991).

It can be stated that Locke was reluctant to apply any intellectual activity to these sensations. He did not separate the imagist mind from a higher or intellectual mind. He never saw a reason to do this, unlike other philosophers. Of course, Locke recognized the existence of wit, judgment, wisdom, and madness but only in terms of what the person did with his existing ideas. Descartes and Locke debated on the idea of separating conceiving an idea and imagining an idea as either the same or separate functions. Descartes argued that one could conceive of a particular shape but not image it since he does not know exactly what it looks like. Locke countered with the argument that if one can reason about the number of sides and lengths of the shape, we can imagine it from those existing ideas. It can be concluded that this is an argument against not only Descartes but also the Cartesian views (Dennett 1978).

It should be noted that in Locke’s discussion of abstract ideas, he seemed to contradict himself. He said that ideas such as jealousy and lies couldn’t be imagined by the mind. This seems to suggest that Locke did recognize other conceptions of the mind. Locke later explained that these abstract concepts were ideas “partially considered” (Ayers 1991). However, he valued the implication of principals in the formation of abstract ideas and stated, “It is an established opinion amongst some men that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions or characters, as it were, stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it” (Locke 1894).

There can be a final argument here in considering Locke an imagist lies within the idea of an intuition of universal truth or a priori knowledge. It can be stated that philosophers like Descartes said that understanding diagrams, charts, etc., occurs because of higher intellectual processes in the mind.

Locke argued that these ideas on paper were representations or copies of what already existed in the mind. For example, a line or angle is something already in the mind that is later compared to a drawing on paper, not the other way around (Nath 2001).

Potter (1993) argues, “Locke is an epistemological realist in intent; that is, he believes that we truly and… a position found in Descartes (the clear and distinct idea)” (Potter 1993). Locke, in this context, also entered a debate about whether an object can exist outside the realm of the intention of the person who conceptualizes it. The philosophers called this the objective and the formal existence of objects. The philosophers used the example of the sun. Descartes claimed that the sun could exist formally, without our thinking of it, in the realm of the heavens. Caterus argued that the only way an object could exist was if it existed in a person’s mind. Locke criticized Descartes but agreed to an extent with Caterus. It can be easily claimed that Caterus must surely be right. He called the objects in mind intentional objects and rejected the idea that they could have another existence outside of it. Even when we imagine something, like Macbeth’s dagger or a horse, we pull it into a type of being. The horse that is imagined is related to the horse that is real (Nath 2001).

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Things get a little more complex when we begin talking about God or anything that cannot be drawn. It can be contended that difference in perception and how something really is does not in any way change reality.

Thinking about God does not change the substance of the real God. But the questions that we must seek to answer are how can a representation not have an existent intentional object? How can we discuss something that does not exist?

Malebranche concludes that the extension of the object is a new entity by itself. In this manner, our perception of the sun becomes linked to us and is, therefore, becomes a real entity (Nath 2001).

Arnauld rejected this idea. He felt that an idea was simply the object in question while the perception of it was what our minds did with the idea. Thus, they were two different things. However, it was confusing when he maintained that ideas and perceptions were not really different but two different ideas regarded in the same way.

This was clearly contradictory even though he attempted to rename the object of the mind as the immediate object and the actual object as the mediate object. Upon first glance, Locke would deny both of these men since he considered an idea as a form of sense-data.

Ayer, in his text, seemed to tie Locke with Arnaud in that they both agreed that “we have no knowledge of what is outside us except through the mediation of the ideas within us” (Ayers 1991).

It can be stated that some problems while figuring out what Locke meant by his rather ambiguous definition of an idea had to do with how loosely he seemed to use some of the terms. It is hard to figure out whether Locke meant for his idea to be more of an intentional object or not. It can be stated that Locke did mean that an idea would cease to be without the sensation it produced. For example, for a person who is blind, color does not exist at all. However, Locke explains,

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Judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion, wherein for the most part lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and therefore is so acceptable to all people (Locke 1894).

Again, Locke’s theory of ideas can be seen as signs. Thus, Locke’s objects must be with the person in some sense of an image, either visual or otherwise. He further claimed that these ideas could be used to understand other things. It can be stated that Locke intended ideas to be the elements in the natural language of thoughts. While spoken language is arbitrary, he argued, the language of thought was causal. The relationship between the intentional object and the real object was that the perception in its sensory form was caused by the idea of the real object (Nath 2001).

Nath (2001) indicates that still, the question remains; do the intentional objects resemble the real objects? For example, is the sensation of pain similar to actual pain? Here Locke looked at the difference between primary and secondary characteristics. Ideas can have distinct primary characteristics but similar secondary characteristics. For example, pain and snow are primarily dissimilar, but the secondary characteristics of the sensation of the cold as pain are alike. Thus, it can be explained that pain in the knee can be a secondary characteristic of the knee as cold is a secondary characteristic of snow. Locke argued that these primary characteristics could be the names for the actual things they represented and for the ideas in our minds. Yet this cannot happen with secondary characteristics. For example, to say the grass is green is ambiguous because green is not a cause of grass.

However, the second characteristic of green can produce the idea of grass. So the secondary characteristic of green has the power to produce an actual idea in the mind of grass. Thus Locke is saying that the ideas of objects are not intentional but “blank effects” of all characteristics (like green) (Nath 2001).

As for 3D objects, Locke seemed to claim that we did not actually see in 3D but that the 2D objects in our minds were arranged into the idea of a 3D object. Thus, the blank effect that Locke discussed was the result of both visual and tactile interpretations of the secondary characteristics of an object. In this, the idea is produced. Thus, it can be recognized that Locke seemed to contradict himself in several instances.

However, this may not be so much intentional as it is a matter of semantics. Nevertheless, in the words of Locke, it can be stated that

Whatsoever the mind perceives in itself 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 (Locke 1894).


Ayer, M. (1991). Locke. London: Rougledge.

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Dennett, D. (1978). Brainstorms – Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Locke, J. (1894). An essay concerning human understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nath, S. (2001). Emotion Based Narratives: A New Approach to Creating Story Experiences in Immersive Virtual Environments. London: Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.

Potter, V. (1993). Readings in epistemology: from Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant. NY: Fordham Univ Press.

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