Empiricism and The Philosophy of Experience: a Study

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 3663 |

Pages: 8|

19 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2019

Words: 3663|Pages: 8|19 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2019

Table of contents

  1. The Acquisition of “Experience”
  2. Empiricism’s Pertinence to Morality and Reasoning
  3. How Experience Shapes Identity
  4. Locke & Hume on Identity
  5. Locke’s Perspective of Identity
  6. Hume’s Perspective and Critique of Locke’s Position
  7. Conclusion

John Locke and David Hume were considered to be two of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of their time. During the Age of Enlightenment, these two men spent much of their time delving deeply into the concepts that make the human mind so abstract. Both men were very well aware of the consciousness of man, and the subjectivity that comes with their ideas. Ideas, opinions, notions-all of these are terms which resonate with subjectivity. Self-proclaimed empiricists in their own rights, both men acknowledged fully that any notions regarding anything that man could possibly come to know-or even fathom-were based solely on experience. Experience in itself can be defined subjectively; one may experience an event firsthand, witness it happening to someone else, hear about the firsthand experience of another person (from said person’s perspective), or hear about it from someone else. Regardless of how one might gain this hypothetical experience, it is through personal perception, repetition, and one’s ability to comprehend the complexity behind the circumstances of their situation.

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While ethics, morals, and the nature of all things that can be deemed as opposites- “right” and “wrong”, “hot” and “cold”, “yes” or “no”- are all determined based on our individual understandings of such concepts, they are all made based on how we perceive them, and to what extent. The knowledge of anything is not embedded into our minds from birth; it must be obtained. In order to gain this knowledge, both Hume and Locke concur that one must experience life. By doing this, we allow ourselves to perceive the world around us, thus providing us with opportunities to build upon our present sense of reasoning. “We can see how they gradually come to have more ideas, which they do only by acquiring ideas that are furnished by experience and the observation of things. That might be enough to satisfy us that they—·the ideas·—are not characters stamped on the mind from birth.” (Locke, J, Book I, 1690, p.14)

Through our own experiences, most of us become more developed human beings. In turn, our perception of the world around us changes as we grow and experience situations more frequently. Through the acquisition of clearer knowledge and reasoning comes a sense of identity and consciousness of one’s self. It is this concept in which the two philosophers have some contradicting perspectives. The idea of self-identity is undoubtedly a subjective one. However, Hume proclaims that such a concept is so everchanging and variable that the term is practically obsolete. (Hume, D., 1739, p. 14) Locke also agrees that one’s identity is almost inevitably subject to change as a person ages, but that identity in and of itself surely exists. (Locke, J., 1690, Book II, p. 113)

Similar in nature, the ideologies of Locke & Hume each offer a unique take on how people obtain their levels of thinking and how they correlate them to their personal identities. While identity and rationality are two distinct concepts, the former is the result of the latter. Whether or not “identity” as a concept holds any significant meaning is debatable according to the works of these men, but they both agree that there is some degree of subjectivity to it. Moreover, these philosophers have very empirical philosophical views, and thus agree that everything that we perceive-in the world, outside ourselves, and within ourselves-is subject to change as well as differing perceptions. In order for us to experience any substantial emotions or thoughts about life or ourselves, I agree with Locke & Hume that our reasoning and ability to self-identify can only come with time and experience.

The Acquisition of “Experience”

How a person may come about any type of experience is debatable. For example, while a person can experience the morose feelings that are felt after the recent loss of a loved one, anyone whom they might explain this experience to can only empathize with them. Even then, the amount of genuine empathy that the second person is expressing may not be genuine at all, but rather an expression of the social cues that they have managed to pick up regarding the emotion. In regards to the person hearing the saddening story of the other person’s loss, their experience is not truly experience at all. For me to even say this is based on my own understanding of the term “experience”; in a sense, simply hearing the grieving person’s story may justify calling it that. Even if this other person does feel a true sensation of sadness towards the other, it is still only based on what they have just heard. Even if this person had lost a loved one of their own at some point in their life, their perception of it is not going to be entirely like that of anyone else’s perception, assuming that they were even in a similar situation to begin with. In either case, the reasoning behind how one should react to being told about the sad news of someone else is attained through similar past experiences, as well as their understanding of the appropriate social cues to express themselves in such a situation. While we might not have the slightest clue as to what we are truly thinking or to why we should think a certain way, our perception of past experiences is what allows us to develop a sense of moral standards and reasoning. Even if we do not fully understand the reasoning begin what we are supposed to be feeling, our past experiences at least teach most of us what the most acceptable social norms for our time might be.

Empiricism’s Pertinence to Morality and Reasoning

The empirical ideologies of Hume & Locke both concur that logic and morals are whatever people choose to make of them. What people choose to make of these abstract concepts is based solely on how they perceive the world around them, whether it is by their own accounts or the accounts of others. George Berkeley, another well-known philosopher from the same time, once said:

“It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human

knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses,

or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and

operations of the mind, or lastly ideas formed by the help of memory

and imagination, either compounding, dividing, or barely representing

those originally perceived in the aforesaid ways.” (Berkeley, G., 1901, p. 41)

This essentially means that anyone who takes the time to evaluate all the bits and pieces of human knowledge will find that it is all relative to the ones who established it in the first place. Moreover, the establishment of such knowledge had to have come from a place of passion, if not repetition. The repetitious experiences that we have is what leads to more developed reasoning, at least in regards to the circumstances of these experiences. The memories of past experiences are what allow us to make progress, or at least what we might define as “progress”. This allows us to develop our sense of reason behind where we set our moral standards, as well as to cope with situations that may share some type of relevance to our past experiences.

In regards to moral standards, Hume argues that they are what we perceive them to be. The standards which we set are not based on rationality, but on passion and emotion. Hume states that our preconceived notions of logic and rationality are derived from our passions, which are derived from our personal experiences. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. As this opinion may appear somewhat extraordinary, it may not be improper to confirm it by some other considerations.” (Hume, D, 1739, p.217) He states that our reasoning is the result of passions. Since our individual passions, outlooks on situations, and experiences are all uniquely different than that of the next individual, reasoning in and of itself can be viewed as subjective to the point of being arbitrary.

Reasoning and ideas, while able to be used synonymously, are two concepts that are independent of each other. However, that is not to say that reasoning by itself just comes about arbitrarily; it must first be preceded by ideas. These ideas are brought upon through experiencing new concepts, especially during one’s childhood. While this may be a vague explanation of how/if we develop a sense of reason, the number of potential experiences that one could have throughout the span of their life is countless. What we do experience is done so in a manner of our choosing, as the passion regarding our perceptions is how we develop our sense of reason. With this said, we have a choice as to how we can perceive and react to certain situations. Locke says that it is not until we are well into our adult years that we begin to apply these ideas to our own consciousness of self. (Locke, J, 1690, Book II, p.19) Even then, some of us may be incapable of piecing together the experiences and bits of information that have been acquired over the years. While reasoning and simply having ideas have two separate meanings, Locke argues that to have ideas is simply to perceive. (ibid., p. 20) Our ability to perceive begins before we are even aware of it. From the time we are born, all of our senses are intact, regardless of how undeveloped they might be. As such, it can be said that we begin developing ideas before we can make any sense of them. For some of us, this continues well into adulthood, just with a more developed sense of perception. Perception is also a matter of subjectivity, and is one that can never be deemed as “right” or “wrong”. Even when we believe that we hold all of the keys of knowledge to life’s unanswered dilemmas, we cannot even begin to fathom the infinite number of perspectives that exist, even when said perspectives are on the most trivial matters. What’s more, perception comes with experience, and repetitious experience can lead to a change in our perception over the course of time. (ibid, p. 22) Therefore, regardless of our present perception of the world around us and our own identity, such perception is a unique perspective that is only truly suited to our own ideals and understandings.

How Experience Shapes Identity

Our knowledge and perception of the world around us is what allows us to form our own sense of self. As we get older, how we choose think about and react to everyday situations is what will ultimately define who we are as people. This is according to my own personal belief, which coincides with Locke’s perspective. (ibid, p. 115) As we gain more experience in life, we also give others to form their own opinions on us. It is very rare for somebody to be unanimously liked or disliked by everybody that they encounter. As such, the opinions of multiple people also shapes our identity in a way. (Hume, D., 1739, p. 41) Whether or not we choose to let this determine whether we identify in the same manner(s) is entirely up to us. According to Hume (ibid, p. 41), what we perceive of ourselves is irrelevant of what our identity can truly be defined as. Since it is something that is constantly changing within ourselves and within the people around us, there are too many different perceptions of what one’s identity is for it to even matter. This does not mean that the concept is stagnant, and thus never changes or evolves. It simply means that due to the multiple perceptions of ourselves that we will have throughout our lives, as well as the perceptions of others, the idea is too complex to designate to ourselves at any given time.

Locke & Hume on Identity

“…If I know what I am thinking then I must be a self, but to know that I am a self, I must know what I am thinking.” (Balibar, E., 2014, p. 46) This statement acknowledges that we as people can be deemed as such (“selves”) due to our consciousness. Because we are thinking, we are existent. In order for there to be any substance to our existence, though, we must have the previously discussed sense of reasoning and knowledge that we have obtained during life. Since our perceptions are altered in different ways under different circumstances, no one is going to have the exact same sense of identity as someone else, no matter how alike two individuals may seem. How alike they may seem is also a matter of subjective perception. Because of the subjective nature of personal identity, Hume is sceptical of its uniqueness. Because identity cannot be defined as just one thing, there are too many possible perceptions on the identity of an individual for it to have a singular concrete meaning. Naturally, its meaning would only apply to specific individuals, hence the definition of identity. Even then, its meaning would vary greatly among the countless people who have encountered such a person. No one knows the full story behind why somebody is the way they are, and qualities that define a person are almost certain to change with time. What’s more, the perceptions of said person in regards to others can change as well, whereas some may not. It is by this logic that Hume makes his assertion regarding the concept of identity.

Locke had a similar notion regarding the idea of self-identity. However, he deemed it as something that is more of a matter of perception. As someone who worked for the British parliament and the court systems of his time, one might correctly assume that Locke thought more in terms of practicality. To determine the true definition of identity, Locke first learned that he must differentiate between all things living and inanimate. (Uzgalis, W., 2001) He knew that all atoms have a distinct identity, and that it is one which never changes. In this respect, the identity of an atom or other stagnant, constant object is simply of itself; it has no notable substance or characteristics that give it an identity outside of what it is in its only form. Animals, on the other hand, can all be identified by what they are and the functions that they serve. A cow goes “moo”, produces milk for us to drink and typically has physical features that are similar to most cows. By simply looking at this creature, most people would agree that such an animal is, in fact, a cow. Even though it is of one species among countless type of animals that do not have the capacity to think critically or feel emotions like we do, this does not mean that all other animals are cows. All animals, including humans, have distinct characteristics that define their identity. To an extent, one might even argue that they possess a certain degree of personality. It is this aspect in which the human identity becomes more clearly identified. According to the works of Locke, the identity of something becomes as complex the identified being allows itself to become.

Locke’s Perspective of Identity

When it comes to the identity of people, it cannot be defined by their materialistic or physical substance. The characteristics that define a person for who they are is what gives them their identity. Since such a perception is based on ideas, which are the product of years of experience, it suffices to say that one’s identity is subject to change. While this might be true with most individuals, there are certain characteristics that remain within them from the time of their conception. While a person’s methods of reasoning, acting, and perceiving the world may change as they gain more knowledge and experience, there are defining characteristics that will always be a part of the foundation of someone’s identity. If a person were to have multiple personalities of completely different people throughout the course of their life, they would exhibit notably different traits, thus indicating that they are either inhuman or have a severe personality disorder.

Also a very spiritual man, Locke believed that there is a very clear distinction between souls and people. He believed that our souls are what allow us to think, and that they are the epitome of our consciousness, thus significantly shaping our identity as individuals. In order for us to perceive any emotion-pain, sadness, joy, etc.- takes consciousness, which only the soul is capable of utilising for its own purpose. (Locke, J., 1690, Book II, p. 20) He also believes that despite man’s tendency to sometimes act unconsciously, there is more than his own perception of self-identity and conscious actions that should determine who he truly is. He also believes that for a man to truly possess identity, there come certain levels of accountability and responsibility that he must acknowledge. He uses a drunk man as an example to convey his point. (ibid, p. 119) Even though they might be the same person, the drunk man’s level of consciousness is more intact when he is sober. Even though he may have committed offensive acts while in a state of unconsciousness, he made the decision to put himself in such a state. As such, the actions that he committed while drunk must be held against him as a person. Locke believed that one’s identity consists of the perception of his fellow men regarding him, and that juridical aspects should determine his identity as well. Despite what this man might become later on in life, his actions should be held against him and thus, be a determining factor of his identity. That is not to say that the soul of this man remains unchanged. Later on in his life, he may use his newfound knowledge and experience to shape his identity so that it conforms to the same nature as his soul.

Hume’s Perspective and Critique of Locke’s Position

Hume believed that the defining characteristics of anything and everything are based solely on how they are perceived. Naturally, perceptions are going to vary greatly among individuals, which leads him to believe that nothing or no one has a true sense of identity. There are countless different ways that one might perceive another human being, or any other living creature. Since objectivity is the first step in obtaining a perception, one can only make assertions about something to the extent of which they are experienced with it. Regardless of whether these notions might be true or false, how they are perceived is not only relative to the perceiver, but is subject to change as the perceiver experiences it more frequently. (Hume, D., 1739, p. 50) In this sense, the complexity of identity becomes too abstract to come to a single conclusion.

The identity of something in regards to how someone perceives it is based on their past experiences with it, or what they believe might be encounterable if they ever get the chance to experience it. Whether or not a person chooses to acknowledge any connections that might be presented to them-either by their own reasoning or that of somebody else- also defines Hume’s understanding of identity. Even if we do draw distinct connections between the reality of the experience at-hand and how we react to it, Hume also acknowledges that as our perception develops, the identity of the perceived changes as well. (ibid, p. 40)

While both men acknowledge the potential for change in regards to someone or something’s identity, the reality concerning identity differs between them. However, Hume did not believe that just anything or anyone can have identity. While Locke believed that the simplest or most complex organisms all possess a degree of identity, Hume believed that only the simplest, most consistent things are what hold any true identity. Hume believed that perception is all a matter of our minds, and therefore has no real credibility in making the final call regarding an individual’s identity. Therefore, we also have no real understanding of ourselves and thus do not possess a true sense of self-identity. Since we all have a tendency to change in one way or another over the course of time, continuity of our identities are never present. Therefore, according to Hume, our identities are merely a figment of our imaginations. Locke, on the other hand, believes that identity is something that can be designated to anything or anyone, regardless of its consciousness and complex characteristics (or lack thereof).

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Similar in their empiricist ideologies, Locke and Hume has their share of differences in this regard, particularly in the exclusivity of what constitutes a sense of identity. While the two philosophers believed that knowledge and personal development comes solely through experience, it is how we perceive and utilize the knowledge that the experience offers that determines the nature of identity. To Locke, the concept is one that is engrained deeply into our souls. To Hume, it is something so complex that it can only be reserved for the simplest, non-changing objects and organisms. While our innate natures are subject to change over time, the two men believe that is on this basis that identity is either existent or non-existent. The knowledge that we possess and develop certainly falls into the category of everchanging entities, and thus makes us the complex individuals that we as humans are. Whether our identity is merely an inconsistent and fictitious opinion that everyone has about each other, or is based entirely off of what he have done, ever will do, and what we know, the main concept regarding identity that Locke & Hume can agree on is the subjectivity of the idea.

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Empiricism and the Philosophy of Experience: A Study. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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