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Theory of Knowledge and Tabula Rasa of John Locke

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John Locke was born at Wrington, a village in Somerset, on August 29, in the year 1632, and died in 1704. He was the son of a country solicitor and small landowner. He entered Westminster school and passed to Christ Church, Oxford, as a junior student, in the year 1652; he took part in the tutorial work of the college. He was built up deeply in the protestant faith. He was interested in experimental science, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1668. Later in 1674, he graduated a bachelor of medicine. His acquaintance with Lord Ashley. Earl of Shaftsbury led him to be a member of his household. He assisted Shaftesbury also in public business, commercial and political, and followed him into the government service. When Shaftesbury was made Lord Chancellor in the year 1672. Locke became his secretary for presentations to benefices, and, in the following year, was made secretary to the board of trade, in the year 1675 his official life came to an end for the time with the fall of his chief. Later part of his life he spent in writing. He was and British philosopher and physician Oxford academic and Medical Research political theorist and widely regarded as one of the most influential of enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the father of liberalism and also considered as one of the first British Empiricists.

His Works

Much of Locks’ work is characterized by a position but it really is a position is both on the level of institutions such as government and church.

Major works

  • A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
  • A Second Letter Concerning Toleration (1690)
  • A Third Letter for Toleration (1692)
  • Two Treatise of Government (1689)
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)
  • The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695)
  • The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)

Most Influential Works

  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • The Second Treatise of Civil Government
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration


1. Aristotle

He was the first one to introduce the concept of Tabula Rasa or Blank Slate which he wrote about it in his book, De Anima, or on the soul. Locke applied the same concept to his theory of the mind in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding using the phase White Paper to illustrate the state of man’s mind at birth.

2. Thomas Hobbes

In the book Leviathan, in which government is defined as a social contract established by the members of humanity to respect the rules of a central authority that would allow men and women to live and function in society. This theory we had great influence to Locke, who further expounded it in his work Two Treatises on Government.

3. Rene Descartes

The father of modern philosophy explained the theory that all knowledge should be proven as illustrated by his famous statement I think therefore I am. Locke developed his ideas in a very different direction than Descartes. He rejects his opinion in the existence of innate ideas. Locke believed that man is not born with innate ideas but rather develops his ideas by means of experience.

4. Sir Isaac Newton

Newton developed the idea that the world is built up of basic particles called corpuscles, which are bound together by the force of gravity. Applying this way of the world to human thought, Locke postulated that our knowledge is made up of small ideas bound together to form complete ideas.

Refutation of innate ideas

John Locke admits the presence of natural faculties (intellect and will) but not of innate ideas. According to him, the Doctrine of innate ideas tends to make an appeal to authority instead of making an appeal to reasons, hence innate ideas are hindrances in the path of free inquiry. He does not accept that knowledge may be in innate or form experience but from experience, we get the ideas. Ideas are the material from which knowledge is constructed. Ideas can be internal sensations like; pleasure and pain which can help in the perception of external objects and their qualities. They can be the medium of memory and can assist incorrect thinking and understanding of language.

Origin of Knowledge

Locke criticizes and rejects that any knowledge is innate. According to him, knowledge arises out of the experience through sense experience and ideas originate in experience which is divided into simple and complex ideas. It qualifies the view that all our ideas come from sensation or reflection.

Simple ideas

Ideas which we get from senses are simple and mixed. There in one uniform appearance in mine and are not distinguishable in two different ideas. According to him, mind is passive with the reception of simple ideas and active in the reception of complex ideas. Simple ideas of sensation come from one sense while others are the result from more than one. In addition to the ideas of sensation and those of reflection, there are those where both sources are used. Locke puts the ideas which convey themselves into the mind by all the ways of sensation and reflection, e.g., Pleasure and pain.

According to Locke simple ideas are of two qualities:

Primary Qualities

A primary quality is a power inseparable from a body, under whatsoever conditions it may be placed and observed by us. It is such a quality as is observed to produce a simple idea in us an idea that not only correspondence with the real quality but also resembles it. The primary quality is really present in a party and supplies likeness of itself to the mind.

These qualities which are utterly inseparable from the material bodies. They really belong to the objects. Primary qualities do not change. There are six qualities: solidarity, extension, figure, motion, rest, and number. They are given through secondary qualities. They go with the substance and are found in every particular thing. Locke calls them the original qualities because they produce simple ideas in us.

He considered that the primary qualities of a body are those that are inseparable from it. A closely related motion is that the primary qualities of a body are its intrinsic properties, which it could possess even in the absence of any other body.

Primary qualities are unchangeable and indistinguishable roots on the material object. Plenty of quality Moreover well for the ideas in the human mind which have a direct resemblance to the object from which they are produced.

Secondary qualities

The qualities which are not really in the object but they have powers of the object to produce ideas in our mind by their primary qualities. Secondary qualities change according to circumstances but primary qualities do not. The secondary qualities are powers in the substance to produce various sensations by their primary qualities. They can easily be thought of the substance, i.e., their removal does not affect the existence of the object. These are colors, sounds, tastes, smells etc.

And also, besides sensation Locke talks of one more window through which light enters the empty cabinet of the mind. These are ideas of reflection: perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, and so on. He says that though the reflection is not sensed because it has nothing to do with external objects but can be called as internal senses. We may conceive that the ideas of secondary qualities are also produced by the operation of insensible particular on our senses.

Tertiary qualities

Tertiary qualities also bear powers that thing resulting from the makeup of its primary qualities. It’s better to share qualities when the body has the power so change the texture of another body that the latter will produce a new idea of a secondary quality in the observer’s mind. Ex. Sun has the power to affect wax which takes various forms.

Complex ideas

From simple ideas, the mind forms complex ideas by different processes. In complex ideas, simple ideas are compounded, compiled and abstracted. According to Locke complex ideas are derived from simple ideas through combination, relation, and abstraction. This process takes place through the laws of association. The complex ideas of modes, substance, and relations are the product of the combining and abstracting activity of the mind operating upon simple ideas.

Modes are considered as dependences on or affections of substances. Thus, different distances like; mile, meter, yard, etc. are modifications of the simple ideas. Modes, such as triangle, gratitude, and murder are said to contain not in them by themselves but are considered as dependences on or affections of substances.

Types of modes

Simple modes

Simple modes are variations or different combinations of the same simple idea, without the mixture of any other, as a dozen or score, which are nothing but the ideas of several distinct units added together. In simple words, it means different combinations of the same simple ideas without the mixture of any other.

Mixed mode

Mixed modes are compounded of simple ideas of several kinds, put together to make a complex one. A mixed mode is not characteristic of any real beings having steady experience but scattered and independent ideas put together. E.g., obligation or drunkenness.

Substances in which the mind notices that some simple ideas go consistently together and presuming that they belong to one thing gives one name to them. Single substance refers to one mind and collective substances like; an army or flock. the substance is the idea of subtraction, supports underlying a number of simple qualities experienced together. It is partially knowable and unknowable.

The last sort of complex idea is a relation, which consists in the consideration and comparison on one idea with another. In this, the mind is confined to the consideration of one thing but carries any idea beyond itself and observes its conformity with other things. Relations are expressed by relative terms which answer mutual information.

Theory of Knowledge and Tabula Rasa

For Locke, all knowledge comes exclusively through experience. He argues that at birth the mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, that humans fill with ideas as they experience the world through the five senses. Locke defines knowledge as the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of the idea humans form. From this definition, it follows that our knowledge does not extend beyond the scope of human ideas. In fact, it would mean that our knowledge is even narrower than this description implies because the connection between most simple human ideas is unknown. Because ideas are limited by experience, and we cannot possibly experience everything that exists in the world, our knowledge is further compromised. However, Locke asserts that though our knowledge is necessarily limited in these ways, we can still be certain of some things.

From the foregoing, it can be said that, as a theory of knowledge, empiricism upholds the view that experience is the only source of knowledge, or that the senses alone can provide us with reliable knowledge about the world. The common-sense view is that the senses do provide us with knowledge of some sort and most people adopt this kind of empirical view.

In his most important work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke set out to offer an analysis of the human mind and its acquisition of knowledge. The main project of the essay is an examination of human understanding and an analysis of knowledge. He offered an empiricist theory according to which we acquire ideas through our experience of the world. Knowledge, then, consists of a special kind of relationship between different ideas.

Locke opened Book IV of his Essay with the quote: “Knowledge then seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connection and agreement or disagreement and inconsistency of any of our ideas. Where this perception is, there is knowledge, and where it is not, there, though we may fancy, guess, or believe, yet we always come short of knowledge.”

Locke was thoroughly suspicious of the view that a thinker could work out by reason alone the truth about the universe. Much as he admired Descartes, he feared this speculative spirit in him, and he despised it in the Scholastic philosophers. In this sense he rejected metaphysics. Knowledge of the world could only be gained by experience and reflection on experience, and this knowledge was being gained by Boyle, Syden ham, Christiaan Huygens, and Newton. They were the true philosophers who were advancing knowledge. Locke set himself the humbler task, as he conceived it, of understanding how this knowledge was gained.

Tabula Rasa has been referred in different contexts depending upon the mode of Work. Different concepts arose from this term to a wider perspective and research studies by different people. Mostly in the 20th century, the swings to this study was attached to Character withdrew racism and then follows the gender identity as a communal structure, which is at present most commonly in use.

One can easily identify the purpose of Locke’s study on tabula rasa, that a human mind is clear since birth. All the ideas are generated only by experience and gaining insights with time. Locke explained that some ideas are generated by the sensory initiation in the womb, for example, the colors and tastes difference and understanding. If one has a universal understanding of what is sweet or bitter is not because it’s an innate idea but because that individual gets exposed to it at an early age. Locke is in verses to the innate ideas. The author believed innate ideas do not exist. He argued on the rationalists attesting the universally accepted truth on the principle of identity that least children or idiots are not aware of these propositions. It’s from fetal development, that the mind is a blank shell, that nurtures, and responds through a series of experiences with time. In short, beginning blank, the human mind acquires knowledge through the use of the five senses and a process of reflection.

Tabula rasa (Latin: “scraped tablet,” though often translated as “blank slate”) is the notion, popularized by John Locke, that the human mind receives knowledge and forms itself based on experience alone, without any pre-existing innate ideas that would serve as a starting point. Tabula rasa, thus, implies that individual human beings are born “blank” (with no built-in mental content) and that their identity is defined entirely by their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world. Generally, exponents of the tabula rasa study favor the “nurture” side of Nature, when it comes to aspects of one’s personality, social, emotional behavior, and Intelligence.

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