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Analysis of Descartes and Locke’s Epistemology

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    Analysis of Descartes and Locke’s Epistemology

                Rene Descartes and John Locke are among the most distinct philosophers of the modern period. Both have constructed their own philosophies on the theory of Knowledge. How knowledge is achieved and what constitute knowledge are the most fundamental questions that are essential in the inquiry on knowledge.

                Though both Descartes and Locke have arrived at exceptional theories and frameworks on epistemology, the two have been known as the great critic of one another. Being a rationalist, Descartes holds that knowledge can be achieved through reason. However, Locke maintains that only through experience that a person can have knowledge about something. Thus, their views directly contradict one another.

    Descartes’ Theory of Knowledge

                Rene Descartes is one of the most renowned rationalists of the modern age who asserts that knowledge can be obtained by means of reason. He claims that in the pursuance of knowledge one should be able to differentiate what is true and what is false. This leads to his opposition against the idea of experience as a source of knowledge.

                As how Descartes claims it, one should not rely on experience as a source of knowledge for the reason that experience is deceptive as how a person’s sensory organs can bring deception with the way he or she perceives things (i.e. the bending of the pencil when submerged in water) (Descartes & Tweyman). Descartes furthers that due to this fallibility of experience one cannot really arrive at true knowledge by merely being dependent on what he or she perceives through experience.

                As a result of Descartes treatment to experience he suggests that in order to arrive at genuine and true knowledge, one should suspend his or her judgment on things that are represented to him or her by experience unless such are already proven to be indubitable (Descartes & Tweyman). Thus, he comes up with his Method of Doubt.

    Locke’s Epistemological Theory

                While Descartes is a rationalist defending the idea that knowledge can be drawn from reason, John Locke is an empiricist who claims that only experience can produce knowledge. As mentioned earlier, Locke is one of the most notable critics of the Cartesian Philosophy on Knowledge arguing that a mind, at first, is like a blank slate (Tabula Rasa). This blank slate can only be filled up by experience by generating ideas (Locke). Such concept of tabula rasa directly opposes the Cartesian view that there are innate ideas. Hence maintaining the fundamental empiricist’s view that there can be no other means to achieve knowledge but through experience alone.

                Ideas are very important elements in Locke’s epistemology because only though these ideas that the mind can come up with a particular knowledge about something. Ideas can be produced either through sensation and reflection (Locke). The difference of the two media is that in sensation, ideas are produced immediately after an exposure to a particular experience while the in reflection, the simple ideas that were initially produced through sensation were operated by the mental faculties to come up with new ideas.

    Analysis on Different Epistemological Issues

    On Soul, Mind and Body

                Before Descartes was able to say that mind and body are two separate substances, he first concluded that the only foremost thing that which can be said to be certain is the fact that there is a thinking-thing that exists (Descartes &Tweyman). And because of this, he arrived at the idea that the object of the thinking-thing also exists (for it is absurd to say that a thinking-thing exists while the thing that the thinking-thing thinks about does not exist). This thing that the thinking thing thinks about is called the idea or the soul which directly goes to a substance which is responsible for the thinking activity that is the mind. Thus the mind, a substance – the bearer of all the ideas that the thinking thing can grasp, exists.

                Nevertheless, Descartes also admit that another substance called the body also exists. For the reason that, as how he puts it, the thinking also has the idea that he walks, he runs, and he sees a ball. Thus he cannot deny the fact that there is something that he uses to walk or run or see a ball which is not part of the activity of the mind (though the mind can think of the idea of walking, running and seeing a ball) (Descartes & Tweyman). Therefore, the body is responsible for the material things that the thinking-thing can have a grasp of (while the immaterial things are mainly the ideas that enter and are operated in the mind. Thus, Descartes arrive at this conclusion: the mind and the body are two distinct substances which exist; the immaterial things which the mind can have are called the ideas or the soul while the body can have the corporeal objects.

                Although Locke does not admit the idea of knowledge through reason alone, he has the same idea on the mind-body problem. He also argues that the mind and the body are two separate substances which are responsible for the production of ideas. While the body is the site for sensation, the mind is the site for reflection (Locke). It is noteworthy to discuss at this point the Lockean concept of substance. Substance, for Locke, is the thing that holds the qualities that are contained in every idea that enters into the mind (Locke). These qualities that a substance possesses enable the thinking-thing to have an idea about that particular substance. Thus without substance, there would be no idea that can be produce (as the ideas without the mind cannot be operated).

                In addition to Locke’s argument on mind and body, he suggests that though there is a separation between the two substances, the two interacts so as to produce ideas. Yet he claimed that the body cannot really influence the mind (Locke). While Descartes asserts that the mind can think without the body, Locke has admitted that he is not really sure of the idea if the mind can really think independently without the body. But what he is really sure of is the idea that the mind and the body are two separate substances – the same thing as how Descartes argues.

    On God’s Existence

                Though both Descartes and Locke admitted the existence of a God, the two have arrived at different means to support their arguments on it. Descartes suggests that because the mind can distinctly and clearly apprehend the ideas about a perfect and absolute being, it implies that God exists (Canon). To elucidate on the method that he used to prove the existence of God, he said that because we grasp the idea of an eternal or unchanging entity, it is necessary that there is something that caused the mind to have those ideas (for the reason that something cannot be a product of nothing) (Canon). Yet the mind of a person is imperfect as the person himself is an imperfect being which suggests that he is not capable of generating something that is beyond his character and ability. It is God himself is the one who created those ideas about perfect and absolute entity which the mind have a grasp of. Therefore, God necessarily exists.

                Locke, on the other hand, recognizes the existence of a supreme being that is God, however; he said that it is not possible to differentiate man from God or to have a characterization of God. The only thing that the human mind can know is the idea that there is a God.  Though he attempts to arrive at an initial description of a God, he ends up by saying that the idea of God comes in when experiences become infinite. For Locke, knowing the complete essence of God is the limit of the human understanding.

    Works Cited:

    Descartes, Rene and Tweyman, Stanley. Meditations on First Philosophy. Caravan Books,         2002.

    Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Adamant Media Corporation,         2001.

    Canon, Dale. “Descartes.” 1997. Phl 101: Being and Knowing Website. 17 November 2007            <>.


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