Philosophers Empiricists Hume and Locke

            David Hume and John Locke are two prominent names in the realm of philosophy.

These philosophers belong to the tradition of empiricism, where both of them have contributed immensely.  Though they are similar, Hume and Locke are also remarkably different.  Their ideas and concepts of empiricism are alike in certain respects but are generally distinct from one another.

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            Empiricism is one of the philosophical traditions of epistemology.  Empiricists upheld the belief that knowledge can only be derived from sense experience (Markie, 2008).  Two of the most well-known empiricists are David Hume and John Locke.  Both of them have established their philosophies on the fact that the ideas of the mind come from experiences.  Locke (1975) summarized empiricism in this passage: “Whence has it all the materials of Reason and Knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, From Experience: In that, all our Knowledge is founded” (p. 104).

One of the most distinct features of Hume’s empiricist philosophy is his differentiation between impressions and ideas.  For Hume, those concepts which allow men to think are called perceptions (Morris, 2007).  He also observed that there was significant difference between situations wherein an individual experiences a sensation and when the person in question merely recalls the said sensation (Hume, 1955).

Based on this observation, Hume divided the perceptions of the mind into two categories (Hume, 1955).  These categories differed from each other in terms of “force and vivacity” (Hume, 1955, p. 27).  Those perceptions which are more forceful or lively fall under the category of impressions (Hume, 1955).  According to Hume, these impressions present themselves “when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will” (Hume, 1955, p. 27).  The perceptions which are less forceful or have least vigor fall under the category of ideas (Hume, 1955).  Ideas are considered weaker perceptions in terms of force because there are merely copies or imitations of the aforementioned actions.  Though ideas are reflections of sensations, they could never have the same intensity.  This is the reason why Hume (1955) claimed that “the most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation” (p. 26).  It is from the relationship between impressions and ideas that Hume’s copy principle was derived.  The copy principle states that ideas are merely copies of impressions (Hume, 1955).

After Hume distinguished perceptions as either impressions or ideas, he further classified them in different categories.  Ideas were stated to have come from two sources: memory and imagination (Fieser, 2004).  Imagination is further subdivided into two: fancy and understanding.  Consequently, understanding has two subdivisions: those which based on relations of ideas and those which are grounded on matters of fact (Fieser, 2004).

Meanwhile, Hume also subdivided impressions into two.  He stated that impressions can either be of sensation or of reflection (Fieser, 2004).  What Hume considered as reflective impressions are actually passions.  These emotions are divided into two categories: calm reflective impressions and violent reflective impressions.  Calm passions are those feelings of pleasure and pain which usually arise in relation to aesthetics and morality.  According to Hume, most of our emotions are violent passions.  Violent passions are further subdivided into two categories: direct and indirect.  On one hand, passions are considered direct because man can experience these emotions without the need for reflection.  Examples of direct passions are joy and sadness.  On the other hand, passions are considered as indirect when they only arise as an effect of pain and pleasure.  Examples of indirect passions are pride, hate, love and humility (Fieser, 2004).

Hume’s empiricism was rather consistent as he employed his differentiation of impressions and ideas in other arguments throughout his philosophy.  The importance of the relation between impressions and ideas are found in Hume’s arguments of space and time.  In terms of time, Hume believed that man had no innate ideas of space (Fieser, 2004).  The idea of space is only derived from the sense of sight and the sense of touch, as only those objects which can be seen and touched could give the idea of extension.  As a result, the impressions of tangibility and visibility as created by the imagination give the idea of space.  As for the topic of time, Hume also stated that man has no innate idea of time.  In this case, the idea of time as a simple idea was not based on a simple impression.  Instead, the idea arose as a copy of impressions as they were processed at a constant speed in the human mind (Fieser, 2004).

Some of the features of Hume’s philosophy could be attributed to Locke’s philosophy.  Locke came before Hume, and the ideas of the former had influenced the empirical philosophies of those who succeeded him.  Locke’s greatest contribution to empiricism was his proposition that the mind was a blank slate.  It was Locke who proposed that innate ideas did not exist.  According to Locke (1975), the mind was a “white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas” (p. 104).

Locke differed from Hume in terms of their notions of sensation and reflection.  While Hume considered sensation and reflection as classifications of impressions, Locke rendered the two notions as the sources of knowledge (Locke, 1975).  Sensation is a source of knowledge as the senses provide the mind with perceptions to form ideas.  It is through the senses were the ideas of color, taste and texture are derived.  Color, taste and texture are considered as “sensible qualities” because they were conceived through “external objects” (Locke, 1975, p.105).  If sensation was the perception of external things, reflection was the perception of the mind’s own functions.  For Locke, the mind has operations which allow for an individual to understand certain ideas.  The mind processes which are included in Locke’s reflection are the following: “Perception, Thinking, Doubting, Believing, Reasoning, Knowing and Willing” (Locke, 1975, p.105).  Unlike sensation, reflection as a source of knowledge can only be found in man himself.  Sensation only functions as a source of knowledge when external objects are involved.  In contrast, reflection can function without it.  This is the reason why Locke (1975) referred to reflection as “internal Sense” (p. 105).  Locke’s notion of reflection is very distinct from Hume’s, as the latter related it with emotions or passions.

The different versions of empiricism by Hume and Locke can both be accepted.  Either of their philosophies can be chosen as concept empiricism.  The reason behind this is the fact that the core of their philosophies is the same.  Both Hume and Locke grounded their beliefs in the fact that everything is known and can be known is derived from sense experience.  Such presumption can be accepted, as it cannot be denied that the senses are an important source of information.  The only difference between Hume and Locke lies in their classification.  Both agreed on the categories of sensation and reflection, but they created their own individual interpretation of these categories.  In addition, though Hume classified perception into impressions and ideas, Locke classified perception into sensation and reflection.

Both Hume and Locke have been thorough with their empiricist philosophies.  It must be noted that their systems of thought are not flawless or perfect, but they were thorough in their preparation.  They have taken into consideration the aspects of their empiricism which can be criticized.  They have already discussed how concepts which cannot be inspired by the senses still be contained in the mind.  One would think that creatures such as vampires would undermine empiricism, as an individual cannot come up with an idea of a vampire through sense experience due to the non-existence of such creature.  However, Hume asserted that such creatures fall under the fancy faculty, which is a subdivision of the imagination.  Imagination, in turn, is a subcategory of an idea (Fieser, 2004).  Even the idea of God had been justified under empirical terms.  Locke maintained that God is a complex idea that could still be attained through sense experience (Uzgalis, 2007).  Hence, all ideas can be acquired through the ways that both Hume and Locke proposed.

David Hume and John Locke are two of greatest thinkers in philosophy.  They are also two of the most prominent empiricists.  They both upheld the belief that all knowledge are taken from sense experience.  They are also similar in the sense that both have the concepts of sensation and reflection.  It is these same categories that make them different.  Locke and Hume attached different meanings to them.  Hume also had the delineation between impressions and ideas, which Locke’s philosophy did not include.  Hence, the empiricist philosophies of David Hume and John Locke are similar but also very different.


Fieser, J. (2004). David Hume (1711-1776): metaphysics and epistemology. In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from

Hume, D. (1955). An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Locke, J. (1975). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Clarendon Press.

Markie, P. (2008).  Rationalism vs. empiricism. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from

Morris, W. E. (2007).  David Hume. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from

Uzgalis, W. (2007). John Locke. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from


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