Epistemology is “the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity” (“Epistemology”, 2009). The Epistemological basis for the ‘theory of ideas’ is different between empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism claims that knowledge cannot be gained without experience; any other method that can generate ideas is not acceptable. Rationalism claims that some of the human knowledge is innate and it also “uses formal logic and mathematics to construct human knowledge by ‘pure’ reasoning” (“Epistemology”, 2009).
This essay will provide a brief comparison between the views of empiricism and rationalism regarding the ‘theory of idea’. The essay will talk specifically about Descartes’ view of the theory of ideas (the Empiricist view), and John Locke’s view of the theory of ideas (the Rationalist view).
The View of the Theory of Ideas in Empiricism
All of the human knowledge is generated by experience. Also, the human knowledge “is built from ideas”. Knowledge is like a house, and ideas are like the building materials. The structure of knowledge is affected by the nature of ideas (“Understanding”, 2009).
Locke claims that there are 2 main sources of ideas:
1. “Sensation”: This is what the human senses receive from the external world. The ideas here are only generated according to what the human receives through his 5 senses. The following words can describe ideas that can come to the mind through sensations: yellow (sight), quite (sound), salty (taste) or smooth (touch) (“Understanding”, 2009).
2. “Reflection”: This is what the human mind perceives, and it’s not related to the sensible world. The ideas here are generated inside the human mind with no relations to human senses. The ideas that are generated by reflections include “doubt”, “will” and “belief” (“Understanding”, 2009).
“The most important issue regarding Locke’s theory of ideas is the question of what role an idea is supposed to play in the act of perception” (“Understanding”, 2009). Descartes says that if someone senses something, he is in fact perceives the idea of it, not the thing itself. For example, if some one sees a white car, what he perceives is the idea of that white car, not the white car itself. This view doesn’t make sense for a lot of philosophers, because it is expected that the white car is the perceived object, not the idea of it (“Understanding”, 2009)
The View of the Theory of Ideas in Rationalism
“Ideas are the atoms of thought, and all thought is made up of composite ideas” (“Clear and Distinct”, 2009). Descartes says that ideas are like the images of the imagined things. But at the same time, he says that the mind can have an idea about something that doesn’t have a viewable image. For example, someone can have ideas of God or angels even though he/she cannot see them. In fact, Descartes considers ideas “the mental representatives of things that really exist” (Kemerling, 2001). There are 2 types of thoughts. This first type is the “simple ideas”; those ideas are like “images of things”. For example on that, the image of a flower, a plane or a building. The second type consists of “volitions, emotions, and judgments”. According to Descartes’ view, judgments are the only group of ideas that can contain mistakes. Most of those mistake are the cases when someone says that a particular idea “conform to, or resemble, things outside the mind” (“Clear and Distinct”, 2009).
According to Descartes, there are 3 main sources of ideas:
1. “Innate Ideas”: Those are the ideas the come to the human mind naturally with birth, they don’t come as a result of experience. In particular, Descartes claims that the idea of the existence of God is an innate idea, and that all people share this idea (Cross, 2005).
Locke criticizes this theory. He criticizes the concept that there are some ideas that are innate and accepted by everyone. He says that this theory encourages “laziness in thinking” (“Innate Ideas”, 2009). Also, he says that if this concept was true, it would be noticed that all people believe in those innate ideas, but that’s not true. Locke believes that if there are innate ideas “there should be no question as to how many there are, or what they are, or most especially if they even exist” (Cross, 2005). However, he says there are indeed some ideas that all people can agree on. But that doesn’t mean that the concept of innate ideas is true. For example, all people can agree on the fact that fire is hot (Cross, 2005).
2.”Adventitious Ideas”: Those ideas are created by what the human senses receive from the external world. For example, the idea that the weather is cold when there is snow outside (“Clear and Distinct”, 2009).
3. “Factitious Ideas”: Those ideas are totally made up by the human brain like the “ideas of mermaids or unicorns” (“Clear and Distinct”, 2009; Kemerling, 2001).
But Descartes seems to be not completely sure about the sources of ideas. He even says that it’s probable that all ideas are either “innate, adventitious, or invented” (“Clear and Distinct”, 2009).
Descartes says that all ideas are just “mere modes of thought”. Any idea has 2 types of reality, “formal reality” and “objective reality”:
Formal reality is the kind of reality things have in this world and objective reality is the
reality of the objects represented by different ideas. Thus, an idea can have formal
reality, being a mode of thought itself, and it can also have objective reality, representing
something outside of itself. (“Theory of Ideas”, 2009).
All ideas have the same level of formal reality because “reality intrinsic to themselves”. But the objective reality is different between ideas (“Theory of Ideas”, 2009). The level of objective reality differs if the subject of idea is a “substance” or a “mode”. “A substance is something that does not require any other creature to exist—it can exist with only the help of God’s concurrence—whereas, a mode is a quality or affection of that substance” (Skirry, 2006).
All Modes have the same level of objective reality. But the case is different with substances (“Theory of Ideas”, 2009). There are 2 types of substances: 1. An “infinite” substance, a substance that doesn’t need another substance to exist (applies to God only). 2. A “Finite” substance, a substance that needs God to exist (like bodies and objects). An infinite substance has more objective reality than a finite substance. All Modes (like colors) have less objective reality than substances. “Descartes argues that the less real cannot cause something that is more real, because the less real does not have enough reality to bring about something more real than itself” (Skirry, 2006). Thus, an infinite substance can cause a finite substance and/or a mode. A finite substance can cause another finite substance and/or a mode, but it cannot cause an infinite substance. A mode can cause another mode, but it cannot cause a substance. For example, God (infinite substance) can cause a human (finite substance) and/or a color (mode). A human can cause another human and/or a color but it cannot cause God. A color can cause another color, but cannot cause a human or God (Skirry, 2006).
The Epistemological basis for the ‘theory of ideas’ is different between the perspectives of empiricism and rationalism. Locke’s theory of ideas (perspective of empiricism) claims that the human knowledge consists of ideas. His theory denies the existence of innate ideas. Locke’s theory of ideas is much simpler than Descartes’ because Locke trusts what the senses perceive. But he rejected the concept that ideas can come as a result of logical thinking. Locke is more concerned with the sources of ideas. Unlike Locke’s theory of ideas, Descartes’ theory of ideas (perspective of rationalism) has a higher level of trust in the mind and a lower trust in senses. This theory considers ideas the images of imagined things. He believes that all people have innate ideas in common. Descartes is more concerned with the type of ideas.
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The Epistemological Basis for the ‘Theory of Ideas’ in Both Empiricism and Rationalism
The Epistemological Basis for the ‘Theory of Ideas’ in Both Empiricism and Rationalism. (2017, Mar 02). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-epistemological-basis-for-the-theory-of-ideas-in-both-empiricism-and-rationalism/