The major goal of this paper is to explore Locke’s theory of perception critically. This view of perception is more akin to a theory of knowledge in which sense experience, rather than reason, is the ultimate source of knowing. It is taken from the philosophical branch known as ‘epistemology,’ which comes from the Greek term ‘episteme,’ which means knowledge. Knowledge is expressed as propositions, but we need concepts before we can understand any propositions, even if they are wrong. Understanding the meaning of a word necessitates the presence of a notion. So, how do we come to have the conceptions that we do? Some of our concepts were originally assumed to be innate. Assume, however, that concepts are innate, and we would have them even if we didn’t know it.

If the concept of cause is innate, we would understand what it implies and be fully aware of the concept even if we had never observed causes in action. This appears improbable.

Perhaps the God example is more credible, because God, if he or she exists, cannot be seen or otherwise perceived, but we do appear to have the concept (though this too has been denied). How can we get the concept of God if we can’t see God but have the concept? Is that something you’re born with?


We believe in John Locke’s alternative theory, according to which concepts are formed by experience. However, despite its merits, it has a flaw, which the purpose of this essay is to highlight. John Locke tried to level the playing field a little.

Locke came up with a daring and original understanding of how the mind operates, and based on that, he characterized the types and extent of knowledge that the human mind can provide. ‘Our knowledge is confined to, and by, our experience,’ Locke observed (Stumpf, 1977: 273).

Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes were empiricists in the sense that they believed knowledge should be based on observation. They both agreed that if the correct approach is applied, the mind is capable of establishing assurance of knowledge about nature. Similarly, Rene Descartes (1594-1650) believed that no problem could be solved by human reason if the proper approach was used. This was the assumption that Locke questioned.

These philosophers all used the word ‘ideas’ instead of the phrase ‘concepts,’ and the challenge they set out to solve was: How do we come by the ideas we have or will have? They said that all of our thoughts, current and future, stem from personal experience.

Some ideas come from the outer senses, such as sight, hearing, and touch, from which all of our physical world conceptions are derived; and others come from the inner senses, such as pain and pleasure experiences, feelings of love and hate, pride and regret, and thinking and willing experiences. All of our ideas are based on these kinds of encounters.


This is the heart of Locke’s empiricism, and other concerns will arise in the coming chapters.

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