All ideas derive from the sense experience which they copy. DISCUSS An empiricist would be in favour of this view as they believe that knowledge is gained through experience (a posterior). For example, John Locke believes that the mind is a blank slate, or tabula rasa, which becomes populated with ideas through sense experience – in order to create ideas and knowledge, we must have sense experiences. Hume, also an empiricist, argues that ideas are copies of sense data. He has a method which states that faint ideas can become stronger through a fresh sense experience – thus implying that all ideas do derive from the sense experience which they copy. He further backs up this idea through his negative view on the imagination, which in his words is “confined within very narrow limits”. His strong stance states that no idea can be constructed without any sense experience -anything that may seem like an idea built without sense-data is simply a combination of other ideas. I can give the example of a Golden Mountain. Such a thing can never be experienced, but we can have an experience of “gold” similarly to the fact that we can also experience a “mountain”, and through these separate ideas we can construct a singular hybrid idea.
Hume also talks of the concept of ‘a time when nothing happens’. The concept is easily fathomable in the human mind and seems logical. He argues that, although no sense experience was required to have an idea of this concept, such a time is actually impossible to experience – thus dismissing this illusive idea as something he refers to as ‘sophistry and illusion’. A huge criticism of the Empiricist view is the fact that we only experience sense-data rather than the world itself. This is best explained through the idea of Noumena/Phenomena, in which the phenomena is our perception of the world and the noumena is the actual world itself. The only way to experience the noumena would be through a sense experience – however this experience would simply be another phenomena, thus implying that experiencing the real world is impossible. If such a thing is impossible and if all knowledge is built on things that we cannot truly reach, then how can it be possible to back up the Empiricist view that all ideas derive from sense experience?
However, an Empiricist might respond with the claim that it is probably highly unlikely that we are perceiving something completely different to the noumena. Both claims have no proof and can therefore only be as unlikely or likely as each other. Descartes discussed the possibility of an ‘Evil Demon’ who could be tricking us into believing that we exist when really we do not. However, as a religious man, he concludes that God would not let this happen. Therefore, as the argument is similar, Descartes might argue that it is highly unlikely that we are perceiving completely different to the noumena as God, who wouldn’t let us be tricked by an evil demon, would not let such a thing happen. A philosopher who might argue against the Empiricist view is Wittgenstein. He argues that “experience does not direct us to derive anything from experience”. He says that learning something cannot be done on sense experience alone – it also requires teaching or applying reason to. Plato may also back up the Rationalist view that not all ideas derive from the sense experience which they copy, as he believes that some ideas are innate, such as mathematical and logical truths.
An example of this can be taken from his dialogue ‘Meno’ in which Socrates encourages an uneducated slave boy to work out a mathematical truth relating to the lengths of sides of squares. The boy can successfully solve the problem without any prior knowledge of mathematics – thus proving that such knowledge is innate and only requires thought to solve. Descartes also argues against the empiricist view that all knowledge is built from sense experience – he argues that reason must also be applied to gain knowledge. This can be explained through an example in which he states the idea of a solid piece of wax. The solid wax is accidentally left to melt by the fire and become liquid. If we were to build ideas solely on sense experience, we might think that the solid wax and melted wax were TWO separate ideas. However, by applying reason we can deduce that the two forms are in fact the same thing.
This idea could be opposed with the argument that if one had never experienced the melting of wax, or been taught the facts of materials changing state, then they would in fact not be able to apply such reason. In summary of all points made in this essay, we can conclude that Empiricists such as Locke and Hume would argue in favour of the claim that all ideas derive from sense experience, and that Rationalists, e.g. Descartes and Wittgenstein, would argue in opposition. This is due to a variety of beliefs but mainly due to the foundations of Empiricism (a posteriori knowledge) and Rationalism (a priori knowledge). Personally, although I believe that most knowledge is built mainly from sense experience, I sway to the Rationalist’s side as I agree that knowledge must be taught or applied reason to – however, I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of innate knowledge such as the kind Plato suggests.