06 Oct 2009

Simple Essay: A Critical Comparison: Locke and Descartes'

Tradition seems to require that treatment of modern philosophy begins with Descartes’ in the seventeenth century. However, a history of philosophy does not usually pass directly from the medieval to the modern period. As the acknowledge Father of Modern Western Philosophy, Rene Descartes’ fame is uncontested. His influence has been enormous, and the study of his principal works is still indispensable to anyone who wishes to philosophize (Hocutt, 61).

René Descartes and John Locke are often sees as two of the first early modern philosophers in the seventeen century. Both of them attempt to find answers to the same questions in metaphysics and epistemology such as, what is knowledge?  Is there certainty in knowledge? What roles do the mind and body play in the acquisition of knowledge? (Hocutt, 167).

Both philosophers do not provide the same answers to these questions. In this paper, I will consider the differences similarities between Descartes’ and Locke’s’ philosophies. I will also then discuss a few important differences in their theories of knowledge, specifically the distinction between rationalism and empiricism and the question of the existence of innate ideas. Finally, I will find out which of the ideas from the two philosophers is more convincing.

According Descartes, knowledge depends on the absolute certainty. Definite knowledge cannot come from the outside world via the senses since perception is unreliable (Descartes, 76). He believes that experience and deduction are two ways of discovering knowledge. If knowledge didn’t come from within then it must come from experience of the outside world. Further he believes in contrast to perception, that deduction “can never be performed wrongly by an intellect which is in the least degree rational”. Therefore, deductive knowledge is the only certain knowledge (Descartes, 2).

Such system requires a basis of intuitively understood principles from which knowledge can be deduced. Descartes further believes that there is such idea of the existence of the self and that God’s existence. These principles are revealed by natural light and cannot be in any way being open to doubt. He believes that these principles are innate (Descartes, 97).

On the contrary, Locke does not believe that there is any certain knowledge (Locke, 263). According to Jon Locke, the mind at birth is a blank tablet, which is subsequently written upon by sensory experience. For Locke, knowledge is possible to a very high degree. Locke believes that innate ideas cannot do anything for knowledge. For him, it is useless to assume, anything occult, opaque, mysterious, hidden away in the recesses of the mind. The real cause of Locke’s hatred of innate ideas is his horror of anything mystical. Thus, if you pretend to have any knowledge, you must be prepared to tell where it comes from. It would not do to appeal, as Descartes did, to a certain impression of the clearness and distinctness of the ideas. Their origin will decide their value. For Locke, the origin comes from experience (Hocutt, 61).

Since Locke is not concerned with certainty, he needs not to abandon ideas from perception. He says that all ideas come from sensation and reflection, knowledge can and does rely on the sense and observations, and it is all founded on experience (Locke, 33).

The existence of any innate principles or ideas on at least two independent grounds is rejected by Locke. He argues that there are no innate ideas, they would immediately be known to children if there were. He explains further that if the idea is innate then the idea of God is innate. On the other hand, since there is not a universal agreed notion of God, the idea cannot be innate. There are no ideas present in the mind; instead the mind can be compared to a white paper, void of characters, without any ideas. And by experience, the mind can gain knowledge not some divine natural light (Locke, 33).

To summarize, Descartes and Locke are primarily skeptics about the probability of definite knowledge. Descartes, a French rationalist believe that there is certain knowledge and that human reason, innate and deduction is the sole source of such knowledge. In contrast, Locke an English empiricist believes that knowledge is not certain, but an extremely probable knowledge can be gathered from experience. The idea of (certain enough) knowledge arising from experience is inconceivable to Descartes, just as the existence of innate ideas in the mind is unacceptable to Locke.

As for me, both philosophers are abandoning older traditions and offering new ways of looking at knowledge and skepticism. I believe that it is not entirely accurate to say that their philosophies are different and leave it at that. I find the philosophy of Descartes more convincing than the idea of Locke. Simply because everything that is and happens in the world will be ultimately reducible to terms of mind and matter. Moreover, everything that happens will be dependent upon, and follow from, the nature of a God, who is the creator of the world and that’s in it, and the constant cause of its continued existence and activity. God is extremely good, so the world that He chooses to create and sustain must be good as well. For me, Descartes is right, that God’s will and providence is beyond our understanding.



Descartes, René. Selected Philosophical Writings. Trans. John Cottingham, et al. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Kenneth Winkler. Hackett Publishing Company, 1996.

Hocutt, Max. An Introduction to Philosophical Issues. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1986

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