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Locke’s Empiricism And The Human Senses

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The age old debate of whether or not human beings are born with innate knowledge or if all knowledge is gathered through experience, found in Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, has raged on for as long as man has thought to question his own existence. As these two papers battle over the reliability of the senses, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the correctness of John Locke’s proposition that the senses can be trusted as a suitable foundation for knowledge. This paper will first begin by setting the stage for the juxtaposition of nativism and empiricism in regards to human sensation; through explanation of the key elements found in both philosopher’s perspectives, a greater contextual understanding will be exhibited in order to aid further in-depth analysis of these two contrasting viewpoints. The paper will then introduce a three-tiered argument for the validity of John Locke’s view of the senses as trustworthy agents in the acquisition of knowledge. Then, Descartes’ dream argument will be examined and rebutted from an empiricist perspective (Descartes, 1968, p.97). In conjunction with a restatement of the thesis, the paper will ultimately conclude with a retrenchment of the argumentative logic. Comment by Phil Bériault: These intro sentences go a little over the top with the rhetoric. It’s good to try to get the reader interested, just try to do it in a way that reflects how you would actually talk about it. Comment by Phil Bériault: For a paper this length, it would have been better to simply state the topic, and the point that you will be making. That said, this portion of the intro is well written, and would absolutely be fitting for a longer paper on this topic.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes presents what he believes to be an accurate critique of reality itself (Descartes, 1968, p.97). Descartes begins his train of thought on the nature of human knowledge in Meditation 1 and begins to introduce the reader to situations in which the human senses lack reliability. Scrutinizing the dependability of the human senses, Descartes suggests that because “there are no conclusive signs by means of which one can distinguish clearly between being asleep and being awake” that the sensory system’s ability to provide real knowledge must be doubted (Descartes, 1968, p.97). He extrapolates this distrust in the senses as he continues applying doubt to sciences such as geometry, concluding that even though numbers and shapes operate in dreams as they do in real life, that it is possible that a powerful being, such as an all-powerful God, could manipulate Rene’s understand (Descartes, 1968, p.98). Descartes decides that since he believes it is out of God’s nature to deceive him, he will operate under the assumption that the good God he believes in does not exist, but instead “some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful” is found in God’s place (Descartes, 1968, p.100). This malicious deity deceives the senses of Descartes, forcing doubt upon all aspects of his reality, even in regards to the most rigid scientific disciplines like mathematics (Descartes, 1968, p.100). Descartes departs under the assumption that everything he previously thought to be true cannot be trusted, and therefore sensory experience is not a reliable vessel of knowledge because of the doubt associated with it (Descartes, 1968, p.100). Comment by Phil Bériault: This isn’t really accurate – his target is knowledge, not existence itself (remember, he takes his own existence as the thing that he can be most certain of). Comment by Phil Bériault: Remember to explain the quotes that you use. Comment by Phil Bériault: You should address the author by their last name. Comment by Phil Bériault: Excellent exposition of Descartes! The only way to improve would be to explain the quote you use above – why does Descartes think we can’t really tell if we’re asleep or awake?

John Locke’s perspective of knowledge and the methods in which human beings obtain it appears in Chapter 11, titled Of our knowledge of the existence of other things in his popular work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. John Locke outlines the empiricist perspective regarding epistemology, and advocates for the reliability of the human senses when it comes to knowledge procurement. Using a multi-faceted approach, Locke tackles the nature in which human being’s senses gather information in an attempt to provide justification that the human experience can and should be trusted as a foundation for knowledge. Locke begins to argue his case for the senses when he discusses how the senses act as the basis of every human interaction, asserting that “For we cannot act anything, but by our faculties; nor talk of knowledge itself, but by the help of those faculties, which are fitted to apprehend even what knowledge is” (Locke, 1689, p.286). He goes on to support his position using a variety of complex arguments, including; the distinction between physical sensation and memory, the priority of sensation stimuli over reflections of ideas, and finally the idea that our own sensory experience can “in many cases bear witness to the truth of each other’s report” (Locke, 1689, p.287-289). Locke proves beyond a reasonable doubt that empirical sensations accurately represents the human reality for three main reasons. First, the very existence of the senses suggest they are real. Second, many people can interact with objects at the same time and share similar sensory experiences. And third, everything known is known through the senses, and human biology is largely constructed in order to support human sensory features. Comment by Phil Bériault: It might have been better to simply select one of these arguments, and to give a brief explanation of it. For example, you can say that he makes a variety of arguments, such as x and y, but that you find z most interesting, and then give an exposition of z Comment by Phil Bériault: This may be a bit too strong of a thing to assert. It would be better to simply state that he offers convincing arguments. Comment by Phil Bériault: Very good work on explaining Locke’s position! It can be difficult to explain an argument that relies on so different aspects, and you do a good job of it. My only suggestion is the one I make above on the previous page.

While the discussion on the trustworthiness of the senses is a worthwhile debate, one of the major arguments in favor of empiricism is quite simple; by the very nature of existing the senses suggest their own reliability. The concept that one can change the appearance of a piece of paper and the paper retains this mutation supports the idea that human beings ought to trust their senses (Locke, 1689, p.287). As Locke puts it, “Nobody can, in earnest, be so skeptical, as to be uncertain of the existence of those things which he sees and feels” (Locke, 1689, p.285). While we think, which is outside of our senses, we also make audible our thoughts and use our touch, sight, smell, and hearing to accomplish the outcomes we desire in our thoughts. Why wouldn’t the human senses provide accurate information about the world when the senses are the only medium of interacting with it? (Locke, 1689, p.288). Comment by Phil Bériault: Interesting line to take! Comment by Phil Bériault: Can you explain why? Comment by Phil Bériault: Do you mean to say the we say them out loud, or that we can hear them? You may want to consider using a different word here. Comment by Phil Bériault: You shouldn’t rely on rhetorical questions to make your point, and if you are going to use them, you need to answer them yourself. And you definitely shouldn’t end a paragraph with them.

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Another compelling argument made by Locke is found in his commentary on the similarity of stimuli during shared experiences (Locke, 1689, p.287). Locke shows how certain experiences elicit the same reaction in almost all human beings; using the example of a fire, Locke describes that regardless of the individual belief in the fire’s ability to burn one’s hand, that the fire will in fact burn the hand (Locke, 1689, p.287). Recalling the page metaphor, as Locke writes on the page, he modifies its appearance (Locke, 1689, p.287). Until the form is changed, or the appearance is modified further, the page will not only stay the same form and appearance as Locke left it but will also remain the same for all those who observe the page afterwards (Locke, 1689, p.288). What’s even more indicative of the trustworthiness of the senses is that if another person proceeds to change the paper, Locke can interact with that person’s contribution in the physical realm. The idea that human beings can interact with each other as seemingly independent actors with unique sense output while still sharing empirical stimuli suggests that the senses are a suitable foundation for knowledge (Locke, 1689, p.288).

Not only do the senses make sense (Locke, 1689, p.285), and not only does the shared nature of empirical experience suggest sense validity (Locke, 1689, p.287), but in the end, sensory information – identified as both pure sensation and reflection of sensation – makes up the entirety of what constitutes human beings (Locke, 1689, p.290). The entirety of the human biological scheme is oriented in a way to support the senses. The functions of the body are not merely to support the brain but to also support the hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth, vocal cords, the tongue, and many other organs involved in gathering sensory information. The very potential for human beings to feel pain on the extremities suggests that the human sense organs are prioritized by the body because they maintain a stable relationship with reality (Locke, 1689, p.287).

Descartes main argument against Locke’s empiricist perspective is the dream argument (Descartes, 1968, p.97). The argument posits that because one can’t distinguish from being awake or being asleep that there is reasonable doubt that the human senses provide factual knowledge (Descartes, 1968, p.97). However, upon closer examination of this analogy by Locke, the entire dream argument proves to paint a poor picture of the supposed limitations of human sense perception for two specific reasons. The first; human beings can retroactively realize they were dreaming – while some can actually become aware of their dream state mid-dream, most people upon waking from a dream are clearly able to distinguish it from reality. The second; all dreams maintain sensory channels, regardless if they respond correctly. All dream content, motifs, characters, and settings are drawn and constructed using sensory information, implying that dream content is likely drawn from a chaotic conjunction of what Locke describes as the memory of the past existence of ideas (Locke, 1689, p.290). Rather, the fact that the senses exist in dreams at all, albeit modified, seems to support Locke’s view that when not dreaming, humans possess senses which function properly in reality and can be relied upon to return factual information about one’s surroundings (Locke, 1689, p.285). Descartes’ dream argument fails at inspiring reasonable doubt in the human senses when analyzed through an empiricist perspective, and actually ends up indirectly supporting the legitimate relationship between human sense perception and knowledge (Descartes, 1968, p.97). Comment by Phil Bériault: The important question if you could tell while your dreaming. To ignore lucid dreaming for a moment, one way to understand Descartes is as asking us to ponder what good or senses are, if at any moment we can wake up and realize it was a dream? How can you trust your senses in this moment if it’s possible that you can wake up later and realize that you were dreaming? Comment by Phil Bériault: Very interesting and compelling argument to make! In order to make it even stronger, it would help to consider a little more about the “when not dreaming” aspect of your argument, along with my comment above, as well as what Descartes says on 97 (since he kind of considers this line of reasoning).

Through an exposition of both Descartes’ and Locke’s perspectives, the contrasting viewpoints on the reliability of sense perception was displayed. Then the validity of Locke’s empiricist view of the human senses as trustworthy was supported by three major arguments and a rebuttal, all drawing from Locke’s own points as justification, which included; the mere existence of the senses, the potential for interactive shared experiences, the composition of the human body itself, and finally a complete rebuttal of Descartes’ dream argument (Descartes, 1968, p.97). By presenting a thorough, comprehensive argument, this paper takes Locke’s lens and decidedly argues that human beings should trust their senses as a suitable foundation for knowledge.

Comment by Phil Bériault: Excellent work! You really did a fantastic job of exposition, and in writing the paper (with the exception of the opening sentences, which are a bit over the top). Your argument that you make in the end about the relationship between dreams and our senses is also compelling, and you can look to my comments on it to see how to make it stronger.My only suggestion would be to maybe focus your exposition on a specific aspect of Locke’s argument (as I commented on it above), and to use the extra space to build up your own argument a bit more. Or at the very least, to attempt to edit down the exposition of Locke to be a bit briefer to give your own argument more space.85/100


  1. Descartes, R. (1968). Descartes: Discourse on Method and the Meditations. Penguin Group.
  2. Locke, J. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Hackett Publishing Company.

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