Descartes vs Locke

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The study of knowledge, or epistemology, contains theoretical methods in which information is learned. Of these methods, there are two that are most widely accepted. Rationalism and empiricism are also the most widely debated methods of knowledge. Rationalism claims that a priori processes and intuition gain knowledge. Rationalism claims that knowledge is innate; but that it varies among humans. At the other end of the spectrum, empiricism claims that knowledge is gained largely by experience, observation, and sensory perception.

René Descartes and John Locke, both seventeenth century philosophers, are often seen as two of the first early modern philosophers. Both Descartes and Locke attempt to find answers to the same questions in metaphysics and epistemology; among these: What is knowledge? Is there certainty in knowledge? What roles do the mind and body play in the acquisition of knowledge? Descartes and Locke do not provide the same answers to these questions. In this paper the similarities and differences between the philosophies of Descartes and Locke will be addressed.

Locke's notion of the idea is one example of a term borrowed from Descartes. For Locke, an idea is that which ``the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, thought, or understanding'' (Locke, 48). This seems to be exactly Descartes' definition of idea: ``whatever is immediately perceived by the mind'' (Descartes, 132). Locke then goes on to consider the qualities (powers to produce ideas) of external objects. He distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities; the latter are those which are not in the objects themselves but are perceived or sensed, while the former are those which cannot be separated from the object and belong to it at all times such as solidity, extension, figure, and mobility (Locke, 49). This echoes the distinction made by Descartes about the qualities of wax. Descartes clearly perceives (the having of) size, shape, and number, as...
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