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This research critically evaluated John Locke’s notion of ideas and his rejection of innate ideas as a source of knowledge. This research attempted to reveal and unravel the thoughts of John Locke in his empirical conception of knowledge. It analyzed his notion of simple and complex ideas and his conception that knowledge can only be acquired through sensation and reflection. The end in view is an appraisal to show the problems as well as the areas of strength of Locke’s conception of ideas.



Title Page    -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        i

Dedication  -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        ii

Declaration -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        iii

Certification -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        iv

Acknowledgement -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        v       

Abstract      -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        vii

Table of Contents -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -         viii


1.1.          Background of the study -        -        -        -        -        -        1       

1.2.          Statement of the problem -        -        -        -        -        -        2

1.3.          Objectives of the study   -        -        -        -        -        -        3

1.4.          Significance of the study -        -        -        -        -        -        4

1.5.          Justification of the study -        -        -        -        -        -        5

1.6.          Methodology of the study         -        -        -        -        -        6

1.7.          Scope of The Study        -        -        -        -        -        -        6

1.8.          Clarification of key terms         -        -        -        -        -        7

1.9.          Organization of the study -        -        -        -        -        12


3.1. Rene Descartes’ Innatism   -        -        -        -        -        -        29

3.2. John Locke’s Notion of Ideas       -        -        -        -        -        30



4.1. An Evaluation of John Lockes Notion of Ideas          -        -        38

4.2. Conclusion     -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        40

4.3. Recommendations   -        -        -        -        -        -        -        41

Works Cited -        -        -        -        -        -        -        -        43



1.1   Background of the Study

The question of how knowledge can be acquired has been of concern to philosophers from antiquity to contemporary period, prior to John Locke’s existence innatism was upheld by philosophers Locke Rene Descartes Baruch Spinoza and Philosophers of old like Plato as the source of knowledge. They were of the rationalist school of thought which proposed innate ideas and pure rational reasoning. The doctrine postulates that at least certain ideas like ideas of God, infinity, substance and so on must be innate because no empirical origin of them could be satisfactory. This however proved to be problematic to Locke as he postulated that every man is born blank without knowledge of any sort. John Lock as an apostle of sense experience Dences and Debunks innate ideas proposing that man is born a blank slate (tabula rasa) without knowledge. The focus of these work is to evaluate Locke’s notion of ideas and his elucidation about innate ideas. This work intends to show the level of success of Locke’s empiricism, its strength and weakness based on the goals Locke himself intended to achieve with the doctrine. His position was that all knowledge derives from sense of experience.

1.2   Statement of the problem

The problem of this study is to evaluate the success and shortcomings of Locke’s notion of ideas, in other words, the problem of this study is to show what innatism points to and why Locke rejected it. This will also lead us into looking at Locke’s empiricism in general as this was the basis on which he reputed the idea of innatism. In attempt to evaluate Locke’s notion of ideas we will also examine what interested philosophers said about Locke’s thoughts, in fact there is no idea that is immune to critique in philosophy as Locke himself challenges people to repute his ideas however this thesis brings in different arguments of John Locke which should be readily understandable to the lay person.

This study is focused on evaluating Locke’s notion of ideas with a view to establishing the degree of certainty therein. It is a critical, cognitive structural analysis of modern empiricism, cognitive and structural analysis of modern empiricism on epistemology. The problem of knowledge is a philosophical one, it is as all problems of philosophy a critical one. Attempt is made by Locke to respond to it in an empirical and reflective manner.

1.3   Objectives of the study

Since Locke’s notion of ideas was intended to improve upon the way by which we attain knowledge. There are central key questions that may arise in any attempt to evaluate the extent of success that Locke’s ideas have been able to Achieve-Thus, major objective of this study is to

1.     Offer an analysis of the human mind and its acquisition of knowledge.

2.     Evaluate John Locke’s thoughts to offer an empiricist theory according to which we acquire ideas through our experience of the world.

3.     To also show that the mind is able to examine compare and combine ideas in numerous and different ways.

Knowledge consist of some special kind of relationship between how ideas Locke’s emphasis on the philosophical examination of the human mind as preliminary to the investigation of the world and its contents represented a new approach to philosophy and this work intends to show it.

1.4   Significance of the study

Epistemologically, this study is significant in displaying knowledge acquisition and deep analysis of the human mind. This study is also important in making vivid how knowledge can be acquired empirically. It draws attention to a holistic view of empirical ideas showing that ideas can be reflective or sensitive. This study addresses the nature of knowledge itself asking what is the study also aids us to discover where our ideas come from, to ascertain what it means to have these ideas and what an idea essentially is and to examine issues of faith and opinion to determine how we should proceed logically when our knowledge is limited. It examines the reliability, scope and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with the pretension of uncritical belief borrowed opinion and mere superstition this study again aids us to investigate how human knowledge began by asking how we acquire basic materials out of which that knowledge is composed, our ideas it also helps to understand the fundamental principle of empiricism that all of our knowledge and ideas arise from sense experience.

1.5   Justification of the study

The purpose of this study is to explain, analyze and show Locke’s conception of ideas and show its degree of success, certainty as well as its shortcomings. In turning philosophy search light on knowledge acquisition, specifically the way Locke understand idea and his rejection of innatism, there are philosophical questions about knowledge acquisition. It is notable that John Locke’s empiricist ideas formed the basis for contemporary and analytic philosophy which includes philosophers like A. J. Ayer, karl Popper, Gilber Ryle and a host of others. It is also notable that Gottifred Leibniz also made his critique on Locke’s thoughts citing his conception of reflection as reason. This work attempts to put these points together in order to ascertain the degree of Locke’s success in the refutation of innatism

1.6    Methodology of the Study

This work is a library research. The methodology of this study is explanatory, critical, comparative and analytical. This method involves, dissecting, putting in parts for proper emphasis. In this work, the central ideas of Locke’s empiricism are put through evaluation to achieve a good critique. However, the basis of the study could not have been properly described for understanding. This informs strains of description, explanation and evaluation found in the study. This is because Locke’s notion of ideas was fashioned to overcome the ecubrances that characterized innatism.

1.7   Scope of the study

The scope of this work is limited to the conception of ideas as proposed by John Locke. However, since this notion of ideas was proposed to make up for the problems he observed in innation, the scope of this work includes an explanation of innate ideas, Rene Descartes innatism and John Locke’s response to it by proposing empiricism. It is not within the scope of this work to notify the claims of the rationalists but show and evaluate Locke’s thoughts and conception of ideas.

The scope of this work is situated in epistemology. This is so since philosophy exist wherever man achieves awareness. This study serves as a clearing house to empiricists in their knowledge claim. This study is within the scope of available research facilities.

1.8 Clarification of Key Terms

In philosophy, ideas are seen as mental representational images of some objects though it can be abstract concepts that do not present as mental images. And idea an also be seen as any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding awareness or activity ( for John Locke, “idea is the object of thinking. Every man being conscious of himself that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about whilst thinking being the ideas that are there, it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas, such as are those expressed by emotions, man, elephant, army, drunkenness and others: it is in the first place then to be inquired, how he comes by them?” (Book II, section 86). David Hume differs from Locke by limiting ideas to the more or less vague mental reconstructions of perceptions, the perpetual process being described as an impression (Hume 15).

The English Dictionary and Thesaurus defines idea as a mental impression of anything, a vague impression, notion, an opinion or belief, a supposition, a person’s conception of something, a significance or purpose. In essence idea is a mental concept conceived in the mind it could be mental pictures of certain things, objects or as Locke puts it qualities as against Descartes who perceives ideas as an image or representation often but not necessarily in the mind. Immanuel Kant also sees ideas as opposed to a concept. liberty according to Kant is an idea. An idea therefore is a human concept, as almost everything, it can be understood from the point of view of the system. Idea is one way in which concepts are born. Idea defines concept made out from mind and can be used or understood by others. For some, an idea is being conveyed by communication and this communication can be between an individual and himself. Overtime in philosophy there has been a debate of how and where ideas are formed by philosophers and due to the context of this work we will limit the scope to just innate ideas and empiricism.

(b)  Innate Ideas

The doctrine of innate ideas is not a new component in the field of philosophy. It is a doctrine that holds that at least certain ideas, say ideas of God, infinity, substance most be innate because there is no satisfactory empirical origin of them that can be conceived. Its most prominent proponent in the 17th century is Rene Descartes. Stitch holds that “innate ideas are preformed, in the mind at birth” (225). In philosophy, innate ideas are allegedly inborn in the human mind, as contrasted with those received or complied from experience. It is a philosophical and epistemological doctrine that holds that human beings are born with ideas or knowledge, and that the mind is not a blank slate at birth as some philosophers think. Those who hold nativism see innate idea as God’s workmanship. Others see innate ideas as pre experience before we were born. Yacouba (305) holds that we have different approaches to the doctrine of innate ideas. Some philosophers like Plato, Meno, and Phaedo among others claim that all our knowledge is innate. Others like Locke support the thesis that our knowledge is not innate. Plato is well known with the doctrine of innate ideas which he presents a classic theory in his dialogue Meno and Phaedo. Through example of mathematical truths, he argues that such fruits of the mind are not the fruit of learning, that they are hidden in the depth of the soul he illustrates this in his dialogue Phaedo. In Phaedo, before Socrates was put to birth he had some discussion with many friends including Phaedo to whom he said:

And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born and were born having the use of it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instance of birth not only the equal or the greater or the less, but all ideas; for we are not speaking only of equality, but of beauty, goodness, justice, holiness, and all which we stamp with the name of essence in the dialectical process, both when we ask and when we answer questions. Of all this we may certainly affirm that we acquired the knowledge before birth? (301).

Socrates argues his statement by showing that we were born with the ideas of quality and he assumes that all ideas are the same. In the same vain Descartes in is Meditations hold that there are innate ideas and that this innate ideas and that this innate ideas come from God he believes that the new mechanical physics such as bodies have no real properties resembling our sensory ideas of color, sounds, taste and the like, thus implying that the content of this ideas are drawn from the mind.

(c)  Empiricism

The earliest expression of empiricism in ancient Greek philosophies were those of the sophist. Etymologically the English word ‘empirical’ derives from the ancient Greek word “Empeiria” which is cognate with and translate to the Latin “experiential” from which are derived the word “experience”. In philosophy empiricism is a theory of knowledge which states that knowledge comes primarily from sense experience.  Ozumba (49) describes that “empiricism is the philosophical school of thought that holds that our knowledge comes from the senses – notably: the five sense the sense of touch, sight, hearing, tasting and smelling”. The most notable proponent of this theory is the modern British empiricist John Locke, others include George Berkeley, David Hume and most contemporary philosophers like A. J Ayer, Karl Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and others. Empiricism emphasizes the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas, over the idea of innate ideas. Empiricism emphasizes on evidence, physical facts based on observations and experimentation rather than relying on reasoning or intuition. The notion of “tabula rasa” (clean slate or blank tablet) connotes the view that the mind is originally blank or empty at birth as expressed by Locke when he used the words “white paper” on which experience leaves marks. This denies that human have innate ideas. Locke suggests the possibility of placing morality amongst the science capable of demonstration (Bunnin & James 688) Empiricism therefore deals with physical facts that we can see and perceive with our senses.

1.9 Organization of Study

This work is organized in four chapters the first chapter which is the introductory aspect of the work takes care of its methodological considerations This is the chapter that we are in now. It focuses on clearing the ground by dealing with the back-ground of the study, the statement of the problem, objectives of the study, scope of the study, clarification of key terms and organization of the study respectively.

After this first chapter, is the second which has to do with the literature review. Here the work focuses on what John Locke said about ideas, as well as comments and reactions of other philosophers on the ideas of Locke. The third chapter is dedicated to a presentation of Locke’s notion of ideas, his concept of simple and complex ideas, sensation and reflection, primary and secondary qualities and representative realism. Here his thoughts are elucidated.

The fourth and final chapter is the evaluation, and conclusion of the work. It will focus on bringing out the merits and demerits Locke’s notion of ideas. In other words, the strength and weaknesses of his thoughts are the concern of this chapter. This will be followed by the recommendations of this research.

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