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The primary purpose of this essay is to critically examine Locke’s theory of perception. This theory of perception is more like a theory of knowledge in which sense experience is the true source as opposed to reason. It is derived from the branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’ which originated from the Greek word ‘episteme’ meaning knowledge. Knowledge is expressed in propositions but before we can understand any propositions at all, even false ones, we must first have concepts. To understand the meaning of a word already involves having a concept. How do we then acquire the concepts that we have? It was once thought at least some of our concepts are innate. However, suppose that concepts were innate, and then we would have them without ever experiencing any instances. It seems too obvious that no concept of any sensory property is innate. Some concepts have been believed to be innate: for example, the concept of cause and the concept of God.

If the concept of cause is innate, then we would know what the word means, and be in full possession of the concept, without ever having seen causes operating. This seems implausible.

Perhaps the God example seems more plausible, since God, if one exists, is not seen or otherwise perceived,and yet we do seem to possess the concept (though this too has been denied). If we cannot perceive God and nevertheless have the concept, how can we come by it? Is it innate?

We subscribe to John Locke’s alternative theory which explains that concepts are derived from experience. However, despite its merits it has its own shortcoming which this essay’s objective is to point out. John Locke aimed at clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge. Locke hit upon a bold and original interpretation of how the mind works and from this described the kind and extent of knowledge we can expect from the human mind. ‘The scope of our knowledge, Locke said, is limited to, and by our experience(Stumpf,1977:273).’

Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes say that knowledge should be built on observation, and to this extent they could be called empiricists. They both accepted that the mind is capable of producing certainty of knowledge about nature provided only that the proper method is used. Similarly, Rene Descartes(1594-1650) assumed that there was no problem that human reason could not solve if the correct method was employed. This was the assumption Locke called into critical question, namely, the assumption that the human mind has capabilities that enable it to discover the true nature of the universe. David Hume pushed this critical point even further and asked whether any secure knowledge at all is possible.

Instead of the word ‘concepts’ these philosophers all used the word ‘ideas’ and the problem they undertook to answer was: How do we come by the ideas we have or ever shall have? All the ideas we have or ever shall have, they said come from experience.

Some come through the outer senses, such as sight, hearing, and touch, and from these all our concepts involving the physical world are drawn; and some ideas come from the inner senses, such as experiences of pain and pleasure, feelings of love and hate, pride and remorse, experiencing of thinking and willing. All our concepts are derived from these kinds of experience.

This is the core of Locke’s empiricism and in the following chapters other issues will require further elucidation and these include his refutation of innate ideas, simple and complex ideas, as well as that of primary and secondary qualities. It is equally important that Locke’s analysis of substance and the degrees of knowledge is treated.

However, it is pertinent that we write a brief biography of John Locke, Locke’s empiricism, the meaning of perception and most importantly the problem of perception because it is after the problems have been stated that other chapters will be valuable. We proceed.


John Locke was born in 1632 at Wrington, Somerset, and died Seventy-two years later in 1709. He grew up in a puritan home, trained in the virtues of hard work and the love of simplicity. After a thorough training in the classics at the West minister school, Locke became a student at Oxford University where he took the Bachelor’s and Master’s degreesand was appointed Senior Student and later censor of Moral Philosophy. He spent thirty years of his studies of Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics; he was gradually drawn toward the newly developing experimental sciences, being influenced in this direction particularly by Sir Robert Boyle. His scientific interests led him to pursue the study of medicine and in 1674 he obtained his medical degree and was licensed to practices. He also ventured into diplomacy. He actually served in various capacities, eventually becoming the personal physician and confidential adviser to the Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the leading politicians of London. But earlier influences, among them his reading of Descartes’ works while at Oxford, confirmed his desire to devote his creative powers to working out a philosophical understanding of certain problems that perplexed his generation.

He wrote on such diverse topics as The Reasonableness of Christianity, An essay Concerning Toleration, and the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money indicating his active participation in the public affairs of his day. In 1690, when he was fifty seven-years old, Locke published two books, which were to make him famous as a philosopher and a political theorist: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Civil Government. Although other philosophers before him had written about human knowledge, Locke was the first to produce a full length inquiry into the scope and limits of the human mind. Similarly, others had written important works on political theory, but Locke’s second of the two treatises came at a time when it could shape the thoughts of an era and later affect the course of events. It indicates Locke’s way of combining his practical and theoretical interests and abilities.


Locke decided that before one could move directly into such a subject as the principles of morality and revealed religion, it was necessary we examined our own abilities, and see what our understandings were, or were not fitted to deal with. From this examination Locke eventually composed his Essay on Human Understanding, which became the foundation of empiricismin Britain.

According to Locke, knowledge is restricted to ideas, not platonic ideas or forms, but ideas that are generated by objects we experience thus debunking the claim of the rationalists that reason is the primary source of knowledge (Copleston, 1964: 72).

The origin of ideas is experience, and experience takes two forms, sensation and reflection. Without exception, all our ideas come to us through the sense, whereby we experience the world external to us, and through reflection upon these ideas, which is an experience internal to us. He tried to clarify that we cannot experience the world external to us, and through reflection upon theseideas, which is an experience internal to us. He clarifies that we cannot have the experience of reflection until we have had the experience of sensation. For reflectionsimply means the mind taking notice of its own operations but its operations begin when the mind is provided with ideas, and these ideas come through the senses (Locke, 1985: 182).


Perception is the process by which organisms interpret and organise sensation to produce a meaningful experience of the world. Sensation usually refers to the immediate, relatively unprocessed result of stimulation of sensory receptors in the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or skin. In practice, sensation and perception are virtually impossible to separate, because they are part of one continuous process (www.wikipedia.com).


John Locke in his theory of knowledge laid great emphasis on experience as the primary source of indubitable knowledge. However, Locke failed to take into cognizance the fact that, objects of experience are dynamic and fallible.Heraclitus of Ephesus, an ancient Greek philosopher posits that, ‘Things in this world are in a state of flux, constantly changing (Armstrong, 1977: 23).’

Following in this postulation of Heraclitus, how then can our experience or senses grasps reality or true knowledge as the case may be, in a constantly changing world?

In the footsteps of Heraclitus, Socrates through his method of dialectics was able to discover that, true knowledge cannot be derived from perception, relegating it as the least reliable and this is aptly captured in his statement that,Perception does not give us true knowledge; therefore, knowledge cannot be acquired through perception’ (Armstrong, 1977: 24).

Scrutinizing the theory of knowledge by Locke, one will discover that it has a lot of problems to contend with, among whom are, the problems of perception and that of appearance and reality. Though there seems to be a similarity between the former and the latter.

The problem of perception can be said to ariseas a result of human state of affairs at a material time. Perceiving a green table in a room may give varying impressions, indifferent thought, depending on their state at that particular time. In other words, a green table might for instance appear yellow in the eyes of a man suffering from jaundice. Also, the amount and type of light focused on the same green table might give an onlooker the cause to refer to it as purple.

Similarly, the timing of the perception of the green table may also affect its colour. For instance, if the green table is perceived in the night around 10.00pm with the moonlight, the green table might appear black or brown.

Hence, it can be said that, true and infallible knowledge cannot be achieved through this means.

On the issue of appearance and reality, it is pertinent to say at this juncture that, appearance is basically different from reality; hence one can safely say that seeing something as it appears is not enough to conclude that, one has the knowledge of that thing.

When a straight stick or ruler is inside a bowl of water, it will appear to be bent, thus, giving a wrong impression to the onlooker, but in reality, neither the stick nor the ruler is bent, because after removing them from the bowl of water, they look straight again. Should this situation be accepted as the original state of the object? Is it as it appeared to us outside the bowl of water? Or the way they appeared inside of it?

Furthermore, we also experience illusion such as, mirage, where what we see is not real. For instance, when driving on a highway on a sunny afternoon, looking ahead, one will see a pool of water in a distance, and on getting to the spot, the place turns out dry. People are often also victims of hallucinations and they tend to see things which are not actually there. This goes to show the unreliability of senses.

All the instances given earlier are inconvertible facts of our experiences. And they have only buttressed the fact that, experiencing or perceiving things as they are, is not enough justification of the knowledge of that thing. And this cannot be farfetched from the fact that, objects often appear differently to different people or observers at the same time or to some other observers at different times, thus, bringing about incoherent conclusions from all the observers as earlier reiterated. Though, this largely depends on state of affairs, light, physiological position, or state of the observer.

All that had been said above, can tempt one to conclude that, reality cannot be sensed or perceived, or that, we can never know whether our experience is illusory or not, or that sense experience is not a reliable source of knowledge.

Even, we can state here that, issues of knowledge acquisition is in two folds, we have knowledge through experience, and knowledge on the statement of fact, as when one says, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. But the empiricists reject this on the grounds that, it is not verifiable.

Ludwig Wittgenstein opined that,

‘Such statements, which cannot be verified and disproved, are meaningless, only statements, which can be verified and proved, should be accepted‘(Scruton, 1981: 137).

By and large, one can see that keen as Locke was on the clarity of knowledge, he did not escape the fatal confounding of sense-knowledge with intellectual knowledge, thereby, making the confusion more confounded, so that one may take not only different, but opposite doctrines, from the premises his theories present. If one follows his work in one set of principles, and develop it to the end, one will find himself in idealism, and if you choose to follow him in another of his thought, you will find yourself in positivism, which it takes reality around us as, the only thing that is, and denies value to the intellect and reason.

Locke, in his conception and origin of ideas, based it on the foundation and background of the empiricists; those ideas are derived from sensation. He recognizes the extreme importance of sensation, which could be seen in his second work. He believed that knowledge originates from two sources; sensation and reflection.

He also asserts that, knowledge is a process of compounding, repeating, comparing, and uniting sensation. But he ran into a problem, which was indeed great, because, he was unable to keep up his thoroughly atomic theory of mind. It is a theory which makes all relations external, they are, as he would say, super-induced upon facts. This makes it impossible to account for any appearance of unity and convention among ideas. He quietly, and without any consciousness of the contradictions involved, introduces certain inherent relations into the structure of the ideas, thereby, further discussing the objective character of sensation in relation to the object which produces it. Locke distinguished simple and complex ideas because he felt, to discuss about ideas intelligently, it will be convenient to distinguish them, as they are matter in the bodies that cause them (Popkin, 1969: 194).

Consequently, one can see that Locke tends to lay down the marks of sensation as passivity and simplicity as the real element in knowledge but Leibniz denies or accepts in a sense different from that of Locke. According to Russell,‘Reality for Leibniz is not a supernatural yoking of things naturally opposed, and also not a mere accident (Russell, 1971: 82).’


1.                                                                                                     Armstrong, A. H. (1977), An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy,London, Methuen and Co.

2.     Copleston F. (1964), A History Of Philosophy,

vol 5 New  York, Image Books

3.                                                                                             John Locke, (1975), Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ed. By Peter H.  Niddith, Oxford: Claredon Press.

4.                                                                 Popkin, R (1969), Philosophy Made Simple, New York, Heinemann Publishers.

5.                                                                 Russell, B (1971), ACritical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, London, Routledge Publishing Co.

6.                                                                         Stumpf E.S (1964), Philosophy: History and    Problems, New York, Mc Graw-Hill Book Co.

7.                                                                                         Whitehead, A.N (1982), Western Political Thought, Ivor Belere(Ed), London, George Allen and Union Ltd.

8.     www.wikipedia.com

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