HCJ TWO: Empiricism: Locke to Hume

Philosophical Liberalism

In his book A History of Western Philosophy Russell describes early liberalism as a product of England and Holland that stood for religious toleration. This is because it valued commerce and industry, and favoured the rising middle class rather than the monarchy and the aristocracy. There was a belief that all men are born equal, and that their subsequent inequality is a product of circumstances. This led to an emphasis upon the importance of education. Meanwhile individualism had penetrated into philosophy. Descartes’ fundamental certainty, “I think, therefore I am,” made the basis of knowledge different for each person, since for each the starting-point was his own existence, not that of other individuals or of the community. The first comprehensive statement of the liberal philosophy is to be found in Locke, who Russell describes as ‘the most influential though by no means the most profound’ of modern philosophers.

Circumstances in seventeenth-century England that were influential in forming Locke’s opinions were:

  • Conflict between King and Parliament in the Civil War.
  • The political development from the outbreak of the Civil War to the establishment of Cromwell as Lord Protector followed the course, which has now become familiar but was then unprecedented. The Parliamentary party consisted of two factions, the Presbyterians and the Independents.

Locke’s theory of Knowledge 

Russell describes Locke as the apostle of the Revolution of 1688. His chief work in theoretical philosophy, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was finished in 1687 and published in 1690. His First Letter on Toleration was originally published in Latin in 1689, in Holland, to which country Locke had found it necessary to withdraw in 1683. Two further letters on Toleration were published in 1690 and 1692. His two Treatises on Government were licensed for printing in 1689, and published soon afterwards. His book on Education was published in 1693. Although his life was long, all his influential writings are confined to the few years from 1687 to 1693.

According to Russell, of his two most eminent followers, Berkeley was ‘politically unimportant’, and Hume was ‘a Tory’ who set forth his reactionary views in his History of England.

A characteristic of Locke, which descended from him to the whole Liberal movement, is lack of dogmatism.

Locke believes that reason consists of two parts:

(1)  an inquiry as to what things we know with certainty

(2)  an investigation of propositions which it is wise to accept in practice, although they have only probability and not certainty in their favour.

Russell explains how Locke is, as a rule, contemptuous of metaphysics. He believes that our ideas are derived from two sources:

(a) sensation

(b) perception of the operation of our own mind, which may be called “internal sense”

Locke believes that since we can only think by means of ideas, and since all ideas come from experience, it is evident that none of our knowledge can antedate experience. Perception, he says, is “the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it.”

We have, he tells us, three kinds of knowledge of real existence:

  • Our knowledge of our own existence is intuitive;
  • our knowledge of God’s existence is demonstrative, and
  • our knowledge of things present to sense is sensitive.

He proceeds to argue that all simple ideas must agree with things, since “the mind, as has been showed, can by no means make to itself” any simple ideas, these being all “the product of things operating on the mind in a natural way.” And as regards complex ideas of substances, “all our complex ideas of them must be such, and such only, as are made up of such simple ones as have been discovered to coexist in nature.” Again, we can have no knowledge except (1) by intuition, (2) by reason, examining the agreement or disagreement of two ideas, (3) by sensation, perceiving the existence of particular things.

Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency.

Locke was a man filled with kindly feeling, who yet held that everybody (including himself) must always be moved, in action, solely by desire for his own happiness or pleasure: “What is it moves desire? I answer, happiness, and that alone.”

Locke states that liberty depends upon the necessity of pursuing true happiness and upon the government of our passions: “The necessity of pursuing true happiness [is] the foundation of all liberty. Legal liberty, therefore, is only completely possible where both prudence and piety are universal; elsewhere, the restraints imposed by the criminal law are indispensable.

According to Russell, his argument, in a nutshell, is: “We only desire pleasure. But, in fact, many men desire, not pleasure as such, but proximate pleasure. This contradicts our doctrine that they desire pleasure as such, and is therefore wicked.”

Locke’s Political Philosophy


In the years 1689 and 1690, just after the Revolution of 1688, Locke wrote his two Treatises on Government, of which the second especially is very important in the history of political ideas. The first of these two treatises is a criticism of the doctrine of hereditary power. He points out that, if parental power is what is concerned, the mother’s power should be equal to the father’s. He lays stress on the injustice of primogeniture, which is unavoidable if inheritance is to be the basis of monarchy. He makes play with the absurdity of supposing that actual monarchs are, in any real sense, the heirs of Adam. Adam can have only one heir, but no one knows who he is. Heredity cannot, according to Locke, be accepted as the basis of legitimate political power.


Locke begins his second Treatise on Government by saying that, having shown the impossibility of deriving the authority of government from that of a father, he will now set forth what he conceives to be the true origin of government. He begins by supposing what he calls a “state of nature”, “antecedent to all human government”. In this state there is a “law of nature,” but the law of nature consists of divine commands, and is not imposed by any human legislator. Men emerged from the state of nature by means of a social contract which instituted civil government. The nearest thing to a definition of the state of nature to be found in Locke is the following: “Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature.” In a state of nature, we are told, every man can defend himself and what is his. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” is part of the law of nature.”

Russell comments that in regards to the state of nature, Locke was ‘less original than Hobbes’, who regarded it as one in which there was war of all against all, and life was nasty, brutish, and short. (https://brackenstockley.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/history-and-context-hobbes-machiavelli-and-the-godfather/)


In Locke’s form of the doctrine the government is a party to the contract, and can be justly resisted if it fails to fulfill its part of the bargain. Locke’s doctrine is more or less democratic but the democratic element is limited by the view that those who have no property are not to be reckoned as citizens.

Locke’s definition of political power:

“Political power I take to be the right of making laws, with penalty of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good”.

Government, we are told, is a remedy for the inconveniences that arise, in the state of nature, from the fact that, in that state, every man is the judge in his own cause.

By nature, Locke says, every man has the right to punish attacks on himself or his property, even by death. There is political society there, and there only, where men have surrendered this right to the community or to the law.

Absolute monarchy is not a form of civil government, because there is no neutral authority to decide disputes between the monarch and a subject; in fact the monarch, in relation to his subjects, is still in a state of nature. Russell concludes that is useless to hope that being a king will make a naturally violent man virtuous.


Property is a prominent theme in Locke’s political philosophy, and is, according to him, the chief reason for the institution of civil government: “The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.” Locke’s ethic is utilitarian, but in his consideration of rights he does not bring in utilitarian considerations.

We are told first that every man has private property in the produce of his own labour or, at least, should have.

He states that:

  • a man may own as much land as he can till, but not more.
  • In Locke’s day, the position of the rural labourer was mitigated by the existence of commons, on which he had important rights, which enabled him to raise a considerable part of his food himself. This system was a survival from the Middle Ages, and was viewed with disapproval by modern-minded men, who pointed out that from the point of view of production it was wasteful.
  • The labour theory of value has two aspects, one ethical, the other economic. That is to say, it may assert that the value of a product ought to be proportional to the labour expended on it, or that in fact the labour regulates the price. The latter doctrine is only approximately true, as Locke recognizes. Nine tenths of value, he says, is due to labour; but as to the other tenth he says nothing. It is labour, he says, that puts the difference of value on everything.
  • If you own a piece of desert land on which somebody else finds oil, you can sell it for a good price without doing any work on it. As was natural in his day, he does not think of such cases, but only of agriculture. Peasant proprietorship, which he favours, is inapplicable to such things as large-scale mining, which require expensive apparatus and many workers.


In all well-framed governments, Locke says, the legislative and executive are separate. “Force,” he says, “is to be opposed to nothing but unjust and unlawful force.” Russell considers this principle as useless in practice unless there exists some body with the legal right to pronounce when force is “unjust and unlawful.”


Berkeley (1685-1753) is important in philosophy through his denial of the existence of matter – a denial which he supported by a number of, what Russell describes as, ‘ingenious arguments’. Berkeley maintained that material objects only exist through being perceived. He argues that we do not perceive material things, but only colours, sounds, etc., and that these are “mental” or “in the mind.”

Russell describes the first of the empirical arguments as ‘an odd one’: That heat cannot be in the object, because “the most vehement and intense degree of heat [is] a very great pain and we cannot suppose “any unperceiving thing capable of pain or pleasure.” Berkeley assumes, here and everywhere, that what does not inhere in matter must inhere in a mental substance, and that nothing can be both mental and material.

Berkeley thinks that there are logical reasons proving that only minds and mental events can exist. This view is similarly held by Hegel and his followers.


Hume (1711-1776) is one of the most important among philosophers. Russell believes this is because he developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent made it ‘incredible’. He represents a dead end as, in his direction, it is impossible to go further.

His chief philosophical work, the Treatise of Human Nature, was written while he was living in France during the years 1734 to 1737. It is divided into three books, dealing with the understanding, the passions, and morals.

He begins with the distinction between “impressions” and “ideas”. These are two kinds of perceptions, of which impressions are those that have more force and violence. Ideas, at least when simple, are like impressions, but fainter. “Every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it; and every simple impression a correspondent idea.” “All our simple ideas in their first appearance are derived from simple impressions, which are correspondent to them, and which they exactly represent.” Complex ideas, on the other hand, need not resemble impressions.

There is a section Of Abstract Ideas which opens with a paragraph of agreement with Berkeley’s doctrine that “all general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term, which gives them a more extensive significance, and makes them recall upon occasion other individuals, which are similar to them.”

He contends that, when we have an idea of a man, it has all the particularity that the impression of a man has. “The mind cannot form any notion of quantity or quality without forming a precise notion of degrees of each.” “Abstract ideas are in themselves individual, however they may become general in their representation.” This theory, which is a modern, form of nominalism, has two defects, one logical, the other psychological.

Hume banished the conception of substance from psychology, as Berkeley had banished it from physics. There is, he says, “no impression of self, and therefore no idea of self.”

Russell believes the most important part of the whole Treatise is the section called Of Knowledge and Probability.

Hume begins by distinguishing seven kinds of philosophical relation:

1.)  Resemblance

2.)   Identity

3.)  Relations of time and place

4.)   Proportion in quantity or number

5.)  Degrees in any quality

6.)  Contrariety

7.)  Causation

These, he says, may be divided into two kinds: those that depend only on the ideas, and those that can be changed without any change in the ideas.

Of the first kind are resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality, and proportions in quantity or number. But spatiotemporal and causal relations are of the second kind. Only relations of the first kind give certain knowledge; our knowledge concerning the others is only probable. Algebra and arithmetic are the only sciences in which we can carry on a long chain of reasoning without losing certainty. Geometry is not so certain as algebra and arithmetic, because we cannot be sure of the truth of its axioms.

The three relations that depend not only on ideas are identity, spatiotemporal relations, and causation. In the first two, the mind does not go beyond what is immediately present to the senses, (Spatiotemporal relations, Hume holds, can be perceived, and can form parts of impressions.)

Causation, he says, is different in that it takes us beyond the impressions of our senses, and informs us of unperceived existences.

Russell concludes that Hume has proved that pure empiricism is not a sufficient basis for science. But if this one principle is admitted, everything else can proceed in accordance with the theory that all our knowledge is based on experience.

Hume represents a particular departure from pure empiricism, and that those who are not empiricists may ask why, if one departure is allowed, others are to be forbidden. These, however, are questions not directly raised by Hume’s arguments.


About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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