John Locke and Rene Descartes are two of the first early philosophers,both looking for answers to the same questions such as: is there certainty inknowledge? What is knowledge? How does our mind work? While Locke and Descartesask the same questions, they do not acquire the same answers.
My goal in thispaper is to compare and contract Locke and Descartes beliefs and explain whichview I prefer most.John Locke believes all knowledge comes only throughexperience. Locke does not believe in any certain knowledge, he believes that”all ideas come from sensation and reflection” and that the only way to gainknowledge is through experience (Locke, 2). Locke argues that at birth the mindis like an empty book, that we are not born with principles of logic such as asquare has four sides or two plus two equals four. He believes this kind ofinformation is not innate and that it takes experience to acquire this kind ofknowledge.
Locke argues that as humans we fill our mindwith ideas as we experience the world, and without those experiences there wouldbe no ideas or knowledge. In summary, Locke believes that all knowledge derivesfrom experience and that all knowledge is acquired. In contrary, according to Descartes knowledge depends on certainty.Descartes believes that knowledge cannot come from the outside world via the 5senses because perception is unreal. Descartes says that he dreams of thingsthat seem so realistic to him while he is sleeping. He had one dream where he sitsby a fire in his room, and it seems like he can feel the true warmth of thefire, just as he feels it in his real life, even though there is no fire at all.
The fact that he feels the fire doesn’t really allow him to tell when he isawake and when he is dreaming. Therefore, if his five senses can convey to himthe heat of the fire when he does not actually feel it, he can’t trust that thefire exists when he feels it in his real life. Descartes argues that if the knowledgedoes not come from within it must come from an experience of the outside world witha strict application of reason to all problems. Even though Descartes says thatknowledge can come from experience of the outside world, though, he stillbelieves that knowledge from within is the only certain knowledge.John Locke was the first to define the self asconsciousness. Locke defines the self as “that conscious thinking thing whichis sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery,and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends” (Locke1694, p. 307).
Locke believes that consciousness is key. He argues that it is consciousnessof one’s experiences brought forward to the present moment as a memory thatgives us identity with our prior self. Thus, because memories are being madeall the time and because we don’t always remember the same things all the time,our identity is fluid, constantly changing, discontinuous and can die, eventhough the body lives on. As in the case of extreme amnesia. Locke alsobelieves that consciousness can be transferred from one person to another andthat personal identity goes with them as well. Locke states, “The questionbeing what makes the same person; and not whether it be the same identicalsubstance, which always thinks in the same person, which, in this case, mattersnot at all: different substances, by the same consciousness (where they dopartake in it) being united into one person, as well as different bodies by thesame life are united into one animal, whose identity is preserved in thatchange of substances by the unity of one continued life” (Locke 1694, p. 148).
Thus, while the soul is changed consciousness stays the same thereby preservingthe personal identity. This would mean there would be the same soul but adifferent person.Similarly, Descartes, like Locke, also believes that consciousnessis key.
Except, he argues that it is the conscious substance – the mind – that givesus identity, not just memories. Descartes says that our identity is continuous,never changes and never really dies. Which is an extreme contrast to what Lockebelieves to be true. Descartes believes that there is a connection between themind and body where sensations are transferred and that allows us to identifyour body as our own. “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is presentin a ship, but that I am very closely joined, and, as it were, intermingledwith it, so that I and the body form a unit” (Descartes, 116).
He goes on that“it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist withoutit” (Descartes, 115). For Descartes consciousness refers to the mind alone andnot the body, and it is the mind – consciousness – that gives us identity, notmemories.