Epistemology or, in other words, the theory of knowledge is the heart and the soul of philosophy that has been existed since the beginning of XVII century. Most of the major philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke, and David Hume dedicated the main part of their works to the epistemological study. The seemingly strange problems of modern theories of knowledge are directly linked to one of the leading cultural and intellectual features of the post-medieval world development, namely, the steady movement to a radical individualism in religion, politics, art, literature, and philosophy. In the teaching of the cognition, Descartes was the founder of rationalism that emerged as result of observation of the logical nature of mathematical knowledge. According Descartes, mathematical truth is completely true, possesses generality and necessity, arising from the nature of the intellect (Bennett 328).
In the first “Meditation”, Descartes doubts everything that unknown with certainty. He goes so far as to adopt such a strict criterion of credibility, that, ultimately, nothing but affirmation of his own existence can meet his requirements. Considering all the diversity of his beliefs, Descartes further divides them into two groups: those beliefs, which he thought he knew based on of evidence of his own feelings and those beliefs, which he believed he knew based on thinking through general concepts. Thus, in the first “Meditation” Descartes raises two major problems by means of argumentations. First one is a problem of credibility. The second one is a problem of the sources of knowledge.
Descartes proposes preliminary answers to the questions about the credibility and sources of knowledge at the end of the second “Meditation”. Concerning the problem of credibility, he proposes two criteria, two verifications of the trustworthiness reflection:
- Clear and distinct sense of the fact that he produces saying, actually, is not enough to convince him that something that he says is true.
- “Everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive is of necessity true” (Bennett 366).
Regarding the sources of our knowledge, Descartes honestly and directly takes the side of the reason rather than the side of the senses. Instead of monitoring and collecting data on the basis of vision, hearing, smell and touch, Descartes prefers to create a universal system of science, based on the logical and mathematical prerequisites, grounded by the strict deduction. To convince his readers of the primacy of reason in the process of learning, Descartes uses what is called the “mental experiment”.
Soon, discussion of the Cartesian problems resulted in conflict between two more or less-established schools of thought such as rationalist and empiricist. Thus, empiricist Locke takes advantage of a simple but very effective strategy for his attack on the argument that only the mind can give us knowledge. Instead of investigation our claims to knowledge directly, Locke proposes to ask about the source from which we take ideas that we use, setting these claims to knowledge. According to Locke, if our claims to knowledge in general make sense then these words must conform to certain ideas in our mind. Otherwise, we will simply think that we speak, but in reality we will not argue anything (Bennett 83).
According to Locke, our mind at the moment of our birth presents an empty place. He compares it with a clean sheet of paper where experience writes its letters, “Let us assume the mind to be . . . [like a] white [sheet of] paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” (“Philosophy of the Enlightenment”). So, in what way it can be filled?
The statement should mean something before we are going to put a question whether it is true or false. Philosophical books are full of arguments about truth or falsity of theological, metaphysical, and scientific theories. However, Locke’s attack nullifies all the arguments. Before the two philosophers might begin to argue about the existence of God, they have to show that their words have meaning, and, according to Locke, this means that they have to show that the words correspond in their mind to the ideas which have their basis in feelings. Thus, in his strategy concerning the source of our ideas together with the theory of the mind as a clean sheet of paper, Locke gives a new direction to the whole debate.
Although epistemological puzzles of the philosophy of XVII-XVIII centuries appear, at first glance, as strange and without any relation to intuition, they have had a profound impact on how the artists drawn, poets wrote, how theologians interpreted “the Word of God”, and even on that ways in which economists, political scientists, and sociologists explained our collective social life.
- Bennett, Jonathan Francis. Learning from Six Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- “Philosophy of the Enlightenment”. 10 May 2009 http://personal.georgiasouthern.edu/~dougt/light2.htm