Webster’s dictionary defines the word idea as 1) something, such as a thought or conception, that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity, 2) an opinion, a conviction, or a principle, 3) a plan, scheme, or method 4) the gist of a specific situation, and 5) a notion. We have a better understanding of these definitions today because of the thoughts and writings of Descartes and John Locke. These two have very different views on the origin of ideas. Descartes is a rationalist, one who uses a method of inquiry that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge, while Locke is an empiricist, one having the attitude that beliefs are to be accepted and acted upon only if they first have been confirmed by actual experience. Their views are opposites, but they both left their mark on the concept and origin of “the idea”.
Locke believes that all our ideas come from experience. The mind has no innate ideas, it has only innate abilities. Our mind is like a clean white sheet of paper. It is experiences that fill our sheets of paper with characters and symbols (33). Locke also compares our acquisition of ideas to that of a child coming into the world. If the child grew up in a world of black and white he would know nothing (have no ideas) of a world of green or scarlet (35). Our mind can perceive, remember, desire, deliberate, and will. It is these mental activities that are themselves, which along with experience, are the source of most of the ideas we have.
Locke also claims that our senses play a major role in creating ideas. The ideas we have due to our senses are called sensation. Without sensation the mind would have nothing to operate on and therefore could have no idea of it operations. A person has to have sensation before they can truly begin to have ideas. The operations of the mind are not produced by sensation, but sensation is required to give the mind material to work on (33-34).
Just as sensation is an “internal sense”, Locke says there is another. This other “internal sense” he calls reflection. Reflection is the ideas created by the mind while reflecting on its own operations. He says that it is either sensation or reflection, the only two origins, from where ideas are created. External objects furnish the mind with ideas based on our senses (sensation), and the mind furnishes the understanding of ideas based on the operations it carries out (reflection) (34).
Descartes has a much different view on the origins of ideas. He believes that people have innate ideas, or instincts that every person is born with. From these innate ideas we must use intellect and reason to form ideas. It is not the senses and experiences that allow us to gain ideas and knowledge, but our mind and the powers within it. Descartes displays this view in meditation two on page 23:
“For since I now know that even bodies are not, properly speaking, perceived by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived through their being touched or seen, but only through their being understood, I manifestly know that nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than my own mind.”
The two opposing views on the origins of ideas by Locke and Descartes reflect their different approaches to philosophy. Locke is an empiricist. He believes that all concepts and knowledge are based on and can only be justified by experiences. Empiricism claims that knowledge derived by reasoning does not exist or is confined to “analytical truths”, which have no content. This basically says there can be no “rational” method, and the nature of the world can not be discovered through pure reason or reflection.
Descartes is a rationalist. He believes in reason and intellect as the primary source and test of knowledge. Rationalism states that there are beliefs that are justified on thought alone. It is based on mathematics and stresses deductive reasoning over all other methods. Proofs are a popular way of communicating concepts and we see these proofs a lot in Descartes’ meditations. Everything must also have a sufficient reason or that a process must occur within some substance and cannot exist by itself. These beliefs can arise from intellectual intuition, the apprehension of self-evident truth, or from deductive reasoning. Extreme rationalism goes as far to express the belief that pure thinking and reasoning can discover the truths of physical science and even history.
I consider myself more on the empiricist side of the spectrum. I believe that experience is the primary source of our ideas. I really like and understand Locke’s argument about the newborn child. If the child is raised in a world of black and white, it will never experience other colors. The child will have no innate ideas of these colors because the child doesn’t even know the colors exist. I don’t see how one could use reason and intellect to gain knowledge if there are things they haven’t experienced and therefore don’t know about.
I do agree with the rationalist view slightly in one area. Once I have experienced things and have been awakened to new ideas, I have to organize them; otherwise they would make no sense. This is where the rationalist view enters. In order to transform these primitive ideas in to knowledge I have to make connections between my experiences and ideas. This requires intellectual thought and reasoning, the basis for the rationalist view.
Experience? Reasoning? How do we develop ideas and become the people we are. Perhaps it is a combination of the two methods. The origin of ideas is a very complex issue. Two great philosophers have opposing views on how an individual from the time of birth develops ideas and transforms them into knowledge. How are we to know which one is correct? Without experience how do we develop ideas about things and without reasoning how do we put the ideas together and make sense of them so we can gain knowledge. We need both of these methods of creating ideas in order gain the most we can. Neither one is totally correct; neither one is totally wrong. It is when you combine the two, using as little or as much rationalism/empiricism as one likes to get the true origin of ideas.