The Argument for Empiricism
IS IT STILL POSSIBLE for us to feel the significance of a moment, out of the waning years of the seventeenth century, when, for perhaps the first time, a thinker dared to situate the source of all thought in experience? "Let us then suppose the Mind to be," he says, "white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless Fancy of Man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety?" Or, to put it more formally: "Whence has it all the materials of Reason and Knowledge?" For our author there can be but one source. "From Experience: In that, all our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives it self."
We know that this was not, in fact, the first instance of empiricism. Already there had been Gassendi and Hobbes. 1 But the author of An Essay concerning Human Understanding could offer something not to be found in either of his predecessors: a new concept of experience. What Locke proposed, however, was not just a new concept of experience. He also made sweeping claims for its philosophical significance. And here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, the radical force of the Essay becomes apparent. Because if one accepts its argument, it does not simply add a new province to the realm of philosophical inquiry. Instead, it simultaneously abolishes many others and ultimately seeks to transform our whole sense of philosophy itself.
We feel its radically destructive tendency most strongly in its opening analogy. Having a mind that is "white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas" is, in effect, tantamount to not having a mind at all. We become conscious of having a mind only when we have an idea of some kind. Possession of an idea makes us conscious of thinking it, which leads in turn to an awareness of mind. Thus, without the presence of some idea, we wouldn't even know whether we possessed a mental faculty. Nor would we ever be likely to consider the question. Simply posing a question about something necessitates that we have some conception of it. And that would in turn produce an awareness of mind. What Locke is trying to describe, then, is a condition that precedes any awareness of mind.