The Knowledge of God (The Knowledge of God (Annotated) Book 1)

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Knowledge is grasping the truth of a proposition, seeing that a proposition is true. An important consequence of this view is that it pushes back against the claim that all knowledge is of an a priori nature for Locke.

His definition in and of itself merely says that knowledge is grasping the truth of a proposition. We might perceive the truth of some propositions using a priori methods, as happens in mathematics.

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However, there might be other ways of perceiving the truth of a proposition and so coming to knowledge. Though both Mattern and Soles emphasize this consequence of their view, neither develops in detail how Locke might think we perceive the truth of the kinds of existential propositions known in sensitive knowledge.

Ideas, according to Yolton, are acts rather than objects. With his direct perception interpretation in the background, Yolton is positioned to say that sensitive knowledge can be a perception of agreement between an idea and a really existing thing itself.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

Section 1 explored what Locke takes knowledge of the external world to be, its content and the means by which it is achieved. Knowledge of the external world, however, is often best known for its perplexing relationship with skepticism. Locke himself is well aware of skeptical worries about the external world. Each time he brings up sensitive knowledge in the Essay , he follows his introduction of the topic with a discussion of skeptical worries. Second, Locke believes that sensitive knowledge is not susceptible to practical doubt.

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Even if one says that one doubts that the external world exists, sensory experience unfailingly guides human actions. That is, no one can act as if they doubted what their senses tell them about the external world.

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Third, Locke seems to think that the skeptic, at least in her stronger forms, is self-undermining. Some of these reasons commonly crop up in discussions of skepticism in the early modern period from Descartes to Hume.

The first reason that Locke offers is that sensations depend on having senses. People without the requisite sensory organs fail to have the relevant ideas. So, it would seem that an external object to the senses is necessary for sensations.

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To a skeptic, this is not likely to be especially convincing. After all, the skeptic doubts the very basis of claims that we have sensory organs or that sensory organs themselves are not sufficient for sensations—sense-based observations. The second reason Locke offers as concurrent with sensitive knowledge is that sensations are manifestly different than other forms of thought, such as memory or imagination.

As we saw above in section 2. One way that Locke makes this point vivid concerns our passivity in sensory experience. We can neither produce a sensory experience at will nor prevent ourselves from having a sensory experience at will. When you look up the hall with open eyes it is not up to you whether you see a crimson water fountain.

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Your mind is simply acted upon. By contrast, we do often exercise voluntary control over memories. We recall previous thoughts and experiences and create new things in thought at will. A skeptic could, of course, question the force of this reason.

The skeptic may point out that we could be passive in sensory experience in our dreams and hallucinations, or because we are disembodied brains in vats. Indeed, the skeptic may insist, we may be wholly non-physical minds subject to the whims of a malicious demon. The third concurrent reason Locke offers concerns the special connection between sensory experience and pleasure and pain. Locke points out that pleasure and pain are uniquely connected to sensory experience.

The value of this reply and its more precise argument against the skeptic will be explored below in section 3. The final, and fourth concurrent reason Locke offers is a very familiar one.


Our senses, Locke points out, tend to confirm and mutually support one another. We can touch what we see to verify that what we see really exists. Again, this sort of consideration is not on its own decisive against a skeptic. After all, a malicious demon could arrange the same sort of consistency. However, this kind of consideration can be regarded as a concurrent reason to our sensitive knowledge insofar as the mutual support of our senses is a point that can be part of a larger case in favor of the existence of an external world.

Perhaps the best explanation—if not the only possible explanation—of both our passivity and the coherence of our sensations is that an external world is the cause of them. That raises a question about sensitive knowledge itself. Does Locke think that instances of sensitive knowledge themselves rest on any reasons?

Do we infer the existence of some thing distinct from our minds on the basis of some premise concerning the ideas we have at the time? If Locke does think that sensitive knowledge is based on some reasons, he never clearly articulates what those reasons are or how they are acquired.

Perhaps, then, sensitive knowledge is non-inferential and not based on any reasons. Shelley Weinberg has developed an account of sensitive knowledge as non-inferential. Indeed, a non-inferential view of sensitive knowledge seems to fit neatly with the contrast observed in section one above which Locke draws between sensitive and demonstrative knowledge. Demonstrative knowledge, recall, is knowledge achieved by reasoning from premises. A consequence of taking sensitive knowledge to be non-inferential is that the skeptic cannot be proven wrong—we cannot prove the existence of an external world even if we know it to exist in sensitive knowledge.

These concurrent reasons at best make it probable that the external world exists. The concurrent reasons Locke offers, then, are not intended to provide a decisive defeat of the skeptic as part of a proof of the external world. Instead, they provide what Locke takes to be the strongest rational support possible. In addition to emphasizing the special connection between sensory experience, on the one hand, and pleasure and pain, on the other, Locke repeatedly remarks that skepticism can be cured by fire.

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For he that sees a candle burning, and hath experimented the force of its flame by putting his finger in it will little doubt that this is something existing without him which does him harm and puts him to great pain: which is assurance enough when no man requires greater certainty to govern his actions by that what is as certain as his actions themselves. A skeptic, for example, may deny that the glass furnace exists, but if she sticks her hand into the furnace she will irresistibly act on the deliverances of her senses.

She will move her hand away from where she perceives the furnace to be, betraying that she in fact accepts what her senses tell her about the world. For the purposes of guiding her action, then, even the skeptic takes the deliverances of her senses to be real. How strong this serves as a rejoinder to the skeptic is not immediately clear. Or, perhaps more strongly, the skeptic may reply that though they are compelled to assent to what the senses convey, such assent is not rational or reasonable.

It is more like a reflex than an action.

Jennifer Nagel has argued that Locke anticipates this kind of response from the skeptic. Locke, according to Nagel, argues that all it is to treat something as really existing is to treat it as action guiding. Locke, in other words, might be taken to collapse the distinction between real existence and real for practical purposes of guiding our action with respect to pleasure and pain. Insofar as our senses provide a guide to securing pleasures and avoiding pains, the senses fulfill their purposes and achieve all the knowledge we can reasonably hope for.

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A skeptic, then, who hopes for more knowledge over and above guidance with respect to pleasure and pain simply demands too much. That is all there is to knowledge of real existence. Ultimately, a reply to skepticism based on collapsing real existence with action guidance is only as strong as that collapse.