This unit examines a competing theory, the empiricism of John Locke (1632-1704), founder of British empiricism. Locke is known for his notion that there is no such thing as mind; there is only matter. Sensations become transformed, through experiences, into ideas, mental contents, and mind. Locke directly opposes the German School of Leibnitz and the claim that mind is real and present at birth. 1

AS YOU READ, ATTEMPT TO ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS: 1. Why was Locke considered the founder of British empiricism?

2. What is meant by the "tabula rasa?"

3. What implications does the "tabula rasa" concept have for the political movements of England, America, and France?

4. Why is British empiricism sometimes referred to as sensationalism? Connectionism?

5. What is the difference between primary qualities and secondary qualities?

6. How do simple ideas become transformed into complex ideas?

Locke was born during the reign of Charles I of England. He attended Westminster School in London and lived close enough to Whitehall to witness the beheading of Charles I. During most of Locke's maturing years, political disturbances and civil revolutions were common. The beheading of Charles I at Whitehall marked the beginning of the English revolution and the reign of Oliver Cromwell.

After the time of Cromwell, during the reign of Charles II, a liberal movement began in England. Those advocating popular rights, toleration of dissenters, and parliamentary powers of the crown were known as Whigs. Later, they became known as "liberals." John Locke was an important member of this group. And his political philosophy clearly influenced his epistemology. He was an empiricist, an environmentalist, and he vigorously advanced the notion that the mind is a blank tablet at birth, a tabula rasa, on which experience etches its record. The experienced mind is the emerging mind. All individuals had the same mental equipment at birth, and differences among individuals were said to reflect the varying experiences of their background rather than the genetic composition of their forefathers. Innate ideas were rejected.

Empiricism. In general, Locke maintained that all contents of the mind came through the senses, with the exception of certain ideas which were formed by mental processes. Most ideas began as simple ideas representing sensations from experience. Apparently Locke (Durant, v. 8, p. 584) meant four different things by "idea:" (1) impression on senses (sensation); (2) internal awareness of these sensations (perception); (3) image of memory of the sensations (idea); and (4) general or abstract (concept). It was Francois Bermer and Gassendi in 1675 who introduced Locke to the idea of the tabula rasa and the phrase, "There is nothing in the mind except what was first in the sense (Durant, v. 8, p. 577)."

In order to account for complex ideas, the simple ideas had to get connected together to form complex ideas. This is why most empiricistic philosophers are also called "connectionistic." There has to be some connection between one simple idea and another to form a complex idea. For example, leaf plus bark plus limbs equals the complex idea of tree. How are the connections bound together to produce a larger idea? They get associated together through various means e.g.the laws of association elaborated on by subsequent philosophers.

The prevailing political climate of the times paralleled these notions of Locke. The Whigs opposed the idea of "divine rights of kings" -- that certain persons possess inherent power or privilege over others. They eagerly established a representative form of government wherein elected individuals ruled the people. Parliamentary forms of government were thereby given more power than were the monarchs. The Glorious Revolution in England, at the end of the century, advanced another form of equality (Trevelyan, 1930, p. 108). When the Whigs brought William and Mary to a dual throne, which marked the first example of men's and women's liberation, Mary, an Englishman, was entitled to the throne. William, her German husband, was also entitled to the same throne. Not to minimize either person, the two were asked to rule jointly. Equality among the people and between the sexes was the order of the day. In one more century the American and French revolutions put a capstone on this development.

In summary, the seventeenth century was politically liberal. But the century was also filled with religious controversy, especially in England, where an increasing number of religious groups, Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and a myriad of protestant sects existed.

Henry More and the Cambridge Platonists negatively stimulate Locke.

Locke was a tutor in Christ Church College at Oxford; but he never became a minister. He was a Latitudinarian (Cranston, 1957, p. 127), part of an Oxford movement, which branched off from the Church of England during the 1630's, the decade of Locke's birth. This religious group was both royalist and Cambridge Platonist. Henry More, one of the leaders of this group, was a fellow at Christ's College in 1639 and a resident there his entire life. He must have had some contact with Locke. More began with the premise that the soul exists and, therefore, the soul must also have extension. This position is basic to all psychological measurement and this is the germ for both Herbart and Thorndike. That which has extension can be measured. If something exists it exists in some amount, and if it exists in some amount it must be measurable. Fechner finally got both soul and measurement together by the converse -- because the soul can be measured via sensations it must have extension and, therefore, must exist.

Although the question of force and movement did not enter psychology as major concepts until psychoanalysis and behaviorism, it is worth noting that the controversy surrounding these concepts had roots in the seventeenth century. More, really attacking the materialists and mechanists, Hobbes and Descartes, believed that if the universe followed mechanical laws, then objects would fly off the face of the earth. Since you can't explain gravitation and magnetism by mechanical laws, the universe must possess some kind of universal soul or spiritual force that accounts for motion. Later, Newton attempted to account for mechanical motion by gravitation and his laws of movement. And Mueller, much later, rejected the mechanical view of Newton in the nineteenth century, only to be rejected by his student Helmholtz, who returned again to Newtonian mechanics as a basis for physiological theory. Both Freud and Watson adopted similar mechanistic conceptions. The mechanistic-vitalistic controversy appears to go on through continuing cycles, and is today represented by Maslow and other humanists who attack mechanistic psychology.

Robert Boyle encouraged a search for one basic reality.

A major scientists of this period was Robert Boyle. Locke and a few of his friends at Oxford dominated the science of the day. Locke, Newton, and Boyle, were philosopher, physicist and chemist, and the "creators of modern mechanistic empiricism (More, 1944, p. 180)," as Boyle's biographer characterized them. Robert Boyle, a leading physicist-chemist, argued for theory over practice, in his book entitled The Sceptical Chymist. Chemistry had emerged by three different routes, each route a program for practical action (A. Wolf, 1959, p. 323): (1) First, alchemy was the search for the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life; (2) iatro-chemistry, or medicinal chemistry, was furthered by Paracelsus and von Helmont to aid the sick; and (3) chemistry of the mining industry was exemplified by Bauer (1949-1555). Practical needs inaugurated each of these approaches to chemistry, a point of view which would have delighted a Descartes. Boyle, however, argued that chemistry should be "scientific" and a part of "natural philosophy," rather than an empirical art searching for new metals and medicines. Boyle, the first basic or pure researcher, objected to practical exploitation for its own sake.

As a good alchemist, Boyle searched tirelessly for the one underlying element in the universe. Alchemists believed in the existence of such a single, basic element. Variations in the appearance and characteristics of physical bodies are simply different combinations of this one element. Man was continually searching for some fixed principle underlying life and the universe. The principle in the seventeenth century was corpuscles, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was "atoms," and in the twentieth century it was "ions," or "quanta," or "waves." Boyle, concentrating his attentions on "air," discovered it was essential for "life" and for combustion. One of Boyle's laboratory assistants, Robert Hooke, provided experimental proof in 1664 of these facts. He demonstrated that when air is compressed in a closed vessel, the amount of time a lamp burns or a mouse lives is increased. In 1664, Hooke discovered that air is necessary for the growth of plants. In 1667-68 he discovered that the arterial blood leaving the heart with air is brighter than the venous blood entering the heart without air. Here, at last, was evidence that a-microscopic element, every bit as elusive and ephemeral as spirits, actually produces transformations in life. If invisible elements, such as air in the body, can change the weight, color, and appearance of matter, cannot the spirits in the nervous system change the movements of man?

Aristotle had originally based his "element" theory on the four Ionian elements of earth, water, air, and fire. Later, the alchemists under Paracelsus reduced this theory to three elements (sulphur, mercury, and salt). (Wolf, 1959, p. 326). Boyle, however, returned again to the notion of one element.

Corpuscular theory could not easily account for the transformation of matter into mind.

These four elements constitute in various ways the history of philosophy. The nature of elements was most commonly expressed by what be came known as the "corpuscular" theory, from the Latin word "corpus," meaning body. Corpuscles were residues from the heating of irreducible elements, atoms, molecules, or substances (according to the E.B., 1974). A corpuscle was a small body or "any very minute particle in a cell (Chambers)." In more modern usage, at least by J. J. Thomson, corpuscle referred to what was identified by G. J. Stoney in 1891 as electrons. These electrons, considered "corpuscles," were in relation to an atom as the head of a pin is to the dome of St. Paul's cathedral. Technically, they are considered to be negative electricity of the magnitude of 1/2000 of a hydrogen atom.

The history of science has witnessed two competing theories of light-- the corpuscular theory and the wave theory. The corpuscular theory was proposed by Pythagoras, the wave theory by Plato. In the seventeenth century, Descartes advocated a fluid (liquid or wave) theory of light, Newton advocated the corpuscular theory. The two theorists were frequently challenged.

The English school of Newton and Locke opposed the wave theory. The English consistently held to a materialistic and elementaristic point of view, similar to the tradition of Democritus and Epicurus in Greece and to Hobbes their modern equivalent in England. The English held that little bits and pieces of atoms or particles underlay the world. Any function must have some underlying substance; you had to stop at some concrete place lest, through infinite divisibility, you divide things to a point of no return. Leibnitz had made monads infinitely divisible, and thereby placed the world in a position so perilous that substance, stability, or absolute function all but disappeared. Newton's world, on the other hand, was real, solid, and concrete. In his common-sense approach, the motion of the sun and the stars in the heavens followed the same laws as apples and carriages in the side yard. This down-to-earth approach was immensely appealing to the practical English mind.

In his theories of motion, light, and matter, Newton furthered elementaristic theory when he proposed that the ultimate element is a corpuscle. Bits of matter emanated from a light source; ". . . innumerable tiny particles traveling in straight lines through empty space (Durant, v. 8, p. 536)." The basic philosophical problem was motion, for which Newton developed his thermodynamic mechanical laws (rest; change of direction; and equal reaction). To account for this force, he introduced the concept of gravitation; the amount of force was related to the mass and the distance between masses. But gravitation was just another word (thought Leibnitz), or too mechanical (thought Berkeley), or another occult force (thought Fontenelle); and so, in Newton's second edition, God becomes the prime move and "corrector" of the erratic in nature.

This corpuscular theory, however, was inadequate to explain blocked light. If light is made of corpuscles, then light should stop when it hits an object in its path. Not so. When light is blocked, it seems to change into diffused light -- a nimbus surrounding opaque objects, refraction through water, or dispersion through translucent surfaces. Competing theories, however, more adequately explained all of these phenomena.

Descartes, Thomas Young, and the Dutch astronomer Huygens, under whom Leibnitz had studied, championed the wave theory. The work of Newton, however, overshadowed the wave theory which remained dormant until the end of the nineteenth century. Its popularity has increased only recently. Corpuscular theory returns again, however, with the concept of the photon -- "a light quantum (which) may be considered as a coherent train of waves, that is one without abrupt discontinuities of phase, or as a particle of mass. . . (Chambers, 1958. p. 639)."

In philosophy, John Locke capitalized on Newton's popular corpuscular theory of matter and constructed a psychological theory of sensation. If corpuscular matter could be sensed, then it was necessary for the corpuscles to become either internalized, transformed, or both. How could this occur? One plausible solution to this dilemma was the distinction made by Galileo between primary and secondary qualities of objects. Newton contributed to this "Hellenistic" dualism when he explained vision. He followed Galileo's distinction between powers outside the body and corresponding vibrations inside the mind. The English associationist, Thomas Hartley, later gave elaboration to this point of view. The corpuscles, presumably active parts of matter, could initiate secondary qualities, i.e., mental attributes. This distinction between primary and secondary qualities was not unique; it followed a long tradition from Magnus, Aquinas, Descartes, Galileo, Hobbes, and Boyle.


Although Locke's materialistic ideas can be traced back to Epicurus, Aristotle, and through Thomas Hobbes, he is, nevertheless, considered to be the founder of British empiricism because he reintroduced Aristotle's notion of the tabula rasa and because his whole psychology is based on the notion that the mind is made up of experiences. Locke had inaugurated what became known as British empiricism, the dominant British philosophy for the next 200 years, one of the longest and most influential systems by such well known men as Berkeley, Hume, Hartley, and the Mills. The major philosophers after Locke were Berkeley, Hume, in that order, and they influence psychology primarily because of their ontology, the nature of reality. Locke had said that mind was made from matter. Berkeley turned this around to say that matter was really a product of the mind. Hume threw out both points of view by eventually denying that either matter or mind existed. Hartley and the Mills, the subject of the next module, are important to psychology chiefly as exponents of important but slightly differing viewpoints about epistemology, specifically the doctrine of associationism, or how the simple ideas get connected together.


1. Locke grew up during a time when there was a __________ movement in England.
a. Conservative
b. Liberal
c. Religious
d. Cultural

2. The phrase "tabula rasa" refers to:
a. raised table
b. clear table
c. writing tablet
d. blank tablet

3. The Whigs and the English liberal movement at the middle of the seventeenth century advocated political ideas quite similar to Locke's psychological ideas, that:
a. there are divine rights for kings
b. people learn through practical experiences
c. people differ depending upon the characteristics which they inherit from their progenitors.
d. people are the same because no major inherited differences exist.

4. The mechanistic empiricists of the seventeenth century were:
a. Locke
b. Newton
c. More
d. Boyle

5. The idea of the tabula rasa first from:
a. Plato
b. Aristotle
c. Bacon
d. Locke

6. Complex ideas, according to Locke:
a. come from simple ideas
b. are associations of simple ideas
c. originate through insight
d. are based on sensations.

7. Empiricism maintains that:
a. simple ideas come from complex ideas
b. knowledge is intuitive
c. knowledge comes from the senses
d. learning is inductive

8. Connectionistic theories maintain that:
a. complex ideas are intuitive
b. simple ideas get associated together
c. learning occurs according to the laws of association
d. the mind is made up of simple impressions or ideas

9. Rocks, sticks, and stones are:
a. primary qualities
b. secondary qualities
c. the result of deductive thinking
d. based on sensations

Two or fewer wrong, go on to Module 5.
Three or more wrong, do exercises .


1. Locke believed that the mind was a blank tablet, which was known as a: _________________.

2. The Cambridge Platonists under Henry More believed that something similar to Newton's gravitation held the world together, and they called it ______________________________________.

3. Descartes and others believed that science should deal with practical problems. __________________ however, believed that science should concentrate solely on pure research.

4. The significance of Boyle's discoveries about air was that air:
a. Was made up of oxygen and hydrogen
b. Could be compressed into very tight compartments
c. Although invisible, was necessary for life and fire

5. Numerous attempts were made to discover the nature of underlying reality. There were various suggestions -- air, atoms, corpuscles, particles; but the British empiricists thought it was something tangible like "corpuscles." Locke believed that reality was________________________________ ______________________________ ________.

6. Locke's corpuscular theory of the mind was that ideas were formed from the impressions of material phenomenon. On this, he was following Galileo's distinction between:
a. Mind and matter
b. Primary and secondary qualities
c. Nativism and empiricism
d. Rest and motion

7. Galileo's distinction between primary and secondary qualities referred to the fact that sensations were ______________________________qualities and extension and weight were_______ qualities.


6. B
4. C
1. Tabula Rasa
7. Secondary, primary
2. Soul
3. Boyle
5. Tangible




1. Locke's notion of the mind emphasized that:
a. the mind contains innate ideas
b. the mind has nothing in it at birth
c. the mind develops through experience
d. everyone's mind is the same at birth.

2. Latitudinarians under Henry More at the time of Locke believed that:
a. the soul had an independent existence
b. the soul could be measured
c. everything was matter
d. there was a universal soul or force that accounts for motion.

3. Boyle was the first person to argue that science should be:
a. applied
b. practical
c. engaged only in pure research
d. an empirical art.

4. Physicists during the seventeenth century believed that matter was made up of:
a. gold
b. tiny elements
c. corpuscles

5. John Locke based his psychological theory on the popular __________ theory of matter.
a. corpuscular
b. wave
c. mechanistic
d. integrative

6. The founder of British empiricsm was:
a. Locke
b. Berkeley
c. Hume
d. Descartes

7. What is the first major century in our study of modern philosophy?
a. 16th
b. 17th
c. 18th
d. l9th

8. Dreams are:
a. primary qualities
b. secondary qualities
c. explained by Locke's theories
d. are major concepts in British empiricism.

ANSWERS Return to the Table of Contents for Unit 3

7 or more right, GO TO MODULE 5