The Empiricists phi205 The Empiricists Module Convener

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The Empiricists

PHI205 The Empiricists

Module Convener

Dr Niall Connolly

Office hours: Mondays 3-4 & Tuesdays 3-4

Structure of the Course

Two one-hour lectures every week from week 1 to week 11, plus a one-hour seminar every week from week 3 to week 11.

Lecture Times and Locations:

Mon 11-12 - Mappin LT11
Mon 1-2 - Hicks LT6

Seminar Times and Locations:

Fri 12-1 - Hicks Room F35
Fri 1-2 - RRB- A84 [Richard Roberts Building]


Two coursework essays: A Mid-term assessment essay (25%) due 12 NOON Tue 17th March 2015 and an end of semester essay (25%) due 12 NOON Wed 20th May 2015. Plus two questions in a two-hour, pre-released examination at the end of the module (50%)

Course Description

This course focuses on the work of three major figures in the history of philosophy whose ideas have continuing relevance to contemporary debates: the so-called British Empiricists Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

Empiricism, roughly, is the doctrine that everything we know is derived from experience. Locke, Berkeley and Hume each endorse some form of this doctrine. But from a similar starting point they end up in very different places.

The course will examine the ideas and arguments of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. It will pay attention to the historical context but also it will investigate the continuing influence and relevance of the empiricists’ theories and arguments, and look at recent answers to the questions framed by Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

Debates about knowledge, perception, language, the mind and personal identity, causation and natural laws all exhibit the influence of these seminal thinkers.

Topics Covered

The rough plan for the lectures is to start with a clarification of ‘empiricism’ particularly in comparison with the ‘rationalism’ of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. Locke’s attack on the suggestion that there are innate ideas and principles seems to be intended as a challenge to rationalist suppositions. We will investigate whether Locke’s arguments succeed against their intended target and whether they are relevant to more recent forms of innatism/nativism.

Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, on which the Locke lectures will focus, seeks to ‘enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent’ (Essay BkI, ch I). Locke saw himself as laying the philosophical groundwork for the scientific advances of Newton and Boyle. Reality as revealed by the new science is very different from the world as we experience it. This discrepancy is explained by the distinction between Primary and Secondary Qualities. We will examine Locke’s explanation and defense of this distinction and Berkeley’s attack on it.

Berkeley was Locke’s most vociferous critic. When he didn’t deny Locke’s assumptions he used them to draw conclusions that would be wholly unwelcome to Locke. Two central planks (apparently) of Locke’s philosophy are the role of ideas – for Locke an idea is ‘whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks’ (Essay BkI, ch I) – and a representational theory of perception according to which we the immediate objects of perception are not external material bodies but ideas. We will investigate Locke’s view of perception and criticisms of the representational theory.

The next topic from Locke is the topic of Personal Identity. Locke’s discussion of the Personal Identity question - what is it for a person at a given time to be one and the same person as a person at an earlier time – still sets the agenda for discussion of this question.

We will also cover Locke’s account of abstraction and Berkeley’s criticism. Our sense experience, the source of all our knowledge and concepts for Locke, is made up of specific ideas – the idea of this red patch I’m now seeing for instance. Locke seeks to explain how we come to have abstract general ideas like ‘red’ or ‘triangle’. Berkeley argues there are no such things.

Locke’s views on Language and meaning will be the next topic. Locke’s theory of meaning – ‘Words in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing, but the

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