Throughout history, the science of psychology has evolved from the early philosophical teachings of Plato and Socrates who believed that the mind was a separate entity from the body, which continued to exist after death, to the empiricism of John Locke, David Hume, and Francis Bacon. These early empiricists and founders of modern science viewed the mind as a blank slate; that ideas and knowledge come from our senses and experiences. Locke, Bacon, and Hume helped to develop the study of the human mind, how it functions, and how we experience events. Through the development of empiricism, the science of psychology today is now a science that studies human behavior through observation and experiment, a key principle of empiricism.
Empiricism is defined as the view that knowledge comes from experience via the senses, and that science also flourishes through observation and experiment (Myers, 2004). Francis Bacon first developed the idea that science can flourish through observations and through experiments. Francis Bacon lived from 1561 to 1626 in England during a time of tempestuous political and cultural ideas, with conflicts always arising within society. This era of political and cultural conflict not only laid the groundwork for the power England would soon gain in industry and politics, but it also laid the groundwork for the beginnings of modern empiricism. The seventeenth century was a time in which intellectual probing for a deeper understanding of the nature of things was practiced, a direct legacy of Occamist empiricism that believed knowledge and experience were synonymous (Rossi, xii). Science in England at this time focused on experience, observations, and common sense judgments. Influenced by these beliefs and teachings, Francis Bacon began to question the human mind and its failings, stating that “the human understanding, from its peculiar nature easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds (Myers, 2004).”
Bacon also conducted research on human beings’ eagerness to selectively notice and remember events that confirm our beliefs, proposing that “all superstition is much the same…in all of which the deluded believers observe events which are fulfilled, but neglect and pass over their failure, though it be much more common (Myers, 2004).” Interestingly, research on this phenomenon is still conducted today in modern psychology, which perhaps is why Francis Bacon has become known as the father of empiricism and first modern philosopher and theorist.
Once the foundation of modern science and the idea of empiricism were laid down by Francis Bacon, other philosophers in the seventeenth century were then given the chance to elaborate on and advance the study and understanding of the human mind and behavior. One such philosopher who continued the study was the very influential John Locke. John Locke was born in Somerset, England in August of 1632, at a time in which poverty, religious conflicts, and division within society was slowly giving way to an inevitable civil war (Cranston, 1957). Locke was raised in quite a political and intelligent household, with his father being a lawyer and Justice of the Peace, which presumably helped with his admission into Oxford University at the age of 20 (Cranston, 1957). While at Oxford, Locke experienced the world of academia and politics on a constant, daily basis. He also was inundated with new ideas about philosophy, particularly the ad hoc empiricism of Newton and Boyle, and the systematic rationalism of Descartes. These influences thus brought about the early ideas of Locke, mostly those regarding human understanding, the human mind, and the idea of rationalism (Cranston, 1957).
Locke proposed to “enquire into the original certainty and extent of human knowledge.” In order to examine and investigate this more extensively, he began what is now known as his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Cranston, 1957). Locke begins this famous essay with a refutation of the doctrine that certain principles are innate. Instead, he suggests that certain principles have been thought to be innate only because men cannot remember when they first learned them. He believed that human beings are born in total ignorance, and that even our theoretical ideas of identity, quantity, and substance are derived from experience (Cranston, 1957). In other words, Locke thinks of the minds as a blank slate, or tabula rasa. Instead of knowledge being innate, Locke writes “all knowledge is founded on and ultimately derives itself from sense, or something analogous to it, which may be called sensation (Cranston, 1957).”
Sensation is the basis of Locke’s argument for knowledge not being innate, but another main point in his essay is ideas and perception. Locke believes that we not only have ideas in our mind, as is traditionally thought, but that we have ideas when we see, hear, smile, taste, or feel. Basically, Locke felt that ideas are interconnected with sensation. Locke defines an idea as “the object of the understanding, whether it is a notion, an entity, or an illusion.“ There are two types of ideas in Locke’s view: those ideas which are simple, that the mind receives passively and which are perceived immediately through either external or internal senses (thought), and complex ideas, which the mind produces by exercising its own powers.
Perception is an important part of the idea stemming from sensation model that Locke proposes. According to Locke, there are three different and distinct elements of perception: the observer, the idea, and the object the idea represents (Cranston, 1957). Locke says that knowledge is “nothing but the perception of the connection of and agreement or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our ideas.” He also believes that perception is a “species of understanding,” so that ideas are based upon perceptions and what we perceive is always an idea, distinct from a thing. Locke also believes that there are different types of knowledge, such as intuitive knowledge, demonstrative knowledge, and sensitive knowledge.
Locke proposes that one’s knowledge is sometimes intuitive, such as when the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement between ideas immediately without the influence or intervention of any other ideas. An interesting caveat of this is that Locke believed that people have intuitive knowledge of their own existence, “we perceive it so plainly… that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof (Cranston, 1957).” Knowledge can also be gained through the medium of other ideas that are proposed, which is considered demonstrative knowledge. The third type of knowledge that Locke proposes is called sensitive knowledge. This type of knowledge is that which is present before our senses at any given moment and at any given time (Cranston, 1957). Whatever falls short of these types of knowledge is not knowledge according to Locke, but in fact just faith or opinion, which seem to be inferior to knowledge and the understanding of ideas. Overall, Locke believes that our knowledge of the identity and diversity of ideas extends only as far as our ideas themselves; for our knowledge of their co-existence extends only a small amount due to the fact that knowledge of any necessary connection between primary and secondary qualities is unattainable.
Just as John Locke followed in the footsteps of Francis Bacon in helping to further develop empiricism and the study of psychology, so did David Hume. David Hume was a contemporary of Locke’s who adopted his theory of ideas, but disputed them on the grounds that there was no perceptual experience that conveys the idea of self. According to Hume, the common sense certainty of one’s existence that Locke proposes and calls intuitive knowledge, does not exist, and can not be proven in terms of Lockean doctrine. It is for this reason that empiricism is said to have found its “logical completion” in the writings and studies of Hume (Herrnstein & Boring, 1966).
According to David Hume, causality can never be perceived, it is nothing but an illusion occasioned when events follow each other with regularity. This is quite different from Locke, who believed that ideas were based upon perception. Hume felt as though there was no place for the idea of causality within empiricism, if all ideas arise in experience, then the only basis for causality is the invariable sequentially of events (Herrnstein & Boring, 1966). The lasting idea that Hume proposes is that human beings learn through association and that “truth springs from an argument among friends (Myers, 2004).”
The science of psychology has developed through the combination of the study of philosophy and biology. The ideas of philosophy, particularly empiricism have contributed to the modern theory of learning, and understanding of ideas and the human mind. The studies of Francis Bacon and his use of the scientific method have contributed to the importance of observation and experiment, while the studies of John Locke have investigated and attempted to discover the origins of knowledge. Following John Locke in the true nature of science, David Hume investigated and questioned the principles set forth by Locke. Thus Hume contributed in continuing the study of human thought, perception and understanding of ideas, and the development and origins of knowledge.
Baldwin, J.M. (1913). History of psychology: From John Locke to present time. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Cranston, M. (1957). John Locke: A biography. London: Longman’s Green & Co.
Herrnstein, R. & Boring, E. (1966). A source book in the history of psychology. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Myers, D. (2004). Psychology (7th ed.). Michigan: Hope College.
Murphy, G. (1930). Historical introduction to modern psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co.Inc.
Rossi, P. (1968). From magic to science. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.