Theory of John Locke


The philosopher John Locke believed that there are no innate ideas and during birth, our mind is like a “blank slate”, a condition he referred to as “tabula rasa”. This blank slate is filled by experiences obtained through senses and manifestations of the things we observe. He argued that we can explain everything without referring ourselves to the innate ideas by using our senses as they are sufficient, hence making innate ideas superfluous in our lives.

On the other hand, Berkley who was a philosopher and a bishop in Ireland criticized the theories of his fellow philosophers who concentrated on realism theories. He developed subjective idealism; idealism held the idea that every object perceived to exist either relies on the mind or is the mind. Therefore, the outer universe and the matter objects cannot be deemed to be realistic in any significant good judgment.


Furthermore, Locke used the notion of simple and complex ideas to explain how human beings gain knowledge, an idea learned from Descartes. He argued that simple ideas begin from a single sense and our minds cannot disintegrate them further into smaller components. Simple ideas include the word wood and complex ideas are formed through combining a number of simple ideas. For instance; hardwood is formed by two simple ideas; green +wood that cannot be split further into simpler forms. He further argued that by using these two kinds of ideas then an individual can understand the primary and the secondary traits or qualities of an item.

He further argued that all things hold certain traits that can be categorized into either primary qualities or secondary qualities. According to Locke, primary traits are found in the item e.g. figure, volume, site of an item, etc. He believed that primary qualities are idealistic in that they are supposed to be similar to every individual.

Locke added that these qualities can be quantified using real digits and they signify the universe as it appears. On the other hand, secondary qualities are believed to be subjective as they are not similar to everyone rather they differ from one individual to the other. They refer to traits that an individual conveys to the item. For instance scent, touch and sound.

John Locke developed his theory by using these ideas and argued that our minds represent the outside universe, but do not store the exact copy of the world. Hence we experience the world through representation rather than through the primary source. For instance, the photograph is just a representation of the actual reality; similarly, our experiences are representative of the outer universe. He further argued that just because an individual can perceive things this does not necessarily mean that they exist in reality.

While Berkley in his theory, argued that people do not know whether objects exist, they can only know when an item is detected by a mind. Hence, people are supposed to think or talk of an individual mind being able to perceive the existence of an item because we cannot know that an object exists for real. Therefore, we only understand objects as our minds perceive them, but we cannot confirm whether they exist for sure in the world.

On the issue of the outer world’s existence, Berkley argued that the outer universe exists, but it is difficult to obtain any reliable understanding of it, mainly because our understanding is usually restricted to our mental perception. He further added that common objects such as sand, fruits, books, etc do exist in the world, however, he had the view that only the immaterialist description of these items is available to evade cynicism concerning their being and character.

Berkley believed that objects exist as a bunch or group of ideas in our minds and that’s the only thing that humans understand or know hence we talk or think of them being in existence. Therefore, we cannot for “real” confirm the existence of these objects as they are perceived in our minds inform of ideas. For instance, an individual’s knowledge of an orange does not stand for something exterior to him rather interior, hence concluded by saying that objects exist according to the way our mind perceives them.

Berkley argued that before objects are perceived by our minds at a given place in time, they keep on existing since they are observed by God‘s mind, which is endless. He took this view in order to end the sort of cynicism recommended by Descartes to be used on the outer world. Therefore, all objects exist and remain in existence whether people are there or not because they are perceived by the endless mind of God. More so, we learn ideas that we hold from other ideas that exist in the world as our mind perceives hence they are different from one individual to another.

Similarities of the two theories

Both Locke and Berkley agreed on the notion that the outside world does exist and this world had an influence on the ideas that people hold concerning various objects. Berkley to prove the existence of an outside world using the view that “ideas resemble ideas” therefore the ideas that we hold in our minds are similar to some other ideas found elsewhere i.e. the outer universe. He refuted materialistic objects that exist in this world and argued that only ideas are present in this world. He further added that in order to maintain some order and sense in this world, some force must be in existence and Berkley argues that it must be God by whose power everything exists.

On the other hand, Locke argued that the outside consists of the physical objects that are perceived by our minds as ideas. He argued that there are simple and complex ideas and people’s minds try to understand the outer world through the simple ideas which make up the complex ideas. He further said that objects have both the primary and the secondary qualities used to identify them. Finally, he argued that our mind does not duplicate the outside world rather represents a copy of what is present in this world.

Persuasive theory

Therefore, the Berkley theory of subjective idealism seems more persuasive as it incorporates even the divine force of God that works in many situations in people’s lives rather than assuming a kind of cynicism on the outer world as recommended by Locke and Descartes. More so, we learn ideas from other ideas that exist in the outer world just as we perceive them.

On the other hand, Locke’s theory of representative faced criticism from Berkley who argued that Locke did not fully utilize the “Ockham’s razor” on his theory. Hence the theory is not complete and relevant in some of its arguments. Berkley argued that it is difficult to identify an item by using its primary qualities because these traits are also prejudiced just like secondary qualities; Thereby, rejecting Locke’s idea of the primary and secondary traits. Berkley objected to the arguments by saying temperature, size, sound, etc which are primary qualities are subjective as different people perceive them differently hence one cannot identify an object completely by relying on these traits. This criticism makes Locke’s theory questionable and not satisfactorily persuasive.


Berkley George, A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, New York: McGraw-hill publishers, 1710.

Locke John, an essay concerning human understanding, oxford: oxford university press 1841.

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