Modern Philosophy

Essay Topics on the Epistemology of British Empiricism

Under Parts I - IV, you will be asked to write on A or B. Aim for accuracy, relevancy, clarity, and incisiveness. Responses to the exam questions will be written in class on the third class after the exam is distributed. Before the exam, students are to provide the instructor with signed, blank blue books. At the time of the exam, the blue books will be distributed and students will write their responses in pencil or pen.

I. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding

A. Locke distinguishes simple ideas and complex ideas. In relation to simple ideas, he distinguishes primary and secondary qualities, and in relation to complex ideas, he discusses the shift from passive reception to active formation. What does he mean by suggesting that primary, but not secondary, qualities resemble their objects, and how does Locke's voluntarism pertain to the manner in which complex ideas arise out of simple ideas?

B. Locke's epistemology and political philosophy both relate to his philosophy of language. For Locke, language is ideational, conventional, and voluntaristic. How does Locke's ideational theory of meaning, coupled with his voluntarism, relate words not univocally to external objects but to each individual's various ideas about things, and what is the anti-authoritarian and liberal intent of his philosophy of language?

II. Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge

A. Berkeley criticizes Locke's account of abstract ideas and distinction between primary and secondary qualities in his rejection of the concept of material substance. Unlike Locke's affirmation of material substance and ambiguity regarding spiritual substance, Berkeley affirms that spirit is the only substance. How does his position represent a radicalization of Locke's epistemology, and what does he mean by suggesting that "esse is percepi"?

B. In his denial of material substance, Berkeley argues that even if a material substrate exists we could not know it. However, he does not claim that what we call objects do not exist when no human is perceiving them. How does he use the distinction between sense and reason to argue against the hypothesis of material substance, and what role does God play in accounting for ideas in relation to the occurrence and absence of human's perceiving them?

III. Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

A. Hume distinguishes relations of ideas and matters of fact. On this basis, no system can have both certainty of its conclusions and reference to the world, i.e., formal systems are certain but only analytic and empirical hypotheses are synthetic but only probable. What are the epistemological differences between relations of ideas and matters of fact, and how does Hume's view alter the understanding of claims of traditional religion and classical physics?

B. Hume sees the concepts of free will and cause as metaphysical constructs which result from invalid inferences about human action and natural events, respectively. How does his assessment of liberty and necessity serve as a critique of arguments for moral responsibility and physical determinism, and what is his critique of people who try to affirm both universal laws of nature and miracles of divine intervention?

IV. Comparison of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume

A. In the epistemology of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, the concept of substance undergoes progressive erosion. Locke only has ideas of primary qualities resemble material substances, Berkeley only accepts the reality of perceivers as the spiritual substances in which ideas occur, and Hume finds insufficient evidence for concepts of substance. What is the logical progression in their criticisms of substance, and how is each critique empiricist?

B. In the epistemology of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, sense experience is the point of departure in accounting for human knowledge. However, they give attention not only to sense but also to reason. What degree of reliability does each give to the data of sense experience, and how does the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume result in limitations on the operation of reason that are not found in the metaphysics of Continental Rationalism?