What Was John Locke’s Epistemology?


Martha Robinson

John Locke was a prominent philosopher of the 17th century, known for his contributions to the fields of epistemology and political philosophy. His theories on knowledge and the limits of human understanding have had a profound impact on modern thought, and continue to be studied and debated today.

Locke’s epistemology is rooted in the belief that all knowledge comes from experience. This idea, known as empiricism, stands in contrast to rationalism, which holds that some knowledge can be gained through reason alone. According to Locke, the human mind is a blank slate at birth (a concept he called “tabula rasa”), and all ideas are derived from sensory experiences.

Locke’s Theory of Ideas

Locke’s theory of ideas is at the heart of his epistemology. He believed that there are two types of ideas: simple and complex.

Simple ideas are those that cannot be broken down into smaller parts, such as colors or sounds. Complex ideas, on the other hand, are made up of combinations of simple ideas.

For example, the idea of a tree is a complex idea made up of various simple ideas such as color, shape, texture, etc. Locke argued that all complex ideas can ultimately be traced back to simple ideas.

Locke also distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are properties that exist in objects themselves, such as shape and size. Secondary qualities, on the other hand, are properties that exist only in our perception of objects, such as color and taste.

The Limits of Human Understanding

While Locke believed that all knowledge comes from experience, he also recognized that there are limits to what humans can understand. He argued that our senses provide us with only a limited view of reality, and therefore we can never know things with absolute certainty.

One example he gave was our perception of distance. We perceive distance through visual cues such as size and position, but these cues can be misleading. For example, an object that is far away may appear small, but we know that it is not actually smaller than a nearby object of the same size.

Locke’s Influence

Locke’s ideas on empiricism and the limits of human understanding have had a profound impact on modern philosophy. His emphasis on the importance of experience in gaining knowledge has informed many fields beyond philosophy, including psychology and education.

His political philosophy has also been influential, particularly his belief in natural rights and limited government. Locke argued that all individuals have certain natural rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property. He believed that governments should exist to protect these rights, and that they should be limited in their power to do so.


John Locke’s epistemology is based on the idea that all knowledge comes from experience. He believed that simple ideas are the building blocks of complex ideas, and that our senses provide us with a limited view of reality. Despite these limitations, Locke’s emphasis on natural rights and limited government continue to influence modern political thought.