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The Mind and the External World: an Oversimplified Peek into Locke’s Account

by Liminality

We go about our everyday lives experiencing what we think to be ‘the world’. One way we can understand our experiences is that there is our mind, and then there is the world outside our mind. Mind, in this case includes things we can perceive with the five senses. It is the subject that does the experiencing. John Locke created an account of the mind and its relation to the external world in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (henceforth to be called his Essay).

John Locke was a philosopher who lived in England during the 17th century. He initially studied at Christ Church, an Oxford college, after which he decided to pursue medicine. This led to his encounters with influential scientists and doctors. Today he is mainly known for his 1689 Essay. Notably, he was also involved in politics, [2] but we will be skipping over that part of his life in this article.

According to Locke, everything in our experience is an idea. We have ideas of the external world, which reside in our internal world or our mind. Locke provided a long list showing what could count as an idea. Included in his list in rapid succession are “elephant”, “army” and “drunkenness”, among other things. [1: Book 2-1-1]

Any idea we have of the external world is caused by something in the external world. We can call these things external world objects. External world objects interact with our sense organs. [1] How? Locke subscribed to mechanical philosophy, which is the theory that the behaviour of physical objects can be explained by their motion and impacts onto one another. [2] Say if an egg rolls down a hill after someone touches it, a mechanical philosopher would explain that as: the motion of the person’s finger impacted the egg and caused it to roll down the hill.

To understand how this is relevant, we also need to consider corpuscular theory, a scientific theory from that time period that Locke subscribed to. This theory was hatched by Robert Boyle, whom you will probably recognise as the namesake of Boyle’s Law. According to corpuscular theory, any bit of matter in the universe is made out of particles. Different people had different opinions on whether these particles could be further divided or if vacuums existed. [2] The upshot of this for our purposes is simply that Locke believed motion could be transferred from an external world object to our sense organs by means of corpuscles. This explains why we can receive an idea of an egg’s shape without our eyes being pressed up against it.

However, the ideas that we receive from these interactions are simple ideas. For example, the cream colour of an egg, its roundness, its smoothness is each considered a separate simple idea. Kind of like a chemist, with elements and compounds, Locke divided his world into simple ideas and complex ideas. Simple ideas could be compounded into complex ideas. To acquire an idea of an egg, we would compound all the aforementioned simple ideas to create a complex idea. [1]

This part of Locke’s account opens some potential holes regarding how accurate our perception of the external world can be. Locke holds that some of our ideas of external world objects truly resemble them, while others do not. He said the resemblant ideas were ideas of primary qualities, while the rest were called secondary qualities. [1]

To make sense of this, let us recall our cream-coloured egg. For Locke, the space that the egg takes up is a primary quality. In the external world, the egg takes up as much space as we can see with our eyes or feel with our hands. As such, our idea of the space an egg takes up resembles the space it actually takes up in the external world.

In contrast, the cream colour is a secondary quality. The way we perceive the egg’s colour (to put it poetically: a colour that reminds us of bare skin, which looks ‘natural’ and perhaps is soothing) is not how the egg truly looks in the external world. There is nothing resembling ‘cream-colour’ in the external world. There are only corpuscles that have qualities such as space, motion and shape.

What makes up a secondary quality then? Locke would say it is a particular arrangement of corpuscles. [1] An arrangement like this causes us to have an idea of an egg being a cream-coloured object. However, if we could somehow find out about what the ‘real egg’ looks like without the interference of our eyeballs, Locke thinks we would not see anything like our perception of ‘cream-colour’.

One of the problems with Locke’s account is as follows. All our ideas come to us via our sense organs, and our experience of the external world is only ideas. We never come to know what external world objects are like except through our senses. So, can we really know whether ideas resemble or do not resemble external world objects?

Think about times when what we perceive turns out to be an illusion. When we look at a straw in a glass of water, it looks as though the straw is cut in two because of the refraction of light. This is not usually a problem for us because we can use another sense, like touch, to confirm that yes, that straw is still whole. However, Locke’s account seems to allow that all our senses are feeding us illusions constantly about particular things, namely the secondary qualities. There also is no way for us to know that they are not also giving a misrepresentation of primary qualities.

Ultimately, Locke says an egg is not really the way we perceive it in our experience. Beyond what our mind perceives, there is an objective external world, wherein the ‘real egg’ exists. His distinction between primary and secondary qualities allows him to hold both of these views. The ‘real egg’ shares some traits with our idea of an egg, but not others. Something to ponder about this is whether we can know if the ‘real egg’ shares any traits with our perceptions of an egg at all, given that we cannot directly grasp the ‘real egg’.


[1] Locke, John. (2004, January 1). An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 1. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10615

[2] Uzgalis, William. (2020). "John Locke". In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/locke/

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Sun Jul 24, 2022 10:01 pm
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Kelisot wrote a review...

Oh, wow. I didn't actually expect an essay about John Locke and his proposal theorem about our sense and interaction of this external world.

I honestly wouldn't say much of "wow, that was good" or "huh, I don't get what you mean" because that would take... A lot of time. See, I'm the type of person who even eat the last crumbs of the bread even if it means licking the floor (not literally).

I honestly had no idea who John Locke was, until now when I saw Atticus's review stating that the Constitution was inspired by this man (SO EMBARRASSED AS AN AMERICAN ARGHHHH) but you're "history lesson" in the first few paragraphs were informative! Personally, I found this catchy (haha I'm a nerd I guess) for you to put some background information about the Essay.

As you talk about the Essay, as heard Locke's ideologies about our senses and objects are caused by our awareness of objects in the external world. However, I love how you also mentioned the issues of Locke's ideas can be countered and disproved. Senses eventually are affected by our cognitions and in the end, are merely illusions.

Thinking about the egg, it is possible this cream-coloured egg may have a different taste. Saying that we gave both people the same egg (to be accurate, the most similar) of the same quality to make scrambled eggs, surely, there will be multiple people saying several reactions. So that's why I find the idea of an "real egg" so bizarre-- everyone has different perspectives, ideas, and cognitive abilities, so is it really possible to find the right standard.

We also have standards too, as gourmet organizations and other companies have made their standards upon food too. But what if one sense's abilities are weaker, as we grow older? Several elderly or people of age cannot easily differenciate strongz reactive tastes such as salty and sweet (I know this from my grandma, sorry granny).

Or perhaps the idea of a glass of water. Some may say it's half full or half empty, but eventually, that all leads to our cognition. We know most sense originate from a neurological origin. Eventually, I like how Locke's idea ends with there being a world which an object is judged objectively-- but do you ever wonder how the egg would look objectively?

Our senses may be considered objective, however, they actually are subjective. A mere stimuli that our brain processes an information. I may find that chilli pepper not-so-spicy but some people may feel as if they just swallowed the sun and living an actual hell. I may feel sad simply looking at the rains, which is also a cognitive illusion— as some people do not feel melancholy from the raining, gloomy weather. Describing a weather itself gloomy itself is subjective in the first place, as that's our brain possibly thinking the weather is dark, but if objective, how would it look?

In the end, mostly everything is subjective. Although we make a standard, we must remember that our standards are mostly subjective. Therefore, our Brian's are subjective and to obtain the "true objective" informations, we must lose a part of our humaness, whether if that means our brain, mentions, and several other factors that makes me the standard of a normal human. To be honest, what even makes a human in the first place?

I loved ranting after reading this essay. I might have said a few wrong things (because I read this in night and wrote the review then continued it in the morning after sleeping), and I love if anyone would debate against or correct me if I made a contradicting claim. Thank you for the essay. This was Kelisot.

Liminality says...

Hi Kelisot! I'm glad the context paragraphs helped to set the stage for the article. I'm also glad that the general structure of the article seems to be interesting and informative enough.

So that's why I find the idea of an "real egg" so bizarre-- everyone has different perspectives, ideas, and cognitive abilities, so is it really possible to find the right standard.

I think the position you've described here is something like relativism? You seem to be saying that 'reality' is completely variable from person to person. Have you considered what if you apply the term 'reality' to those perceptions that different people have? If you do, you might end up with a theory like George Berkeley's (who I've also mentioned in my reply to Stringbean's review). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Kelisot says...

Yeah! I just searched up what relativism me at (because I never pondering philosophically deep despite my friends saying I do) and yeah, it fits my belief!
I mostly think to be accurate, there either is no universal truth or one universal truth humans cannot understand due to a contradiction of beliefs.

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Sun Jul 24, 2022 6:45 pm
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alliyah says...

Oh Locke!! I want to read this later.

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Sun Jul 24, 2022 2:54 am
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Atticus wrote a review...

Hey Lim! Atticus here with a review for you.

First, I want to acknowledge that this subject is far above my very limited understanding of philosophy. I'll give my best shot at giving you some actionable feedback that might elevate the writing slightly, but will be limited by my layman's knowledge of philosophy. I am also a little rusty in terms of reviewing, so please bear with me as I stumble through my thoughts here.

Today he is mainly known for his 1689 Essay
As an American, I am familiar with John Locke because his ideas inspired the core beliefs enumerated in the US Constitution. I assume you are not writing primarily to an American audience, so non-Americans might not be as familiar with that connection, but it couldbe worth including. It's a modern connection to a three and a half century old idea.

Different people had different opinions on whether these particles could be further divided or if vacuums existed.
I would cut this sentence. It's an interesting thought, but doesn't support your main point.

I appreciated your example of the egg to illustrate your general ideas. Although, between this and the other philosophical ideas that have been made concrete through the example of an egg (the hypostatic union and Andy Weir's short story, for instance), I'm starting to suspect a love affair between eggs and philosophers. But I digress. Not only did this example help me make sense of some complex thoughts, it created a beautiful balance in your writing. It prevented it from being so technical it is inaccessible, but did not detract from the academic, intelligent tone or brilliant ideas. That is perhaps what I found most impressive about this article.

A potential area for improvement would be in the conclusion. You summarize Locke's arguments accurately and concisely. I also commend that you provided a challenge, of sorts, to the reader in the final sentence. I would love to see that final sentence expanded upon. Leaving the reader with an application question is a great technique, but I think you could push it even further here. I'm thinking a broader application could wrap this up very nicely, perhaps something like "This raises the question: How much overlap is there between our perceptions of objects and their actual existence?" This broader application would stretch and challenge the reader's concept of the ideas you discussed.

I hope you found this helpful! Please reach out if there's anything I can clarify or if you have any follow-up questions. Philosophy is a closet interest of mine, so I enjoyed learning more about it from someone clearly quite knowledgeable about this topic. I appreciated the accessibility of your writing (hmu for my soapbox on the importance of accessible/understandable writing on complex topics in higher academia) as well. Looking forward to seeing more from you!


Liminality says...

Hi Atticus! Thanks for the review! I tried to write this article for a layperson audience, so your feedback is certainly valuable here.

As an American, I am familiar with John Locke because his ideas inspired the core beliefs enumerated in the US Constitution.

I did consider putting that in, but I thought it would detract from my attempt to discuss Locke's metaphysics separate from his political thought. Since his theory of ideas and perception doesn't directly tie into those ideas (something like his theory of there being no innate ideas or his idea of an intellectual ethic might, though!).

I would cut this sentence. It's an interesting thought, but doesn't support your main point.

Yeah, that's a good idea! I was just trying to allude to the theory of atoms, which readers would be familiar with since it's the one taught in most Science classes today. (And the concept of corpuscles sounds similar enough to atoms, but they're actually a bit different, so I wanted to at least give some hint to them being different.) Do you think the use of 'corpuscles' is obscure at all here?

I'm glad the egg example works! I agree that the conclusion could be made to be more engaging. I was worried about trying to pack too much in here and making the article less focused, but I can definitely see a more challenging approach like that being incorporated if I spent more time editing and maybe adding a paragraph or two.

Thanks again!

Atticus says...

Yeah, your decision to exclude Locke's contributions to the ideas of a social contract and natural rights makes sense considering the overall focus of the article. I can see why you did that.

Ah, I see what you were going for there. I didn't necessarily draw the connection between corpuscles and atoms (although I have a baseline understanding of both), but someone else might.

I appreciate your response and consideration!

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Tue Jul 12, 2022 4:33 pm
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Stringbean wrote a review...

Hey, Lim! Neat article--you got my attention with the philosophy-vibe title lol

First of all, congratulations. I know exactly what kind of highbrow, pretentious, dated conglomeration of English you needed to wade through and dissect to be able to summarize this and you did amazing. I don't remember about Locke specifically, but the Big Important Philospher crew in general is a the most--verbose bunch I've ever seen XD

So this is much more digestible than any of their raw material. Really my only critique is maybe putting the "so-what" a closer to the beginning? Your article follows an "observation, but reasoning, conclusion" pattern, which is very logical, but doesn't really tell us why we should care or what this is leading up to until the end. Could still be interesting purely for the sake of wondering though, which is totally valid. Just that you might snag more people (especially if they're unfamiliar with the philosophy who's and what's) with a stronger upfront statement.

But yeah, that's basically it, this is really well done! Sounds like you're enjoying philosphy class ^-^

-- Stringbean

(This technically isn't part of the review, but I kinda question his narrow definition of what real is--sounds like reality to him is basically the raw, uninterpretted physical stuff that makes up the external world at its most basic level? Seems to leave the validity of the internal world on shaky ground. Also, the atoms and quantums and whatever else there is making up the feathers of a redbird might not "be" red, but it's elements of the phsyical world that creates the color, and the experience of red is real >.> could be missing something, I just like to be contrary XD)

Liminality says...

Thanks for the review! It would probably catch more attention to have a 'so what' in the beginning, so thanks for the suggestion.

(I think you're onto something there. I don't think people have found a satisfactory solution for the problem Locke was addressing yet, which is why we discussed it in class. What you're saying about internal vs external, and your comment that the "experience of red is real" reminds me of George Berkeley's idealism. Not sure if you've read him but Berkeley was a strong critic of Locke. He would have argued that the feathers ARE just the sensible qualities of being red, light, arrow-shaped, etc. and there is no such thing as an uninterpreted physical stuff. Though Berkeley's original take on reality is also heavily criticised because it doesn't rule out solipsism for one thing, among other odd consequences or lack of explanation to the role God plays in his account.)

Thanks again!

I think the more you understand myths, the more you understand the roots of our culture and the more things will resonate.
— Rick Riordan