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Epistemology: Knowledge of the External World

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Epistemology: Knowledge of the External World

When thinking about the knowledge that involves the external world through a philosophical lens, there can be many different point of views on how this can or can’t be obtained.  One of these views is known as External-World Skepticism. A famous philosopher, by the name of John Locke, shared his own beliefs that best conclude how humans can go against the skeptical idea of not having any knowledge involving the external world.

In reference to the external world, this refers to anything that is physically outside of a being’s own mind. On the other hand, External-World Skepticism is a theory that follows the idea that we are unable to obtain any actual knowledge of the external world. We can, however, know knowledge that doesn’t pertain to the external world while still accepting the idea that there is knowledge that we are unsure of. This theory also doesn’t mean that there is no knowledge of the external world, we are just unsure of what that knowledge is. We may have our own claims about the external world which may be true or false. But because we are unaware of the external world, we cannot know the validity behind our beliefs. Therefore, our beliefs about the external world are not knowledge.

        John Locke, an English philosopher from the 17th century, shared his own thoughts about the external world as well as External-World Skepticism. Locke disagreed with the theory mentioned, as he believed that we actually can have knowledge for the external world. He thought this was possible through ideas that referred to representative realism. When considering representative realism, “we do not perceive objects directly. Rather, objects cause us to have certain experiences, sense-data, and it is these to which we have direct access.” In Locke’s point of view, this means that since we don’t perceive the external world directly, we basically can have knowledge about the external world through our experiences and sense data.

        John Locke believed that knowledge of the external world is very much possible. But this idea, in Locke’s eyes, is only dependent on perception. Having knowledge on the external world relies on having legitimate perception on external objects rather than simply making accusations on perception. As quoted by Locke, “It is therefore the actual receiving of ideas from without that gives us notice of the existence of other things…” (p. 119). Locke believed that beings cannot control the receiving of ideas that appear in their mind when things are currently happening. This contrasts with how beings can recall ideas when they are no longer experiencing a moment. An example of this would be when your senses are in action, such as sensation. If someone was getting a tattoo in a painful spot, that person will experience pain and will know what it is like only during that moment of getting a tattoo. After time has passed, that person will be able to recall how painful the experience was, but that idea of pain won’t be the same compared to when the individual was actually experiencing the pain. Locke also believed that people who were unable to fully use their senses because they lacked a sensory organ, such as an ear, nose, or eye, would not be able to comprehend what perception really is. Lastly, Locke believed that our senses work together and come into an agreement, allowing for us to experience perception which helps us try to gain knowledge. Because we are able to use our senses to experience such feelings that bring us active ideas and help us gain knowledge, Locke knew that this was most important.

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