Compare and Contrast John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Dewey’s Theories of Learning
This philosophical paper will provide an exposition of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The exposition of the philosophies of the said great thinkers, will serve as the foundation in answering the central point of the paper, which is to enlighten the readers the implications of these philosophies in the public education.
On Locke’s Theory of Learning
During the modern period, the belief that there are innate ideas imprinted in the mind is widely accepted. This principle developed from a dominant school of thought of the seventeenth century and eighteenth century called rationalism. The proponents of this school of thought are the great rationalists namely, Rene Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, who argued that the ideas that we have had already existed even if we have not existed yet. Meaning, ideas are already embedded from the moment of our conception. The rationalists also pointed out that we could not grasp the totality of each idea in our mind because of our imperfection. With this imperfection, our purpose is to discover the totality of our innate ideas through knowing the indubitable truth [Descartes], the difference between adequate and inadequate ideas and the nature of our emotions [Spinoza], and the essence of the monads of all monads [Leibniz].
From this wide acceptance of rationalists’ philosophy is the birth of another school of thought that will eventually refute the claims of the former school of thought, which is empiricism. The proponents of empiricism postulated that there is no innate idea imprinted in the mind. This part of the paper will focus on the first tenet of empiricism, John Locke, who affirmed the claim of empiricism that there is no innate ideas in the mind, and that the only way we acquire knowledge is through our senses and reflection.
According to Locke, innateness of an idea is just a rational hypothesis wherein there is no way it can be proven. He defined innate ideas as “some primary notions… Characters as it were stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being; and brings into the world with it.” In coming up to the conclusion that there indeed no innate ideas, Locke presented four major arguments to support this: universal assent proves nothing innate, speculative principles proves nothing innate, practical moral principles or that we have innate ideas of God proves nothing innate, and that the use of reason proves nothing innate.
Locke rejects argument from universal assent because of its misfortune to realize the principle of demonstration that state two major propositions −− “Whatsoever is, is, and it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be.” According to Locke, if there will be a proof on the given propositions then children and idiots must not have the least comprehension or thought. The rationale for this is, if the children and idiots could not articulate and grasp the ontology of a certain object then there are no innate ideas at all. With this supposition, Locke concluded that there is no need for children and idiots to be aware of these innate ideas because by doing so as he pointed out “it seeming to me a near contradiction to say that there are truths imprinted in the soul, which it perceives or understands no; imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain truths to be perceived.”
The point of this rejection of the universal assent is −− everybody who has a Soul (including the children and the idiots) can easily perceived innate ideas unfortunately, the rationalists failed to provide any conjecture to explain this situation.
The rejection of Locke on the use of reason is best explained through his inference to dispositional accounts. According to him, dispositional account does not provide enough proofs or any fundamental criterion to distinguish an innate proposition from other propositions. His argument against dispositional account as an innate proposition is containable to the following sentences: for if any proposition may be in the mind but is unknowable then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the mind is ever capable of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and also imprinted: since if any one can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, it must only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the mind is of all truths and it ever shall know.
He also added that even if man can come up with an adequate proof and fundamental criterion for innate ideas it will not prove anything innate because we will “come to the use of reason”. He interpreted this phrase as using reason to discover innate ideas and in exploring the realm innate ideas at the time we use our reason, still we are so ignorant of it, which is why we do not come to the aid of reason. Locke disagreed with both the interpretation because it deduces the very nature of reason [first interpretation] and it is a contradiction to posit that man can know, and not know at the same time [second interpretation].
To further strengthen his claim, Locke rejected speculative principle and practical moral principle because ideas are representative of principles that are not innate. For example, if principle is innate then the golden rule should be obeyed and be held as truth by all. But because men have different standpoints of practical moral principle, golden rule would not be innate at all. And in the case of speculative principle, men may not understand the golden rule as others can understand it. And it must be noted that speculative principle is self-evident when it comes to the proposition of “what is, is”.
So if ideas are not imprinted in the mind, can we still acquire or obtain knowledge?
Locke argued that acquisition of knowledge is possible through the aid of our senses and through reflection. He believed that our mind is like an empty slate that develops through the experienced that we have of the external world (sensation), and through deciphering the totality of the external world with the help of the internal operations of the mind (reflection). With regards to this, Locke claimed that we are gifted with a variety of faculties and abilities to receive and to manipulate simple ideas.
With faculties and abilities we are able to combine simple ideas together to create a complex idea. Simple idea is define as anything that has the understanding of man whether it is physical or abstract, and it is the barest form of idea. Complex idea is the combination of two and more simple ideas, wherein it is classified into ideas of substance and ideas of modes, wherein the former has independent existence like God, angels, man, while the latter has a dependent existence such moral ideas, mathematical ideas, conventional ideas, and everything that we have assented. Our mind can perform three activities in developing our ideas. First, our mind can combine simple ideas to form a complex idea. Second, our mind enables us to show the relationship of things, in which we can unite or differentiate two different ideas by knowing the primary and secondary qualities of the ideas that we have acquired. And lastly, our mind is capable of producing general ideas through abstraction of the particulars.
Another foundation of Locke’s theory of learning is his discussion of primary and secondary qualities of an object. According to Locke, primary qualities are characteristics of an object that are definitely independent of us like the space it occupies, the state it assumed whether it is in motion or in rest, or the texture it possesses. On the other hand, secondary qualities are characteristics of an object to affect our perception of the object like its color, smell, taste, etc.
On the Fundamentals of Kant’s Theory of Learning
The affirmation on the existence of knowledge is of great importance during the modern period. This period brought an intellectual debate between two equally intelligible schools of thought: rationalism and empiricism. As stated earlier, the former argues that ideas are imprinted in our minds, and that we only have to discover the innateness of these ideas so that we can obtain knowledge. The latter, on the other hand, argues that to obtain knowledge we have to experience its source (object) through the aid of our senses and reflection.
The battle between these schools of thought paved way to the rise of Immanuel Kant who synthesized rationalism and empiricism through his postulation of synthetic a priori knowledge and through his examination on the validity and soundness, and fallacy and loopholes of each thought.
The discussion on this part of the paper will focus one of the most important structure of Kant’s philosophy on a priori knowledge (independent of experience), specifically his ideas on transcendental aesthetics, which serves as Kant’s foundation of theory of learning.
Transcendental aesthetic is a fragment of Kant’s transcendental doctrine of elements in his notable work entitled Critique of Pure Reason, and was considered as the science of all sensibility a priori. The transcendental aesthetic focused on the important role of sensibility, the object of sensibility, and mathematics including geometry, and most of all, it focused on the pre-scientific arguments about time and space. At this point, Kant argued that space and time are pure intuitions that have a sensible form of experience and are not part of absolute reality.
Kant believed that our knowledge is related to objects in whatever means since it is immediately relates to them by intuition. But the possibility of having an intuition will only take place if a certain object is given to us and on the condition that this certain object affects our mind in a certain manner. At this point, Kant argued that the first step to acquire knowledge is through sensibility since this is where the object will be given to us that will eventually endow intuition. Having sensibility and intuition, the faculty that is concerned on the production of concepts will take off since it studies the structure of our cognition, enabling as to create a system.
Another baby step that needs to be considered is sensation because this is the a posteriori [means of gaining knowledge by appealing to some particular experience(s)] basis of our knowledge. From this sensation, we can imply that we will receive the object empirically wherein we can derive an empirical intuition. Given that in empirical intuition, an object is undetermined, then it will follow that we can call that indeterminacy phenomenon. Kant then posited that all phenomena that correspond to sensation is matter and all phenomena that corresponds to certain relation of effects is form. We can say then that the matter is an a posteriori property and form is the a priori property of knowledge.
From the given steps, it is necessary that space and time are both pure intuition, and to acquire this purity one must disregard all ideas that belong to sensation (i.e. color, hardness) and all thoughts that belong to understanding (i.e. substance, force and divisibility) so that shape and extension of empirical intuition will remain. These properties according to Kant are considered as pure intuition because they have existed a priori of the mind, and it is a mere form of sensibility and does not have empirical object of sensation.
Kant claimed purported that space is no an empirical concept since it is not derived from external experience of a phenomenon but it is rather the external phenomenon that depends on the representation of space. It necessarily follows that space is a necessary representation a priori since space is the state of the possibility of phenomenon, and the medium of all external phenomena. Because a priori representation is necessary, we can say that mathematical definition will not be merely perception that depends on a posteriori ideas. Space is not discursive but it is a pure intuition because it is unitary, in which we cannot perceive or even measure. It only becomes divisible because of the limitations that we are assigning on space. And lastly, Kant conjectured that space is represented as an infinite quantity, but it must be noted that we cannot confine or measure its quantity since it is an a priori intuition.
In short, we can not say that in a certain room there is a space if there is no phenomenon inside that room. Let say we put a bed inside that room, and then the possibility on the existence of bed depends on the representation of space. This is the case because space is not derived from any experience.
Kant believed that time is not an empirical concept derived from experience because if it is the case then we could not imaging things happening simultaneously or successively because the representation is not given a priori. Time is a necessary representation since all intuitions depend on its existence. Time has one dimension since all apodictic principles of time depends on its being a necessary representation a priori. And most of all, time is not discursive like space because the former is a sensuous intuition and time is subjective because we put reference on its existence, but it must be noted that it will exists infinitely without any reference.
In short, we could say that time is only understood by our faculty if we put a phenomenon on certain space wherein we will set a referent time in order for us to see the changes that will happen on the phenomenon, which is indicative of time.
On Dewey’s Foundation of Education
Since time immemorial, acquisition of knowledge is the quest of every man. Even during our primitive days, our conquest is to develop our intellectual capacity. Learning is innate among men. But it was during Ancient times when education or learning became formal. And as time passed by ways of learning has multiplied and improved in ways that no one has even thought of.
Education is a necessity of life. According to John Dewey, men are doomed to renew ourselves in the course of our existence. In renewing oneself, one must satisfies his physiological needs such as nourishment and fecundity, and social needs specifically attaining an education or to learn from a formal school. The importance of education is that it makes a difference of the quality of life for the society and for oneself.
As the society is becoming complex, education must adopt the complexity of its society and apply it to their education. Meaning, if society developed then education must be developed in line to the development of its society. In the real world, the immature are doomed to suffering because only those who have education will taste sweetness of life. In order for a society to provide an educative environment for its people, especially of its immatures, the following must be pursued: first, simply and organize the factors of education that must be developed; second, purify and idealize the customs of society; and lastly, create a conducive and balanced environment that will directly affect the young.
The youth are innately unknowledgeable of their society’s custom, so it is a must that they are directed or redirected. This guidance can only be provided by education because education can enlighten the society of the internal difference on the youth’s identity of interest and difference. And through education, youth can realize the power of their own social sense.
Having an education will give an individual unstoppable growth. Education has no end because it always transcends itself. If a person realizes this, he can actualize all the potentialities that he has. Education is a process continually moving from a simple knowledge to complex knowledge, and then to a more complex knowledge.
To further his position on the importance of education, Dewey provided three historical foundations of philosophies of education. First, the Platonic education, which is designed to produce a harmonious class rather than an intellectual individual, was founded on the concept of ideal society that works according to their own nature. Second, the birth of individualism on the Enlightenment period, which is founded to ensure that every individual can actualize their own potentiality. And lastly, the institutionalization of education in the nineteenth century.
In summary of Dewey’s Democracy and Education, he did not only uphold the rights of every man to acquire quality education and outline the nitty-gritty details of a perfect education, but he also focus on the moral concern of education with regards to the knowledge that it inculcates and the conduct that it requires. For Dewey, education must not only save the youth from their ignorance but education must mold the youth in a well rounded individuals who can lead the advancement of their society’s welfare.
The Convergence and Divergence
Locke theory of learning is solely based on the sense datum. For Locke, the only way we can disclose the knowledge of this world is through sensory experience, no more no less. The implication of Locke’s theory of knowledge is apparent, experience is the epistemological grounding of knowing the reality of the world, and only through this world we can know the world itself. But it must be noted that we can only know the world on the basis of our idea of reality and not reality itself, for the former is only mental and the latter is transcendental or extramental. The only thing that we can expose about the world is its property because we do not have a direct connection with its substance.
Rejection of the totality of the reality of objects of experience is absurd because we can never deny the fact that we live in the world existence. That everyday of our lives we move within the world. That in every given moment we experience the experiencing of the object. Because of these, a philosophical system can never reject the significance of empirical world in disclosing the reality of the world. Even if rationalists claim that ideas are innate, there is an undeniable fact that in order for reason to explicate its existence, it needs stimulus, and this stimulus thrives in the reality of objects and its experience. Where can we ground all our doubts about reality or where can we apply all logical principles if we reject the totality of empirical world? We can posit reason to satisfy the question, but appealing to reason alone is solipsistic, and in a way limits us in arriving at the knowledge of reality. Reason cannot stand alone in ascertaining the truthfulness of the world because counting on reason alone is nothing but a mere presupposition, which denies the fact that the world exists.
And the epistemological enterprise of man should not falter on the attitude of empirical solipsism because it boxes itself in a dogma of objectivity. Man should both use the aid of reason and senses, for we perceive and conceive the knowledge of the world through interpreting the ideas of the world with regards to its existence.
In public education, Locke’s theory of learning is very prevalent, specifically on the school that grounded to scientific explorations. Scientific school, especially those of positivist tradition, adopted Locke’s philosophy by looking closely on the empirical component of their experiment at hand. In a scientific community/school, empirical data is of high importance because it serves as hard evidences to prove their claim. In public education that is highly scientific, theories will never be a law without the empirical results of its experiments.
On the other hand, Kant’s theory of learning implies transcendental idealism, which stated that all unknowable things will always be unknowable because the realm of the unknowable is not available to our reason. From this idealism, Kant differentiated what is the property of a phenomenon and of noumena. The former is what the things that appear to us, while the latter is what is the things in themselves are. Our reason can give us basic articulations of a certain phenomenon but it cannot go beyond basic articulation, meaning, one cannot know the things in themselves. The implication of this postulate is the impossibility of any science of metaphysics because all concepts that is beyond phenomenal reality will never be unfolded.
Kant argued that noumenal realities can provide us knowledge of a specific thing, which is based only on it appearance or of its phenomenal status, but the nature of such thing is unknowable. The problem about this argument is the fact that he has limited the capacity of knower. Kant has disregarded the subjective-objective relationship of the knower and the object. That all knowledge about certain object is only an appearance that can be interpreted or processed by the knower. Meaning, knowledge of things is based on what the knower what the knower deduced from the object. The problem about this kind of acquisition of knowledge is that the knower perceives things based on his/her own understanding of things. This way of acquiring knowledge leads to inter-subjectivity. That the author of knowledge is his/her own self.
By this implication, how can a person know that his/her knowledge is an embodiment of knowledge itself, when in fact his/her notion of knowledge is misconstrued, given the fact that it is only based on phenomenal reality. Can basic articulations of a specific thing be considered knowledge? What phenomenal realm provides is not knowledge but facts only of things. Well, we can say that the thing is based on its usefulness but not really the meaning of things. But it does not mean that we can not know the noumenal status of the specific thing, if we only widen the horizon of our mind.
If we use Kant philosophy, say in apple, the knowledge that we can get from it is that the apple is sweet, smooth, red, fruity, etc. but the nature of the apple is unconceivable. We can still know the noumenal status of that apple, if we let the apple shows itself to us, or if we limit our subjectivity in terms of the intentionality of our consciousness. That we only let our consciousness focus on the apple without our own subjectivity of the object. The essence of an apple is the totality of what it has shown to us, that even if we divide the apple or change its color, we can still say that it is an apple because it has shown itself to us. The nature of an apple or of any object is that something that can never be denied once we perceive or conceive it, whether it exists or not.
In Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophy, we can know the object itself beyond basic articulations based on phenomenology and on phenomenological hermeneutics. First, we must go back to the thing-in-themselves and disclose or interpret it on how it shows itself. The problem about Kant’s stand on noumenal realities is that he excluded the fact that object cannot only give us fact of its own facts but actually true knowledge of it. His position on inter-subjectivity is the culprit in the denial of noumenal realities because it annihilates the power of the object to be understood. This inter-subjectivity is the valid limitation of reason on why an individual could not acquire the understanding of nature of things or of why we cannot comprehend its nature.
In public education, this attitude has been adopted especially on the arrival of positivist tradition. Everything that can not be explained is disregarded immediately. But the worst thing that public education has adopted is Kant’s attitude of sticking to what he believes. The problem of this attitude is that it annihilates any possibility to adopt novel ideas that is not in line with their sponsored truth. This attitude is prevalent among public education, for instance, American educational philosophy is founded on analyticity, Europeans based their educational philosophy to existentialism, and Asians dedicated themselves to Taoism or Buddhism.
This is where Dewey’s conceptual framework of education is needed because it provides an answer to the educational adoption of public academe. For instance, Dewey believed on the progression of education whether in its system or curriculum by embracing all kinds of knowledge. It may be argued that Dewey wanted the youth to stay in the customs of their society, but he did not sponsor any limit on the horizon of knowledge that youth must acquire. An American student must stick with his custom and must preserve it because it define his existence but it does not necessarily follow that he cannot adopt the European education, because as Dewey puts it all kinds knowledge will bring advancement to one’s society.
Dewey exceptionally pointed that education must be experiential in nature. It has been a practice in the academe that students dwell too much in theoretical framework of certain philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, etc. which in essence resulted to the futility of each theory’s purposes. Acquisition of knowledge is very vital because it shows that we make use of our rationality. But to contain the knowledge that we obtain on the theoretical level cannot further any advancement of humanity. Dewey proposed that in every public education, application of theories must be strictly reinforced. The importance of applying what we have learned is that we can improve and broaden the horizon of what we know. Through this we can modify certain theories, and eventually provide some indubitable answers to questions that have been considered unfathomable.
In toto, Dewey asserted that every public education must be philosophic in nature. The universe is vast and infinite, which implies that there are still innumerable things, events and the likes that are not yet disclose and available to human perception. Education is the best weapon to annihilate man’s ignorance because it is a means to achieve a complete metamorphosis. Education is a means of transforming an individual from an inutile state to a prolific level. Education is a means of transforming our primitive knowledge to something grandiose through the constant application of theories. With this innate nature of education, philosophy is of great significance because it will serve as education’s life-support. Philosophy perpetually asks questions and creates questions that are beyond human understanding. The union of philosophy and education is undeniably the panacea for our ignorance and the medium for our infinite transcendence. Philosophy will provide questions and education will serve as its laboratory.
Dewey, J. (1929). My Pedagogic Creed: Progressive Education Association.
Dewey, J. (1997). Democracy and Education: Free Press.
Kant, I. (1984). Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics: Open Court Publishing Company.
Kant, I. (1999). Critique of Pure Reason: Cambridge University Press
Locke, J. (1994). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Prometheus Books.
(J. Dewey, 1929; J Dewey, 1997; Kant, 1984, 1999; Locke, 1994)
 Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Page 27.
 Ibid., Page 30.
 Ibid., Page 29.
 Ibid., Page 34.
 In Locke’s terminology it is called tabula rasa.
 The process by which knowledge reaches the object directly given.
 The capacity for receiving representations (receptivity) through the mode in which we are affected by objects.
 The Active species of representation, by means of which our understanding enables us to think.
 The Effect of an object upon the faculty of representation, so far as we are not affected by the said object.
 The object of knowledge, viewed empirically, in its fully knowable state.
 The passive or objective aspect of something-that is, the aspect which is based on the experience a subject has, or on the objects given such an experience.
 The active or subjective aspect of something-that I, the aspect which is based on the rational activity of the subject.
 “Something that I know not what,” “that of which one predicates
 This is his basis of Philosophy of Education.