When you look around you you see a world of middle sized objects (trees, tables, cars, people) all with rich and vibrant features. Think of the colour of autumn leaves, or the smell of fresh coffee. However, science seems to tell us that the world is not remotely like this in its fundamental features. John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume worked at a time when science seemed to tell them that the world was made of tiny colourless particles whizzing around. How does that world relate to the familiar world of colours, smells and tastes?
Each of these philosophers worried about how the worlds of science and perception fit together. They also wanted to understand how it is we learn what the world is really like. Reflecting on these questions lead them to some strange doctrines: that material objects are impossible (Berkeley); or that you cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow (Hume). In the first part of this module we will examine these three British empiricists in depth and see how their ideas and arguments are still relevant to contemporary concerns in metaphysics and epistemology.
The second part of the module will be devoted to the distinctive twist Immanuel Kant gave to these debates in his Critique of Pure Reason. As Robert Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘Kant is always superbly methodical, persistent, regular and meticulous as he scales that great snowy mountain of thought concerning what is in the mind and what is outside the mind. It is, for modern climbers, one of the highest peaks of all.’ Whereas Locke thought the world of physics was the objective world, in contrast with the world of colours, smells and tastes, Kant is trying to convince you that the world of physics is a mere appearance, concealing a reality of which we know little (but which we have reason to think contains us: free and responsible moral agents).
All of the four figures we study in this module have had a huge influence on the field of philosophy. Studying these philosophers will be invaluable preparation for engaging with a wide range of contemporary debates and other philosophers.