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Education and Epistemology in Locke and Rousseau’s Philosophy

Education and Epistemology in Locke and Rousseau’s Philosophy


The development and transmission of knowledge are fundamental tasks of education, while analysis of its nature and warrant falls to that branch of philosophy known as epistemology, or theory of knowledge. The name of epistemology is derived from the Greek episteme (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”). Epistemology has had a long history, spanning the time from the pre- Socratic Greeks to the present. Along with metaphysics, logic, and ethics, it is one of the four main fields of philosophy, and nearly every great educational philosopher has contributed to the literature on the topic. An adequate educational philosophy must not only address itself to epistemological problems in their general form but must also strive to view these problems from the perspective of educational tasks and purposes.

In this paper, we explore the educational thoughts of two philosophers John Locke (1632 -1704) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who both lived during the period of rationalism and the Enlightenment and examine the nature of knowledge in their educational perspectives.

Locke’s Educational Philosophy

Locke’s principles of education are to be found in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1687), and in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). He declared the doctrine of human depravity to be false since there were no innate ideas. If such ideas existed the child would be a miniature adult, but since they do not, he differs radically from his elders. Locke’s position thus opened the way to a more realistic study of human development. He had, however, little notion of the function of heredity. Believing that all children are equal at birth, he maintained that whether they are good or bad, useful or worthless, depended on education.

Education, for Locke, was primarily a moral discipline based upon the habit of self-control rather than on a process of intellectual instruction. His observations regarding perception, reasoning, doubting, and other mental processes were keen. All intellectual capacities he thought are the result of habit. It appears that he did not believe in general powers of the mind.

“We are born with faculties and powers capable almost of anything, such at least as would carry us farther than can easily, such at least as would carry us farther than can easily be imagined: but it is only the exercise of those powers, which gives us ability and skill in anything and leads us toward perfection….As it is in the body so it is in the mind: practice makes it what it is; and most even of those excellences, which are looked on as natural endowments, will be found, when examined into more narrowly, to be the product of exercise and to be raised to that pitch only by repeated actions.”

“Strength of memory,” he wrote, “is owing to a happy constitution, and not to any habitual improvement got by exercise.” He would train the powers of attention by having the learner buckle to the things to be learned, but he insisted that the teacher should have great skill in getting and maintaining attention through an appeal to the child’s sense of usefulness and power. “The great skill of a teacher is to get and keep the attention of his scholar; whilst he has that, he is sure to advance as fast as the learner’s abilities will carry him.”

Locke was among the first to recognize the factor of readiness. “The fittest time for children to learn any thing is when their minds are in tune and well disposed to it.” Human actions, he believed, are motivated by inner needs such as hunger, cold and sleep, by desires to avoid pain or to experience pleasure, and by acquired habits, and many others brought about by custom, example, and education.

His principal concern was with the education of the future gentlemen, for he maintained that if they are once set tight they will quickly bring the rest in order. He opposed and ridiculed the practices of the eighteenth-century grammar schools, and branded them as producers of vice, trickery, violence, and self-conceit. He recommended private tutoring as the best kind of pre-university education.

His curriculum included everything which would make a youth a gentleman of virtue, wisdom, breeding, and learning, for he maintained a virtuous man is worth more than a great scholar. He insisted that all learning should be made not only pleasant, but easy. The guiding principle for curriculum building was usefulness, but usefulness to the future citizen and not to the child. He proposed the elimination of Greek for the general student and would retain only such study of English and foreign languages, especially French. There was no place for poetry or music in his plan. He criticized the stress on linguistic education in his day, pointing out that children possess ability to learn words but frequently do not attach the right meanings to them.

He recommended the study of mathematics to improve children’s ability to reason and to train in methods of consecutive and exact thought,for he insisted the method of mathematics when once learned, could be transferred to the learning of other subjects.

He also urged the inclusions of physical education as basic to the development of a sound mind in a sound body. Boys were to swim and to exercise in the open air, and to engage in manual arts, gardening, and painting for health and recreation. Other subjects included geography, geometry, chronology, natural philosophy, ethics, and psychology.

Locke’s Epistemology

Locke holds the view that the desire for happiness and the desire to know, curiosity, are widespread throughout mankind. The objective of education, both of gentleman and of working people, is the provision for them of those habits of conduct which enable satisfaction of the first of these desires. Education cannot hope to provide, however, so thoroughgoing a means for fulfillment of the need to know. Although the human mind can encompass as much as is necessary for happiness, it is not capable of knowing a very great ideal. 

Locke’s educational theory consists of statements concerning the nature of human being, the family, the school, and society, and of others concerning the ways in which gentlemen and working people should be trained in order to realize the general welfare. This includes the happiness of each person sometimes limited, however, by that of others. Subordinate to it is the personal happiness as well as the social usefulness of the gentleman.

What is the bearing of Locke’s epistemology on his views concerning the training of gentlemen? It seems to be threefold. It provides a way of justifying the objective of their moral training, an illumination of the objective of their intellectual training, and a part of the method for both.

The immediate objective of moral training is the establishment of habits which, when activated, exercise themselves in acts of virtue, wisedom, and good breeding. In order to foster such habits, it is obviously useful to know that the actions that manifest them are genuinely right. Locke’s epistemology assures us that we can be certain on this score. It is possible, for example, to demonstrate that the ideas of truth – telling and of rightness agree, and that those of cruelty and of rightness disagree. Moral propositions are capable of demonstration even though no one has yet provided such a demonstration, and this possibility shows how the objectives of the moral training of the gentleman can be justified.

The immediate objective of intellectual training is the establishment in the pupil of the love of knowledge. This love is a desire that realizes itself in actually knowing when the occasion arises. It is the habit of knowing. But a habit is a power of doing something acquired by doing that thing several times; and it is clear that the love of knowledge cannot be acquired unless one has, on some occasions, actually come to know something. Locke’s view concerning actual knowledge shows us what ought to be furthered in the student’s mind in order that he should acquire an habitual love of knowledge; and his view concerning habitual knowledge shows us what the love consists in. This is an illumination of the objective of intellectual training, and it has a practical value. Judgment, revelation, faith, superstition, and error – all these make claim to being knowledge; and one who sees with clarity what knowing consists in will not mistake the spurious for the genuine claimant.

The methods of both moral and intellectual training seem to owe something to Locke’s theory of knowledge. The latter, first, tells us that all ideas are simple or complex, that the simple ones must originate in sensation or reflection, and that all cognition depends upon perceiving relations that are relations of agreement or disagreement between the ideas. Locke argues that examples of moral action and real objects as well as representations of them, such as moral tales, globes, and maps, should be employed in moral and intellectual training. The reason seems to be that in this way those simple ideas out of which habits and thoughts may be constructed are provided for the student in sensation and reflection. Secondly, Locke recommends, as we have seen, that reasoning be used with children; and by “reasoning” he means, at least, the use of language. This recommendation seems to amount to the assertion that as one should clarify his own ideas by clarifying his words, so the teacher should establish as well as clarify ideas in the mind of the student by the procedure of definition. Moreover, thirdly, he recommends that the student be brought to knowing things as well as to judging them upon evidence by the teacher’s making clear to him what he knows already by intuition, and by proceeding “to that which lies next, and is coherent to it, and so on to what he aims at, by the simplest and most uncompounded parts he can divide the matter into.”[5] The methods of cognition, intuition and demonstration for knowing, and finding evidence for judgment Locke uses as if they also were methods of instruction.

The training of the poor is designed to make them thrifty and economically independdent members of the community. Locke says nothing by way of justifying this objective. Presumably, however, he would argue that a life of independent respectability for working people is their part in the general welfare, and something that the gentleman will assure from his position of political power.

Rousseau’s Educational Philosophy

In 1762, Rousseau published two of his greatest works in which he wrestled with two seemingly irreconcilable problems. “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” is the opening cry of the Social Contract. “All is good as it comes from the hand of God” declares the Emile. The problem might be joined thus: What is man’s relation and responsibility to the state, and how can a child born into such a state be reared as to be uncorrupted by the vices of civilization?

Briefly, men become social beings only by associating with each other. This association especially in its social and political aspects is called the “state”.  In the course of time the state became corrupted and could no longer save itself. Society can only renew itself through the proper education of boys according to nature. Only thus can man develop fully and harmoniously. Up to the age of fourteen the child should be allowed free play and to have experience with nature without adult interference, except that the teacher should set up desirable situations to encourage the pupil to tight action. At the age of fourteen there will come a great spiritual and moral awakening, and the youth will feel love and justice for him. Girls should be trained to be docile, to serve men, and to make them happy.

Rousseau differed from Locke in many fundamental ways. With regard to the state, Locke offered a practical common-sense solution to justify the political, economic, and religious organization of his day. God created man, and not only gave him the whole world for his use but also endowed him with certain rights such as life, liberty, and property which could not be taken away from him. Men formed governments by social contract to guarantee these divine rights which belong to all gentlemen, not only to kings. When governments no longer foster these natural rights, it is man’s duty to rebel and to set up such governments as to. Locke’s man’s duty to rebel and to set up such governments as do. Locke’s theory is thoroughly individualistic, protestant, and capitalistic. Private tights are morally grounded in the will of God, and are superior to law and other.

On the other hand, Rousseau contrasts the civil sate with the state of nature. In the state of nature there is no justice because there are no laws; there is no equality because each differs in his ability to grab and to retain; there is no freedom, only license, because each man strives to satisfy his own desires. There is no morality among men without government.

The state is primary. It creates conventions, civilization, culture, even reason. Social conventions decide between right and wrong, between good and bad behavior. Only by becoming a citizen can one become a man. The individual cannot be superior to the state of which he is a citizen. The schools express the will and the wisdom of the community. The teacher is its agent and attempts to bring the individual into conformity with a pattern.

With regard to education, Locke’s principal concern was with the English gentleman. Believing that the mind at birth was like a wax tablet, he considered the teacher’s function to be to write desirable impressions of the outside world upon it. The purpose of education was practical in this sense and was designed to achieve the happiness of the individual thought experience with nature and society by means of private tutors and travel.

Rousseau stated but did not solve the relationship between freedom on the one hand and imposed authority and required obedience on the other. He showed the necessity for attention to individual differences on the ground that unless we know what he is now, we cannot make a pupil what he ought to be. He recommended the elimination of terms of external coercion such as duty, obedience, and obligation from the vocabulary and advocated that from earliest infancy a child should learn to accept responsibility and be motivated by an internal sense of duty. His method was naturalistic, but his curriculum was traditional. The purpose of the school is to help the child make these necessary adjustments. On the whole, Rousseau believed, society’s influence is evil. Therefore, he prescribed that the child be educated apart from society: from birth to four years his activities should be largely physical to develop the body; the period from five to twelve should be spent in acquiring knowledge of the world though sensory impressions; from thirteen to fifteen is the period to begin intellectual training through books and the time to learn a trade. This ends the period of his natural education apart from society. During the last period of formal education, from fifteen to twenty, the youth should come into cntact with his fellow men where he would learn the great moral and spiritual principles of sympathy, goodness, and service.

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