Education and Epistemology in Locke and Rousseau’s Philosophy

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Education and Epistemology

Education is often a form of learning through which knowledge is shared from one generation to another. It ensures that individuals acquire certain skills or practices that are necessary for their day to day living. The need for education in our societies has intensified. Since the onset of the 20th century, pursuits have been made to have citizens in both the developed and third world countries to attain the basic knowledge required for the enhancement of healthy living and good interactions. On the other hand, epistemology as the branch of philosophy, which analyzes the nature, origin and limit of human knowledge, seeks to establish whether some kinds of knowledge are present during birth or acquired through experience, and at the same time determines its various categories.

A number of philosophers have tried to make their contribution to this topic, which has a long history considering that it was originally initiated by the pre-Socratic Greeks and is still relevant at the present time. However, most of the renowned philosophers have focused more on the reason why knowledge acquisition is necessary, and the tasks that have to be incorporated while offering education as societies seek to have their citizens acquire the required attributes. This paper explores the educational thoughts of two ancient philosophers namely John Locke (1632 -1704) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). It also reflects on the scope of the current society’s position as far as knowledge acquisition is concerned with respect to the work presented by the early philosophers.

Locke’s Educational Philosophy

Locke regarded education as primarily a moral discipline based upon the habit of self control rather than an intellectual capability to make certain assertions. According to the

Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1687), Locke affirms that the doctrine of human depravity is false, given that it fails to present any innate ideas. His principles on education are also portrayed in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), where it is argued that children who possessed the same knowledge exhibited by adults would be no difference between the two groups since they would both have the same ideas. He believed that all children were equal at birth and the differences exhibited at later ages depended on education. The arguments given by this great philosopher seem to imply that the mind does not necessarily play a vital role in determining individuals’ reasoning and mental processes since their capacity to respond in a particular manner depended on the habits they are used to. Despite the fact that people are born with various powers that make them capable of achieving anything they wish, it is only through the exercise of such powers whereby they are able to acquire the right skills to succeed in their endeavors.

It is the role of teachers to ensure that children pay attention to their teachings and help them to make good use of their powers. This is the only way the desirable skills may be attained. Locke continues that teachers should not just be flexible in their pursuits to equip young people with knowledge, but should also try as much as possible to identify any areas that require perfections basing on the response children show. He maintains that the right time for young people to learn is when their minds are ready and prepared. Therefore, they should exhibit some inbuilt motivations since it is only through their desires that they are able to concentrate and take anything they are taught seriously. According to him, future education systems had to be well organized to equip people with the right attributes and avoid the shortcomings witnessed in the 18th century where grammar schools only promoted unethical practices and self-conceit.

Before students joined colleges, Locke recommended that private tutoring was the best way to prepare them adequately. A real man was the one who possessed good virtues and wisdom since he considered it more valuable than the aspect of being just a great scholar. His desirable curriculum did not incorporate subjects such as poetry and music. He also did not attach much priority to the inclusion of Greek in his present days’ education systems since he considered better for students to learn English and other foreign languages. On the contrary, mathematics was necessary in boosting children’s thinking abilities while physical education was required to develop their minds and bodies. Locke believed that the purpose of education was to endow people with the right habits of conduct that would satisfy their desires to attain happiness and enhance their knowledge. According to him, human mind is incapable of knowing everything and only seems to grasp just what is sufficient to boost one’s happiness.

Locke’s Epistemology

Locke’s epistemology as regards the training of people seems to put much emphasis on having both their moral and intellectual capabilities worked on. The main purpose of moral training is to help individuals to attain the right habits that once put into use and help in the manifestation of wisdom and adoption of good virtues. This epistemology assures that it is possible for individuals to demonstrate ideas of truth and only engage in such activities that are righteous once various habits have been acquired. It, therefore, implies that moral propositions are capable of being demonstrated and this shows that the objectives of moral training can be justified. Intellectual training is often aimed at encouraging young people to attain the love of knowledge something Locke refers to as the habit of knowing. In order to develop a habit, people have to do the same thing repeatedly since the love of knowledge cannot be realized if an individual has not developed interest on something. This validates that objective of intellectual training as having a practical value, and help people to acquire such aspects of knowledge as judgment, revelation and faith.

Locke’s theory of knowledge shows that people often have equal capabilities upon birth, but it is the manner in which they conceive the ideas, whether simple or complex that determines the knowledge they acquire. The simple ideas originate from reflections; cognitive abilities of individuals depend on the relations they perceive about the manner. In his epistemology, Locke argues that examples of moral actions and real objects need to be applied in both moral and intellectual training since they give students the opportunity to make various reflections and develop the interest required to grasp the simple ideas. The best way in which knowledge may be attained is by ensuring that the right language is used to pass out ideas in a reasonable manner. It is necessary that teachers use evidence while presenting their ideas; consequently, students are able to make their own judgments as they seek to know more about a phenomenon. Therefore, Locke recommends cognition, intuition and demonstration of ideas as the right methods of instruction upon which evidence may be presented, and students given the opportunity to make their own judgments.

Rousseau’s Educational Philosophy

Rousseau argues that it is only through interaction that men become social beings. His assertions imply that a state is formed by the association of human beings either on social or political platforms. As time goes on, a state may get corrupted to an extent that it cannot save itself. Rousseau believes that a society can only redeem itself by giving education to its boys with respect to nature since this is the only way man can develop fully. Children need to be given ample time to have experience with nature up to the age of 14. By this time, the role of a teacher is to encourage the children by setting up a desirable situation since this provides some spiritual and moral awakening whereby the young people feel proud of themselves. He maintains that girls need to be trained on how to live submissively, serve their men effectively and keep them happy.

Rousseau’s educational philosophies differ immensely from what is recommended by Locke. The latter believes that knowledge is acquired through learning; the former maintains that it is only individual interactions with nature that equips them with various ideas. While Locke talks about the need for a civil state that is well organized, Rousseau emphasizes on a state of nature where there is no justice since there are no laws. The state creates conventions and civilizations that help in determining what is right and wrong.

Rousseau asserts that the state is often superior and any individual can only become a man if he becomes a citizen of that state. He considers schools to express the will of communities whereby teachers are mere agents to ensure that individual conform to certain patterns that are already established. His educational philosophy does not solve the relationship between freedom and the imposed authority. However, he argues that understanding individual differences is necessary since it helps to mould people and help them to become what they wish. Rousseau disregards the use of external forces such as duty, obedience and obligation to determine behavior since interacting with nature upon birth gave a child the chance to develop some internal sense of duty and learn on how to accept responsibility. He asserts that society is not justified to influence individual behavior with the purpose of schools being the provision of a platform upon which children make the necessary adjustments.

Engaging in physical activities from the time a child is born up to the time he is four years old would help in developing their bodies. Between the period of five to twelve years, children should be acquiring knowledge from nature through their sensory impressions. The period of natural education should end between the age of 13 and 15 years where they attain intellectual training through books. According to Rousseau, young people should interact with fellow men by the end of the formal education, which takes place from the age of 15 to 20 where they develop various moral and spiritual principles of sympathy, being good to other people and offering their support as they seek to meet their perceived standards.

Rousseau’s Epistemology

Rousseau acknowledges knowledge as an important component of education. He affirms that private education in societies, various institutions are corrupt should aim at providing internal happiness by withdrawing from public affairs. On the same note, public education should also aim at enhancing internal peace by inclining to serve public good as resolved. Rousseau claims that it is important for people to know what is true since this helps them to make necessary adjustments to attain their desires. In his theory on the extent of knowledge, Rousseau argues that to know means to be certain about something. According to him, knowing involves being sure that whatever is seen or believed in cannot take any other form.

Most individuals, however, seem to be only aware of their sensations and ideas. He points on the self, an immaterial substance that has the capacity to think and be aware of things. This is the reason people are able to have various sensations and at the same time develop ideas while questioning their credibility to perceive things in a certain way. He continues that some of the ideas developed through common-sense are often influenced by the physical objects that trigger various sensations such as scent or the identification of certain colors.

To explain his views on the extent and method of knowledge, Rousseau further points that the physical environment plays an essential role in understanding one’s self. The difference is determined owing to the fact that while people are capable of changing their positions and asking themselves questions on why things appear the way they are, most of the physical objects on the environment remain immobile. The more people associate themselves with the environment, the more they understand it better, therefore, implying that knowledge is attained through interactions.

Rousseau claims that most of the mistakes made by people with regard to knowledge are caused by the judgments they make from their sensations and may be corrected through careful sensory observations. The methods used by Rousseau to justify knowledge and its acquisition include observation, making experiments and generalization of ideas. He uses his extent of knowledge to clarify his previous arguments that people gain enough ideas by exploring nature freely since it gives them the opportunity to compare certain occurrences and make inferences depending on how they perceive things in their surroundings.

My Argument

It is apparent that education facilitates the acquisition of knowledge among individuals and may be attained through learning and the desire to develop new ideas. The arguments made by both Locke and Rousseau regarding education and epistemology differ despite their being renowned philosophers. Locke’s assertions seem to be logical given that the acquisition of knowledge and its development depends on whether people have attained education or not. It has, however, been identified that heredity plays a huge role in determining the concern, which people show regarding education based on their reasoning capabilities. Locke made the claim that all children are often equal at birth.

It is evident that older people seem to have much wisdom compared to young people and spend much of their time nurturing their children to ensure that they acquire the right attributes needed for harmonious living in societies. Children under the age of five rarely know anything useful to their societies and their main concern is often on having meals and having their parents around. If education had not been introduced, people would have no idea about the alphabets and would be incapable of writing their own names.

As people gain necessary information regarding their societies since childhood, they generate some interest, which motivates them to establish more ideas by developing specific moral habits that end up equipping them with knowledge. This is also witnessed in the manner people rely on society to shape their exceptional capabilities such as talents. Interest is necessary in knowledge development. For instance, people generate interest on various careers basing on the motivation they get from the certain members of society and rely upon them to make perfections once they have established their potential.

A good example includes the manner in which a young boy may develop a passion in a particular sporting activity such as soccer after seeing other people practice it. In such a situation, knowledge in football is expanded by working closely with some specialists in the sport who train and show the boy other tactical and ethical considerations that need to be perfected for him to succeed in the career. This implies that watching what other people are doing may not be enough as far as knowledge acquisition is concerned and there have to be some aspect of education.

As a matter of fact, in order to acquire enough knowledge on a phenomenon, people have to first develop an interest in it so that they may be able to pay the required attention. Such moral considerations as discipline are paramount as argued by Locke since without it people can hardly concentrate. The success of various education curriculums has greatly depended on the ability of teachers to ensure maximum attention from their students since it requires the expression of good skills on any subject matter and the capacity to instill the desirable virtues in education.

Young people have to take certain exercises to enhance their physical wellbeing, which determines their mental strength at any given time. Locke’s position on the nature of knowledge together with its limits is quite sensible. It is evident that people cannot know everything and only acquire the ideas present in their societies depending on their curiosity and the willingness to enrich their minds through education. This is the reason of why there are various cultural practices in different countries and varying proficiency levels in certain provision since it all depends on the interest people show towards the acquisition of some knowledge.

Rousseau’s arguments are outdated and do not have any significance regarding knowledge acquisition and its development in the current society. It is quite difficult for human beings to attain any meaningful knowledge that can help to uplift the state of their communities by relying on individual interaction with nature. Requiring young people to explore their environments to equip themselves with knowledge would only liken them to animals and the only knowledge that would be attained is the determination of the right way to avoid some likely occurrences depending on the experience attained through societal suffering. If knowledge was only attained by exploring the nature, people who would regard the ideas developed in their societies and would dismiss any other useful idea suggested to them by people from other geographical locations. There are various global ethical standards that have to be practiced by all people regardless of their backgrounds.

While epistemology tries to identify the limits upon which individuals may acquire knowledge, using Rousseau’s thoughts would deceive people from certain geographical locations that they know everything. For instance, people from a specific society may believe that using a particular herb cures all diseases occurring during some seasons. The failure to seek further knowledge regarding the diseases may end up causing health complications and other issues that would have been avoided by seeking the knowledge of other individuals regarding the matter. It is clear that people cannot know everything and any advance to learn more about something should include a desire to consult individuals who are specialized in such fields. Apart from the social values attained through interacting with society, young people seem to develop knowledge only on what they are taught by their teachers or just what is included in the curriculum. This is why as children are required to specialize in certain professions as they develop and advance from one level of academics to another since it is difficult to develop proficiency in all phenomena.

One of the most important goals of philosophy is establish how knowledge is acquired and manifested by various individuals in the form of wisdom. Societies may require people to behave in certain ways and motivate them to put much emphasis on attaining knowledge on various fields. As a result, Rousseau’s assertion that the pursuit by societies to guide or influence young people to understand things in a specific manner is wicked cannot be relied upon. It is necessary for the people who have already attained knowledge on a particular subject to help others who may seek to explore it since education is one of the foremost ingredients of knowledge.


To sum up, this paper has presented the contribution made on education and epistemology by both Locke and Rousseau who were great philosophers. Many people have been interested in knowing more about the nature, origin and limits of knowledge. Locke affirms that education is important in determining the ideas developed by individuals on various occurrences. He acknowledges that children are often equal at birth and any further developments witnessed in their future lives is normally determined by their interest on education. His theory of knowledge points on both the moral and intellectual training. By ensuring that young people attain the right virtues and attributes required in society, teachers motivate them to develop an interest in attaining further knowledge on something since right morals boost an individual’s intellectual capabilities.

On the other hand, Rousseau’s educational philosophy is based on the notion that individuals gained knowledge by interacting with each other. He argues that nature offers young people the best opportunity to learn new ideas through their senses pointing that any pursuit by society to influence their reasoning is wicked. Moreover, to explain the nature and origin of knowledge, Rousseau reflects on the extent in which ideas are developed and enriched to enhance certainty.

Through his extent of knowledge, he shows how people learn through sensations and their pursuit to understand the nature around them. However, the role of education in facilitating the acquisition and development of knowledge cannot be overlooked. It is important for people to know what is true since it enables them to adjust their desires and see how they may be realized. People specialize in different professions upon which they seek to develop additional ideas. It is the role of teachers to motivate young people so that they may develop interests and the desire to generate more facts about a certain subject.