Naïve Realism, Locke, and Descartes Essay

Naïve realism was once accepted as a major philosophy. But today, it is simply a topic recalled in philosophy classes to demonstrate that in the search for wisdom, some systems of thought are discarded. The fate of naïve realism was sealed when two influential works became accepted by intellectual circles. These were the works of John Locke and Rene Descartes.

Naïve realism believes that what is immediately and directly perceived becomes the evidence of the truth of an object. For example, the shape of the ball is round and thus, the truth is that the ball is indeed round. This statement was negated, first by Descartes and then by Locke. But first it must be made known that these two philosophers, Descartes and Locke, do not have the same approach to knowledge. Descartes is one of the rationalists, who utilize reason to acquire knowledge and truth. Locke, on the other hand, is one of the empiricists, who emphasize the importance of experience in the quest for knowledge. With this major difference in mind, it would be understandable to discover that Descartes and Locke wielded different approaches in repudiating naïve realism.

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Descartes contends that the mind has a better grasp of knowledge and truth and not the senses. The objects that are seen and touched are just representations of what is residing in the mind. For example, an artist could not wholly create a sculpture to represent an idealized image in his mind. Thus, Descartes created an alternative to naïve realism and he calls it indirect representative realism (Arnold, 2005).

Locke, on the other hand, distinguishes between two qualities of objects: the primary and the secondary. The former is objective and therefore, speaks the truth of the object, where as the latter is subjective and can be changed. For example, the presence of warmth is a primary quality of fire while the presence of pain is a secondary quality. Pain is secondary because it is a reaction of a human who comes too near to the fire. The naïve realists might believe that fire is painful but this is not the truth. However, the idea that fire has warmth is true, whether a human being perceives it or not.

The arguments of Descartes and Locke made me conclude that an individual knower of the world may only gain a fraction of the truth which is presented through his immediate perception. The rest of the truth can be obtained by both investigation and reflection.


Arnold, N.S. (2005). Descartes and the problem of knowledge. Retrieved August 16, 2007 from the University of Alabama in Birmingham Department of Philosophy website at

Richards, S.A. (2006). John Locke: Primary and secondary qualities. Retrieved August 16, 2007 from the Pelusa Media Group website at