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The Comparison of Lockean and Berkeleian Theories

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English philosophy presented by John Locke and George Berkeley marked a turning point in world philosophy. Both theoreticians were the leaders of the movement against the epistemology of René Descartes, who had been considered a classic of rationalism for a long time. Being convinced supporters of empiricism, Locke and Berkeley denied the existence of innate ideas that were the basis of Descartes’ philosophy. Nevertheless, their appeal to the human experience, as the initial and primary source of all knowledge, led them to the opposite results.

Locke’s representative realism was based on the adoption of logical operations of abstraction and representation, while subjective idealism of Berkeley denied the independent existence of things related to human perception. In my opinion, each of these concepts deserves special attention; however, Berkeley’s theory seems to be more persuasive. Unlike Locke, Berkeley applied the maximum number of logical arguments that makes his theory less vulnerable than the theory of his opponent. I believe that the philosophical assessment of both theories based on the concept of credibility as general logic, consistency, and completeness allows one to recognize Berkeley’s theory as a winner in this dispute.

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The Comparison of Theories of Knowledge of Locke and Berkeley

Locke’s theory of knowledge begins with a critique of Descartes’ doctrine of innate ideas. Locke argues that the human mind has no innate ideas and they are not present both in theoretical thinking and moral convictions. Experience is the only source of all ideas. Accordingly, Locke points to the two experimental (empirical) sources of human ideas; namely, sensations and reflection. The ideas of sensations are the result of the impact of material things on the senses. These ideas are received through sight, hearing, touch, smell, etc. The ideas of sensations are the foundation of all human ideas. The ideas of reflection occur in humans when their minds are considering the inner states and activities of the soul. The ideas of the various operations of human thinking, emotions, desires, etc. belong to this type. Berkeley began the justification of his philosophical beliefs with analysis and criticism of the sensationalist doctrine of Locke. Unlike the Lockean system that was basically realistic, Berkeleian one was idealistic.

Locke divided all qualities of the things into primary and secondary. He attributed length, weight, shape, motion, rest, and materiality to primary qualities, while all other sensible qualities, such as color, sounds, taste, etc. to secondary. Moreover, Locke distinguished simple and complex ideas. The simple idea is such an object of thought, in which one cannot detect the internal structure or part. For example, the ideas of the color (red) or smell are simple, since no parts can be found in them. Simple ideas can be combined, in particular through abstraction, as generalizations turning into complex ideas. A clump of snow is an example of a complex idea. This image combines whiteness, cold, crispness, and many other qualities, each of which is a simple idea. Being an opponent to Locke’s representative realism, Berkeley opposed these statements.

First, he disagrees with Locke’s concept believing that all qualities are secondary, even those that are considered to be primary in Locke’s theory since they have the same character as the secondary ones. They also depend on human perception and consciousness. Berkeley said that all the qualities of the things we're not objective, but determined by sensual perception, that was proved by the fact that objects might have seemed to be large or small. Berkeley used the same logic when considering the concept of matter. According to Locke, by abstraction, one might come to the concepts of matter and space in their essence. In turn, Berkeley was trying to prove that people are not able to arrive at the idea of matter and space in such a manner since he believes that the existence of abstract general ideas is impossible. Perception only results in a particular impression or image, but not in general ideas in the mind. According to Berkeley, it is also impossible to form abstract general ideas of a man, motion, etc.

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Berkeley considered abstract ideas as cheating words, rejecting the idea that the human mind has the ability to abstraction. Thus, he did not recognize the existence of the concept of matter as an abstract idea of matter as such. He believed the concept of matter to be a contradiction since it is the most abstract and incomprehensible of all ideas. Therefore, he thought that it was necessary to banish the concept of matter out of use. What is more, Berkeley denied the objective existence of things. Since the existence of the qualities of things is defined by their perception, it means that all things and objects of the world are only perceptions of human senses. For Berkeley, “to be - is to be perceived” (esse est percipi). Thus, assuming that being is a result of perception, Berkeley denied the existence of the objective world.

Berkeley (2004) deeply analyzed the word “existence”: “The table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed, meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it”. The philosopher points to the fact that any mention of things is related to their perception, and denies the existence of such a thing as matter in a philosophical sense. The existence of things suggests that they are perceived. Until things are perceived by someone, they do not really exist, or otherwise, exist in the mind of the Eternal Spirit. Upholding the principle of subjective idealism, Berkeley wanted to avoid solipsism, i.e. the conclusion that there is only a single perceiving subject. Therefore, contrary to the initial position of subjective idealism, he argued that the subject does not exist in the world alone. The thing, which is not perceived by one subject, maybe perceived by another subject or subjects. However, even if all subjects have disappeared, things would not have turned into anything. They would continue to exist as the sum of “ideas” in the mind of God. God is a subject that cannot disappear in any case. Therefore, the whole world of things created by God cannot disappear. God puts in the minds of individual subjects the content of sensations arising from the contemplation of the world and various things.

The comparison of the theories of both philosophers allows one to make sure that the concept of Berkeley is more reasonable and logical, while Locke’s theory lacks theoretical soundness and integrity. First, Locke argued that the primary qualities are independent of the people, while the secondary ones are the result of human perception. However, he did not justify the interpretation of primary and secondary qualities quite well. Berkeley had every reason to believe that as well as secondary qualities, the primary ones are the result of human perception. Indeed, one may wonder whether the understanding that the subject has a length or a specific size, which allows us to assert that it is big or small, is the result of human perception.

 

In fact, people can touch objects feeling their weight and size, but their perceptions might differ from each other. For this reason, a thing that seems to be big and long to one individual might seem small and short to another. It means that perception is crucial in determining both the primary and secondary qualities. What is more, Berkeley quite logically states that when someone says something about the subject, he/she assumes that he/she sees or hears it. Thus, the idea about things and their existence is directly related to the actual or possible perception. Unlike Locke, who takes some ideas as axioms, in particular with regard to the idea of the primary qualities, his opponent uses deep and detailed analysis that allows him to come to logical and reasonable conclusions. Berkeley’s high level of philosophical reflection allows him to anticipate the possible accusations of solipsism as avoidance of reality. Realizing certain originality of his ideas to the scientific community of his time, Berkeley is doing everything possible to provide his concept with maximum logic and completeness. I think that one should admit that he succeeded in it. The notion of other subjects, as well as the God, who can perceive things, allows Berkeley to avoid accusations of solipsism.

 

As one might see, Berkeley applies a thorough analysis of human perception. Unlike Locke, who sees primary qualities as independent of human perception, Berkeley considers them from philosophical and logical positions. It gives him a good reason to argue that as well as the secondary qualities, the primary ones are the result of human perception. One can deny the position of Berkeley on the grounds that the physical world of things affects people; therefore, it exists independently of a man. However, philosophical consideration of the theories of Locke and Berkeley based on the degree of their logical validity and consistency allows recognizing the concept of the subjective idealist less vulnerable and more cohesive compared with that of Locke.

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