Enlightenment Empiricism: Locke and Berkeley

The divergence of opinions concerning the nature of truth started with Plato and Aristotle’s disagreement, invoking centuries of debate around rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists raised questions of uncertainty while the empiricists experimented with the reality to prove the physical qualities and properties of the objects, as shown in Aristotle’s interests in physics and anatomy, the empiricists fervently pursued the course of discovery on nature, for they believe that there’re certain properties of the objects that will not change even if the human senses might be deceiving, at the end, these properties integrated and formed the objects observed in everyday lives.

However, the assertion made by the empiricists directly contradicted with the rationalists. First of all, both rationalism and empiricism stemmed from the common ground of skepticism, in which we philosophically questioned our perceptions in the world and challenged the norms held by previous experiences. However, the rationalists took the step further and started to question everything in a rational manner: this is particularly popular in Platonic Dialogues, in which Socrates constantly questioned the figures involved in the conversations. On the other hand, the empiricist writings were largely logical argumentations followed by step-by-step analysis of the subject matter. This difference in writing style reflected the major difference between the rationalists and the empiricists, is that while rationalists advocated the cause of pure reason in the form of deduction, the empiricists put their trusts in scientific facts and inductions, experimenting with the nature and investigating the nature of the objects.

John Locke postulated the terms “primary qualities” and “secondary qualities”, in which echoed with Aristotle’s writings. Locke believed there’re a few properties attributed to an object is unchangeable even if human perception went wrong, and these’re called the “primary qualities”. Such as the density, mass, and chemical components. On the other hand, there’re some properties of an object that can be precepted or reasoned upon only if we based on those primary qualities. Such qualities can only be observed or realized by our understanding of the primary qualities. For instance, the taste of an apple should be considered as a secondary quality because the chemical components of it reacted to our sense of taste: it is the primary qualities of the apple constituted for our perception of the second qualities. However, George Berkeley disagreed upon Locke using the same empiricist method. Firstly he examined the nature of the primary qualities, and he concluded the primary qualities are in a co-dependent relationship with the secondary qualities. For instance, the shape of an object can be seen by human eyes because of its distinctive color (a secondary quality) from the surroundings, however, if the secondary quality of color is incorrect, the shape of that object might change: the way that how a dog sees the world surely differed from the way humans see the world. Therefore, Berkeley concluded that the primary qualities are just like secondary qualities that could went wrong.

Berkeley concluded his reasoning that there’s no difference between the primary and secondary qualities, and this means everything around us could be just be things to be precepted: there’s no matter. In order to couple this dilemma, Berkeley postulated our existence as the state of being perceived, or “Esse Est Percepi”. This means that only to be perceived, we can come to a state of being. However, this raises the question of perception, in which the existence of everything should be based on the perception of others. For instance, I exist because I’m being perceived by other people. As a result, Berkeley brought up the notion of God, in which he believes that an omnipotent God perceives everything so that our existence is affirmed. Even we’re not perceived by other people, living on an island isolated from the rest of the world, we are still in the state of being because the God perceives everything.


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