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Epistemology in Locke and Berkeley Essay

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Even though Locke seems to posit a mind-independent world founded on matter, on closer examination it will be found that he does so grudgingly. Berkeley, on the other hand considers the notion as unnecessary, and indeed evil. With a proper examination of the two philosophies they will found to be identical in substance, and they only differ in their moral orientation regarding the notion of matter. Locke’s path would appear to lead to materialism, while Berkeley’s to spiritualism. I argue, however, that Locke is not really promoting materialism.

On the other hand, Berkeley’s stance might be the road to quietism, instead of true spirituality. On balance, I would favor Locke.

Both philosophers are Empiricists, therefore claim that all knowledge is derived from sense experience alone. The real target against whom this philosophy is directed are the Rationalists, following Descartes, who contended that the mind is possessed of innate knowledge, which is discovered through the application of reason as applied to the sensory data of experience.

Descartes numbered substance as three – the soul capable of thought, the non-thinking material world, and God.

Excluding God as the unknowable entity, the Cartesians grappled with mind and matter duality, confident that both could be understood as agents interacting with each other. However all efforts in this direction ended in pantheism, where God is invoked as the necessary and indispensable agent of mind and matter interaction. Locke’s philosophy is primarily aimed at overcoming Cartesian duality, and the same can be said of Berkeley’s. Locke focuses his attack on the Cartesian mind with its innate ideas. Berkeley, on the other hand, attacks the concept of mind-independent matter.

Locke pictures the mind as a white piece of paper, on which experience writes all possible content, and that which we are able to describe as mind. Before the mind experiences the external material world it has no knowledge. This is made up of ideas, which is that formed when something impinges on our senses, coming from the object of perception.

The actual process of transmission is inscrutable, though, which Locke is at pains to point out. The ideas are generally nothing like the object itself, and so the causation that is talked about, as the body being caue of the sense perception, is left shrouded. To make this point Locke shows that we form positive ideas from even the lack of causation. So that the absence of light is positively a shadow to us. Just like the names we give to objects are nothing like the objects themselves, so that most of the ideas that form in the mind bear “no more the likeness of something existing without us” (qtd. in Bowie, 251).

With this provision out of the way, Locke goes on to claim that there are certain ideas which do bear resemblance to the object being observed. The ideas of extension, solidity, shape and motion are indeed said to reside in the object itself. These aspects of matter are intuited, and form what Locke terms primary qualities. This is why the ideas of shape, solidity and motion have such distinct and forceful presence in our mind. It is due to the fact that such ideas constitute the only information transmitted from matter itself to the mind. All other ideas, termed as secondary, are derived from the primary ones, and compounded from them in various ways. In this way color, taste, smell, texture etc are all secondary qualities.

These ideas are characterized by their relative nature, so that no two observers are able to agree exactly on a quality like taste or color. At the same time they are not as distinct as are the simple ideas. The same food item can be sweet when tasted in health, and bitter when in fever. Again Locke takes care to point out that there is no necessary causation involved. The idea of blueness, along with the particular fragrance, that we get from holding a violet cannot be linked to the flower itself, so that it is “no more impossible to conceive that God should annex such ideas to such motions, with which they have no similitude” (Ibid 253).

Berkeley insists that the relativistic argument must also apply to the primary qualities of Locke, so that there can be no agreement even regarding shape, size and motion. Different perspectives of the same event gives rise to different ideas, so that a large square building might appear to be small and rectangular when seen from a distance and a skewed perspective. Locke argues, however, that such differences can be “reasoned” away, by the use of geometry and knowledge of the observer’s position relative to the object of scrutiny. Because such correction is possible the mind can be said to have true knowledge regarding extension. Thus, the thesis of simple ideas, the crux of Locke’s epistemology, is restored.

Against this, Berkeley would complain that there cannot be any distinction between primary and secondary sensations. He asks us to try to imagine, if we can, the shape of an object without color. And because we cannot our notion of extension is inseparable from the so-called secondary sensations. That which Locke claimed as distinct as an idea, is found out not to be really so. Shape, size and motion appear to us always associated with color, tone, texture, taste, mood, and so on, and the two categories of sensations cannot be clinically separated at all. And if it is the case that the secondary qualities are not in the object itself, but are framed by the mind that perceives it, then the same must be true for the primary qualities too (Ibid 256).

Locke had dismissed Descartes’ materialism, and yet held on to the notion of matter by the slender thread of “primary qualities”. Berkeley overturns this too, so that there is nothing left with which to grasp on to a notion of matter as a mind-independent entity. He simply applies Occam’s razor to the preceding argument and concludes that, if God would impart to us our idea of extension, whether there be matter or not, then it is illogical to postulate the separate existence of matter, a thing that serves no function at all, and to do so would be tantamount to imputing that “God has created innumerable beings that are entirely useless, and serve to no manner of purpose” (Ibid 258). We know that this is an argument that Locke would have appreciated, because he himself uses Occam’s razor at many points in his own argument, for example, when he postulates that all experience is derived from only simple ideas.

Berkeley is not saying, “Nothing exists.” The external world is indeed real, but as an idea in the mind of God, and maintained as such so that we are able to refer to an absolute fixity in nature. Existence is either as a spirit or as an idea. The spirit is that which perceives idea. Apart from our own existence we also perceive ideas. These too are said to have real existence. A table does not cease to exist just because we have left the room and there is none to observe it anymore. If it continues to exist, it must only be in some other mind, says Berkeley, and “consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit” (Ibid 255).

As epistemology, Berkeley’s reasoning is irrefutable, except that it does not inspire active enquiry as does Locke’s. After a proper examination of the latter’s philosophy it will be found not to differ in essence from that of Berkeley, except in structure and the terminology used. But such a difference is not a minor one either. The distinction of primary ideas made by Locke found better expression in Kant, a century later, as the “synthetic a priori” ideas of the mind.

The gist of Kant is that while practical reason does not deliver knowledge, it nevertheless presages the existence of “pure” reason, transcendent to practical reason, and the preserve of true knowledge. A further corollary to Kant’s philosophy is the categorical imperative, which stimulates action towards the moral path, which is the path dictated by pure reason, and also the road to true knowledge. It is easy to demonstrate that Locke’s postulate of a material sense perception is the counterpart to Kant’s postulate of practical reason. That such an idea does not deliver knowledge both Locke and Kant admit. But contained in the idea is the imperative to enquire and attain to true knowledge. This is what Locke means when he says:

How short soever their knowledge may come of an universal or perfect comprehension of whatsoever is, it yet secures their great concernments, that they have light enough to lead them to the knowledge of their Maker, and the sight of their own duties. (27)

This is the spirit of active enquiry that we find in Locke, but not in Berkeley. Indeed, the historical influence of Locke testifies to this claim completely. The German historian Oswald Spengler was not exaggerating when he said, “The Western Enlightenment is of English origin. The rationalism of the Continent comes wholly from Locke” (qtd. in Durant, 590). It is unfortunate, however, that Locke has come to be associated with materialism. Such a misunderstanding is due to a failure to comprehend fully the implications of his epistemology. This is why I favor Locke over Berkeley.

Works Cited

Bowie, G. Lee, Meredith W. Michaels and Robert C. Solomon. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Wadsworth Publishing, 2006.

Durant, Will and Ariel Durant. The Age of Louis XIV: A History of European Civilization in the Age of Pascal. New York: Simon and Schuster,1963.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. Bibliobazaar LLC, 2006.

 

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