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Comparison of Berkeley’s and Descartes’ arguments regarding primary qualities

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Comparison of Berkeley’s and Descartes’ arguments regarding primary qualities

                   As to me, it seems more likely to agree with the argument that some sort of qualities, e.g. primary qualities, are perceived by people equally; while, secondary qualities, which refer to the individual perception of the object’s primary qualities, are perceived differently. Denying the existence of the material substance, George Berkeley argues that primary qualities of any object are so-called “ideas”, which form together a material substance, which he calls the secondary quality.

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Rene Descartes, on other hand, presents the theory of primary qualities as objective characteristics of an object, and secondary qualities as subjective properties of the material substance. Berkeley’s concept has a problem with the perception of the one particular object similarly by the majority of the humanity. If material subject is an idea, than people could not have similar ideas simultaneously, as far as the idea is a subjective conception.

According to George Berkeley, there are no material substances at all.

Instead, Berkeley distinguishes between ideas and souls, which are the parts of the human consciousness.  Ideas, as to Berkeley, are the qualities, which a human being percepts subjectively. Souls, on other hand, are acting immaterial subjects of the spiritual activities. Berkeley thought, that ideas are totally passive, while a soul is active. This issue is extremely important while arguing against his theory.  It means that he does not assume that material objects appear only due to the perception, and disappear when the perception stops. “Idea” is the central object in Berkeley’s studies. Due to the explanations, which were given above, “quality” becomes also a subjective concept. Thus, primary quality, for Berkeley, is the property of the “idea” or ‘idea” itself, and not of some material substance. “Idea” is the primary one. Material substance is nothing more nor less than the combination or complex of the ideas (p.16). Thus the material substance is secondary one. The material substance is not determined by the collection of its qualities, but, vise versa, the set of the qualities and properties determine the material substance. Material substance, according to Berkeley, is not only incognizable, but also unreal (p.18)[1]. He reduces the concept of “qualities” to sensations. The surrounding environment and world, consequently, reduces to the aggregate of the cognizant person’s individual sensations. Berkley comes to the thought that a human being perceives only his/her personal sensations/feelings, and the cognition of the real objective world is theoretically impossible. According to Berkeley, what we experience through our senses is due to the direct action of God, and so it is through the senses that God communicates with us and informs us as to what things are good for us and what are harmful. (p.69) We, therefore, see that Berkeley’s epistemology is providential, in that all knowledge is provided by God-The-Instructor, and that all knowledge is transmitted to us through the senses.[2]

Unlike Berkeley, Descartes tried to prove the existence of the corporeal objects. According to Descartes, the material substance exists and has its primary and secondary qualities. Descartes distinguishes on the qualities on the basis of the things, which can differ from man to man, e.g. we differently percept color, taste, smell, etc. Such qualities are secondary one; and, primary qualities are anything that can be measured, or mathematics can be applied to it, e.g. size, shape, or motion. Descartes argued that secondary qualities, e.g. color, smell, and taste, really do not belong to the object. Instead these qualities exist only in the minds of the observer. (p.16) Thus, secondary qualities are the individual perception of the primary qualities of particular material substance. On other hand, the shape, motion, speed, and size belong to the object itself, and thus not the product of the relations to the observer’s mind. In Descartes’ version of perception of the things, the root of distinctions between primary and secondary qualities is the attribute of extension or existence in the space.  All primary qualities are features that necessarily and really belong to object; and, secondary qualities do not necessarily belong to the extended object and thus observer-dependent. The existence in the space Descartes proved by his method of the systematic doubt.  He doubted the existence of everything he had heard, seen, and touched. As a result, he came to the conclusion, that he could not doubt the thing that he was doubting. Thus, he came to the decision that if he thought than he existed. (p.25) It was the proof for existence of the primary qualities such as existence of the material object as it.  Another way in which Descartes proves the existence of material substances is by showing that pure intellect is totally controlled by will and therefore anything can be easily ignored. While imagination is not controlled by will and this concludes that, as it is impossible to restrict imagination, matter must exist, as without the subsistence of things to imagine there would be no imagination (p.36)[3].

           Berkeley and Descartes, in my opinion, agree in the issue that the perception of the secondary qualities (or taste, smell, color, temperature) is the kinds of the pains and pleasure. Since pleasures and pains cannot exist unperceived or in an unperceiving substance it follows that these things (e.g. heat) are not qualities of physical objects and, therefore, cannot exist without the mind. Thus, both philosophers count these qualities as the individual perception. However, Berkeley denies the existence of the material objects; instead, Descartes tend to think that existence of the material substance in the space is primary quality. One material object cannot have simultaneously two incompatible qualities (e.g. hot and cold). And, according to Berkeley, the immediate perceived quality is really a quality of the object perceived. Besides, if an immediately (secondary) perceived quality is really a quality of perceived object, than a change in a quality means a change in an object. (p.85) Berkeley responds to the Descartes argument that since the perception of shape and size depend upon the position of my eyes, the experience of solidity depends upon the sense of touch, and the idea of motion is always relative to some particular situation (p.87) We can have ideas or sense-data of both primary and secondary qualities. But, say Descartes, sense-data of primary qualities can actually represent primary qualities; sense-data of secondary qualities do not represent secondary qualities, because really there aren’t any secondary qualities in the object at all. We might just say that secondary quality refers to exactly the same thing as sense or feeling of a secondary quality[4].

I tend to support Descartes’ argument more. If there would be only ideas and no material substance, how it could happen that people perceive some things similarly and other differently. If Berkeley’s theory would work, than everything in the world would be perceived differently. Each human being would have different view on the same material/immaterial objects. However, people usually perceive size, shape, and motion similarly. So it is impossible to assume that there is only “ideas” without their physical existence. I agree to the idea that primary qualities, e.g. the existence in the space, material characteristics such as size and shape and speed, are viewed equally by people. However, the secondary qualities, e.g. smell and taste, differ due to the different perception. I tend to distinguish between the qualities, which belong to the physical object itself and qualities, which a human being create in his/her mind to characterize the material substance. I think the main problem with Berkeley’s arguments is that there are no strong strict criteria, by which people determine the qualities of a physical object. It is not understandable why primary qualities people percept equally, and perception of the secondary qualities differs from man to man. If there is no material world and people actually do not touch, see, hear, feel, but perceive the “idea”, than is it possible that 100 people from 100 respondents tell that the book has square form; however, call its color by different name and percept it from light blue to dark blue. Also as an argument to my point of view, I would like to say that only primary qualities are inseparable from their subjects. You can imagine any object in different colors or with different tastes, but cannot imagine them loosing their shape.  For example, brown cat, which turns black, cannot be imagined not in the shape of cat. Also it is impossible to imagine a material substance without secondary qualities; however, it is hard to imagine some object without primary qualities such as shape or size. Also it is obvious that when sounds are not heard they do not exist (even ultrasounds, not being heard by people, are heard with special devices). I tend to assume that material substance is characterized by the collection of the primary and secondary qualities, but deny the theory that set of qualities and properties determine the object.

So, after presenting two opposite arguments concerning primary qualities and the existence of the material substance as it is, I conclude that perception of the same things similarly makes impossible the concept of the absence of the material world and existence of ideas alone. Berkeley insists on the concept that primary qualities are the properties of the ideas and not of the material substances. According to him, there is no material physical world and surrounding environment. Everything in the world is just the ideas and our perception. He considers the “idea” to be the primary quality, and material substance the secondary one. Complex of the “ideas’ form the material substance. Feelings and sensations are the only reliable source of information for him. According to Berkeley, God creates the criteria for people to distinguish, compare, and interpret the obtained information and knowledge about object. A man is surrounded by the collection of the ideas, and each human being can perceive things differently according to the criteria, knowledge he/she has. Unlike Berkeley, Descartes sees definite distinctions between the primary and secondary qualities of an object. For him, primary objects are properties of the material substance that can be objectively measured and be interpreted only in that way. However, he also agrees with the idea that there are secondary qualities of a material substance which do not belong to the object itself; however, they are the product of a human’s mind. Secondary qualities can be viewed differently by people as they are subjective, whereas primary qualities are objective ones. Berkeley, in my opinion, has a very radical point of view. And realizing that I know that I know nothing, it seems incorrectly to support such extreme opinion. The truth is probably in the compromise, which Descartes seems to present.


1.      Will Durant, Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, Reissue Edition, 1991

2.      George Pitcher, Berkeley (The Arguments of the Philosophers), Routledge and Kegan Paul Books, 1989.

3.      Benedictus de Spinoza, Principles of Descartes Philosophy, Open Court Pub Co, 1983.

[1] George Pitcher, Berkeley (The Arguments of the Philosophers), pp 14-17
[2] Will Durant, Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, pp 68-75
[3] Benedictus de Spinoza, Principles of Descartes Philosophy, pp16-18, 24-37
[4] Will Durant, Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, pp 85-87

Cite this Comparison of Berkeley’s and Descartes’ arguments regarding primary qualities

Comparison of Berkeley’s and Descartes’ arguments regarding primary qualities. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/comparison-of-berkeleys-and-descartes-arguments-regarding-primary-qualities/

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