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Of Ideas, The Mind, And The Universe

1315 words - 5 pages

Perception is a concept that we take for granted in our everyday lives. We assume that what we perceive are the physical properties of the objects we encounter. George Berkeley, through his work Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous , questions these notions of what is truly real. Berkeley voices his opinion through the character Philonous, who assumes a very similar role to Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. First, it is necessary to distinguish between different types of sensory perception for clarity’s sake. Philonous systematically shows where all sensory perceptions break down to qualia within the mind in the beginning of his dialogue, first with secondary qualities, and then primary qualities. To explain our sense of objective reality, Philonous refers to an ultimate observer, who observes everything, at all times. There are however some issues with Berkeley’s idealist theory, as I will explore at the end of this paper.
In order to discuss sensory perceptions, we need a definition of the kinds of things that can be perceived, and a general acceptance of the terms used throughout the dialogue. Locke, in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , describes an important distinction between the different qualities that we perceive in objects. He terms the two types of qualities perceived within objects as primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are defined as those which are inherent within the object (Locke gives examples of extension and form) , while secondary qualities are those created within the mind from primary qualities . Berkley uses the term “sensible quality” to express the same concept as Locke’s primary qualities: those qualities which can be observed directly by our senses . Once these concepts are properly understood, Philonous can begin to dismantle the idea of primary qualities.
Philonous begins his rhetoric by asking Hylas questions about the nature of heat. Hylas believes that heat is inherent within the object (and is thus an example of one of Locke’s primary qualities), but Philonous presents him with a simple thought experiment which dispels Hylas’ belief: “Supose now one of your hands hot, and the other cold, and that they are both at once put into the same vessel of water, in an intermediate state; will not the water seem cold to one hand and warm to the other?” Here, Philonous has given an example of two opposite sensations arising from the same object, which, if we assume heat to be a property inherent of the object, creates a contradiction. Therefore, Philonous concludes that heat cannot be a sensible quality. Philonous gives another example, in which he says that if one pricks their finger with a pin, the pain obviously occurs from the prick, not a property inherent in the pin. He presents this as analogous to the fire, and claims that it is just as absurd to say that the pain from a burn, which he equates with a great heat, is inherent within the fire as it is to say that pain is...

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