British empiricists are first and foremost concerned with how our minds acquire knowledge and they try to come up with specific terms and definitions about the combination of that knowledge. Furthermore, they aim to understand the specific processes that are in effect during this acquisition period, and, influenced by the mechanical spirit of the era, attempt to deconstruct mental processes into their smallest components (only to reconstruct from them associative processes which they later come to believe is the foundation of all mental activities). The conversation about the differences between perception and reality begin with John Locke, are improved upon by George Berkeley and “pushed to their logical skeptical conclusions” by David Hume (Fieser, 2017, p.11). These philosophers are the ones most focused on this topic and hence will constitute most of our discussion.

The philosophical background which made it possible for such a differentiation to even exist begins with the theories of René Descartes, who had asserted in a Platonian vein, that some ideas (e.g. God, piety, justice, perfection) were ingrained in us from birth while some were derived from our senses (Hossain, 2014). While demonstrating that our minds had the innate ability to perceive the world through our senses and create new information accordingly, he also laid the foundation for the forthcoming empirical protest (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). The most prominent opposition to Descartes’ formulation of “innate ideas” came from John Locke; the pioneer of British Empiricism who, as empiricist always do, based the beginning point of our ideas to be the information we gather through our sensory experiences. Concerned, like all empiricists, with the acquisition of knowledge, he wanted to further investigate how accurately our senses reflected the world around us, and thus came up with the differentiation of “primary” and “secondary” qualities (PBS Digital Studios, 2017; Schultz & Schultz, 2012). While primary qualities such as the shape, solidity, motion and size of the objects in question remain the same whether or not there is a perceiver, he claimed, the secondary characteristics such as sounds, tastes, color depends on the medium of the observer. (Fieser, 2017; Schultz & Schultz, 2012).

For instance, imagine you are looking at a painting; the size, height, depth and width of which can surely be calculated with some universally agreed upon measuring unit. We can say, for example, that it is twenty centimeters wide and ten centimeters long. We cannot, however, have the tools to describe the way the paint smells or how vibrant the colors are: because it would be different for everybody else. In other words, while Locke believed that the primary qualities existed in the object itself, secondary qualities exist only when we are there to perceive them (PBS Digital Studios, 2017; Schultz & Schultz, 2012). This differentiation marked an important separation between the objectivity of the world and subjectivity of human senses (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). They also begged the question: what if primary qualities are just as observer-dependent as secondary ones? Which was exactly what George Berkeley theorized about in his own philosophical (and somewhat religious) approach. (Fieser, 2017).

For Berkeley, the acquisition of knowledge occurred only through the prism of the experiencing mind. He held that the distinction between primary and secondary qualities were therefore obsolete, as he believed that it would be impossible to detect any primary qualities without also detecting secondary ones (PBS Digital Studios, 2017); or that primary qualities, as secondary qualities do, only existed when someone was there to perceive them. This did not mean, however, that Berkeley rejected the existence of the material world completely, he merely believed that all qualities of all entities were primarily observer-dependent (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). Some images that have become wide-known in our contemporary culture demonstrate these observer-dependency perfectly; the “Spinning Dancer Illusion” comes to mind, for instance. In the animated image, a figure of a woman is rotating on her own axis (see Figure 1), and while some people perceive her to be spinning to the right, others see her spinning to the left; although the image remains all the same.

Because Berkeley’s, and to a certain extent Locke’s, philosophies had already irrevocably fractured the belief that human perception was able to reflect an absolute reality, the philosophers that came after them refocused their attention on the implications of such a statement (Hossain, 2014). David Hume, for instance, did not try to reiterate why there was an insurmountable divide between perception and reality, but instead tried to answer how we come to believe that what we perceive is, in fact, real. Refining the previous associative theories, Hume believed that perceptions seemed real to us because they were consistently and coherently stored in our minds. For Hume, the universe was not cemented with its own absolute reality, but with the associations our minds create while perceiving it (Hossain, 2014; Morris & Brown, 2017).

For post-Hume empiricists, David Hartley, James Mill and John Stuart Mill, the main challenge now was to further improve on the association theories. Hartley believed, for instance, that all mental activity could be analyzed by being reduced to its smallest components (which are compounded together by association), whereas John Stuart Mill claimed that ideas could not simply be reduced to their smallest parts because they take on new qualities in the associative process (Schultz & Schultz, 2012). However, the most poignant expression of the culmination of all the previous philosophical processes comes, I believe, when Duane and Syndey-Ellen Schultz (2012) write on James Mill: “In the familiar empiricist-associationist tradition, all knowledge begins with sensations from which are derived, through the process of association, higher-level complex ideas” (p. 42).


Fieser, J. (2017). The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey. Retrieved 5 November 2017, from

Hossain, F. (2014). A Critical Analysis of Empiricism. Open Journal Of Philosophy, 04(03), 225-230.

Morris, W., & Brown, C. (2017). David Hume. Retrieved 5 November 2017, from

PBS Digital Studios. (2017). Locke, Berkeley, & Empiricism: Crash Course Philosophy. Retrieved from

Schultz, D., & Schultz, S. (2012). A history of modern psychology (10th ed., pp. 29-46). Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Written in 06.11.2017




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