Berkeley vs Descartes and the beeswax

Tina asked:

What would Berkeley’s argument be against Descartes’ wax argument? Would he say the sensory properties are not different in the solid wax and the melted wax? How would his continuity theory come into the argument?

Answer by Martin Jenkins


As part of his meditations on the correct philosophy, Descartes maintained that reasoning using clear and distinct Ideas would yield truths as opposed to the dubious conclusions borne of the senses. The senses had led Descartes to notice changes in the properties of the wax. Having previously established the indubitable certainty of his own existence and that by the same clear and distinct reasoning, a good, benevolent God necessarily exists Descartes concluded that firstly God qua God could not deceive him in his perceptions and secondly, if the correct clear and distinct reasoning implanted by God, was followed, further truths of the world could be deduced.

Hence the wax is examined and although information conveyed by his senses tell him it changes shape, texture, smell, the judgement of his mind convinces him that objectively, something continues to exist beneath such superficial changes [i.e. substance]. Judgements of the Mind and not images from the body allow Objective Ideas to be formed. This characterises the methodological approach of Rationalist Philosophers like Descartes.


I think Berkeley would argue that there is no underlying ‘substance’ that somehow continues to be the wax despite its different properties and manifestations. Berkeley would maintain that the solid wax and the melted wax are continuous ideas, one following the other but both remaining the ontological status of ideas.

This is consistent with his Immaterialist thesis that only Ideas exist and these are perceived by Minds, Spirits or Souls. There cannot be an material world existing independently of perceivers and continuing to exist when not perceived. Throughout the Principles of Human Knowledge Berkeley argues consistently that this cannot be otherwise. For essentially this would propose that Ideas can exist without and independently of a Mind or Minds which have them. This heralds a contradiction, an absurdity for it would be proposed that Ideas can exist without a Mind or Minds, that they do not depend on Minds for their existence. This is obviously absurd: Ideas cannot exist without Minds and only Minds can have Ideas.


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