Galileo’s The Assayer

In his book the Assayer, Galileo’s leading theory and the point he tries to put across concerns the Copernican method, which was developed by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 (Descartes). This theory explains that the solar system’s center is the sun and other planets, including Earth, move around the Sun. The Copernican approach gave a much more vivid picture of the solar system and the galaxy as compared to the older Ptolemaic theory (Descartes). The Ptolemaic theory based its argument on the Earth, stating that the Sun’s relative position was central to the Earth and other planets. Galileo’s support of this theory as he started to adopt it was met with uncertainty, and so was the adaptation of the same by other philosophers (Alexander). Both the Copernican and the Ptolemaic systems have their strongholds, but the Copernican theory would not be as developed or as accurate as it is if it were not for the Ptolemaic theory (Alexander). The Copernican approach builds slowly from the Ptolemaic theory. It is also said that Copernicus retained some of the assumptions of the work of Ptolemy (Alexander). However, in this case, the Copernican theory is more accurate and much more concise such that it has been able to pave the way for modern-day astronomy (Fumerton). This essay will try and engage other theorists and their criticisms of the Assayer such as Locke and Berkeley.

Locke’s Realism of Primary and Secondary Qualities

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Locke’s argument is that of realism and pure facts since that is the more sensible approach to such subjects. According to Galileo, taste, colors, and odors would not exist in the world if all living creatures were to be destroyed or if they disappeared (Fumerton). Locke’s criticism of this narrative is that these are only secondary qualities and they are not all present in all living creatures (Descartes). Locke states that the primary attributes are much more the core upon which living things are made of or formed into when they start to exist and even in life it can be seen as a child is formed inside their mother’s womb (Fumerton).

The primary qualities that Locke speaks of are figure, solidity, motion or rest, extension, and number (Alexander). This is the core of the conditions of most beings, even those which are celestial. Locke then reiterates and argues that there are secondary qualities and they are sound, smell, color, warmth or cold and taste (Alexander). These qualities form the basis of Galileo’s, the Assayer. Locke makes a very realistic approach in his argument about his primary attributes and they are at the center for what constitutes a living being (Fumerton). Locke intends to remove emotion and to feel from the living creature when he states his primary qualities.

However, in most cases, it is tough to remove what he terms as secondary qualities from living creatures. Despite not wholly eliminating these qualities, he states that they are secondary, which means that they come later in their lives and this is somewhat true (Fumerton). This is because some of the secondary qualities are caused by primary conditions. In addition, the fundamental attributes cannot be separated from matter, and they are found in almost every inch of things anywhere (Descartes). The secondary qualities are based on feeling and emotion, which are other powers that not all forms of matter can experience.

Berkeley’s Idealism of Primary and Secondary Qualities

While Berkeley may not conform entirely to Locke’s view, he states that the secondary qualities as Locke have put them exist in the mind of the person who can experience these qualities. Additionally, although Locke’s argument is based on black and white, Berkeley’s idea is layered, and it is down to the individual and how they perceive it like glass being half full and half empty (Alexander). However, Berkeley goes further and states that the lens cannot be both half full and half empty it has to be either of the two. 

Berkeley states that the primary qualities exist independently in the mind of an individual, as compared to the secondary classes living in the spirit of the intention of an individual (Fumerton). The primary qualities are objective, and Berkeley states that individuals should not look at objects directly because some of the things that we perceive are more or fewer characteristics of the sensations that our minds experience (Descartes). Berkeley’s interpretation of the Assayer is much more informed and detailed because that is how living beings behave and think about specific issues in life.


Despite being a lofty viewpoint, Berkeley’s interpretation of the primary and secondary qualities is much more fitting. This is because there are different aspects of what human beings experience in their lives and that is why they are not all equal. This inequality could be caused by changed circumstances, but it could also be because living beings view different things in a different way to others. Locke’s ideology is not flawed, but it does not have a grey area, unlike Berkeley’s argument.

Works Cited

Alexander A. Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, p. 131, 2014.

Descartes, René. Principles of Philosophy. 1644/1647. Trans. Valentine Rodger Miller and Reese P. Miller. D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1984.Fumerton, Richard. Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems of Perception. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

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