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Berkeley and Locke: If a Tree Falls in a Forest


One of the most debated philosophical experiment questions is “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer to this question seems to be quite easy, it presents a significant epistemological problem, the explanations of which have to opposite conclusions. In particular, George Berkeley and John Locke considered the identified problem using a similar philosophical approach and ended up with different answers. This paper aims to explore the mentioned question from the point of the arguments provided by Locke, who stated that no one would hear the sound since it is a mere sensation; and Berkeley, who is confident that a tree will make a sound as it is an object existing in one’s mind.

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Exploring the Matter of Sound

Concept of Sound

Sound is composed of air vibrations transmitted to the human senses through the ear system. These vibrations can only become sound in the nerve centers of a person. Any mechanical impact, such as, for example, falling of trees, produces only air vibration (Anstey 228). The English philosopher, George Berkeley in his work “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” offers a statement. It states that a person believes that there is nothing easier than imagining, for example, trees in the forest or books in the library that no one perceives. Berkeley claims that a person is naturally capable of imagining the objects since it is easy. If there is no means for listening, in other words, ears, then there will be no sound.

Epistemology is a philosophical and methodological discipline in which scientific knowledge, its structure, and functioning are explored. From the perspective of Locke, sound is oscillating waves that travel through air, water, or walls through gaseous, liquid, and solid mediums. It becomes evident that Locke considers the given question in the context epistemology, focusing on the connection between metaphysics and reality. At the same time, these vibrations are perceived by human creatures, who are able to recognize the mechanical vibrations of these waves. In fact, if there is no object of perception, then sound cannot exist in any environment.

Locke’s Perspective: Reality and Sensations

Primary and secondary qualities of objects are terms used to distinguish the properties of things based on objectivity. These terms were introduced by Locke, although such a distinction was made before him by Galileo, Democritus, Descartes, and some other philosophers (Thiel 32). Locke related primary, or objective, qualities to movement, adhesion of particles impermeability, density, volume, et cetera. In turn, the secondary, or subjective, qualities were assigned to color, smell, taste, and sound. All the properties that are not amenable to the explanation from were declared Locke secondary.

The allocation of subjective qualities was also based on a mixture of the objective existence of qualities with the form of their reflection in consciousness (Thiel 33). A lack of understanding of the special role of thinking in the display of the qualities of things also shaped the mentioned ideas.

In terms of the theory of primary and secondary qualities, if a tree can exist outside the framework of perception, then a person is not able to know if it is a tree. In this connection, it is critical to identify the notion of existence seems to understand the difference between reality and how people perceive it. If an object is beyond the boundaries of how one perceives it, the reasoning from a position of common sense seems to be relevant. While there are waves of sound, one cannot hear them. Mechanically, the sound will “happen”, but the person will not hear it. Accordingly, this very mechanical sound cannot exist if a person is not able to perceive it.

It is appropriate to discuss the difference described by Locke regarding the primary and secondary qualities of the object in detail. This metamorphosis indicates the qualities the objects possess initially, axiomatically, and which are attributed to them by people (Tittle 71). For example, something blue or red is not actually blue or red, the bitter is not bitter, and the sound is not something that somehow sounds. However, as viewed by Locke, a sound always remains as such: an object that for some reason one does not see, hear, or perceive may exist independently. Moreover, a person is not capable of perceiving everything, and the reality surrounding him or her is full of undiscovered issues.

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The difference between perception and reality is the fundamental aspect of the theory developed by Locke. It is possible to wonder: if a tree exists beyond perception (within the framework of common sense), will it create sound waves? One can assume that these sound waves will not be heard. Sound, in its mechanical sense, will appear, but it will not be perceptible to the human ear. How can sound exist if it is not accessible to human perception? This puzzle reveals Locke’s prominent distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

The distinction emphasizes which qualities are axiomatically absorbed into the object and which of them are attributed to the object (Tittle 72). In other words, a red object is not really red since “red” is a secondary quality, and the sound of a falling tree in a forest does not sound like anything.

Berkeley’s Point: Immaterialism

Berkeley builds on the classic definition of an idea given by Locke, and significantly narrows this concept. In Berkeley’s philosophy, ideas turn out to be immediate objects of perception, but not any objects of knowledge in general. Concretizing the given concept, Berkeley refuses Locke’s idea that knowledge is only a perception of the connection and conformity or inconsistency and incompatibility of any of human ideas.

Immaterialism states that if something exists, then it is perceived. However, it should be stressed that some researchers look at it contrarily (Tipton 58). Locke argues that the substance and its properties are different from each other, while Berkeley is sure that any object is something that one can feel. The dominant argument of Berkeley is that the sound is an audible noise, so a falling tree can be heard anyway, even if there is nobody nearby. Thus, sensationalism ultimately narrows the existence of objects and even dissolves them in the sensory perspective.


To conclude, the epistemological question discussed in this paper raises an important issue of the relation of human minds to reality. Considering the point of Locke and his secondary quality assigned to sound, one may suggest that this philosopher would answer “no”. According to Locke, no one would hear the sound of a tree falling in a forest since sound is only a sensation created in one’s mind. This assumption is based on the idea that people derive knowledge about the world through perception and experience.

Works Cited

Anstey, Peter R. “John Locke and the Philosophy of Mind.” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 53, no. 2, 2015, pp. 221-244.

Thiel, Udo. Locke: Epistemology and Metaphysics. CRC Press, 2019.

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Tipton, Ian Charles. Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism. Routledge, 2019.

Tittle, Peg. What If…: Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. Routledge, 2016.

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