Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Another post on Archetypes
In 'Berkeley's Christian neo-Platonism' (J.Hist. Ideas, 1976), Peter Wenz tries to defend the claim that Berkeley was careful to ensure that his early works were consistent with Christian neo-Platonism, which was a view he truly held but also withheld until Siris.
It is true that in both the Principles and the Three Dialogues, Berkeley talks of 'ideas or their archetypes', but says little about what these archetypes might be. But there are two things to note. In §33 (not quoted by Wenz) it would seem that the distinction between ideas and their archetypes prefigures Hume's distinction between ideas and impression. And nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, does he specify that the archetypes are ideas. So if he does make room for archetypes in the mind of God, those could be intentions just as much as ideas.
Wenz claims that by the Three Dialogues Berkeley had found reason to do more than make his position consistent with neo-Platonism, but to actually show its commitment to archetypal ideas. His main argument for this is a classic of misreading which deserves some unpicking. He considers the passage in which Hylas suggests that there is a problem for the immaterialist in accounting for how two people can see the same thing:
"Philonous' final reply, and the only one Berkeley allows Hylas to be satisfied with, …"
Wenz begins the argument by confusing Berkeley's objections with those of Philonous. The latter is concerned with satisfying / persuading Hylas, the former with expounding a philosophical position. That Philonous needs to say something to satisfy Hylas, who is refusing to accept the argument against realism about identity, does not show that Berkeley thinks that argument is mistaken.
"… is that on his principles, no less than on those of the materialists, one may 'suppose an archetype' of the object in question so long as this archetype be 'supposed to exist in that mind which comprehends all things'. …"
Very subtle this one: the 'may' should be within the quotation, for Philonous suggests that if he is not satisfied with the attack on realism about identity, Hylas 'may suppose an archetype'. In other words, this way of dealing with the problem is being allowed but not endorsed. It is not being endorsed because the anti-realist move of Philonous' previous speech is the official line.
"… Thus Berkeley is willing to allow archetypal ideas in the mind of God …"
Not archetypal ideas, but archetypes. They may be different.
"… in order to make his principles consistent with the view of common sense that different people can perceive the same object."
This is a classic example of a philosopher out of sympathy with Berkeley claiming that realist metaphysics is just part of common sense, and thus that Berkeley has to accommodate it. Now, Berkeley does not have to accommodate every facet of common sense, but in this case he has just has argued that the 'vulgar acceptation' of identity is not realist, so while archetypes may be necessary to account for realism about identity, the view Hylas finds so hard to shake off, they are not needed to account for common sense.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
Matter as Cause of Experiences
We know that Berkeley's view of what causation consists in entails that only minds can cause anything. It would be tempting to assume that the materialist can resurrect his view by rejecting this very strong account of causation and opting for something weaker. But it is not obvious that this is correct.
In §69 Berkeley considers the materialist who says that matter is the 'occasion' of our experiences, and one definition of 'occasion' which he considers is:
something that is observed to accompany, or go before it, in the ordinary course of things.
Now this is strikingly similar to Hume's definition of cause, and something which is regularly perceived to precede the 'effect' (Hume ruled out simultaneous causation). And Berkeley makes the same point as Hume: if this is what causation consists in, nothing unobserved and unobservable can be a cause.
What the materialist needs to do is to objectify Hume's account of causation, saying that A is the cause of B iff A regularly precedes B, whether observed or not. But (a) Hume had a good reason for rejecting this, namely such a relation would lack the necessity we expect in causation, and (b) the definition is only different if one accepts the possibility of things which can exist unobserved, which is exactly the point at issue.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Adverbial Account of Ideas
The adverbial account of ideas says that ideas are ways of perceiving, thus to have an idea of red is to be in a certain sort of perceptual state which we might call perceiving redly, and similarly for all the other sensible qualities. The attraction of this view is that it allows us to talk of ideas without introducing them as a special kind of object. It is thus popular amongst realist materialists as an account of perception: the white wall looks red, and we do not need to explain this by saying that there is a red things, an idea, which I perceive instead of the white wall, since what it is for the white wall to look red is for me to perceive the white wall redly.
Now some have interpreted Berkeley's talk of ideas this way (e.g. Tipton and Atherton). But there is a simple reason why this cannot be what Berkeley thinks ideas are. To see this suppose that ideas are ways of perceiving. Then, when I perceive a red idea, all that is going on is that I am perceiving redly. Add to this Berkeley's claim that all that exists are minds and ideas. Then when I perceive redly, all there is is me and my perceiving. There is no object which I perceive; I do not perceive X redly, I just perceive redly. But if there are no objects of perception, just minds and their states of perceiving, then there are no objects at all, and Berkeley really is denying the existence of the ordinary world of tables and trees.
What has gone wrong here is that Tipton is making the mistake of thinking that Berkeley's view is representative realism minus the material world. Now, if you ask what ideas are for the representative realist, there are good reasons to give an adverbial account, because it prevents duplication of objects. If ideas are ways of perceiving, then we do not need to admit a realm of special mental objects which stand between us and the world (the veil of perception). Rather we can say that we perceive material objects, but by having ideas, that is whenever we perceive a material object, there is some way in which we perceive it, as red or square, or …
However, when Berkeley regards ideas as objects, he does not have to regard them as mental objects in the way the representative realist would. For him they are the constituents of the everyday world. So an adverbial account of ideas has no benefits at all for Berkeley, since the alternative of regarding ideas as objects does not involve adding special objects to his ontology, and many costs, since it does lose him the world.
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
We all know that Berkeley attacked the doctrine of abstract ideas in the Introduction to the Principles. Those who have done a little more scholarly reading will have discovered that there is a manuscript by Berkeley which appears to be a first draft (with corrections and amendments) of the Introduction. This is usually referred to as the 'Manuscript Introduction', though in the text Berkeley describes it not as an introduction but as an 'Entrance' to his main project.
Now, the editor of the most recent edition of the Manuscript Introduction, a noted Berkeley scholar called Bertil Belfrage, as argued that the view Berkeley comes to accept about generality is actually a version of the one he attacks in the Manuscript. His ground for this rather surprising claim is that Berkeley's accepted view in the Principles is that a general idea is:
an Idea ... being made to represent or stand for all other particular Ideas of the same sort (PHK Intro 12)
whereas in the Manuscript Introduction he describes the doctrine of abstract ideas which he is attacking thus:
Ideas which equally represent the Particulars of any Sort. (MI 7)
Now I can see why someone with no philosophical education might think that these are statements of the same view, for the form of words is very similar. But there is a subtle difference: the first talks about an idea being made to represent, and the latter talks of an idea which represents. The difference is between us taking an idea and using it to represent a class of things, without changing the fact that it is an idea of a particular thing, and there being an idea which of its nature, independently of how we use it, represents a class of things.
We see very clearly that it is the latter which Berkeley is objecting to in paragraph 20 on the Manuscript Introduction:
Any Name may be used indifferently for the Sign of any Idea, or any number of Ideas, it not being determin'd by any likeness to represent one more than another. But it is not so with Ideas in respect of Things, of which they are suppos'd to be Copies & Images. they are not thought to Represent them otherwise, than as they resemble them, Whence it follows, that an Idea is not capable of representing indifferently any Thing whatsoever it being limited by the likeness it bears to some particular Thing, to represent it rather than any other. the Word Man may equally be put to signify any particular Man I can think of. But I cannot frame an Idea of Man, which shall equally represent & correspond to each particular of that Sort of Creatures, that may possibly exist.
1. Nothing essential to this argument turns upon treating Ideas as images which represent by resembling. Locke is sometimes attributed with the thought that ideas represent what they are ideas of in virtue of a causal relation. It would still follow that an idea would be tied to representing one particular thing, namely its cause.
2. The last four words are important, for here Berkeley is making clear that the problem is generality, not plurality. The word 'human' applies not merely to all those I have come across, but to all possible members of the species. It is hard to see how abstraction, which is a process which takes as input my limited experience, could produce an idea with this property.
3. It looks as if there is some change in Berkeley's view between this passage and the publication of the Principles, for here he does not allow (but nor does he disallow) that a particular idea might, like a general word, be given the semantic property of indifferently representing things of a sort. By the Principles he has realized that if the power of a word to represent is not dependent upon its intrinsic properties, then that power can equally bestowed upon anything. If there can be general words, then there can be general ideas, but the source of the generality must be the same in both cases. What is wrong with abstract ideas is that they are essentially, or intrinsically general.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
What is wrong with abstract ideas?
When you read the secondary literature, you will find that there are two predominant interpretations of Berkeley's objection to Locke on abstraction. The most common is that Berkeley is assuming that all ideas, abstract ideas included, are images, and what they are ideas of is determined by what they resemble. But there is no way one can have an image of a person which is indeterminate with respect to all the ways that people differ: 'neither white, nor black, nor any particular colour … neither tall stature nor low stature, nor yet middle stature …' (§9). Proponents of this interpretation think the two key questions are whether Locke thought that all ideas were images, and to what extent an image can be indeterminate.
The other interpretation does not commit Berkeley to imagism. Rather, his claim is that an abstract idea would be formed by separating out elements of particular ideas, such as colour or shape, and that it is not possible for us to separate in imagination what cannot be perceived separately. One can understand this view best by starting with language: a description of a particular person will list all her qualities. The structure of language means that each element of that list consists in a meaningful word or phrase. What Berkeley is then denying is that those words, such as 'red' or 'extended', signify distinct ideas. Again, one key question is whether Locke believed in the separability of abstract ideas, and the other is whether Berkeley is right in thinking that we cannot conceive what we cannot imagine. This last question clearly links Berkeley's anti-abstractionism to the so-called Master Argument in §§20-3.
I think there is a third interpretation of Berkeley. According to this, Berkeley is not committed to imagism, and he does think that we cannot separate in imagination what cannot be perceived separately, but the core of his objection to Locke lies elsewhere.
Berkeley describes three different processes as abstraction: separating qualities, such as colour and shape (§7), forming an idea of qualities which are common to several particulars (§8), and forming an idea of kind of particular, such as human beings (§9). But Locke's use of abstraction only refers to the second and third processes, and when Berkeley comes to give an alternative account of generality in §12, he only refers back to §§8 and 9.
Both the interpretations mentioned above hold that Berkeley not only thinks that there is a common error in supposing we can do all three of the things he calls abstraction, but that this is the root problem with Locke's use of abstraction to explain generality. The interpretation I want to put forward holds that Berkeley did think there was a common error, namely thinking we could form separate ideas of what cannot exist separately, but that he also thought there was a further mistake in the use of abstract ideas to explain generality. If that is right, then Berkeley still has an objection to Locke, even if Locke held the 'selective attention' rather than 'subtraction' account of abstraction (i.e. even if he was not committed to the separability of abstract ideas).
Consider this claim from §15:
universality, so far as I can comprehend, not consisting in the absolute, positive nature or conception of any thing, but in the relation it bears to the particulars signified or represented by it: by virtue whereof it is that things, names, or notions, being in their own nature particular, are rendered universal.
This could be mistaken for a statement of Berkeley's nominalism, but it comes in a fairly explicit attack on Locke, who has been shown in §11 to be also a nominalist. A different way of reading it would be that, in trying to account for generality, the abstractionist postulates a special kind of idea, an idea with special properties, but Berkeley thinks that is the wrong approach: we do not account for generality by finding a special idea, but by recognizing that it involves a different sort of relation between ideas and things.
I have an idea of Peter. The 'of' here indicates a relation between the idea and Peter, a relation similar to that between the name 'Peter' and Peter. We might say that ideas of particulars refer to those particulars. But when I say that Peter runs, the word 'run' does not refer to Peter, or even to the set of running things. Rather, it describes Peter. Now Berkeley did not think in these terms, but he did make a clear distinction between a proper name, which denotes something in particular, and a general term, which 'indifferently denotes' several things. And here in §15 we find him explicitly saying that the difference between particular and general ideas or words consists not in the ideas, but in the relation they have to particular things. Which does suggest that his main objection to abstraction as an account of generality is based in a nascent conception of the distinction between referring and describing.
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Berkeley's Account of Action
In §147 Berkeley wrote:
For it is evident that in affecting other persons, the will of man hath no other object, than barely the motion of the limbs of his body; but that such a motion should be attended by, or excite any idea in the mind of another, depends wholly on the will of the Creator.
This suggests the following account of action (I think Berkeley is assuming that all physical actions consist in motions of the body caused by willings aka volitions):
my will --causes-> motion of my limbs --occasions-> God's will --causes-> your ideas of sense.
First question: what is the motion of my limbs? Being a real thing, it must be an idea of collection of ideas. Which ideas? Berkeley seems to be ruling out that the motion consists in ideas in other people's minds, so it must be some of my ideas of sense. Probably my proprioceptive experiences.
Second question: if your idea of sense caused by God is an idea of my arm moving, then why does that idea not count as part of the collection of ideas which constitute my arm's moving? If Berkeley is to allow that physical objects such as bodies can be perceived by more than one person, i.e. if he is to keep the commonsense view that I have just one body, rather than that I have the body I perceive, and the body you perceive etc., then he must allow that physical objects consist of collections of ideas in more than one mind. But then the account of action severely limits my power as an agent: I cannot in fact move my arm, all I can do is give myself some arm-moving experiences and God does the rest. This is too close to occasionalism for comfort.
Third question: on this account, all your ideas of sense are caused directly by God, though perhaps on the occasion of my arm moving, so how can you infer from your sense experience to my existence as well as God's? Surely all your sense perceptions would point to God and none to me? See the first sentence of §145, which says that the only other minds we can know about are the ones which 'excite' ideas in us.
Fourth question: is Berkeley's motivation for having God cause your ideas of my arm moving based on a confusion between how I think of what I am doing, and what my action actually consists in? For example, if I intend to switch on a light and thus flick the switch, what I do may tell a passing burglar that the house in not empty. So what I have done is warned off a burglar. But I do not know that, and thus I do not know my action under that description. So we can say that the 'object of my will' was to turn on the light, but the thing my willing caused was not a mere turning on of the light, it was also a warning of the burglar. So perhaps Berkeley is starting from a point which is certainly 'evident', namely that in moving my arm I do not normally intend to cause your ideas of sense, but mistakenly concluding that something else (God) must therefore cause your ideas of sense. Perhaps I intend the motion of my arm, and part of what it is for my arm to move is for you to see it move (assuming you are in the right place and paying attention). So your ideas are not the 'object of my will', but by causing my arm to move, I do cause them.
This suggests a much simpler account of action for Berkeley:
My will causes my arm to move, and part of what it is for my arm to move is for suitably situated observers to perceive my arm moving.
So I, not God, am the cause of some of your ideas of sense. This view avoids occasionalism, allows knowledge of other minds, and makes my actions public events.
A slightly different view would hold that I can cause my ideas of proprioception myself, but I can only cause your ideas of sense with God's help. Thus, your perceptions of my actions are caused by a collaboration between me and God. But this interpretation (offered by Dancy) faces two objections. (1) It is not clear what it is for an omnipotent being to enter into a collaborative action. Surely God's intention is sufficient for the effect, so I have no role to play. (2) The account seems to be motivated solely by the desire to find God in absolutely every aspect of our experience, rather than just by those aspects of our experience we cannot attribute to other finite minds (e.g. §148). There is no philosophical justification for the collaborative account over the one I have suggested.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
I wanted to write something more detailed about this, but have not had the time. So I will just add a quick note and then follow it up later.
In §9 and §45, Berkeley uses the phrase 'ideas or their archetypes' when describing his own views. So he is at least countenancing the possibility that ides have archetypes. Now many commentators, from Russell, to Ayers, to Dancy, have taken Berkeley to be using the distinction between ideas and their archetypes which Locke uses in Book II, Chapter xxx of the Essay. There archetypes are the material objects which ideas of primary qualities resemble. If they are right, given Berkeley's immaterialism, the archetypes of ideas would have to be ideas in the mind of God. In which case, Berkeley would be accepting a metaphysical picture structurally teh same as that of the representative realist, just disagreeing about whether it was a material world or the mind of God which lay behind the veil of ideas.
I don't like this interpretation because it misses Berkeley's commitment to realism about the objects of perception. So what could he be thinking of when he writes 'ideas or their archetypes'? The clue lies in Hobbes, who says that the senses are the 'original' of all ideas (Leviathan Part 1, Ch.1). Since an archetype is just an original pattern or model from which a copy is made, it appears that Hobbes is suggesting that sense is the archetype of thought. So perhaps Berkeley is using the phrase to make the point that some ideas, ideas of imagination, are copies or images (see §33) of others, namely the ideas of sense. Then the distinction between ideas and their archetypes is the distinction between ideas of imagination, and the sense perceptions themselves. That is, he is making a distinction exactly akin to Hume's distinction between ideas and impressions (Treatise I, i, 1). And Hume is aware that there is no pre-existing vocabulary to pick out the objects of sense perception except 'idea', which obscures the distinction. Hume coined a word, Berkeley appropriated one. Just like 'idea', we should not assume that Berkeley is using it in exactly the same way as Locke, or Malebranche for that matter.
If this interpretation is correct, then Berkeley sometimes uses 'idea' for all the objects of knowledge, whether they be sense perceptions or thoughts about those perceptions, but sometimes recognizes that the word has the connotation that an idea is a copy or image of a sense experience, and in that context, talks of the original sense experience as an archetype of an idea. Either way, my ideas and their archetypes are both things of which I am directly conscious, and Berkeley is not suggesting that sense perceptions represent ideas in the mind of God, which would be the real things. As he repeatedly stresses, the very things we perceive are the real things.
Monday, October 27, 2003
More on Dualism
Berkeley is a substance monist, and yet I said he was a mind-body dualist. In the recent literature in philosophy of mind, there is only one kind of dualism other than substance dualism, and that is variously called property or attribute dualism (see, for example, D.Chalmers, The Conscious Mind).
So is Berkeley's mind-body dualism (if we accept that ideas are not merely non-mental but physical, this becomes mental-physical dualism) a form of property dualism? The answer to this depends upon what Berkeley thinks about the mind. He is adamant that ideas are not attributes of minds, but a little vague on whether they are themselves properties (or at least property instances) or objects which have properties. Either way, he is committed to there being some non-mental properties, such as colour and extension. But are there also mental properties?
In §1 of the Principles, where he lists the objects of knowledge, he writes of what is perceived (here it just means 'known') 'by attending to the passions and operations of the mind'. Are these passions and operations properties or attributes of the mind? Berkeley never gives a direct answer, so we must try to work it out for ourselves.
What we do know is that the mind is passive in sense perception, but otherwise, it appears, purely active. So any property or attribute of the mind would have to be an activity. Is a passion, such as frustration or envy, an activity? Not in itself, but it is clear that passions affect all the other activities of the mind, so perhaps Berkeley would want us to think of them not along the lines of sensations (where the mind is passive) but as temporary constraints on our activities. For example, if you are feeling frustrated, you will not find it easy to sit quietly and read a book, in the way you might when you are calm and relaxed.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
I will hand out copies of these at the seminars this week, but if you cannot wait, or you need an extra copy, you can get them HERE.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Monism or Dualism?
There is a standard story about the history of philosophy which says that Descartes was a mind-body dualist, but he had a problem accounting for the causal interaction between two distinct substances. There followed a period during which Cartesians came up with all sorts of exotic solutions like occasionalism, epiphenomenalism, and pre-established harmony. Then Berkeley realized the only solution was to reject dualism and embrace some sort of monism. Unfortunately he rejected the wrong half of the duality and made everything mental. At last we have realized that the one true way is to recognize that everything, the mind included, is material.
Now, there are many things wrong with that story, but let us just concentrate on the role of Berkeley. He thinks that all that exists are minds and the ideas they have, so he certainly denies Cartesian matter. But we have just been arguing that he does not think ideas are mental. So is he a monist or a dualist?
The answer is that he is a substance monist but a mind-body dualist. For Berkeley, the only substances are minds, but there is a physical world made up of ideas, not substances, and ideas, though perception-dependent, are not mental. And your body, being an object of perception, is made up of ideas just as much as tables and trees. So he is committed to there being one type of substance, but two types of thing: minds and bodies.
Monday, October 20, 2003
Ideas are not mental
In the lecture I offered some reasons for thinking that Berkeley’s ideas are not mental. It is probably worth re-capping these:
1. There is a bad reason for thinking ideas are mental, namely that they are mental in most (e.g. Locke and Descartes) forms of representative realism, and Berkeley's view is just representative realism minus the material world.
2. As normally understood, 'mental' and 'material' are in fact contraries, so to argue that ideas are not physical/material is not to show them to be mental. The thought that ideas are neither mental nor physical would have been familiar to Berkeley from the writings of Malebranche.
3. Berkeley is quite happy to replace talk of ideas with 'things' just so long as their mind-dependence is maintained. The equation of the ordinary objects of perception with ideas works both ways.
4. There is one good sense of 'physical' on which ideas come out as physical, namely the identification of physical objects by ostension. If we say physical objects are, or include, ordinary objects such as trees and tables, and Berkeley says those things are composed of ideas, then ideas are the bits which make up the physical world.
5. Some philosophers say that ideas are 'mental objects'. This is ambiguous between objects which are mental, and things which are objects for the mind. Berkeley certainly thinks the ideas are the latter, it does not follow that he thinks they are the former.
6. Berkeley always glosses 'in the mind' as 'perceived by the mind'. So ideas being in the mind does not immediately entail that they are mental, only that they are perceived.
7. Berkeley is explicit that ideas are not 'modes or accidents' of the mind that perceives them. So ideas are neither minds nor properties of minds, merely things related to minds. That does not seem sufficient to denominate them 'mental'.
8. Even though Berkeley shows some caution about the relativity arguments for the mind-dependence of ideas, he does not dispute their premises. By equating the content of perception (how things are perceived to be) with its object (which thing is perceived), the relativity arguments restrict the objects of perception to person and time relative appearances. These are obviously dependent upon being perceived, but not obviously mental. So Berkeley can have mind-dependence without mentality of ideas.
9. [Not in lecture] The relativity arguments require us to identify the content of a with its object, thus one cannot misperceive the object of perception. Now this is normally thought to require the objects to be mental, on the grounds that you obviously can misperceive non-mental objects. But Berkeley has a very different account of perceptual error, which does not admit that sort of misperception.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
You will have noticed that the passages we are reading this week do not follow on directly from where we ended up last week. In particular, we are (for the time being) skipping Berkeley's attempts to prove the existence of God.
The reason for this is to try to combat the 'gut reaction' that Berkeley's religious belief interferes with his philosophy. Sections 34-49, which we are looking at this week, are responses to the more obvious objections to immaterialism. I want us to consider the extent to which these are plausible independently of the existence of God.
We should at all times be careful to distinguish the role Berkeley wanted God to play in his philosophy, and the role that Berkeley needs God to play. It may turn out that the coherence of Berkeley's philosophy requires nothing like the God of religion, just some other mind out there.
Friday, October 17, 2003
Objects and Sensations
Most editors of Berkeley take as the definitive text the second edition of the Principles, published in 1734. The differences are small and rarely significant, and the reason for preferring the second edition is typically that, since it was Berkeley who prepared it, it better reflects his own considered views.
I am not here going to object to the methodological assumptions about the history of philosophy which are presupposed by these editors (I do that in the Preface to my book), but I do want to look at a sentence which was omitted from the second edition. In the first edition (1710), section 5 ends with:
In truth the object and the sensation are the same thing, and cannot therefore be abstracted from each other.
Let us assume (though it can be argued for) that Berkeley omitted this because he thought it was unhelpful or misleading, not because he thought it was wrong. What did he mean by saying that 'the object and the sensation are the same thing'? One explanation would be that this is just a summary of the preceding argument that the objects of perception are ideas and ideas are mind-dependent. However, that takes him to be using 'sensation' in this sentence as meaning something like obviously mind-dependent object, as when we describe pain as a sensation. But that is not how he uses the word in the immediately preceding sentence, where he talks about whether one can conceive an object 'distinct from the sensation or perception of it'. There it looks as if 'sensation' is being used to pick out a relation between a mind and an object, a relation we might call the sensing of the object. And the text cries out for us to read the word in the same manner in the omitted sentence. But then his claim is:
The object perceived and the sensing of it are the same thing.
Now that is a very striking claim, for it is a denial of the view that even direct perception involves a mind, an object, and a perceiving of the object by the mind. If he is equating the object and the perceiving, which collapses into which? The answer should be obvious: Berkeley insists that there are objects of perception, so an account of perception which only admitted minds and perceivings, eschewing talk of things perceived, would be quite unpalatable. So it would seem that in 1710, at least, Berkeley thought that when one perceived an idea, there was the perceiving mind, and the idea, but no act, event, or modification of that mind which we could call the perceiving of the object by the mind. The idea just sits there before the mind, and nothing else need happen.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
At the end of section 9, he writes:
"Hence it is plain, that the very notion of what is called matter or corporeal substance, involves a contradiction in it."
And in section 22 he says that:
"This easy trial [which he is about to present in section 23] may make you see, that what you contend for, is a downright contradiction."
Here are some questions we need to answer:
1. Is there one contradiction or two?
2. Is there a single notion of matter, which is contradictory, or several, at least two fo which are contradictory?
3. What is Berkeley's conception of a contradiction? How does it relate to a repugnancy (e.g. sect.23)?
Getting clear about these questions should help you evaluate the importance of Berkeley's so-called Master Argument (sections 22-4).
Monday, October 13, 2003
Berkeley takes himself to have established immaterialism in sections 1-24 of the Principles. He thrice mentions abstract ideas (sects. 5, 10 and 11), but neither time explicitly refers back to the Introduction.
In section 5, the notion of abstraction he is considering is the alleged ability of the mind to consider separately things which cannot in fact be separated. He simply denies that he has such an ability. In section 10, this inability to abstract inseparables one from the other is used as an argument to the effect that the perception-dependence of the secondary qualities carries over to the primary qualities.
In section 11 a rather different notion of abstraction is used: here abstraction is the mental operation which allows us to form ideas of extension or motion 'in general'. This is criticized for being 'vague and indeterminate', and, by way of insult, likened to an Aristotelian concept which had been much misused in scholastic philosophy. Setting aside the throwaway anti-scholasticism, the objection here seems very different. It is not that we simply lack the ability to form an idea of 'extension in general', but that such an idea is of no use to someone defending materialism. In fact, we can be more precise: it is of no use to someone defending materialism by appealing to the primary/secondary quality distinction.
Section 2 - existence in the mind
Though Berkeley uses the word 'idea' in section 1, he merely uses this word as a label for the objects of the senses and the imagination. But in section 2 he goes one step further and claims that ideas exist in the mind. It is instructive to study his words carefully here:
"By [mind, spirit, soul, or myself] I do not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist, or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived; for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived."
The first thing to note about this sentence is that ideas existing in the mind is equated with ideas being perceived by the mind. The latter is clearly a relation, and it requires ideas to be objects which can be related to minds, but, as he has just noted, they are distinct from minds.
So how does he get the further claim, that the existence of an idea consists in being perceived? Or perhaps we should ask: why does he take it as obvious at this point in the text?
One answer would be that he is simply confused: Locke used the word 'idea' in two very different senses and Berkeley has (stupidly?) taken them to be equivalent. But that reading again assumes that Berkeley only read Locke – but if he was as widely read in philosophy as we have reason to believe, then he would be well aware about the need to distinguish different understandings of the term.
A better answer looks at the text. (a) The very next section goes on to argue for the claim that ideas (= objects of perception) only exist when perceived, so perhaps he is simply asserting his conclusion prior to giving his argument. (b) In section 1 he has listed for each of the five senses what sort of thing he thinks their objects are (light, colours, odours, tastes, etc.), so perhaps he is taking it as obvious that that sort of thing cannot exist except when perceived.
Who is Berkeley's intended audience here? Hw much philosophy does he expect them to know? These are important questions because Berkeley appears to be ignoring the controversy which existed at the end of the 17th century about the nature of ideas, in particular the dispute between Arnauld and Malebranche.
Standard readings of the Principles take it that the only prior philosophy he is seriously interested in is Locke's Essay and that this opening passage is just a (rather inaccurate) summary of the Lockean orthodoxy. One ground for this reading is that Berkeley's language is here very reminiscent of Locke's. But Berkeley certainly knew about Malebranche and probably about Arnauld (Qu: was there a copy of Arnauld's On True and False Ideas in Trinity library before 1710?).
Here is an alternative reading: Berkeley is very aware of the variety of things a philosopher might take 'ideas' to be, but in this opening passage he is trying to summarize what is common to them all: they are the objects of experience.
Now some will be ready to claim that he has already misunderstood several of his predecessors, including Arnauld, if he thinks that this is common to all accounts of ideas. But that is to read him unsympathetically. Perhaps he has spotted that philosophers start talking about ideas when they begin to consider the fact that the mind thinks about things, it is directed upon things, or in more modern terms, it has intentionality. Now, if you combine the philosophers thought that we explain how thought is directed at the world by postulating ideas, with the commonsense view that there are no intermediaries, and you get the conclusion that the best way to understand what is meant by 'ideas' is that they are the objects of knowledge.
As we progress through the term, I will also be re-reading Berkeley's Principles very carefully. On this weblog I intend to post any comments or observations which occur to me as I am reading. Most will be interpretative, some more philosophical.