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Berkeley's Positive Doctrines: Immaterialism

Having taken up all this time in examining Berkeley's attacks on the mechanical philosophers, materialists and dualists, we should consider Berkeley's own account of things in the external world. It is plain that Berkeley does not belive that there is any such thing as matter or material substance existing indpendently of us. What then is a thing? The answer is largely contained in Berkeley's definition of sensible things, given earlier. "It seems then that by sensible things you mean those only which can be perceived immediately by sense." He then goes on to note that we immediately perceive by sight light, colours, and figures; by hearing, sounds; by the palate, tastes; by the smell, odours; and by the touch, tangible qualities. So, a thing for Berkeley is simply a collection of sensible qualities which are mind dependent. So to be a sensible thing is to be a collection of sensible qualities perceived by some mind.

The advantage to this view of sensible things becomes clear if we go back to Descartes and recall that for Descartes it was certain that he seemed to see a fire and a piece of paper and some hands in front of him. What he could not be certain of was that these ideas acutally corresponded to the situation in the world. He might have hands but he might be in bed, or perhaps he did not have a body at all. Perhaps there was a fire and a piece of paper, but perhaps not. In order to resolve these doubts, Descartes has to engage in heroics. He has to prove the existence of God, trace the connection of mathematics through the understanding and imagination, prove the existence of external objects, and so on. Berkeley removes these difficulties at one fell swoop, by making the ideas we perceive for certain the very things themselves. Berkeley saw his positive account of things as collections of sensible ideas as the vindication of common sense against skepticism, and consequently atheism.

There is, however, a clear difficulty with this. Common sense tells us that objects in the external world exist and persist independently of us. When we look the other way, trees do not just go out of existence. And what about the unperceived beams above the ceiling which are holding up the roof? Dr. Johnson once begged a Berkelian not to leave his group, for he said, they might stop thinking of him and he would go out of existence! Of course, this is not right, for the Berkelian was a perceiver, and so did not need to be perceived in order to exist. But it gives you a sense of the difficulty.

Berkeley's response to this is clever. It is here that we can advantageously turn to limericks to get the full effect of this Irish philosophy:

There was a young man who said "God,
must think it exceedingly odd
         If he finds that this tree
         continues to be
When there is no one about in the Quad."


Dear Sir,
         Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
         And that's why the tree
         Will continue to be,
Since observed by
         Yours faithfully,

Berkeley's Legacy

Berkeley's strategy for dealing with skepticism about the exernal world has proved so attractive to some philosophers that it has endured in the form of phenomenalism up into the twentieth century. John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century was a phenomenalist. In its linguistic form, the strategy is to translate all sentences about material objects into sentences about our experience or in Berkeley's language, ideas. This translates sentences which may or may not be true into sentences whose truth we know for certain. On the other hand, the shift towards materialism and away from dualism or idealism over the last three centuries makes Berkeley's immaterialism look like a very strange doctrine, especially to students encountering it for the first time. It certainly looked strange to many in the eighteenth century.

Berkeley's attack on the primary secondary quality distinction convinced may philosophers down the years that one could not make that distinction on an empirical basis. It undoubtedly played a role in influencing the views of Hume and Kant about the relation between the subjective and the objective and idealism. Kant refers to Berkeley as a subjective idealist and distinguishes his own view as transcendental idealism. One wonders if there would have been any transcendental idealism without Berkeley's arguments against material substance and the primary secondary quality distinction. Some twentieth century philosophers have come to call the whole seventeenth and eighteenth century discussion of primary and secondary qualities into doubt.

Historians of philosophy have long argued about how accurate Berkeley's representation of the mechanical philosophers is. Scholars have recently begun questioning Berkeley's interpretation of the causal theory of perception. Berkeley holds an interpretatin which says that we immediately perceive ideas, and that we don't perceive the causes of those ideas. This is sometimes called "the veil of perception," the idea being that our ideas actually form a veil which prevents us from seeing the external world! But, it may well be that Berkely got his understanding of the causal theory of perception from Malebranche and then attributed it to Locke. But Locke wrote a critique of Malebranche in which he criticized exactly the account of perception in Malebranche which Berkeley attributes to Locke! Thus there is some reason to think that Locke did not hold the interpretation of the causal theory which Berkely attributes to him and criticizes. Scholars are now distinguishing various interpretations of the causal theory of perception, and making a serious effort to determine which philosophers subscribe to which interpretations. Similarly, Berkeley may not have given the most charitable reading to Locke's account of abstraction, and while Berkeley holds that all ideas must be images, scholars are still arguing about whether or not Locke held this same view. If he did not, Berkeley's critique loses much of its force.


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