George Berkeley slides onto the scene a la Tom Cruise in Risky Business; the “cool guy” that’s had enough of these schoolmen stinkin’ up the place with their Pigpen philosophy.
Yeah, he might be a little self-indulgent—I assume he has orange skin and sweet comb-over—but that’s okay because he speaks for us common folk. He waves a big banner of common sense and God, and as long as I can keep my guns, I’ll vote for him as my favorite modern philosopher.
“It’s gonna be huge,” I envision Georgie B trying to explain himself to a confused reporter. “What I make public here has, after a long and scrupulous inquiry, seemed to me evidently true and not unuseful to be known—particularly to those who are tainted with skepticism or want a demonstration of the existence and immateriality of God or the natural immortality of the soul” (438). Yeehaw—I like the sounds of that campaign promise! Let’s see if he can build that wall.
Using the “illiterate bulk of mankind” as his inspiration (438), Berkeley strives to regain a child-like wonder and innocence of philosophy. The good ol’ days—back when God was the single end-all be-all for everything. What are you thinking, philosophy? “All these questions,” Berkeley snorts, “which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation, until at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or which is worse, sit down in a forlorn skepticism” (439). I have to agree with him. The more I read Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke, the more disheartened I become. These guys are the white-curly-haired version of an Internet forum. All this bickering back and forth over speculative and unknowable details is like a Kevin Smith film critiquing Star Wars—only God or George Lucas can answer these questions, and neither is picking up the phone. Like Berkeley, all I’m looking for is some practical knowledge and insight—answer a few questions before taking on the multiverse.
Berkeley’s main criticism of philosophy is its abstract ideas and the droves of his contemporaries that blindly accept the notion (439). He tosses away the concept in a powerful way, stripping out the middleman of corporeal substance (Forman). Everything that we know and encounter in the world is perceived through our mind; ultimately nothing exists, rather only our impression of that thing existing within our mind (Forman). We perceive all existence—and existence can be nothing more than our perception of it (447).
Berkeley arrives at his dismantling of abstract ideas through examples relatable examples using color, motion, and shape. He asserts that qualities or modes of things never really exist separate from one another, but it is only the mind that abstracts the distinct qualities to create a new abstract idea (440). The mind observes particulars perceived by the senses that are distinguishable to one another, it identifies the most common qualities, which then leaves an abstract idea of the thing that remains (440). Eventually, after continued abstraction of an idea, the mind is left with colorless colors, motion that is unmoving, and triangles with no shape—qualities or ideas that are inconceivable. Berkeley states, “I deny that I can abstract one from another or conceive separately those qualities which it is impossible should exist so separated or that I can frame a general notion by abstracting from particulars in the manner aforesaid—which two last are the proper meanings of abstraction” (441).
Berkeley summates by stating, “the most abstract and general ideas are not those that the mind is first and most easily acquainted with, nor such as the its earliest knowledge is conversant about,” (442). His aim is to change the philosophical thinker’s point of view and the “false principles” commonly held attitude toward abstract general ideas (447). In the most compelling portion of his argument, Berkeley goes to explain how language is the cause.
“Men who use language are able to abstract or generalize their ideas,” or rather, “since all things that exist are only particulars, how do we come by general terms?” (441). Berkeley’s critique of language finds the vein all philosophical trouble; words. The foundation of our language was created a few thousand years ago, and while it has evolved, it’s still the greatest hindrance of expressing original ideas and source of miscommunication. “By observing how ideas become general, we may better judge how words are made (442)… and a word becomes general by being made the sign, not of an abstract general idea, but several particular ideas, any one of which it indifferently suggests to the mind” (442).
Berkeley explains why people believe there are certain abstract, determinate ideas. He argues that it is assumed that every name has at least one precise and settled signification (444). “In truth,” Berkeley states, “there is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to any general name, they are signifying indifferently a great number of particular ideas… It is one thing to keep a name constantly to the same definition and another to make it stand everywhere for the same idea—the one is necessary, the other useless and impracticable” (444).
Berkeley affirms that the chief purpose of language is the communication of ideas, and “that every significant name stands for an idea” (445). However, “had there have been no such thing as speech, there never would have been thought of abstraction.” Without abstraction, there would be no abstract ideas, and therefore proving that the only thing that our mind can affirm is its own perception.
Conclusion of Abstract Ideas
Georgie B isn’t as bold to deny general ideas, but “only abstract general ideas” (442). This makes sense to me. Descartes added an extra layer between God and reason through material substance. It gave everyone something to talk about for a century, but if you’re ultimately going to claim that God is the cause—why not just go directly to the source? Reject material substance entirely. If you realize that you only have particular ideas, you won’t trouble yourself in vain to discover and invent abstract ideas (446). “And he who knows that names [of things] do not always stand for ideas [of those things] will spare himself the labor of looking for ideas where there are none to be found” (446). This guy’s a straight shooter.
I like how Berkeley becomes a bit poetic in his conclusion of abstract ideas, somewhat reminiscent of the great limericks of Nantucket. “In vain do we extend our view into the heavens and pry into the entrails of the earth, in vain do we consult the writings of learned men and trace the dark footsteps of antiquity; we need only draw the curtain of words to behold the fairest tree of knowledge, who fruit is excellent and within the reach of our hand” (446). However, his point is strong and one that give credence to a provoking argument: “Unless we take care to clear the first principles of knowledge from the embarrassment and delusion of words, we may make infinite reasonings upon them to no purpose; we may draw consequences from consequences and be never the wiser” (446). Drain the swamp, Georgie!
Berkeley ties his treatise together with a short argument for idealism. The things we know to be true out in the world, cars we pass by, mountains in the distance, are just things we perceive by our senses; and we perceive only ideas or sensations. Therefore, all things are ideas and cannot exist unperceived (Forman).
“My conceiving or imagining power does not extend beyond the possibility of real existence or perception. Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so is it impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it. In truth, the object and the sensation are the same thing and cannot therefore be abstracted from each other” (448).
In short, everything in the entire world has no substance without the mind; and there is only substance—the spirit, “or that which perceives” (448). The very notion of what is called matter, material substance, or a corporeal body involves a contradiction within it (Forman). To understand this, “it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnance. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas” (451).
For Berkeley there are no primary and secondary qualities of material things. Secondary qualities are merely an abstraction of the primary—and all qualities are perceived by the mind. By not subdividing the material world through abstraction, with Berkeley, what see is what you get. The world exists and appears exactly as it should according to your perception; which brings us full circle and as to why George Berkeley is the philosopher for the common man. Finally, someone was able to articulate what the illiterate brutes knew all along.
Oh My God
Ol’ Georgie here had my full attention until he pandered to his constituency. As Berkeley whips the evangelicals into a frenzy by stating that “ideas are imprinted on the senses by the author of nature” (453), and “God is the creator of our ideas” (Forman), I’m still expected to take a giant leap of faith. Just because you can demonstrate why abstract ideas are bogus, and you did a good job of it, I don’t see the relevancy to God. Perhaps our collective conscious has a perception?
Berkeley would then write a nasty tweet that would read something like; “For when we perceive certain ideas of sense constantly followed by other ideas and we know this is not our own doing, we immediately attribute power and agency to the ideas themselves and make one the cause another, then which nothing can be more absurd and unintelligible.”
To that I say, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Isn’t he attributing power and agency to God and using him to make one cause the other?
Ariew, Roger, and Eric Watkins. Modern philosophy: an anthology of primary sources. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co., 2009. Print GW Leibniz, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. George Berkeley. 1710.
Forman, David, Dr. "George Berkeley." PHIL 403/603: Early Modern Philosophy. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas. 1 May 2017. Lecture.