Berkeley Answers: Commentary

This page provides a commentary on the excerpt from Berkeley.


Everything human beings know comes primarily from either sensory experience or awareness of our own emotional and cognitive states. Other truths may be derived from the elements of these with the aid of our memory or ‘imagination’, by which Berkeley almost certainly has something wider in mind than our modern notion, and probably means to include pretty much all of our creative thinking skills. Regularly contiguous items of sensory perception are, Berkeley suggests, bundled together and given singular names – such as the recurrent experience of a particular collection of touches, colours and smells may be called ‘an apple’, ‘a stone’ or some other thing. These experiences, once bundled together and thought of as singular objects, can be the cause of different emotional states in the human mind.

Apart from these ideas, Berkeley’s metaphysical taxonomy includes little else except minds that can perceive them. Ideas depend, by definition, on minds for their existence. If we understand the nouns ‘an idea’ and ‘a perception’ as synonyms, then the notion of ‘an unperceived perception’ makes no sense; therefore, it follows that to be an idea is to be perceived. Berkeley’s metaphysical idealism is famously captured in the expression esse est percipi (to exist is to be perceived).

Berkeley appears to establish such a radical thesis with remarkably little effort. As mentioned in post 17, this is in part due to his easy writing style, and in part due to exploiting a number of confused but widely held assumptions of his day.

Alas, while his linguistic analysis concerning the meaning of the term ‘to exist’ foreshadowed the general methodological approach of much 20th Century philosophy based around ordinary language and semantic analysis, ordinary language would appear to undermine rather than support his idealism. First, we don’t normally have occasion to say something like ‘A table exists’, unless there is some doubt about its existence such as if one person sees—or thinks they see—something when another does not. Imagine, for example, a frightened child claiming ‘There is a ghost in my wardrobe’ (semantically equivalent to ‘a ghost in my wardrobe exists’). In this sort of case, it is precisely because its perceptible quality is missing that the child needs to assert the notion of existence. This amounts to saying that perception is a sufficient condition of existence. It does not follow that it is a necessary condition.

The notion of necessary and sufficient conditions is a staple of rigorous philosophical argument and one philosophy students need to quickly grasp. When we say that something is a sufficient condition, we allow that if that condition obtains, it is enough to establish the point at issue. For example, if I say that I see a table in your room, ordinarily we would count that as enough evidence for there actually being a table there. However, it is not a necessary condition that I be able to see the table in your room to establish its existence. I might, for example, allow that bumping into it in the dark would be sufficient. Clearly, bumping into a table is also not a necessary condition for establishing its existence, for most often I establish the existence of tables with my eyes without bumping into them at all. Precisely what does count as a necessary condition of something’s existing is exactly the bone of contention between Berkeley and the materialists. Berkeley says perceptible qualities are both necessary and sufficient. Materialists say that the only necessary quality for the existence of an object is the presence of matter. Whether we do or can perceive the qualities that are said to ‘inhere’ in a particular lump of matter are, the materialists say, entirely irrelevant.

It is also worthwhile noticing how language gets the better of Berkeley’s attempt to even coherently state the idealist argument. How can the idealist explain what ‘going out of my study’ means? If there are only minds and ideas, neither the table, the study nor the body of the perceiver are extended objects in space, and the idea of ‘going about’ remains inconceivable.

Returning to the text, Berkeley objects that the job of ‘matter’ in the materialist conception is to ground the existence of objects that are not being perceived. It is entirely unnecessary, he thinks, because all ideas exist within either the mind of mortals or of God.

The materialist conception has problems, and Berkeley is adept at bringing them out. Locke made much of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, calling the former mind-independent and causally responsible for the latter, mind-dependent ones. Berkeley counters that primary and secondary qualities are inseparable because we cannot imagine one without the other. The argument is psychologistic—referring to what he can or cannot imagine—and supposes that it is impossible to have a clear idea of extension without also imagining a particular shape and a particular colour. For that reason, even if correct, it proves nothing about metaphysics and reveals only the paucity of the human imagination.

Berkeley says that it is generally agreed large and small, for instance, are relative concepts and thus mind-dependent. It follows, he thinks, that if there is extension outside of the mind, it must be neither large nor small, which makes no sense. The argument is somewhat confused. Relative size depends on the perceiver making a comparison between two things: which one is large and which one is small depends only on what two things are being compared. Often we call things ‘large’ or ‘small’ simply in comparison to our own size. Second, given Berkeley’s own taxonomy of minds and ideas, it is difficult to understand how “sense organs” – normally understood as physical objects – and “location” – the place of physical objects in relationship to each other – are to be understood in this argument.

A better argument against materialism is the venerable one from scepticism, which Berkeley ably states. If there is such a thing as matter, how do we come by knowledge of it? It is not perceptible in itself, so it must be an inference of reason. But it is possible that we could have all the perceptions we do have without matter being the cause of them, as is the case with our dreams.

Finally, does matter offer a better explanatory model than any other alternative? Berkeley objects that matter does not explain anything as materialists have no idea how mind and matter could causally interact. The cause of our perceptions, ordered, integrated and entirely consistent with both his own and the materialists’ representative theory of mind is best explained, in Berkeley’s view by the presence, power and benevolence of God.

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