Posts Tagged ‘ Wittgenstein ’

17. Berkeley’s ‘Principles of Human Knowledge’

Berkeley is renowned as the father of philosophical idealism. He took great exception to the materialism of Locke and Newton and endeavoured to show how, using their own assumptions, such a view was untenable. He is most famous for the adage esse est percipi (‘to be is to be perceived’).

In this excerpt of twenty concise paragraphs, Berkeley appears to establish such a radical thesis with remarkably little effort. 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. For the modern day critical thinker, Berkeley’s text provides ample material for developing critical thinking skills.

Take, for example, the point made in paragraph 3 of this excerpt, a linguistic analysis concerning the meaning of the term ‘to exist’. Berkeley takes it that when one says ‘A table exists’, the meaning implies that a table is, or can be, perceived by the speaker or some other mind when in its vicinity.

This kind of linguistic argument is a precursor of the sort that became famously associated with the so-called ‘Ordinary Language’ philosophers of the 20th Century, who tried to either establish philosophical conclusions from the way we speak about things, or – as came to be associated with Wittgenstein and his later corpus of work – to show that in fact some purported philosophical problem ‘dissolves’ once we examine how terms are being misused in philosophical contexts by examining their rules for employment in ordinary, or at least semantically uncontroversial, contexts.

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