Not All Idealisms are Equal—The Case of George Berkeley

Written by on February 6th, 2014. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Berkely Hume

|||David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch. 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).|||

George Berkeley Indeed most of the writings of that very ingenious author [George Berkeley] form the best lessons of scepticism [sic], which are to be found either among the ancient or modern philosophers, Bayle not excepted. He professes, however, in his title-page (and undoubtedly with great truth) to have composed his book against the sceptics [sic] and free-thinkers. But that all his arguments, though otherwise intended, are, in reality, merely sceptical [sic], appears from this, that they admit of no answer and produce no conviction. Their only effect is to cause that momentary amazement and irresolution and confusion, which is the result of scepticism [sic]. p. 155.

What is “idealism?” We should tread very lightly with this term, for it is ever cast about in an all-too-ready manner. The temptation to univocity is as strong here as it is anywhere else, and let us admit that not all “idealisms” are equal. (Indeed—equality, what is it? Something properly said only in category of quantity1 and even there not a completely simple affair!) Still, all musings aside, they are not equal. Beyond the trite distinction between “idealism” in the sense of “unrealistic positing of ideals and goal” and the general epistemological term (applied to ever so many philosophers), there is among this latter crowd a host of distinctions frequently glided over. Often we hear of “Berkelean idealism,” “Kantian transcendental idealism,” and “Hegelian absolute idealism.” This word “idealism”–do those using it know what they say?

My inspiration for this essay is actually not Hume’s remark—though it is very, very important to remember that he saw Berkeley as the proto-sketptic in whose footsteps he could follow with the corpulent2 joy of his skeptical prose. In my last essay, I spoke about John Stuart Mill’s remark that matter is nothing more than the “the permanent possibility of sensation.”3 He admits that if this makes him a Berkeleyan, than so be it. But what is it to be a “Berkeleyan?” Need one read Berkeley as does the back cover of a recent edition of his works, stating: “Berkeley’s idealism started a revolution in philosophy. As one of the great empiricist thinkers he not only influenced British philosophers from Hume to Russell and the logical positivists in the twentieth century, but he also set the scene for the continental idealism of Hegel and even the philosophy of Marx?4

As my readers likely know, I am not one who is gifted in the world of “texts and contexts.” Such careful, historical thought seems to come for me only with much difficulty. I am a man of much “fancy,” often “tumbling into parentheses,”5 much to the annoyance of some readers no doubt. Still, when it comes to dear Bishop Berkeley, I have a certain penchant for paying heed to his crazed positions, for I feel that some philosophy professors that I have had fail to see the problem with which he was faced—and it is one that is crucial to understanding a massive part of the problem of modern epistemology.

In the passage cited above, Hume states that Berkeley not merely was a skeptic but that he was one to the contrary of whatever his stated intentions might have been. Now, to those who know not the position of Berkeley, we might summarize it in his remark esse est percipi—“to be is to be perceived.” Likely, though, this will not function to explain his thought in any particularly deep manner, for it seems counter-intuitive. Is it really the case that something can only exist if it is perceived? The classic (classic… or overused) example is: “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” Another—much to the annoyance of first-year philosophy students: “Does my chair exist, now that we cannot see it—given that I just pitched it out the door?”

The first, “classic” example is more helpful to explain the problem. What is a sound? Clearly, there is a sense in which the experience of a sound, an appearance or a “fancy” (in the language of our recent and semi-regular guest, Hobbes) seems to occur “in” us. When we talk about sounds, our discussion is quite different in character than our discussion about what is “out there”—what the sound “really is.” Still, this is all rather mysterious—and far, far more difficult to describe than we may at first think. We will not solve it here, but let us appreciate its simple and homey discussion in our dear British, Irish, and Scottish thinkers.

Berkeley inherited a theme that really is quite old, namely how is it that bodies effect some change that is non-bodily? It is from Locke that he inherits the outline of this problem, and in particular it is the problem of substance—a certain “I know not what”6—behind all the properties. Now, there are two lines of attack that Berkeley undertakes in his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous as well as his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. On the one hand, he critiques the notion of abstract universal ideas. On the other hand, he collapses the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Several remarks about this latter “attack” are helpful for our reflections.

The distinction in question refers to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The former are things like bulk, figure, number, situation, motion, and rest, all found in things themselves whether or not they are perceived. The latter are things like color, sound, and taste. On the august authority of Locke, the connection between these two qualitative levels is undiscoverable.7 However, behind all of these qualities—even the supposed “primary” ones, is the original substance itself: the “I know not what” that supports the accidents / qualities that have been placed into it like little pins in a blob.8 Strip away all the primary qualities, however, and what have you? Even a “lump” or “blob” would have far too much formality and definition after such comprehensive removal. Now, what has Berkeley most vexed is that such a substance—seemingly locked in itself, unknown, and causally independent—is a cause of sensation all on its own.9 In effect, Berkeley asks, “How can one speak of ‘extension, figure, and motion’ without imagining them?” They would be imageless, and this notion of “corporeal substance,” which is independent of any sensation, is impossible and unthinkable.10 If something is completely unthinkable, how can it be the source of thought? Is the basis of all reality merely the unthinkable—can we not connect ourselves to reality?

Now, Berkeley’s solution is to state that reality itself is made up of “ideas”—by which he really does mean individual perceived “bits.” Certainly there are all related issues at play here that make his thought understandable vis-à-vis Kantian idealism. Nevertheless, his point of view is far more along the lines of an empiricistic idealism that claims to be a realism, for as he says, “I am not for chaining Things into Ideas, but rather Ideas into Things.”11 This is his attempt to connect mind and reality—something that seemed utterly impossible given that reality apparently was made of unthinkable substances in the Lockean universe, at least as he (Berkeley) had interpreted it.

For Berkeley, it was a matter of God impressing ideas on spirits: “The ideas imprinted on the senses by the author of nature are called real things.”12 The notion is wild to our sensibilities, but it is not at all that rare in modern philosophy. We may look to the French Oratorian Nicholas Malbranche to see similar positions—and Berkeley knew well that he had protect himself against accusations that he was merely restating Malbranche’s conclusions.13 However, Malbranche’s predicament—related though it is—must be told within a Cartesian environment. Berkeley’s story is, above all, one of aborted Lockeanism. But what really was to be aborted? It is to this we must turn next, discussing exactly what the “primary qualities” are—and likewise—what they are not.

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. See Aristotle, Categories, 6a26-35. 

  2. This is not meant as an insult but is directed in remembrance of a given tale from Hume’s own pen and the jests of the philosophe D’Alembert. See David Hume, “Letter 272 To the Rev. Hugh Blair, and Others” in The Letters of David Hume: Volume 1, ed. J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): “In order to refute all Calumnies, hear a short Story. Not long ago, as I came into a Company, I heard D’Alembert exclaim, Et verbum carl factum est. And the Word was made Flesh. This was thought a very good Jest on my past & present life; and was much repeated. A lady in telling the Story, said, Et verbum carum factum est. When told of her Mistake, she wou’d not allow it to be one.” 

  3. See John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and of The Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings, ed. J.M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 177-187. 

  4. George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues, ed. Howard Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University, 2009), cover. 

  5. See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Rev. Student ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1999), I.8: “But without Steddinesse, and Direction to some End, a great Fancy is one kind of Madnesse; such as they have, that entring into any discourse, are snatched from their purpose, by every thing that comes in their thought, into so many, and so long digressions, and parentheses, that they utterly lose themselves.” 

  6. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ed. A.M. (London: Ward, Lock, & Co., Warwick House, 1880), Book II, Chapter. 23, Section 15. 

  7. See ibid., IV.3.12. 

  8. See ibid., II.8. 

  9. See Berkeley, Principles, nos. 55, 80, 91-92. 

  10. See ibid., no. 11. 

  11. See Berkeley, Three Dialogues, 178, 188. 

  12. See Berkeley, Principles, no. 33. 

  13. See Berkeley, Three Dialogues, 171ff. Likewise, see Frederick Copleston, *A History of Philosophy: Volume 5 Modern Philosophy: The British Philosophers, Part II Berkeley to Hume, (Garden City: Image Books, 1964), 48-53, 55-6. Copleston makes a excellent qualifying point: “However, though Berkeley’s critical attitude towards the Oratorian [Malebranche] was doubtless sincere and an expression of his honest opinion, his concern to dissociate himself from Malebranche shows that he saw that grounds for making a comparison were not altogether wanting.”