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Essays on Berkeley and on the fear of death


To: Howard D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Berkeley and on the fear of death
Date: 22 March 2002 13:16

Dear Howard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 February, with your fourth essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, 'George Berkeley 1685-1753', and for your e-mail of 24 February, with your fifth essay, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?'

Well done for completing the program. I will be sending a Certificate and Mentor's report.


This is a useful introduction to Berkeley's philosophy.

You say, 'existing empiricist philosophy (such as that of Locke) resulted in unnecessary doubts about the reliability of our senses and what we can know'. The standard view of Berkeley, is that his theory is a direct response to Locke. Locke sets out to explain how we obtain our 'ideas', not only of general qualities like red or square, but of particular 'material things' in the world as bearers of those qualities. Certainly, Berkeley knew that his readers would be familiar with Locke, and would share his sense of puzzlement at how Locke manages to pull of the 'trick' of explaining how we can arrive at a concept of material substance, when from the start Locke is only prepared to accept an account in terms of sense impressions and the concepts we form on the basis of sense impressions.

So, it looks as though one might outflank Berkeley by pointing out that the fault is not with the idea of 'material substance' as such, but only with Locke's treatment of material substance.

I don't think that this is true. As evidence, I would cite continued interest in Berkeley's ideas. There is a book by John Foster, 'The Case for Idealism' which presents a contemporary version of Berkeley's attack on the concept of matter.

The key argument, for Foster and I believe for Berkeley also, is based on the idea of a 'topic neutral description'. The term 'topic neutral description' was actually first coined in the 60's by the 'Australian materialists' Armstrong and Smart (I don't know who was first). Their idea is that when we say, 'Fred is having an experience of red', the conditions which make this true can be given in a manner which does not imply the existence of a 'raw feel' of red in Fred's mind. Talk of what people experience is talk about what they do and are able to do, which only implies *something* going on inside them. But this description leaves open the possibility that this 'something' is a purely physical process. The idea of an extra non-physical 'something' drops out of the picture.

Now watch how the idealist turns the tables: "In the statement, 'Fred perceives the red apple', the conditions which make this true can be given in a manner which does not imply the existence of a 'material substance' outside Fred's mind. Talk of what people perceive in the world is talk about their experiences, which only implies *something* existing outside them. But this description leaves open the possibility that this 'something' is a purely mental entity. The idea of an extra non-mental 'something' drops out of the picture."

The thought in each case is the idea that we are tempted to make a claim, which turns out to be completely redundant. So no claim is made. In insisting on the 'extra something' in each case, we end up babbling.

In Berkeley's case, this is most clearly shown by contrasting him, not with Locke but with Descartes. Berkeley is in effect saying that with a good 'evil demon' who kept appearances going now and forever more, there would be no further *work* for God to do, nothing extra that God could add to the world.

One point I would make is that you very quickly move to include 'God' in Berkeley's philosophy. It is worth noting that Berkeley talks of statements about external things being conditional statements about experiences. E.g. 'There is a door behind me' means, 'If I were to turn round I would see a door'. If this conditional analysis could be carried through, there would be no need to put God in the picture. The reason God is needed is that the conditional analysis requires that, without God, there would be purely conditional statements experiences which are true, even though there is nothing in reality which *makes* them true.

Our fear of death

You seem to wander around the topic somewhat, although you do get to the main point in the end. The problem concerns our fear of death *as such*, not worries about the manner of our dying, or our fears about what an afterlife might be like, although these are common enough aspects of people's 'fear of death'.

The philosophical problem raised by this is that of giving a coherent account of the *object* of our fear. In other words, how is it possible to conceive of our own death?

Now, one explanation for the fear is that it is, as you say, fear of the unknown. It is the very fact that we cannot conceive of our own death that gives rise to the feeling of terror. It is true that we don't feel the same way about the time before we were born, as you point out. However, that is all water under the bridge. The problem is only one of abstract conception. Whereas our death is something we are inexorably moving towards. It is as if one thought, 'something is coming to get me, and I cannot form an idea of what it is.'

An alternative explanation of our fear of death is sometimes given, namely, that insofar as life is something we enjoy, we naturally don't want it to stop. For example, if there is a good film on TV tonight, and I die before then, I will miss the film. This is not as absurd as it sounds. Obviously, if I am dead, I am not going to 'miss' anything. However, if there are two possible lives I might live, which are identical up to a certain point, and one life includes this extra enjoyable item while the other does not, then surely the first life is preferable to the second. But the same argument can be extended indefinitely.

The reply is that this fails to capture the fear of death *as such*. Why, indeed should we feel fear, and not merely regret?

At the end of your essay, you refer to Wittgenstein's point that 'death is not an event in life.' This seems to be essentially the same view as that expressed by the Greek philosophy Epicurus, 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.' Or is Wittgenstein expressing the much more potent thought, 'Where death is, the world is not'? ('the world is my world' according to Wittgenstein's solipsist).

The solution to the problem of our fear of death must involve facing the question of our *conception* of our own death. I don't think either Epicurus or Wittgenstein in the 'Tractuatus' succeed in doing this. Death is not a mere dissolution of elements as Epicurus believed, nor is it the 'end of the world' as Wittgenstein's solipsist believes.

Or perhaps, ultimately, our own death cannot be adequately conceived, and the answer is that this should inspire, not just fear, but metaphysical awe.

All the best,