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What did Berkeley prove by kicking the stone?


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What did Berkeley prove by kicking the stone?
Date: 16 September 2006 11:02

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 6 September, with your fifth and final essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'I refute it thus' - When he kicked the stone in the church courtyard what was Dr Johnson hoping to prove? Was the demonstration a success?

First of all, congratulations on being (I think I'm right in saying this) the first Pathways student to successfully complete four of the six programs. My report and certificate will be on their way shortly to the Secretary of the ISFP who will forward them to you.

If you still have an appetite for more, there are just two choices, 'The Possible World Machine' and the program on the Presocratic philosophers of Ancient Greece!

You consider three possible interpretations of Dr Johnson's demonstration. 'One possibility is that Johnson regarded religion as a matter of revelation rather than demonstration...'. This would explain his opposition to Berkeley, but not the manner of expressing it. On this view, Johnson aligns himself with the view later argued by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, that we must limit the claims of reason 'in order to make room for faith'.

Although Kant does not consider Berkeley's argument for the existence of God when looking at the main proofs offered (Cosmological, Ontological and Teleological), one can reconstruct the argument he would have given from what he says about Leibniz in the 'Amphiboly of the Concepts of Pure Reflection' (one of the more obscure sections of the Critique of Pure Reason). Berkeley's error is in attempting to use empirical concepts to describe the nature of 'things in themselves' - the ultimate reality which accounts for the given facts of perception. We can't meaningfully talk of a 'God' or of objectively existing 'perceptions' in God's 'mind' because once we leave behind the concepts which apply to the world of our experience, there is no way to describe 'noumena' or 'things in themselves'.

The second interpretation is the idea that God is not 'there to fine tune the universe'. There is some justice in the complaint that in holding the 'ideas' of all existing objects in his mind, or presenting perceptions to us at the appropriate time, God has too much work to do. However, in this respect Berkeley's theory is not so distant from Descartes' non-idealist view that in order to 'exist', material objects must be maintained in existence by God's continuous creative power.

The third interpretation is the one which I would give. However, one need to distinguish this carefully from a view which has often been erroneously attributed to Dr Johnson, that somehow kicking a stone proves that the stone is not just an experience. Generations of philosophy students have learned to rebut that argument: If my perception of the stone is just an idea in my mind, then so are my perceptions of my contact with the stone, the sound it makes when it hits my boot, the sharp pain in my toe and so on.

The correct view, as you say, is that the act of kicking the stone emphasises a fundamental feature of our relation to reality - that we are in the world as agents rather than as passive observers. On this view, the error made by idealists (and also by many who claim to be non-idealists) is in viewing visual perception as the paradigm of perception. This sets up the fatal subject-object dichotomy which leads inevitably to idealism in one form or other.

Vision is a 'distance sense'. By making visual perception the paradigm of perception, the subject is placed metaphysically at a 'distance' from the world. By some means or other, the subject is required to find its way back to the world from the 'given' in perception. The argument for idealism is based on the impossibility of achieving this. Instead, the only 'world' that there can be for us is one constructed in some way out of the materials of perception.

The alternative is to view physical action as the paradigm of perception. If one thinks of cases like that of Helen Keller, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a subject with no distance senses at all, whose only connection to the world is through physical agency.

All the best,