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Berkeley's argument against material objects


To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's argument against material objects
Date: 22 December 2006 11:46

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your email of 19 December, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Critically discuss Bishop Berkeley's argument against the existence of material objects.'

This is a nice, clear summary of Berkeley's position. What I missed, however, was engagement with the argument against matter. Are you persuaded by the argument? Or is it obvious that the argument is false?

Two explanations suggest themselves:

The Locke connection. At the beginning of your essay, you remark that Berkeley, 'took Locke's distinction between the world as it is in itself and the world as we perceive it a step further by denying the existence of matter, the constituent of Locke's "world as it is in itself".'

First, I should remark that the notion of the 'world in itself' sounds much more like Kant than Locke. What Locke does do, in his Essay, is pour scorn on the traditional idea of substance as 'something I know not what' which underlies the primary and secondary properties which we perceive. (Locke gives the example of the primitive belief that the world rests on a tortoise which rests on, etc. etc.) However, Locke has a positive, non-metaphysical account of the ideas of substance and real essence which makes clear that there is no 'metaphysical' claim involved in the assertion, e.g. that a table is an individual 'substance' with primary and secondary qualities, or that wood and water are general types of substance etc.

The traditional view of Berkeley amongst analytic philosophers is that his argument for immaterialism is just a bad argument, and that the only way to understand why he was motivated to put it forward in the first place is because he was reacting to an equally bad theory put forward by Locke. This view has changed, especially with J.L. Mackie's excellent book 'Problems from Locke' (Oxford) which makes the points I've made above.

So, if Berkeley's theory cannot be seen as merely showing the absurd consequences of Locke's position, either it is just rubbish or the argument is better than the traditionalists have claimed. John Foster's book 'The Case for Idealism' (RKP) is evidence that Berkeley's arguments are, once more, being taken seriously - as I try to do in the program.

Second explanation: As you present it, an essential component in Berkeley's theory is the existence of God. Surely, it is a lot easier (at least, for an unbeliever) to believe in matter than to believe in God! Berkeley has taken an idea which is, admittedly, problematic and replaced it by one which is more problematic. But that ignores the fact that Berkeley believes that he has a crushing argument against belief in matter. We have to accept whatever consequences follow from that.

Belief in God is a consequence of Berkeley's theory, not part of the theory itself. Indeed, as you will have discovered from your reading, Berkeley presents his theory as an analysis of statements about the objects of perception in terms of subjunctive conditional statements. 'There is a chair in the study' is translated as, 'If you were to look in the study you would see a chair.' That's just an illustration, in fact it becomes quickly apparent that things are much more complicated than that because every term for a 'substance' that appears in the conditional statements itself requires the same analysis.

There are two arguments against this: the first, general argument, is that we have no idea of 'conditional facts'. If a subjunctive conditional is actually true, there must be some non-conditional facts in virtue of which it is true. This takes us back to God, or something that serves the role of God such as Kantian noumena.

The other argument derives from Kant's refutation of idealism. It is in fact impossible to talk about the non-material entities (sense data) which figure in the conditional analysis. All concepts are necessarily concepts which apply to an external world. As we have seen, this is not enough to refute idealism in the wider sense, but only one version.

What about science? Berkeley was hostile to the corpuscular theory, embraced by Locke, for whom corpuscles represent the 'real essence' of the material objects we perceive. However, arguably, he needn't have been. If he is prepared to allow the investigation into causal relationships between phenomena (as you explain), then it is a perfectly acceptable part of such investigation to employ hypothetico-deductive theories which posit unobservable entities and derive testable consequences. This leaves Berkeley with two alternatives: either to claim that the unobservables exist as ideas in the mind of God - a perfectly reasonable position - or take an instrumentalist or pragmatist view which accepts the usefulness of the corpuscular hypothesis in deriving empirically testable theories.

All the best for the holidays and 2007!