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Idealism and our common sense view of the world


To: Siobhan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Idealism and our common sense view of the world
Date: 23rd March 2010 12:58

Dear Siobhan,

Thank you for your email of 15 March with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Can idealism be reconciled with our common sense view of ourselves as agents in a material world? Discuss with relation to either Berkeley's immaterialism or Leibniz's theory of Monads.'

In your discussion of Berkeley and Plato, you have cottoned on to something which is not always made apparent in expositions of Berkeley: that he was strongly influenced by Plato's Theory of Forms.

It is true that Plato viewed the world of Forms as having greater 'reality' than the world of phenomena. For Plato, this means that knowledge is only possible of the Forms (see the Republic and the story of the prisoners in the Cave). Of phenomena such as ordinary tables or horses we can only have opinion or belief.

However, there is a very considerable gap between the Platonic version of 'idealism' and Berkeleian idealism or 'immaterialism', according to which tables and horses are nothing but perceptions, and cannot exist apart from the act of perception. The very notion of matter as a 'something' which occupies 'space' is for Berkeley a meaningless notion.

This isn't scepticism, according to Berkeley, but on the contrary the best response to the sceptic (!). While Descartes in the First Meditation argued that an evil demon might deceive him into thinking that material objects exist when in reality they are merely perceptions produced in his mind, according to Berkeley there is nothing to be sceptical about. What we term 'material objects' are in reality just perceptions and nothing more. God is (in a sense) the 'evil demon'. Or, rather, a benevolent demon.

How exactly is Berkeley's theory like Plato's theory of Forms? As you explain, Plato recognized forms or ideas such as Horse (with a capital 'H'). This doctrine was modified by Medieval philosophers to form the theory you describe, known as 'conceptualism'. According to the conceptualist, ideas are not in Plato's heaven but in your head and mine. But that is decidedly not Plato.

For Plato, as for the conceptualists, the Form of Horse is in some sense a 'paradigm' of what a horse should be. We recognize objects in the phenomenal world which more or less approximate to this paradigm: individual horses.

What Berkeley does is take this notion of 'original and copy' and apply it to each individual object. So the horse we spy in yonder field is a perception in your mind and also a separate perception in my mind. That's two perceptions. But there is only one horse in the field. The 'one horse' is an idea in God's mind. Berkeley used the terms 'ectype' for perceptions/ copies and 'archetype' for the original.

You can attempt to 'do Berkeley without God'. That's what 20th century 'logical positivists' such as Carnap and Ayer tried to do, in giving a 'phenomenalistic reduction' of statements about the external world. According to phenomenalism, every statement about a material object can be analysed as a hypothetical statement, or rather as a set of hypothetical statements, about experiences or possible experiences.

As I said, you can attempt to do it, but in fact the project collapsed: there are sound, logical reasons why it cannot be carried out consistently. You end up chasing your own tail.

Can idealism be reconciled with your view of ourselves as agents in a material world? As you will gather, the question is, 'which idealism?' As you show, there is little difficulty in accepting that I am an agent in a material world and I also have concepts or ideas 'in my head' which I apply to things that I encounter in the material world.

On Berkeley's theory, however, the very notion of physical agency becomes problematic. This is what Dr Johnson attempted to show when he kicked the stone (the real point of this question). Of course, Berkeley can say that he has a perfectly 'good' explanation of what happens when you kick a stone. You form the intention in your mind to move your foot. Then follows a series of perceptions of your foot, the stone, etc. which are just as they would be if in a material world you kicked a stone. Except for the fact that your foot and the stone are in reality archetypes in the mind of God.

If you have ever played a computer game, then you might recognize this as a description of a 'virtual reality'. Sitting in front of your computer monitor, you can 'kick a stone', or hit a golf ball, or drive a sports car just by moving your mouse.

I hope that you can now see the problem. If what I think of as 'the world' is just a virtual reality created by God, then how am I to view my actions in it? Physical agency seems to reduce to purely mental agency. That is decidedly not the view of common sense.

Well done for completing your Pathway!

What to do now? I think that you would enjoy the Ancient Philosophy Pathway which looks at the Presocratic philosophers of Ancient Greece. The University of London Diploma or BA would be possible, but you would need to step up a gear.

All the best,