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Berkeley's immaterialism and the attack on abstract ideas


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's immaterialism and the attack on abstract ideas
Date: 26th November 2010 12:42

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 17 November, with your essay on Berkeley written to your own title, 'Keeping up Appearances', and your essay of 22 November in response to exam question for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, 'Why was Berkeley so concerned to attack the theory of abstract ideas? How successful is his attack?'

Regarding your point about evolution of sensory organs, the hypothesis that there might have existed beings whose only mode of perception was through contact must be (given what we know) a hypothesis concerning a possible world where evolution favoured such beings. Mutations have to give sufficient advantage in the process of natural selection or the evolution of, say, an eye from a clump of light sensitive cells doesn't get started at all, even if such creatures would welcome eyes if we could give these to them.

Keeping up appearances

I can see where this is coming from, but it kind-of misses the point of Berkeley's dialectical attack on the idea of matter. In your story of a deity who devises a more elegant, less labour-intensive way of 'keeping up appearances', there are two ideas: the utility of space and the physical -- whatever the physical may turn out to be -- and the most elegant choice of laws of physical nature ('nothing carefully arranged' being high on the list of candidates).

Let's consider first the question of the distance that separates Descartes and Berkeley. Descartes rejected the idea of 'matter' as something that, once created, has its own 'existential inertia' that keeps it going. Just as with mental substance, material substance requires God's continual creative power to remain in existence from moment to moment.

It's a good question to ask about physics. Why do things continue? It's the sort of question to which one expects an interesting answer, not merely, 'Well they're things, aren't they? that's what things do.' But of course for Descartes, God is the one in charge of the laws of nature.

We believe in space and in the existence of material objects that occupy space. God is not a deceiver, so he would not allow us to believe this if it weren't true. OK, but how can God *make* it true? That was the question Berkeley asked himself. There's nothing God can do to make 'matter' because the idea is just nonsensical. There's no concept you can form of it that isn't based on our experiences of seeing, touching etc.

The most interesting difference between Descartes and Berkeley is that Descartes, in effect, starts with God. After the cogito, it is his proof of God's existence (from my 'idea of perfection' which must have a cause) which enables him to reclaim the universe of physics. Whereas with Berkeley, we start with a dialectical attack on the idea of matter and conclude that the only way to avoid a universe full of holes is to have God up there, managing our virtual reality.

Idealism as a philosophy, or rather a metaphysic, arguably began with Berkeley but then continued through a long tradition including Kant, Fichte, Hegel. Refuting idealism is no easy task (I make the attempt in the Pathways Metaphysics program -- you're welcome to have the course units if you have the time to look at them!). Kant's critique of Berkeley and Leibniz -- that they are playing fast and loose with the concept of 'experience' -- far from getting us out of idealism, just take us further in (the Berkeleian 'archetypes' in God's mind become unknowable 'noumena' or 'things in themselves').

To cut to the chase: the error, if there is one, is the idea that what we are given, ultimately, is experience and the task of the philosopher or metaphysician is to make the best sense of it. I think this is wrong, for broadly the reasons given by Rorty in his 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature'. This debate isn't new (it is played out, e.g. in the correspondence between F.H. Bradley and William James). To refute Berkeley you have to prove that the self is, first and foremost, a physical agent (see, e.g. John Macmurray's Gifford Lectures published as 'The Self as Agent' and 'Persons in Relation', unjustly neglected by contemporary academic philosophers).

Berkeley on abstract ideas

This is an excellent essay, sharply focused on the question, with which I could find little to disagree.

I think you are right to imply that Berkeley's attack on (what he takes to be) Locke's doctrine of abstract ideas merely 'supports' his attack on the idea of matter. It's not as if Berkeley's immaterialist view crumbles when you point out that he is wrong about Locke, or that, as you say, similar difficulties apply to his notion of a 'finite spirit'.

Having said that, it still seems to be to be a valid point that the naive or pre-philosophical notion of 'matter' (as that whose existence and continuity in 'space' requires no further explanation because that's just what things do) involves a mental operation which one might term 'illicit abstraction'. We convince ourselves that we have a concept which we don't in fact have. But that's just the diagnosis of the error made by his opponent, not the actual proof of Berkeley's theory. Generations of students who learn how to 'refute' Berkeley mistake the diagnosis for the proof.

If we allow the necessary adjustments, is the Locke/ Berkeley theory of concepts acceptable? Arguably, no, because it still depends on a problematic notion of 'abstraction' as the main process by means of which concepts are formed. You are shown lots of red objects and you form the concept 'red'. You are shown lots of square objects and you form the concept 'square'. Peter Geach in his book 'Mental Acts' mounts a powerful attack on abstractionism from a broadly Wittgensteinian perspective. We don't form concepts in the manner of pattern-recognition machines; we learn to follow rules, which is necessarily a practical ability. You have to have the concepts of colour or shape before you can even form the idea that there is something that these objects have in common in respect of their colour or in respect of their shape. A whole raft of concepts have to be acquired together. Locke is wrong to suppose that one can start with the simplest ideas and build up.

Does this point make any real difference to the Locke-Berkeley debate (if there is one) or indeed to Berkeley's immaterialist theory? In my comments on the first essay, I said that the crucial move was from the primacy of experience to the primacy of action. This is also the idea which underlies Wittgenstein's considerations on rule following and 'forms of life'. The interesting question, it seems to me, is whether one could take on board Geach's criticisms of abstractionism while remaining within a metaphysic of experience, i.e. idealism in the broadest sense.

All the best,