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Berkeley's immaterialism and human action


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's immaterialism and human action
Date: 15th February 2011 12:12

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 5 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, in response to the question, ''To act consistently one must either admit matter or reject spirit.' Why was Berkeley vulnerable to this objection? How well did he respond to it?'

This is a very good answer to the question, which makes appropriate and relevant references to the secondary literature. I am also pleased that you are prepared to give Berkeley a run for his money. His theory of immaterialism is a powerful and highly consistent 'vision' (as you call it), even if his arguments for that theory are less than conclusive.

Possibly, you miss one argument which Berkeley deploys in defence of spiritual substance, concerning the nature of causality. In the '3 Dialogues' hee claims that I have a direct experience of causal connection through introspection of the act of willing. (I don't have the reference to hand.) We know what Hume's response would be (just as we know what Hume said about the claim to perceive the self through introspection). Nevertheless, it strengthens the point about action and activity.

Schopenhauer was later to argue that the one piece of direct evidence we have that the world is more than just a phenomenalistic 'world of ideas' is the experience of will, as such. We know, or feel, that a world of mere ideas cannot stand on its own, the notion is deeply objectionable. And yet, what alternative would there be if there wasn't some evidence or clue to the existence of something beyond the world of ideas?

My main complaint against the commentators is the feckless way in which they deal with the phenomenalistic option. Bennett is one culprit. But Dancy also misses the point in calling 'the aid of' Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. It would have been helpful if you'd said a bit more about this.

Berkeley's 'ideas' are not Wittgensteinian 'private objects'. Like Descartes, Berkeley never once considers the thought that an idea, whose 'esse' is 'percipi' has a reality wholly determined by its actual appearance at this very moment (so that, in Wittgensteinian terms, whatever you say or believe about the object is 'right'. If it seems X, then it is X. If it seems Y, then it is Y.) On the contrary, ideas have an 'esse'. All we know about this esse is that it accounts for or explains the event of perception and nothing but that event of perception. It follows that an idea cannot be 'unperceived'. Yet what we perceive is a 'something' other than that very event of perception. The ideas that I perceive have a 'side' other than the side they present to me now.

There is a way to give phenomenalism a run for its money, and that involves appeal to Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' (Critique of Pure Reason 2nd. edn.). If you really wanted to go to town on this you could try to get hold of Christopher Peacocke's book 'Holistic Explanation', which gives an elegant account of how, in Kantian terms, one would offer an explanation of a course of experience by means of the theory of a subject located in space and the 'objects' it encounters at various locations. The 'transcendental phenomenalist' rejects 'private objects', because every experience must have a place in the theory, must be construed as a perception of an 'object' in the 'world'. In this theory, there is room for mis-perception or failures of perception. I can 'seem to see' a phenomenalistic 'object' which isn't really there.

So, strictly no 'private objects' in the transcendental phenomenalist picture, which isn't to say that the theory isn't fatally flawed. Schopenhauer saw this. Wittgenstein's theory of 'forms of life' effectively rejects the transcendental phenomenalist solution, but a further step is needed in order to distinguish Wittgenstein's attack on the 'private object' from Kant's.

The transcendental phenomenalist would say that what we cannot know, we cannot talk or speculate about. We can only describe. This is how the world is. The theory works, everything fits. It's just that we feel (as did Kant and Schopenhauer) that this can't be all. There cannot be 'appearance' without 'something that appears'.

Berkeley's sin is to suppose that he has knowledge of this 'something' by analogy with his own experience. The 'something' is a subject, like myself. Kant would say, this is illegitimately attempting to describe things in themselves, or the noumenal world, using concepts which are derived from experience.

So Kant would reject the alternative which you present, 'either God, or phenomenalism'. We don't know and cannot know the nature of ideas, their 'esse', that which accounts for their very being. We only know how things appear to us. This is scepticism, but not a 'Godless' scepticism. There is still room for faith.

All the best,