I’ve been thinking recently about Berkeley’s views on language. I just taught the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous last term, and felt like Berkeley was pulling some philosophical sleight of hand in Philonous’s reply to Hylas’s parity argument against spirit (in dialogue three). Regardless of what is going on with the challenge to material substance and Hylas’s parity argument against spirit, it is clear that Berkeley thinks we do not have an idea of spirit. And yet, Berkeley holds that the term “spirit” is significant, and does not appear to think we should avoid using it. One place to look for some illumination on how Berkeley thinks this could be comes from the dialogues “Alciphron, or the minute Philosopher”.
In Alciphron VII, Berkeley has Euphranor explains that we should “see if we an make sense of our daily practice” in using words as signs, and so says to Alciphron:
Words, it is agreed, are signs: It may not, therefore, be amiss to examine the use of other signs, in order to know that of words. Counters, for instance at a card-table are used, not for their own sake, but only as signs substituted for money, as words are for ideas. Say now, Alciphron, is it necessary every time these counters are used, throughout the whole progress of a game, to frame an idea of the distinct sum or value that each represents?
Alciphron concedes that poker chips work fine as signs, as long as there is a settled agreement as to how to turn the counters back into money at the end of the game. Euphranor then pushes the point, asking whether we need to think about pounds, shillings and pence when we are tabulating a sum. Alciphron agrees that the important thing is whether, “in the conclusion, those figures direct our actions with respect to things”. This leads Euphranor to conclude:
From Hence, it seems to follow, that words may not be insignificant, although they should not every time they are used, excite the ideas they signify in our minds, it being sufficient, that we have it in our power to substitute things or ideas for their signs when there is occasion. It seems also to follow, that there may be another use of words, besides that of marking and suggesting distinct ideas, to wit, the influencing our conduct and actions; which may be done, either by forming rules for us to act by, or by raising certain passions, dispositions, and emotions in our minds. A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act, or excite to the doing or forbearance of an action may, it seems, be useful and significant, although the words whereof it is composed, should not bring each a distinct idea into our minds. (emphasis mine)
What I find fascinating about this exchange is the degree to which it rejects the (broadly Lockean) cognitivist paradigm of language.
What I mean by “cognitivist” concerns the relationship between language and mind. The broadly Lockean paradigm is cognitivist insofar as the central account of the meaningfulness of terms is given in terms of ideas in the understanding, and the central account of the significance of sentences is given in terms of the cognitive activity of judgment. Various features of verbal propositions are explained in terms of (and had derivative from) the features of the mental states they express, and those mental states are, by and large, from the cognitive side of things.
Berkeley, through Euphranor, is offering a pretty hefty overhaul of this picture, though he does not deny that in many cases words are used in that broadly Lockean fashion. First, Euphranor got Alciphron to concede that there are individual uses of significant terms that are not, on that occasion of use, backed by an idea in the understanding of the speaker. This is not, by itself, a deep difficulty for the cognitivist paradigm, as the cognitivist could simply account for the phenomenon as a sort of derivative use, only possible if there have been directly significant uses previously (or only if that use stands in the right relationship to directly significant uses). Nothing yet is distinctively non-cognitive, because so far, we are just talking about cases in which you use words without the ideas that they stand for. Since the words still stand for ideas, though, this is not a major break from the basic picture.
The break comes in the second of the two passages I quoted, where Euphranor suggests that the broader lesson to draw from such cases is that words have a use, other than marking and suggesting ideas: influencing our conduct and actions. Here we get a picture on which a term is significant, despite there being no corresponding idea, provided that the term influences our conduct and actions (either by being the formation of a rule of action, or by raising passions/dispositions/emotions to mind). This is precisely the sort of view of the workings of language that one needs in place for some of the traditional versions of non-cognitivism about ethics. On those views, the word “wrong” is meaningful because its use is connected with the non-cognitive state of disapproval (in some way).
Some of Berkeley’s examples of terms which require this distinctive apparatus are: self, number, force, grace, trinity, substance, personality. Further, Berkeley (through Euphranor) offers a non-cognitivist account of the doctrine of the trinity, saying:
[A] man may believe the doctrine of the trinity, if he finds it revealed in Holy Scripture, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are God, and that there is but one God? Although he doth not frame in his mind, any abstract, or distinct ideas of trinity, substance, or personality, provided, that this doctrine of a Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier makes proper impressions on his mind, producing therein, love, hope, gratitude and obedience, and thereby becomes a lively operative principle, influencing his conduct and actions, agreeably to that notion of a saving faith which is required in a christian. (p. 348 of the text linked above).
I’ve become pretty fascinated by this thread of thinking in Berkeley recently, though I haven’t had a chance to start digging into the secondary literature on it yet. What I am most interested in determining is whether or not Berkeley can address the concern that non-cognitivism requires anti- or quasi- realism about the domain in question.
When Locke defines truth for a verbal proposition, he does so in a way that makes it dependent on the mental proposition expressed. This model, on which linguistic activity inherits many of its interesting features from mental activity, produces a relatively short argument for the non-truth-evaluability of verbal propositions which receive a non-cognitivist treatment. If a sentence/utterance/assertion can only be true or false insofar as the mental state that it expresses is true or false, then a sentence which expresses a non-cognitive state like desire would not be true or false. I take it that this conclusion is anti-realist about the domain in question. One approach that is popular as of late is to go minimalist about truth, a maneuver which yields quasi-realism about the domain in question. I take it though, that there is good reason to suspect that Berkeley is not a mere quasi-realist about the existence of God or the self. His non-cognitivisms appear to be bred out of facts about limitations of mental representation, and not out of a suspicion about the reality of God or the self. It would be nice figure out if there is some way to capture this difference between the sorts of non-cognitivist views which are motivated by (or coupled with) a rejection of the metaphysical reality of the categories in question, and those which seem to, at the end of the day, want to say something more like, “oh, they’re real all right, we just aren’t equipped to think about those things”.