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Posts Tagged ‘berkeley’

Consider the following parallel passages from Berkeley’s Principles and Dialogues:

so long as men thought that real things subsisted without the mind, and that their knowledge was only so far forth real as it was conformable to real things, it follows, they could not be certain that they had any real knowledge at all. For how can it be known that the things which are perceived, are conformable to those which are not perceived or exist without the mind? (PHK sect. 86)

It is your opinion, the ideas we perceive by our senses are not real things but images or copies of them. Our knowledge therefore is no farther real, than as our ideas are the true representations of those originals. But as these originals are in themselves unknown, it is impossible to know how far our ideas resemble them, or whether they resemble them at all. We cannot therefore be sure we have any real knowledge. (DHP, L&J p. 246)

It is usually thought that in these two passages Berkeley is assuming some sort of internalism about justification. That is, he is assuming that we can’t gain knowledge by means of the senses unless we know that the senses are reliable. On this reading, Berkeley is arguing that representative realism leads to general skepticism, because of the impossibility of a non-circular justification of trust in the senses. Reid probably read Berkeley this way, and this was probably the reason why Reid thought that externalism about justification would allow him to escape Berkeley’s argument.

Now, I don’t want to deny that internalist assumptions may be in the background at many points in Berkeley’s writings, but I do want to point out that, as the bolded phrases show, these texts make no such assumption. The structure of the argument in these two passages is rather the following:

  1. If representative realism is true, then we gain knowledge by means of the senses only if our perceptions match mind-independent objects.
  2. We cannot know that our perceptions match mind-independent objects.
  3. Therefore,

  4. If representative realism is true, we cannot know that we gain knowledge by means of the senses.

In other words, representative realism engenders second-order skepticism; it prevents us from knowing that we know. Externalism is not a way of escaping from this argument. Unless the externalist-representative-realist wants to allow knowledge of the reliability of the senses to rely directly or indirectly on the senses themselves (see Van Cleve), it would seem that she is stuck accepting the second-order skeptical thesis. Berkeley, however, finds the second-order skeptical thesis unacceptable.

It is in fact not surprising that much of Berkeley’s discussion should take place at the second-order. After all, the structure of the dialectic, both between Berkeley and his real-world opponents and between his fictitious characters Hylas and Philonous, is a debate about whether ‘the vulgar’ or ‘the mob’ or ‘the illiterate bulk’ have knowledge of familiar objects like apples, tables, and cherry trees, and if so how. Berkeley’s complaint against his opponents is that, on their theories, it cannot be proved that the gardener knows his cherry tree. He claims that his own theory does not have this defect: the philosopher who has grasped Berkeley’s arguments thereby comes to know that the gardener knows that his cherry tree exists.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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In several place, most notably Alciphron 7, Berkeley seems to think that the meanings of many, if not all, terms are given by the rules for correctly applying them. He doesn’t seem to mean the conditions under which they are true. Rather, he seems to mean the rules actual speakers apply in deciding to use the word. We’re not talking about mere disquotation; we have to give conditions that speakers can actually use when deciding whether to utter sentences. So, to use one of Berkeley’s favorite examples, the meaning of the symbol ‘i‘ in algebra is given by the formula i^2=-1. Similarly, it seems to me, the meaning of ‘force’ in Newtonian physics is given by the inference rules which allow us to derive theorems about force.

Now consider the predicate ‘true’. Surely the rule for applying this predicate is just the disquotation schema:

p‘ is true iff p

(Pretend there are corner quotes around each side of the iff.) The view that the disquotation schema is just all there is to be said about truth is called the deflationary theory of truth, and was endorsed by a number of 20th century thinkers. Would Berkeley endorse that view? I think he’s under at least a little bit of pressure to do so, in virtue of his general views about language, especially since ‘true’ clearly doesn’t stand for an idea. However, here’s a reason for thinking he shouldn’t be a deflationist. In his notebooks, Berkeley flirted with a proto-Humean bundle theory of the self. In later entries he decisively rejects this view, and in the Principles he is at pains to secure the claim that there is, in addition to our perceptions, a thing which perceives. Part of the case he has to make is that the word ‘spirit’ is meaningful despite not standing for any idea, and he does so, I think, by examining the ‘notion’ of perception. This is a notion of a two place relation, so we get the perceiver almost for free: nothing can be a perception unless something perceives it. Now, it’s clear that we can use the word ‘perceive’ (or some other similar sign) in this way if we want, and this will allow us to associate fairly well-defined assertability conditions with sentences containing ‘spirit’ or ‘self’. However, it seems that we could just as easily adopt a different notion of perception which did not require perceptions to have perceivers, and we could have well-defined assertability conditions for this as well. If the deflationary theory of truth is correct, then it is not clear what it could mean to say that one of these notions was the right one and the other was wrong. In other words, this would make Berkeley’s rejection of the bundle theory of the self simply a decision to adopt one ‘language-game’ rather than another. Personally, I don’t think the good Bishop would be at all pleased with this result.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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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”.

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