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At the beginning of the final (and by far the longest) chapter of his 1733 Divine Analogy, Peter Browne reports that “JUST as this Treatise was finished and sent away to the Press, I was very accidentaly surprised with a threatning Appearance of a powerful Attack upon the Doctrine of Divine Analogy, from an anonymous Author under the Disguise of a Minute Philosopher” (p. 374). The reference is, of course, to Berkeley’s 1732 Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. Browne proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of the account of religious language found in Berkeley’s fourth and seventh dialogues.

Browne correctly recognizes that Berkeley’s key thesis in the seventh dialogue is that “words may be significant although they do not stand for ideas” (Alciphron, §7.8). Browne interprets Berkeley as subsequently strengthening this thesis ultimately to arrive at the claim “that Words may be Significant, tho’ they signify Nothing” (Divine Analogy, 534). Browne’s reading of Berkeley here is, I believe, correct.

Browne further notes, again correctly, that Berkeley aims to secure the meaningfulness of words by means of their ability to influence our lives. As Berkeley puts it, “A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act or excites 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” (Alciphron, §7.8).

Browne finds this notion, and particularly its application to religion, so shocking that he often seems to be sputtering with rage. (Actually, it seems that “sputtering with rage” is Browne’s normal literary persona; Berkeley is far from being the only object of his ire.) The hastily written chapter, added in response to Berkeley, goes on for some 180 pages (more than a third of the book) and runs from one objection to another in a rather disorganized pattern. Further, Browne never spends so much as a moment contemplating how Berkeley might respond to his objections, or indeed whether Berkeley might have already anticipated and responded to the objection. Nevertheless, Browne’s remarks are occasionally insightful.

I discovered today, in the ‘insightful’ category, an objection of Browne’s that passes rather quickly which I hadn’t noticed before:

Surely if there be any common Sence remaining it will inform us, that it is some Idea or Conception or Notion in the Mind, affixed to the Word or excited by it, which gives it all its Significancy[,] Life and Activity; and which renders it a Ruling Principle, as he calls it [Alciphron, §7.4], for the Conduct of Men’s Faith and Practice … where [people] have [no ideas] annexed to [words] or excited by them, they are downright Nonsence; and of no real Influence, Use, or Signification. But if it were true, as this Author asserts, that Words without any Ideas or Conceptions belonging to them could realy affect and move us; such Emotions would be merely Mechanical: At Best Men must be affected as mere Animals only; they would be moved when there was nothing but Wind or Sound to move them; they must be wrought upon and disposed without any Concurrence of Thinking or Reason; and they would be intirely under the Guidance and Direction of Tones and Accents of the Voice, without any Rational, Moral, or Religious Influence and Meaning. (Divine Analogy, 536-537)

A. D. Woozley characterized Berkeley as holding “that not only does intelligent and intelligible handling of [words and other signs] not require a concomitant shadow sequence of images in the stream of consciousness, but it does not require any accompaniment at all” (pp. 431-432). Browne’s objection is that such a view leaves no room for rational agency. If I, as an agent, am to respond to the words I hear, this response must be mediated by some kind of cognitive process. In the absence of such a cognitive process, my response to the words would be merely ‘mechanical’, like a response to a posthypnotic suggestion. This would be particularly disastrous in the case of religious language which is meant (according to both Berkeley and Browne) to be productive of moral virtue.

Browne’s concerns would only have been heightened if he had seen the discussion of ‘reward’ talk in Berkeley’s unpublished Manuscript Introduction (see folios 22-25). As David Berman has suggested (p. 162), this sounds a lot like Pavlovian conditioning: frequent association between the word ‘reward’ and positive outcomes, beginning from childhood, has made us habitually respond to it in a certain way. What Berkeley really needs to counter Browne here is an account of agency that allows that these sorts of responses directly to words, unmediated by ideas, could really count as actions of mine. I have previously tried to gather such an account from Berkeley’s works. (Browne is a little puzzled by Berkeley’s insistence in this context on the inactivity of ideas, but this is what guarantees that, even in the case of a habitual response to ideas the mind must be understood as acting rather than being acted upon.) However, when the issue is raised by Alciphron, immediately following the discussion of religious mysteries, Euphranor gives a rather deflationary account of moral agency, with which Browne could hardly be expected to be satisfied (Alciphron, §§7.19-20).

This observation also mustn’t be separated from the broader context of the debate about religious mysteries. Toland and other religious radicals had been arguing that these mysterious doctrines, though strictly speaking meaningless, operated as tools of oppression, used by the clergy to produce blind obedience in the laity. Berkeley is arguing in Alciphron that these doctrines are meaningful precisely insofar as they shape feeling and action. The question is, if words can shape our actions without the mediation of ideas, are the actions really still ours? Are we not being operated upon, as by a hypnotist? And if we are being operated upon in this way, then aren’t the ‘hypnotists’ who wield these words (i.e., the clergy) guilty of just the kind of tyrannical domination alleged by Toland?

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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Reading Arash Abizadeh’s recent “The Absence of Reference in Hobbes’s Philosophy of Language” reminds me of something that puzzles me about early modern philosophy of language. Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

If you look at medieval scholastic theories of language, you find repeated mention of signification and supposition, two semantic features of terms. When you look at famous early modern discussions of language, you find discussions of signification, but seem to find no mention at all of supposition.

Thus Hobbes talks at length in the Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore about signification, but not at all about supposition. Locke, to give just one other example, develops a theory of signification, not of supposition, in Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding. (He does occasionally use the words ‘supposition’ and ‘supposing’, but meaning something else by those terms.)

Abizadeh argues that the absence of a theory of supposition is telling about Hobbes’s views:

he conspicuously abandoned the theory of “supposition,” which was the intellectual apparatus used in theories of language prevalent before him to express what corresponds to our contemporary notion of reference, i.e., the notion of an analytically irreducible semantic relation between words and things (objects) (Abidazeh 2015, p2).

That is, Abidazeh takes Hobbes’s abandonment of supposition to be evidence of his abandonment of reference. I wonder, however, how much the rejection (or ignoring) of supposition shows about Hobbes in particular. After all, that rejection seems to have been pretty widespread. Clearly the theory of supposition went away. But when did it go away?

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According to the Port-Royal Logic, “words are distinct and articulated sounds that people have made into signs to indicate what takes place in the mind” (Buroker 74). Similarly, according to Locke, the use of language requires that one “be able to use [articulate] Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another” (EHU 3.1.2). Passages like these support Berkeley’s interpretation of his predecessors as holding that, in the proper use of words, the speaker “design[s] them for marks of ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the hearer” (PHK, Intro 20). This in turn implies that “significant names, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for” (PHK, Intro 19). In other words, Berkeley understands his opponents to hold that “communication of ideas,” which his opponents take to be “the chief and only end of language” (PHK, Intro 20), requires that the hearer ends up having the same mental state as the speaker.

One problem with this, to which Berkeley does not call attention in his critique, is what happens when one hears and understands a sentence. Although this is disputed by Walter Ott, the standard view, which I take to be well-supported by the texts, is that for both the Port-Royalists and Locke, the mental proposition (i.e., the mental state signified by a complete sentence) carries assertive force. In the mental propositions signified by simple declarative sentences that aren’t negated, the subject idea and the predicate idea are joined by an act of affirmation. To have the mental state signified by ‘Melampus is an animal’ (Berkeley’s example in the Manuscript Introduction) just is to believe (occurrently) that Melampus is an animal. But this apparently implies that one cannot understand that sentence without believing it, and that’s absurd.

In a recent paper, Jennifer Smalligan Marušić proposes an interesting and plausible solution to this problem (see ppp. 273-277). Marušić’s suggestion is that, when communication succeeds, the hearer may form an idea of the speaker’s mental state, rather than having that mental state herself. Since the Port-Royalists explicitly distinguish between the act of affirming and the idea of that act, and say that you can have one without the other (Buroker 79), this allows us to understand sentences without affirming them. Since Locke also has ideas of reflection, it seems that he can make a similar move.

A nice feature of this approach, which Marušić does not mention, is that it helps to reconcile the Port-Royalists’ claim that “for an uttered or written sound to signify is nothing other than to prompt an idea connected to this sound in the mind by striking our ears or eyes” (Buroker 66) with their claim that the verb signifies the act of affirmation, and not the idea of that act. On this reading, the verb signifies the speaker’s act of affirmation by prompting the idea of that act in the hearer. What it doesn’t signify is that the speaker has (occurrently) an idea of affirmation.

If this is right, then the Port-Royalists may not hold quite the view of language Berkeley has in mind in his critique in the Introduction to the Principles. I don’t think, though, that this has far-reaching consequences for Berkeley’s critique. For one thing, Berkeley is arguing against the very existence of the mental states (abstract ideas) the words are thought to signify; to say that only speakers need to have these ideas, while hearers may have only ideas of ideas is not a way of escape. Furthermore, the attribution of the view that understanding involves ideas of speakers’ mental states to the Port-Royalists is better supported than its attribution to Locke. Now, I do think we need to take very seriously all the things that Berkeley says indicating the breadth of his targets (using phrases like ‘received opinion’, ‘common opinion of the philosophers’, etc.). I also think it’s pretty likely that Berkeley had read the Port-Royal Logic, simply on grounds that the book was extremely widely read in the period. However, we don’t have evidence that Berkeley gave to Port-Royal the kind of sustained attention we know he gave to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So the Port-Royal Logic‘s direct impact on Berkeley’s conception of the ‘received opinion’ was probably modest at best. (The Logic‘s indirect impact, via Locke, was enormous.)

In sum, if our project is understanding Port-Royal or Locke on their own terms, Berkeley’s presentation may be misleading, because he may well be wrong to think that understanding involves simulating what goes on in the mind of the speaker, rather than just conceiving of what goes on in the mind of the speaker. On the other hand, from Berkeley’s own perspective, this is an irrelevant, hair-splitting distinction. Since abstract ideas are impossible, and we can’t conceive of impossibilities, we can’t have ideas of abstract ideas. So regardless of which interpretation we take, Locke and Port-Royal have both speakers and hearers doing things that are (according to Berkeley) impossible.

Let me conclude with some controversial assertions about the relationship between Locke’s Essay and the Port-Royal Logic. (After all, what are blogs for?) Much of Locke’s Essay can be read as an empiricist, radical Protestant rewrite of the (Cartesian, Catholic) Port-Royal Logic. (Compare, for instance, the subtle differences in the two works’ accounts of faith and the practical upshots derived from them – Buroker 260-272; EHU 4.18-19.) But Locke does not always seem to be aware of the ways in which his own anti-Cartesian polemics undermine the Port-Royal theory of mind and language. This fact is responsible for many of Locke’s well-known inconsistencies and unclarities, as for instance on the topic of whether (and in what sense) all ideas are images.

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

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In a previous post, I pointed to Hobbes’s theorizing about moral language at the end of chapter 4 of Leviathan. I argued that Hobbes thinks moral terms have a double signification: they signify something in the world, and also something about the nature of the speaker — something about them that contributed to their applying that word to this thing.

The notion that some moral or political terms have a double signification is also visible in the earlier Elements of Law. Thus ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ “signify the same thing, together with the divers passion of those that use them; for when the men that be in that office please, they are called an aristocracy, otherwise an oligarchy” (EL 20.3). Both ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ have two significations. Each signifies some group of men. Each also signifies the attitude of the speaker towards that group, be it positive or negative.

Understanding Hobbes’s view about the double signification of moral terms can also help us to understand his discussions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One of those occurs earlier in the Elements of Law:

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Locke famously defines judgment, knowledge, etc., in terms of the joining or separating of ideas. It is quite probable that Locke’s source for this is the Port-Royal Logic. There are two well-known problems with this view. First, according to this view in order to think that Peter is not living I must mentally separate the idea of Peter from the idea of living, but if I do that then its not clear how this judgment, that Peter is not living, can be a unit which can be, for instance, embedded in complex sentences. Locke makes matters worse by talking about the joining and separating of verbal signs. Taken literally, this ought to have the consequence that ‘Peter ………………………………….. living’ means ‘Peter is not living,’ since the signs are so far apart. Obviously he can’t mean anything so ridiculous as that, but he doesn’t really tell us what he does mean.

The second problem is that it seems, on this view, that the proposition is the same as the act of judging (affirming or denying) and so one cannot entertain a proposition without either affirming or denying it. This is especially a problem given the theory of language in Locke and the Port-Royalists: a sentence is conceived as a sort of recipe for constructing a certain complex mental state. In successful communication, the speaker translates her mental state into words according to the linguistic conventions, and the hearer then ‘decodes’ the words and reconstructs the mental state. But it seems to follow that you can’t understand someone without believing him, and that’s surely wrong.

I want to suggest, briefly, that the Port-Royalists can answer these objections. The first problem is actually quite simple, and here Locke may simply be less than explicit because most of his audience had read the Logic. In their treatment of judgment, the Port-Royalists sound most like Locke when they write, “After conceiving things by our ideas, we compare these ideas and, finding that some belong together and others do not, we unite or separate them. This is called affirming or denying, and in general judging” (Buroker, p. 82). However, when they first introduce judging as one of “four principal operations of the mind,” they define it as “the action in which the mind, bringing together different ideas, affirms of one that it is the other, or denies of one that it is the other. This occurs when, for example, having the idea of the earth and the idea of round, I affirm or deny that the earth is round’ (Buroker, p. 23). Here it is said that in both affirmation and denial the subject idea and the predicate idea are ‘brought together.’ Also, affirmation and denial are clearly not being explained or analyzed in terms of uniting or separating. In fact, the Port-Royalists take these ‘principal operations’ as primitive and known by introspection. What we should really understand them as claiming is that affirming involves thinking of the ideas as united (or: as going together), and denying involves thinking of the ideas as separated (or: as not going together). Thus the mental act, thinking of the idea of Peter and the idea of living as not going together does form a unit that can be embedded in larger complexes, although the idea of Peter and the idea of living are in some sense ‘separated in thought’ by the act. They are separated in thought only in the sense of being thought of as separated.

In the case of this first problem, I think this is probably what Locke intended as well. However, it’s not clear to me that Locke is even aware of the second problem or has any inkling of an answer. The answer is found mostly in the Port-Royal Grammar, which Locke may never have read, rather than the Logic which he seems to have studied carefully. The long and short of it is that affirmation and denial are not the only mental operations for putting ideas together. In particular, according to the Grammar, there are different mental operations which can be signified by different moods of the verb, or by specialized particles, depending on the language. So, for instance, the Grammar mentions the Latin particle ‘utinam’, the French idiom ‘plut a Dieu’ and the Greek optative mood as signifying wishing, and imperatives and so forth as signifying various stronger dispositions of the will toward the connection of the ideas (Rieux and Rollins, pp. 137-138). The subjunctive is treated as signifying ‘modified affirmations,’ such as those that occur in conditionals (Rieux and Rollins, p. 136). Now the Port-Royalists treat the antecedent of a conditional as a sort of supposition from which we reason (Buroker, pp. 99-101), and the fact that the antecedent is merely supposed is what is (sometimes, in some languages) being explicitly flagged by the subjunctive mood of the verb. Sometimes the subjunctive can play the same role standing alone, as in the Greek deliberative subjunctive (the Port-Royalists don’t mention this example).

In other words, the long and short of it is, I think, that for the Port-Royalists thinking of two ideas as perhaps going together, is a different mental operation upon them than either affirmation or denial, and this is what goes on when we merely entertain a proposition. Indeed, just such a thing also happens, according to the Port-Royalists, in certain subordinate clauses. For instance, they say that in the sentence ‘people who are pious are charitable,’ “the mind judges that the idea ‘pious’ is not incompatible with the idea ‘people,’ and so we can consider them as joined together and then examine what belongs to them as unified” (Buroker, p. 90). In other words, we first have a modified affirmation, something like, ‘perhaps some people are pious,’ and then we affirm (simply) of those (hypothetical) people that they are (would be) charitable.

(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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