Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of mind’

It is pretty widely accepted, among those scholars who have considered the matter, that Berkeley endorses a univocal account of theological language. That is, Berkeley holds—contrary to traditional philosophical theology—that the word ‘wise’ is applied to God and to Socrates in the same sense, although with an infinite difference of degree. Philosophers who hold such a view are often said to anthropomorphize God (see, e.g., O’Higgins). However, comparing Berkeley’s account with the prior tradition, it would be more accurate to say that Berkeley divinizes the human being than that he anthropomorphizes God.

The strongest indication in this direction is found in two notebook entries in which Berkeley uses the Latin phrase ‘purus actus’ (pure act)—a traditional definition of God—in connection with the human spirit. The entries are as follows:

701 The Substance of Body we know. The Substance of Spirit we do not know it not being knowable. it being purus Actus.

828 The Will is purus actus or rather pure Spirit not imaginable, not sensible, not intelligible. in now wise the object of ye Understanding, no wise perceivable.

In a subsequent entry, 870, Berkeley resolves not to use this language in print: “I must not give the Soul or Mind the Scholastique Name pure act, but rather pure Spirit or active Being.” This, however, does not sound like a change of view, but rather a resolution to avoid Scholastic jargon. The version of this thought that makes it into the published text of the Principles looks like this: “Such is the nature of spirit, or that which acts, that it cannot be of itself perceived, but only by the effects which it produceth” (§27). This too was something said of God in the tradition: we cannot know what God is in Godself, and instead we approach the knowledge of God through the effects of God’s action in the world (see, e.g., book 1, chapters 54 and 58 of Maimonides’ Guide).

We can even go a step further than this. According to the (strong) doctrine of divine simplicity, God’s activity just is God’s essence which just is God’s existence which just is God. This too Berkeley says of created spirits: “Existere is percipi or percipere [or velle i.e. agere]” (notebook entry 429; bracketed text added above a caret). Clearly in Berkeley’s system ideas are those things whose existence consists in being perceived, while spirits are those things whose existence consists in perceiving or willing, i.e., acting. Further, Berkeley seems to reject the notion that spirit has some other unknown essence distinct from its existence/activity.

In a sense, then, Berkeley’s philosophical theology may be somewhat more traditional than I have suggested in previous work (see, e.g., here). Berkeley holds that God is pure act, that God’s essence, existence, and activity are all one, and that God is knowable only through the effects of God’s activity. Berkeley’s radical departure from the tradition lies in his claim that in all of this God is just like you and me.

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


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I also find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body, but they teach me nothing (no more than do the understanding and the imagination) of the way in which it does so. For this reason, I think that there are some properties of the soul, which are unknown to us, which could perhaps overturn what your Metaphysical Meditations persuaded me of by such good reasoning: the nonextendedness of the soul. This doubt seems to be founded on the rule that you give there, in speaking of the true and the false, that all error comes to us in forming judgments about that which we do not perceive well enough. Though extension is not necessary to thought, neither is it at all repugnant to it, and so it could be suited to some other function of the soul which is no less essential to it.

Elisabeth to Descartes, 1 July 1643 (tr. Shapiro)

When Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes is mentioned, it is often merely to credit her with being (among) the first to raise the interaction problem for substance dualism. But this radically understates what she’s doing here, and the depth of understanding of Descartes’s system she demonstrates. The brief quotation above is one of the most decisive refutations in the history of Western philosophy. Very probably, Descartes knows it and this is why he completely changes the subject in the next letter. As Leibniz observed, “Descartes had given up the game at this point” (“New System of Nature” (1695), tr. Ariew and Garber, p. 142).

The problem is this: the fundamental starting point of Descartes’s system is the claim that by the pure intellect we grasp the essence of body (extension) and the essence of mind (thought), and we can see that these two natures have nothing in common. Further, he claims, every feature of an entity must be a modification of its essence. Thus every feature of a body must be some particular manner of being extended, and every feature of a mind must be some particular manner of thinking. Further, Descartes is committed to the a priori intelligibility of causal relations. However, since extension and thought are utterly conceptually independent no a priori causal connection between any mode of extension and any mode of thought is possible. Thus if, as Descartes claims, we know by experience that the soul moves the body (i.e., causes the body to move), then mind, body, and causation are not thoroughly intelligible as Descartes supposes. Not only does this undermine Descartes’s argument for the real distinction of mind and body; it undermines most of his philosophical system. Game over, turn the lights out, it’s time to go home.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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