Selected Criticisms of Berkeley For PHH 3402 British Empiricism


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. There is a problem of objectivity for his thought.  If I perceive a table, it exists.  If Fred perceives a table it exists.  What ensures that we see the same table?  Given that one has only one’s own sensation to go on, why assume that these are shared by others—i.e. that there is a common world? 


2. In his The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel maintains that Berkeley’s argument that for unthinking things to be, is for them to be perceived (since it is impossible to form an idea of an unperceived object): "...involves the mistake of confusing perceptual imagination as the vehicle of thought with a perceptual experience as part of the object of thought."[1]  


3. In his “Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story (Part One),” David Stove maintains that:


Berkeley is one of those philosophers who are always arguing, and he gave a number of arguments for abridging the Cartesian world-view to the exclusive benefit of its mental half.  Once he had done it, everyone could see, even if they had not seen before, that Cartesianism had begged for an idealist abridgement, and that it had got it from Berkeley.  There was only one catch; but it was a rather serious one.  This was that no one could believe the world-view to which those arguments of Berkeley led.[2]  


You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of Berkeley’s philosophy, without contracting at least some tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or ‘phenomenal kangaroos.’  But on the contrary, all sane use of language requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we speak.  Berkeley would persuade us that we lose nothing, and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose everything.  Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for murderers.  At least a suspected murderer may happen to be also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be also a kangaroo.[3]  


...his idealism....denies the existence of human beings.  Indeed, there are no land-mammals at all in Berkeley’s world. In fact there is not even any land.  

  Yet Berkeley was a land-mammal himself, of course, and must have known this, as we all do.  So it would be easily argued, concerning this form of idealism at least, is incomparably more irrational than any ordinary religious belief.  The common people of Cloyne no doubt believed a great many impossible or groundless things, about the loaves and the fishes, virgin birth, and what not.  But if you set these beliefs beside the world-view of the Bishop of Cloyne, then these people clearly emerge from the comparison as models of rationality.[4]  


But we must not let our indignation obscure the fact that the idealists, like many other unfortunates had only got what they wanted most.  They would attempt to spiritualize the physical world, and nothing less than identity would satisfy them.  But the symmetry of identity is not one of its more recherché properties, after all.  So they can scarcely complain when they find that, if they do succeed in spiritualizing the physical world, they physicalize the spiritual world at the same time.[5]  


Stove’s “Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story (Part Two)” is an extended analysis of Berkeley’s arguments for idealism.  According to Stove, few idealists after Berkeley argued for idealism. [6]  Instead, they argue from idealism.  While they routinely critique Berkeley’s “subjective” idealism (and offer an “objective” one in its place), they find his arguments compelling and take it as obvious that the world obviously is experience.  Stove identifies three core arguments for Berkeley’s idealism, and critiques each of these arguments.  The first of the arguments, which Stove identifies he calls the “Gem argument,” goes from a tautological premise to an interesting conclusion in the manner that some argue from ‘Whatever will be, will be,’ to ‘All human effort is ineffectual.’  He finds the argument in Section 23 of Berkeley’s Principles (among other places).  Stove characterizes the argument as follows:


the idealist conclusion is that the existence of trees or any other physical objects, ‘without the mind’, is self-contradictory, impossible, inconceivable: you cannot even think of such a thing.  In short:

You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.

Yet Berkeley’s only premise for this interesting conclusion is:

You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind.  

Which nobody can deny. [7] 


Stove continues by saying:


the alleged impossibility of having trees-without-the-mind in mind, or of having (in plain English) trees in mind, does not need, though it has received, the labours of earnest logicians to refute it.  The feat is so far from being impossible, that every bird that alights on a tree manages it easily.[8]  


Stove calls the second argument which he identifies the “meaning argument.”  He finds this argument in Sections 3 and 24 of the Principles.  According to him, it is obviously terrible and goes like this:


Whenever we say that a certain physical object exists or that it has a certain quality, we mean that this object or quality is perceived, or that it would be perceived under such-and-such circumstances. 

The conclusion is:

It either makes no sense or is self-contradictory, to say of a physical object or a quality of a physical object, that it is unperceived and would not be perceived whatever the circumstances were.[9]  


Of this argument, Stove says:


but the only rational response to Berkeley’s meaning-argument is simply to say that we do not mean that a physical object or quality is perceived, or would be perceived under such-and-such circumstances, when we say that it exists.  And this is something which (to borrow a phrase from Berkeley) ‘whoever understands English, cannot but know.’[10]  


The third argument Stove identifies as the “central argument.” He finds it repeatedly in Berkeley (for example in Sections 4 and 5 of the Principles).  He characterizes it as follows:


1 We can immediately perceive the sensible qualities of physical objects.  

2 We can immediately perceive nothing but our own ideas. 


3 The sensible qualities of physical objects are nothing but ideas.  

4. Ideas can exist only in a mind.  


5 The sensible qualities of physical objects can exist only in a mind.  

6 A physical object is nothing but its qualities.  


7 Physical objects can exist only in a mind.[11]  


According to Stove, (1) enabled Berkeley to say he was a defender of common sense.  


Premise (2) is a version of that fatal ‘internalism’...which Descartes bequeathed to the next 250 years of philosophy.  It is shared, accordingly by both Berkeley and all his contemporary opponents.  Descartes and Locke, though officially subscribing to internalism, forgot about it most of the time, and most philosophers for the next 250 years followed this comparatively sensible example.  But Berkeley and Malbranche could never forget it....I should add that, although (2) is a premise in the above argument, it may be that Berkeley thought of (2) as also itself a conclusion: namely, as being a conclusion of the Gem argument.[12]  


According to Stove, (1) and (2) suffice for (3), and (3) is idealism.  It is an identity statement, and it is important to note that (3) leaves off the reference to “our own” which is in (2).  If it is added back in, we get something clearly wrong [(3)’ The sensible qualities of physical objects are nothing but our ideas.]—as Stove says: “...the roundness of a certain billiard ball is identical with our ideas (of roundness).  And now the falsity of (3)’, and hence of (1) or (2), is glaring."[13]  Stove contends that other idealists did not adhere to the central argument (or the meaning argument).[14]  


4. In his "After Empiricism," Hilary Putnam maintains that:


according to Berkeley and Hume, I do not have such a thing as an “abstract idea” or a “general idea” of green.  When a particular token—be it a green color-patch or a token of the word “green”—occurs in my mind, and is used as a symbol for the whole class of green sense-data, all that happens is that the token is associated with a certain class of other tokens to which it is similar or which are similar to one another.  Ayer and Russell depart from Berkeley and Hume on this point—and with good reason.  For they see that if I can think of a particular relation of "similarity," then I am able to recognize at least one universal.  Thus universals cannot really be avoided in the way Berkeley and Hume wanted to do.[15]  


5. In his Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, Garrett Thomson maintains that:


it has been claimed that Berkeley’s attack on abstract ideas is valid only on the assumption that all ideas are images.  Obviously no triangle can have all possible proportions at once, and therefore there can be no image of such a triangle.  But as Kant later argued, concepts are not images.  Berkeley’s argument seems to assume that they are and to attribute this assumption to Locke.  It is unclear whether Locke accepts that concepts are images, because of his vague use of the term idea.[16]  


6. Jonathan Dancy notes in his "Editor’s Introduction:"


there is one weakness in Berkeley’s proof [of the existence of his deity], which it shares with the others [other a posteriori proofs]....even if we agree that ideas of sense need a [different] cause [than ourselves] and that only minds can be causes, we surely want to know what it is that tells us that one and the same mind is the cause of all the ideas of sense.  Might there not be several very powerful minds, all at work at once?[17]  


7. In his Sense and Sensibilia, J.L. Austin maintains that:


it does not normally occur to us that there is any need for us to justify our belief in the existence of material things.  At the present moment, for example, I have no doubt whatsoever that I really am perceiving the familiar objects, the chairs and table, the pictures and books and flowers with which my room is furnished; and I am therefore satisfied that they exist.  I recognize indeed that people are sometimes deceived by their senses, but this does not lead me to suspect that my own sense-perception cannot in general be trusted, or even that they may be deceiving me now.  And this is not, I believe, an exceptional attitude.  I believe that, in practice, most people agree with John Locke that ‘the certainty of things existing in rerum natura, when we have the testimony of our senses for it, is not only as great as our frame can attain to, but as our condition needs.’[18]  


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1986), p. 93. 

[2] David Stove, “Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story (Part One),” in his The Plato Cult (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp. 83-133, p. 102. 

[3] Ibid., p. 110. 

[4] Ibid., p. 111. 

[5] Ibid., p. 125.  

[6] Cf., ibid., pp. 83-133. 

[7] David Stove, “Idealism: A Victorian Horror-Story (Part Two),” in his The Plato Cult, op. cit., pp. 135-177, p. 139. 

[8] Ibid., p. 140. 

[9] Ibid., p. 141. 

[10] Ibid., p. 142. 

[11] Ibid., p. 144. 

[12] Ibid., p. 145. 

[13] Ibid., p. 146. 

[14] Cf., ibid., p. 147. 

[15] Hilary Putnam, “After Empiricism,” in his Realism With A Human Face (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1990), pp. 43-53, p. 46. 

[16] Garrett Thomson, Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1997), p. 150. 

[17] Jonathan Dancy, “Editor’s Introduction,” to his edition of Berkeley’s Principles  (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1998), pp. 5-69, p. 39. 

[18] J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, reconstructed from manuscript notes by G.J. Warnock (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1962), p. 6. 

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