Finding a place for Berkeley

Of all philosophers, Berkeley is one of the best at stunning and paralyzing the mind. Boswell (or someone) records a quip that “his philosophy is irrefutable and produces no persuasion”. This is a paradox that says more about his readers than about Berkeley – presumably nothing should be more persuasive than the irrefutable, unless we are speaking about the ravings of lunatics or the utterly stupid, and no one (Boswell included) thinks Berkeley is either of these.

Of all his works, I’m most struck by the Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. The work is first of all a philosophical dialogue, that, is, a work of dialectic with a principal speaker of truth matched against someone articulating a secondary truth. A dialogue is not just a dramatization of a syllogism, as though we could just label all the parts said by Socrates, Job or Philonous as “the truth (according to the author)” and all the other characters as “the false”.  It is amusing to hear the common complaint against the Socratic dialogues that they “reach no resolution”, as though this gave them some sort of skeptical purpose. Dialogues, unless they are hatchet jobs, are not supposed to give resolution, but simply to articulate the elements that the resolution would have to take into account.

To jump to the end (I might get to the details later) one resolution to the first dialogue would be to divide knowledge into perception and judgment, where the two are so radically distinguished that we are forced to say that there is no truth in perception. Taken in this way, the notion of what the sensible is would be radically distinguished between the sensible as perceived and the sensible according to judgment. One resolution to the second dialogue – and to my mind this is the only resolution – is to conclude that so far as knowledge is understood as a physical change, it cannot be in any way objective, where objective is understood to be of some thing that has a being independent of the mind. The objectivity of knowledge, even sensible knowledge, requires that even sensible knowledge is not formally and properly physical.

One response to this, of course, is to say that what Berkeley has Philonous say in the dialogue he himself says in the Principles. If this is true, then it seems to me that Berkeley is closer to the truth in the dialogues than in Principles. It’s not a matter of doctrines that need to be accepted or refuted anyway – refutation is a generally sterile enterprise, and it is certainly out-of-place when we are speaking of any philosopher in the canon. Our job is not so much to refute or accept doctrines as it is to find a place for all of them somewhere. Berkeley has an indispensable place as the thinker who showed us what knowledge is so far as it is a physical or entitative change in a subject.


  1. Ed L said,

    June 27, 2011 at 11:54 am

    “refutation is a generally sterile enterprise, and it is certainly out-of-place when we are speaking of any philosopher in the canon.” That’s odd to say: St. Thomas and Aristotle didn’t shy away from refuting people

    • Ed L said,

      June 27, 2011 at 11:59 am

      But perhaps you mean that the various opinions should be taken seriously as means of sharpening our apprehension of the truth, and not simply as things to be refuted.

  2. June 27, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Refutation has its place, but as a rule Aris. and STA “refuted” people by trying to incorporate them into a synthesis.

    I rewrote that sentence at least once, perhaps more, and so the words are chosen with some care, though perhaps could be more careful. I stand by calling refutation generally “sterile”. Of itself, it simply tells us one idea is false. It does not account for the partial truth in the idea, and a falsehood is destructive only in the measure that it is a partial truth. It follows that refutation is most complete or adequate where the falsehood matters less.

  3. Brandon said,

    June 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Boswell (or someone) records a quip that “his philosophy is irrefutable and produces no persuasion”.

    Hume says this in a footnote in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, although it’s quite possible that Boswell, who was almost as proud of his acquaintance with Hume as he was of his acquaintance with Johnson, might also record it somewhere.

    One of the things I find interesting about Berkeley is that I think the whole thrust of his philosophical career is that the only way to save real knowledge within early modern empiricism is to become some kind of Platonist — at least, this is where Berkeley himself will eventually end up, an empiricist shoring up empiricism against skepticism with increasing appeal to what starts looking suspiciously like divine ideas, a nominalist shoring up nominalism with appeal to a nearly Platonistic divine language. And it all comes from a close analysis of sensation and our knowledge of the world in the terms of early modern empiricism.

  4. June 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    The intentional order is quite platonic, and so far as one takes knowledge as an empirical phenomenon he has to set up some separate kind of “entity” from the empirical in order to account for it. I think STA agrees with this – this is why he posits what comes to be called the intentional order, which is principally the intelligible order. Along with Berkeley, he’d say that this order is divine ideas, and the various ways of participating in them. Berkeley is the quickest road to this conclusion for us (St. Thomas often leaves out the dialectical steps that lead to the conclusion whereas Berkeley doesn’t) – but the common response to Berkeley is to get trapped by his arguments and, to deal with this, to forget that they are there.

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