Berkeley’s permanent value

Berkeley has permanent value from destroying the presumption of a connection between Empiricism and Realism. After Berkeley, it is not reasonable to assume that a “practical” or “common sense” or “minimalist” acceptance of sensible reality commits us to realism about it. The most stubborn Empiricist- who accepts no entities but what can be clearly demonstrated to sense – cannot assume his thought rules out the world being a mere projection of mind.

When we say the Empiricist “cannot rule out the option” we do not mean that Berkeley merely raises the possibility that the world might be mind and not matter. This would make his thought merely juvenile. He rather proves that taking sensation on its own terms leads to a world of mind-projection. One doesn’t have to accept his proof, but it’s good enough that we can’t dismiss it out of hand either – which means that the Empiricist cannot assume that his commitment to sense-data  justifies Naturalism, nor can a Physicalist assume that empirical procedures are necessarily on his side.

Berkeley’s insight was so simple and so clever that we have yet to come to terms with it. Like Hume, we can see him as an Empiricist when he is refuting the possibility of “abstract ideas”, but we somehow forget that he is just as much an Empiricist when he shows the world is mind and not matter. We are puzzled by his arguments (that supposedly “admit no refutation and produce no persuasion”) because we are assuming the one thing that he shows is impossible: that we can take for granted a connection between taking the physical, natural, sensible world at face value as the only reality, and assuming that this reality is anything other than a projection of mind.


  1. April 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Very much agreed with this. And you’re right that a lot of naturalistic positions (among others) haven’t learned the lesson: e.g., those that argue for naturalism on the basis of empiricism, where Berkeley has shown that the latter doesn’t, in fact, lead on its own to the former unless you’ve begged the question.

  2. Crude said,

    April 9, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    You put this really nicely, and I agree with the post. Amateur as I am, getting even modestly familiar with Berkeley’s views and his arguments really helped me appreciate metaphysical debates and what things often go unquestioned in discussion.

  3. April 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    I loves me some Berkeley. Happily enough, on my new blog I was recently pondering the bizarre twin status of idealism and physicalism, and Berkeley as a master metaphysician, and the theology of realism, as it were. I was actually hoping you and Brandon could have a look at the post, but pitching it out of nowhere seemed forced. This post seems like a good enough occasion to do so, though:

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