August 20, 2007

Armstrong on Berkeley

I was looking on recently to see if I could find an affordable volume containing Berkeley's Siris last week when I came upon this 1965 collection, Berkeley's Philosophical Writings (ISBN 0020641702 according to; it's apparently too old to have an ISBN printed in it) edited and with introduction by none other than D. M. Armstrong. I was unable to find any further information on the book, but, at prices, decided it was worth buying just to get Armstrong's introduction (and on the off-chance that it contained Siris). Since there was no information on this book available online, and there are more copies still available, I thought I should provide some information myself.

First, it contains the following works:

  • A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge

  • Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous

  • Correspondance with Samuel Johnson

  • De Motu

  • An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision

  • Philosophical Commentaries

It is of note that this is almost the same collection of works as the 1975 Everyman edition edited by A. J. Ayers under the title Philosophical Works Including the Works on Vision, which was in print at least as recently as 1998 (that's the year my copy was printed). The Ayers edition has a more complete chonology of "Berkeley's Life and Times," as they put it (though the Armstrong edition does have a brief timeline) and contains "The Theory of Vision Vindicated and Explained" in addition to the works already listed.

Armstrong's introduction shows great respect for Berkeley as a thinker, but is ultimately hostile. It occasionally seemed dismissive to me, but this was only because of the necessary brevity of an introduction (it is 27 pages in length). Armstrong takes Berkeley seriously and generally states his position strongly, but since he is trying to introduce all of the works in the volume in a mere 27 pages is unable to treat the arguments in great depth.

The introduction opens with the paragraph:

One good way to study philosophy is to study the systems of the great philosophers. In an English-speaking country, there is much to be said for beginning with Berkeley. His most important works are superlatively well written. They are simple and clear. They are quite brief. What they say may be wrong, but it is never dull. There is interesting argument for even the most incredible assertion.

This is a fitting opening for the introduction, as it gives us a good idea of Armstrong's attitude toward Berkeley: his views are "wrong" and his claims are "incredible," but he is always "interesting" and never "dull." In short, Armstrong seems to view Berkeley as worth reading because he is obviously wrong but nevertheless difficult to refute. (I, of course, take rather a different view of Berkeley, and might be inclined rather to take this view of Armstrong!)

Armstrong divides his introduction into four principle sections, dealing with esse is percipi ("to be is to be perceived"), the critique of abstraction, the theory of vision, and the philosophy of science. The first section is by far the longest. In each section we have a development of Berkeley's position and his reasoning for it, followed by a sketch of the general direction of a refutation (sometimes a Berkeleian counter-refutation is given, but the anti-Berkeleian nearly always has the last word, and in the few cases where Berkeley has the last word the Berkeleian result is presented as a paradox, rather than a way the world might be). I am tempted to remark on the inadequacy of the refutations, but this would be unfair as, due to length, they are no more than sketches of general directions and all of them have the potential to be developed into important objections.

There is, however, at least one place where Armstrong's objection totally misses the mark, and this is in the claim (p. 16) that "Berkeley never shows any awareness" of the fact that the argument against matter could be turned against Berkeley's argument for the existence of other minds. However, when Berkeley discusses our knowledge of other minds at Principles 145 and 148 he says that we are informed of other minds by certain "effects or concommitant signs" that serve to "mark them out." Berkeley's view is that God, speaking to us through our senses, informs us of the existence of other minds. In their paper "Descartes, Leibniz and Berkeley on Whether We Can Dream Marks on the Waking State" (Studia Leibnitia 24 (1992): 177-181) Russell Wahl and Johnathan Westphal point out that in the case of all three of the philosophers they mention dream/hallucination skepticism serves as part of a reductio against an opposing view, but from within the confines of the philosopher's own view we are supposed to be safe from skepticism. In this way, contradiction is avoided. (I deal with this issue from two different directions in my "The Ontological Status of Dreams in Berkeleian Metaphysics" The Dualist 13 (2006), which has apparently been published on paper, but is not yet online, and "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley," forthcoming in Religious Studies - the former paper argues that the consistency and meaningfulness of our perceptions can be used by Berkeley to draw a distinction between the dreaming/hallucinating and waking states, and the latter paper discusses the use of the language of sense perception to refer to other minds and so rescue us from solipsism.)

I imagine that others who have studied Berkeley will, like me, be puzzled at the ordering of the sections. Indeed, it might make sense to discuss these topics in precisely the reverse order, since the critique of abstraction and the theory of vision form the foundation for the ultimate critique of matter and the establishment of the doctrine that esse is percipi, and this is part of the above problem. Armstrong divorces these issues from each other almost entirely when they are in fact intimately related, and he discusses them in the wrong order. Had he developed the critique of abstraction and the account of a divine language of vision before he had developed the critique of matter, he might have made Berkeley's claims more compelling and not run into this faulty critique of Berkeley on other minds. Similarly, Armstrong does a disservice to serious students by placing the New Theory of Vision at the end of the volume, when it should be at the beginning where Ayer put it, seeing as it was published first and forms an important introductory work before the Principles of Human Knowledge.

Another deficiency of Armstrong's introduction is that, apart from a passing reference to The Theory of Vision Vindicated and Explained (p. 30), it shows no awareness of any of Berkeley's works not included in this particular edition. This may be intentional, as the edition seems to be intended primarily for students who have no prior exposure to Berkeley, but it is nevertheless a weakness of the presentation. Armstrong sometimes by omitting references to other works of Berkeley, especially the Alciphron, Armstrong sometimes fails to do justice to Berkeley's overall position.

Finally, Armstrong seems to downplay the importance of God in Berkeley's metaphysics, and shows little or no interest in Berkeley's theology. This is something that one simply cannot do while studying Berkeley seriously.

I nevertheless suspect that I will find this introduction very useful on the whole. The reason is that it provides concise, simple, and well-formulated summaries of the most important objections to Berkeley's central doctrines. Pages 8 and 9 even provide what is effectively a presentation of the central point of Moore's "Refutation of Idealism." This brief introduction is, I think, a very good account of the objections a Berkeleian will need to answer, very much as Armstrong's Universals provides very good outlines of the most important objections to each of a variety of theories of properties. Armstrong's introduction could also be useful in this respect to someone who had never read Berkeley before and I think that it is more focused and consequently easier to get through than Ayer's introduction (though I haven't read through Ayer recently). In short, I recommend this introduction (and I even more strongly recommend the works of Berkeley included in this edition), but I advise readers to approach Armstrong at least as critically as Armstrong approaches Berkeley.

Posted by Kenny at August 20, 2007 10:18 PM
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