March 29, 2008

Berkeley: Phenomenalist or Platonist?

Commentators have long recognized the existence of two distinct strains of thought in Berkeley's discussions of how our perceptions give rise to something that is properly called a world. According to the phenomenalist strain, the world is quite simply composed of perception and it becomes a world, rather than simply an unrelated collection of perceptions, by means of the orderliness with which God causes perceptions. According to the Platonist strain, the world (and each object in it) has an archetype in the divine mind and our perceptions are perceptions of the world because what we perceive is an "ectype" of that archetype. John Foster has argued that Berkeley is a reductive phenomenalist in the Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, which he published in 1710, but that by the publication of the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in 1713 Berkeley has become a Platonist (The Case for Idealism, pp. 28-32). However, Berkeley cannot adopt the Platonist view so strictly as Foster tries to make him: to do so would undermine his refutation of skepticism. Berkeley needs to affirm that there is a sense in which our perceptions are the world so that we cannot be mistaken about it. Berkeley explicitly affirms this in Principles 87: "Colour, figure, motion, extension and the like, considered only as so many sensations in the mind, are perfectly known, there being nothing in them which is not perceived. But if they are looked on as notes or images, referred to things or archetypes existing without the mind, then are we involved all in scepticism." Furthermore, despite this statement, the language of archetypes as it is used in the Dialogues is also used in the Principles: "whoever shall reflect, and take care to understand what he says, will, if I mistake not, acknowledge that all sensible qualities are alike sensations, and alike real; that where the extension is, there is the colour too, to wit, in his mind, and that their archetypes can exist only in some other mind..." (99). Foster does point to Principles 48 as showing that the idea of archetypes in the divine mind is regarded as a possibility in the Principles, but he claims that "in the Principles, the role of God as a perceiver of physical objects is left as a mere possibility and on to which Berkeley seems to attach little importance ... But in his later work, the Three Dialogues, the preceptive role of God takes on a new significance." (p. 28) Be that as it may, the presence of the doctrine in the Principles would seem to be indicative that Berkeley does not regard the two models as mutually exclusive in the way that Foster does. Finally, in Dialogues 175ff. Berkeley argues again for his doctrine that the esse of physical things is percipi. So Foster's view must be rejected and we must find a way to reconcile the two views.

I have just finished reading "Berkeley's Christian Neoplatonism, Archetypes, and Divine Ideas" by Stephen H. Daniel (Journal of the History of Philosophy 39:2 (April 2001): 239-258). This paper is in part an attempt to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views.[1] Readers of this blog can probably predict what I am going to say the solution is. What is the solution to every problem in Berkeley's philosophy? Sense perception as language. Daniel gets to this by rather a roundabout path, investigating Gregory's and Berkeley's accounts of the Trinity and of human minds, but here is his ultimate conclusion:

To the extent that our ideas seem significant or intelligible to ourselves alone, they are ectypes: their existence consists simply in being perceived by a particular mind. An archetype is the meaning of that idea and all others like it as determined by their place in the sequence of ideas that inscribes history. A divine idea is God's active comprehension of a thing in an eternal communicative relation to all other things ... and, as such, identifies the mind of God as a matrix of discursive exchange. By learning the connections of ideas in history - that is, by "endeavoring to understand those signs instituted by the Author of Nature" (P[rinciples] 66) - we learn about ourselves and "the nature of things" (D[ialogues] 245). For all practical purposes, this amounts to nothing other than the contemplation of archetypes. Through such contemplation, we recognize oursleves not as substances distinct from God but as participants in the divine discourse. (p. 258)

I want to state the same thing a little differently: the world is a language. Words in a language have meaning independent of what each individual speaker hears or says or thinks, but not independent of what all individual speakers hear or say or think. The structure of a language - both in terms of syntax and in terms of morphology and lexicography - arises from the words and thoughts of individual speakers and is not anything over and above them in terms of existence. Nevertheless, we speak of a grammar and a lexicon for a language as some sort of abstract entities - like perfect "archetypes" of the language!

In the case of the divine language, God is privileged as a speaker. The rest of us "understand" and "speak" the language in more or less the way a domesticated dog "understands" and "speaks" English when it responds to what the humans around it say by, for instance, jumping up excitedly at the word "walk." Or perhaps a more apt comparison would be to a gorilla who can hear English and answer in American sign language. Whatever the case, it is clear that God is the author of the language, and thus creates the grammar and lexicon. As such, it is true both that the world simply is our perception of it and that it is the ectype of an archetype in the divine mind. As Daniel argues, this archetype is not found in God's passive perception - since God is not passive - but in his active will, his will to bring about the world. In this way, Berkeley is both a phenomenalist and a Platonist.

[1] Along the way the paper also argues that Berkeley holds a theory of mind modeled on Gregory of Nyssa's trinitarian theology and which eliminates the need for an immaterial substratum of mind distinct from volition and perception. Daniel finds support for this at Principles 98: "whoever shall go about to ... abstract the existence of a spirit from its cogitation, will, I believe, find it no easy task." I like this proposal since I am often not certain that I understand the meaning of the word "substance." However, I don't understand the proposal very well due to lack of familiarity with Gregory, and, in any case, I don't think it can be Berkeley's view, due to Dialogues 233-234.

Posted by Kenny at March 29, 2008 12:40 PM
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