June 30, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Berkeley's Taxonomy of Ideas

Since my post on Berkeley's metaphysics generated so much interesting discussion, I thought I would write a post on Berkeley's taxonomy of ideas. A particularly interesting (to me) aspect of this discussion is the way it plays into his critique of John Locke's theory of abstraction. Also of interest is the way this view (may have) influenced Immanuel Kant's epistemology of metaphysics. I'll skip lightly over that last one, because I don't understand Kant very well (who does?), but I re-read the Prolegomena recently and was thinking about this, so I'll float a few ideas by toward the end of this post and perhaps people who understand Kant better than I do will pick up on them.

The first point that must be made here is just what an 'idea' is. Berkeley is a sort of revisionist Lockean (one might say that Berkeley is a Lockean the way Arminius is a Calvinist) and, as such, essentially every one of his views is set up in either agreement or opposition with Locke's views. Berkeley would have had Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding as a logic textbook when he worked on his B.A. degree at Trinity College, Dublin.[1] The point of this digression is that Berkeley uses words such as 'matter,' 'idea,' and 'abstraction' according to Locke's definitions. This is, in my oppinion, sometimes a problem for him: for instance, he shocks people by claiming that he doesn't believe in matter or the capacity of abstraction, but he actually means that he doesn't believe in John Locke's theories of matter and abstraction. According to modern, everyday usage, Berkeley believes in both.

Returning to the point, Locke defines the word 'idea' at Essay 2.1.1 as "the object of thinking" and goes on to divide ideas into 'simple' and 'complex.' Simple ideas are the basic, fundamental constructs or sensations - for instance, a particular shade of the color red - which cannot be broken down into constituent ideas, and out of which all of our complex ideas are composed (see Essay 2.2). Thus complex ideas are collections of simple ideas which are united with one another in a single "object of thinking," as in the case of the red water bottle on my desk. Locke's principle point here is empiricism: it is his contention that all of our complex ideas are built up from simple ideas, and we get simple ideas from sense perception.

All of this Berkeley accepts. There is much more that Locke says about ideas, and it is certain that all of it heavily influenced Berkeley, and certainly some of what I will now say about Berkeley is only repeat of distinctions made by Locke. Nevertheless, there are important differences, especially, as has been said, with regard to abstraction.

What I am calling 'Berkeley's Taxonomy of Ideas' seems to have acheived its full development in the second edition of his Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge.[2] Berkeley divides 'ideas' - that is, direct objects of the mind - into three classes: perceptions, thoughts, and volitions. These types of ideas are distinguished by their source, as well as by their nature. Perceptions are those ideas that are imposed upon us from without (a crucial point in Berkeley's metaphysical argument; see my previous post): as long as my eyes are open, I perceive by sight, and I cannot (directly) control what ideas enter my mind in this way. Thoughts are ideas that are like perceptions except that they are produced by my own volition - I make them up. Volitions are the objects of the will which, among other things, produce thoughts. Like Locke, Berkeley believes that new simple ideas enter the mind only through perception, and our thoughts are created by putting simple ideas which we previously perceived together into different complex ideas.

Where Berkeley and Locke differ really substantially is in generalization. How is it that we are able to think about 'triangle' in general? Even more problematic for Berkeley is how we can think of spirits (Principles 27, 140) when these are not direct objects of the mind but, rather, are minds themselves and Berkeley has rejected the idea of any kind of resemblance between ideas and non-ideas (Principles 8ff.). Berkeley believes (and I am inclined to agree with him) that Locke's answer to the problem of generalization is virtually incomprehensible. Regarding "the general idea of a triangle," Locke says, "it must be neither oblique, nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon; but all and none of these at once" (Essay 4.7.9). On this section, Berkeley comments,

This is the idea which [Locke] thinks needful for the enlargement of knowledge, which is the subject of mathematical demonstraction, and without which we could never com to know any general proposition concerning triangles. That author acknowledges it doth 'require some pains and skill to form this general idea of a triangle.' ibid. But had he called to mind what he says in another place, to wit, 'That ideas of mixed modes wherein any inconsistent ideas are put together cannot so much as exist in the mind, i.e. be conceived.' [3.10.33] I say, had this occurred to his thoughts, it is not improbable he would have owned it to the above all the pains and skill he was master of to form the above-mentioned idea of a triangle, which is made up of manifest, staring contradictions. (Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision 125)

Locke does in fact acknowledge in the same section (4.7.9) that the general idea of a triangle "is something imperfect, that cannot exist; an idea wherein some parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together." Thus Locke does seem to contradict himself.

Nevertheless, there is the point of the phenomenology of the situation: we do, it seems, think about triangles in general, and not only particular triangles. How is this possible? Berkeley came to refer to his account of this phenomenon as 'general notions.' Things like spirits are not properly ideas, but we nevertheless mean something when we speak of them. As he says, "the words will, soul, spirit do not stand for different ideas, or in truth, for any idea at all but for something which ... cannot be like unto, or represented by, any idea whatever. Though it must be owned, at the same time, that we have some notion of soul, spirit, and the operations of the mind ... in as much as we know or understand the meanings of those words." (Principles, second edition, 27)

As he explains at New Theory of Vision 128 and elsewhere, Berkeley believes that these 'general notions' consist of two parts: a word or symbol, and a decision procedure. That is, when we talk about 'triangle' the symbol is the word 'triangle' either read or heard, or a picture of some particular triangle. Then we have some procedure by which, given any particular idea, we can determine whether it falls under this notion. When we reason 'abstractly' about triangles, we reason only from the 'essential characteristics' - that is, the characteristics specified in the decision procedure, namely, being a three-sided polygon. Ultimately, the symbols and decision procedures can be broken into simple ideas.

Of course, this doesn't exactly work for spirits, because there are no particular ideas that are spirits as there are particular ideas that are triangles, but the process is similar. We have certain 'relational notions' that are indeed general notions of how things might be related to one another and by applying these we can define spirits and so forth. In particular, a mind or spirit (Berkeley uses the two words more or less interchangeably) is that in which ideas inhere, and we have other examples of the inherence relation, and thus we can from an exceedingly vague general notion of a mind.

Now, why have I been thinking about this in connection with Kant? Well, Kant's conclusion in the Prolegomena (which I think I understand, even if I understand only pieces of the arguments for it) is that the proper objects of the understanding are "the possible objects of experience" and most metaphysics which has been done so far is based on attempts to go outside this boundary, which can lead to nothing but wild speculation. Instead, Kant believes, metaphysics must be 'reigned in' to it's proper domain: true metaphysics exists on the boundary of human reason, that is, at the point where the possible objects of experience come to meet the things which can never be direct objects of experience. By the nature of the boundary, we can conclude that at least some such things (e.g., the external world, souls, God) do in fact exist, and by examining the boundary closely we can come to conclusions about them. At sect. 57, Kant argues that "we can ... never cognize ... intelligible beings according to what they may be in themselves, i.e., determinately ... [but] we can still at least think this connection by means of such concepts as express the relation of those beings to the sensible world."[3] He proceeds to take God as an example, and concludes that "we ... do not attribute to the supreme being any of the properties in themselves by whcih we think the objects of experience ... but we attribute those properties nonetheless to the relation of this being to the world." In sect. 58, Kant gives an example of such a relation and how it is understood by analogy: (1) as "the promotion of the happiness of the children ... "is to the love of the parents [so] ... the welfare of mankind ... is to the unknown in God ... which we call love." Thus Kant seems to me to say very much the same thing as Berkeley regarding the development of so-called 'abstract' ideas.

In conclusion: this is yet another example of how Berkeley doesn't get nearly enough credit, considering two very well known philosophers, Hume and Kant, seem to have received most of their best ideas, directly or indirectly, from him. Not to imply that Hume and Kant are unworthy of the credit they receive, but with regard to the ideas I find most impressive, Berkeley got there first. Kant's formulations are, on the whole, more precise and rigorous (one might even say that Kant brought new meaning to those words in the world of metaphysics), but they are also proportionately more opaque to those of us who have not yet had a chance to devote several years to studying them! Berkeley, on the other hand, is, for me, one of the easiest philosophers to read. So, enough of me - go read Berkeley!

[1] According to Kenneth Winkler's introduction to his abridged version of Locke's Essay, the Essay was required reading for BA students at Trinity beginning in 1692. Berkeley entered Trinity in 1700.
[2] See the editors' note on Principles 140 in Michael Ayers, ed., George Berkeley: Philosophical Works Including the Works on Vision.
[3] tr. Gary Hatfield

Posted by Kenny at June 30, 2006 6:29 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: https://blog.kennypearce.net/admin/mt-tb.cgi/245
My Five Favorite Philosophers
Excerpt: Recently, while I was busy with finals, Clarke at Mormon Metaphysics and Johnny-Dee at Fides Quarens Intellectum posted lists of their favorite philosophers. I thought that today I would do the same. I won't get fancy with pictures and stuff, because t...
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: December 22, 2006 2:02 PM
Blog Year 2011 in Review
Excerpt: Welcome to 2012! This is my annual review of this blog's activity. The year 2011 saw over 184,000 visits from more than 60,000 distinct users. This is a very significant increase from 2010. I have been very busy in my academic work this year, with the ...
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: January 2, 2013 3:45 PM


It would be nice if someone could explain the difference between Berkeley's use of the terms "idea" and "notion". By my lights, Berkeley's use of "notion" is completely ad hoc. Would anyone care to comment?

Posted by: jeff dauer at July 6, 2006 11:04 PM

Jeff, I think that a 'notion' is a particular combination of ideas which is not itself an idea, i.e. a direct object of the mind. It is not an idea because we can't get a grip on it, as it were, to think about it directly. This is because it is somehow not fully defined. For instance, the 'general notion' of a triangle is neither isosceles nor scalene nor equilateral, and it is impossible (thinks Berkeley) for us to think of a triangle that isn't one of these. However, we can, indirectly, by mediation of a symbol (e.g., the word triangle) deal with the generalized concept. This type of generalized concept is called a 'notion.' That, at least, is my understanding, but it has been a while since I studied the text seriously.

Posted by: Kenny at July 6, 2006 11:13 PM

I haven't read Berkeley for 2 years now so bear with me but I remember Berkeley making a specific argument for the way we come to have abstract general ideas. I think it went something like this. We don't have a concept of what Locke speaks of where the idea is neither equilateral nor scalene nor...but what happens is that we take a particular triangle and this triangle becomes a symbol of triangleness for us. So, I don't think that Berkeley would say, maybe he does though been a long time, that the particular triangle that we are using to represent the general idea of triangle is a notion. It is truly an "idea" in the same way the keyboard I am typing on is an idea. I think the important thing to remember when we are dealing with Berkeley is that things are ideas, not the other way around. What I mean by this is that the keyboard I am typing on is an idea that my mind has a hand in creating. We are not passive receptors of ideas we have a part to play in their existence. It is this last point that makes us able to see the good Bishop as a proponent of a mind-dependent reality.

Posted by: jeff dauer at July 6, 2006 11:35 PM

If you like Hume you should read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is great. Liberty Fund publishes it for about $10. After you read it will you tell me if he is a classical liberal or a progressive. I have a friend in the PhD program at Penn, Krisanna Scheiter, have you heard of her?

Posted by: jd at July 6, 2006 11:40 PM

Never mind about the Smith, I just read your bio. I don't think you would like Smith's description of morality. It doesnt come from God and it is definitely not a priori.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 6, 2006 11:50 PM

Jeff, thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree with you - the particular triangle is an idea, but the muddled and confused something that it stands for is not properly an idea. I think we should be careful about statements like "we are not passive receptors of ideas we have a part to play in their existence." In one sense this is true - we are capable of creating ideas (what he calls 'thoughts'), and ideas continue to exist so long as we hold them in our minds, even if we don't receive them passively by perception. On the other hand, the ideas making up the physical world are created and sustained by God. His act of thought/will is necessary and sufficient for their existence, and is the reason that we do 'passively receive' perceptions.

I don't believe I have met Krisanna. It says on the department web-site that she doesn't have a prelminary dissertation advisor assigned yet, so she must not have been here very long. We don't have TAs in upper-level undergrad philosophy courses, so I don't know very many of the newer grad students (that is, the ones who weren't here when I was a freshman).

Posted by: Kenny at July 7, 2006 7:18 AM


I think a good way to understand 'notions' is to realize that while ideas are fundamental to thinking they are not comprehensive of it. That is, not every sort of thinking we do can be identified with possessing an idea. This becomes clear when we remember that Berkeley puts so much weight on the signification of ideas -- recognizing significations of ideas (e.g., recognizing that this type of reddish mass is indicative of apple-ish sweetness inside) can't be simply identifiable with possessing the ideas. So the notions, I think, have to do with significations (you may have been suggesting something like this). What is signified, of course, may not itself being something we can directly perceive by senses, feelings, etc. But it may be something we can rationally infer from those things we do directly perceive.

I like the idea of thinking of the general notions as symbol+procedure.

Posted by: Brandon at July 7, 2006 3:07 PM

i have read your chat out of curiosity and i have to say that you chaps really know how to complicate the obvious and make it like eating spaghetti with a spoon. i have practiced psychological conditioning and life changing methods and exercises for many years and lived in homeless hostels in england for over 10 developing my own ideas and practices. i think that to understand this kind of subject you need first hand experence and not just long terms,phrases and words from books and id like to know where this is going....

Posted by: M T Balaam at March 24, 2007 10:17 AM

Post a comment

Return to blog.kennypearce.net