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Berkeley's Theory of Reference and the Critique of Matter

George Berkeley is well known for his critique of matter. By "matter" he means Locke's "material substratum." At the end of the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous he actually does acknowledge that one might use the word "matter" simply to mean "the stuff of the physical world" (that's not a direct quote) and he doesn't object to this, so he actually isn't opposed to the way the word was used in your physics or chemistry classes, but only to the way it was used in early modern metaphysics.

The critique of matter is tied up in the critique of abstract ideas, and so Berkeley devotes the Introduction to the Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge to criticizing abstraction. The alleged faculty of abstraction is one by which we, by considering concrete ideas, are supposed to be able to frame clear and distinct ideas which are nevertheless underspecified. In a well-known passage, quoted several times by Berkeley, Locke writes: "does it not require some pains and skill to form the general idea of a triangle ... for it must be neither oblique, nor rectangle, nor neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon; but all and none of these at once" (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.7.9). This, Berkeley thinks, is nonsense. This alleged "idea" is full of contradictions, and we can form no such thing. Matter, or material substratum, he supposes, is just such a false "idea," as his spokesman, Philonous, points out in the Three Dialogues:

HYLAS. ... when I look on sensible things in another view, considering them as so many modes and qualities, I find it necessary to suppose a material substratum, without which they cannot be conceived to exist.
PHILONOUS. Material substratum call you it? Pray, by which of your senses came you acquainted with that being?
HYLAS. It is not itself sensible; its modes and qualities only being perceived by the senses.
PHILONOUS. I presume then, it was by reflexion and reason you obtained the idea of it.
HYLAS. I do not pretend to any proper positive idea of it. However I conclude it exists, because qualities cannot be conceived to exist without a support.
PHILONOUS. It seems then you have only a relative notion of it, or that you conceive it not otherwise than by conceiving the relation it bears to sensible qualities.
HYLAS. Right.
PHILONOUS. Be pleased therefore to let me know wherein that relation consists.
... [Hylas tries and fails to explain] ...
PHILONOUS. Pray, let me know any sense, literal or not literal, that you understand it in. - How long must I wait for an answer, Hylas?
HYLAS. I declare I know not what to say, I once thought I understood well enough what was meant by matter's supporting accidents. But now the more I think on it, the less can I comprehend it; in short, I find that I know nothing of it.
PHILONOUS. It seems then you have no idea at all, neither relative nor positive of matter; you know neither what it is in itself, nor what relation it bears to accidents.
HYLAS. I acknowledge it.
PHILONOUS. And yet you asserted, that you could not conceive how qualities or accidents should really exist, without conceiving at the same time a material support of them.
HYLAS. I did.
PHILONOUS. That is to say, when you conceive the real existence of qualities, you do withal conceive something which you cannot conceive. (pp. 197-199)

The substratum is supposed to be an idea of "material stuff" abstracted away from any particular qualities a particular object might have. Berkeley, however, does not believe that he or anyone else can frame such an idea. We are just playing with language here.

But wait! Elsewhere, Berkeley develops a sophisticated theory of reference that is supposed to give significance to all sorts of words that don't correspond to ideas! Here are selections from Alciphron 7.2, 4-7 (Berkeley's spokesman is Euphranor):

ALCIPHRON. ... Words are signs: they do or should stand for ideas; which so far as they suggest they are significant. But words that suggest no ideas are insignificant. He who annexeth a clear idea to every word he makes use of speaks sense; but where such ideas are wanting, the speaker utters nonsense. In order therefore to know whether any man's speech be senseless and insignificant, we have nothing to do but lay aside the words, and consider the ideas suggested by them.
Grace is the main point in the Christian dispensation; nothing is oftener mentioned or more considered throughout the New Testament; wherein it is represented as somewhat of a very particular kind, distinct from anything revealed to the Jews, or known by the light of nature ... Hence Christianity is styled the covenant or dispensation of grace ... What is the clear and distinct idea marked by the word grace? I presume a man may know the bare meaning of this term, without going into the depth of all those learned inquiries. This surely is an easy matter, provided there is an idea annexed to such term. And if there is not, it can be neither the subject of a rational dispute, nor the object of real faith ... Grace taken in the vulgar sense, either for beauty or favour, I can easily understand. But when it denotes an active, vital, ruling principle, influencing and operating on the mind of man, distinct from every natural power of motive, I profess myself altogether unable to understand it, or frame any distinct idea of it; and therefore I cannot assent to any proposition concerning it, nor consequently have any faith about it: and it is a self-evident truth, that God obligeth no man to impossibilities...

EUPHRANOR. ... Words, it is agreed, are signs: it may not therefore be amiss to examine the use of other signs, in order to know that of words. Counters, for instance, at a card-table are used, not for their own sake, but only as signs substituted for money, as words are for ideas. Say now, Alciphron, is it necessary every time these counters are used throughout the progress of a game, to frame an idea of the distinct sum or value that each represents?
ALCIPHRON. By no means: it is sufficient the players at first agree on their respective values, and at last substitute those values in their stead.
EUPHRANOR. And in casting up a sum, where the figures stand for pounds, shillings, and pence, do you think it necessary, throughout the whole progress of the operation, in each step to form ideas of pounds, shillings, and pence?
ALCIPHRON. I do not; it will suffice if in the conclusion those figures direct our actions with respect to things.
EUPHRANOR. From hence it seems to follow, that words may not be insignificant, although they should not, every time they are used, excite the ideas they signify in our minds; it being sufficient that we have it in our power to substitute things or ideas for their signs when there is occasion. It seems also to follow, that there may be another use of words besides that of marking and suggesting distinct ideas, to wit, the influencing our conduct and actions; which may be done either by forming rules for us to act by, or by raising certain passions, dispositions, and emotions in our minds. A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act or excites to the doing or forbearance of an action may, it seems, be useful and significant, although the words whereof it is composed should not bring each a distinct idea into our minds.
ALCIPHRON. It seems so.
EUPHRANOR. Pray tell me, Alciphron, is not an idea altogether inactive?
EUPHRANOR. An agent therefore, an active mind, or spirit cannot be an idea, or like an idea. Whence it should seem to follow that those words which denote an active principle, soul, or spirit do not, in a strict and proper sense, stand for ideas. And yet they are not insignificant neither; since I understand what is signified by the term I, or myself, or know what it means, although it be no idea, nor like an idea, but that which thinks, and wills, and apprehends ideas, and operates about them. Certainly it must be allowed that we have some notion, that we understand or know what is meant by, the terms myself, will, memory, love, hate, and so forth; although to speak exactly, these words do not suggest so many distinct ideas.
ALCIPHRON. What would you infer from this?
EUPHRANOR. What hath been inferred already - that words may be significant, although they do not stand for ideas. The contrary whereof having been presumed seems to produce the doctrine of abstract ideas.
EUPHRANOR: ... But, to come to your own instance, let us examine what idea we can frame of force abstracted from body, motion, and outward sensible effects. For myself I do not find that I have or can have any such idea.
ALCIPHRON. Surely everyone knows what is meant by force.
EUPHRANOR. And yet I question whether everyone can form a distinct idea of force. Let me entreat you, Alciphron, be not amused by terms: lay aside the word force, and exclude very other thing from your thoughts, and then see what precise idea you have of force.
ALCIPHRON. Force is that in bodies which produces motion and other sensible effects.
EUPHRANOR. Is it then something distinct from those effects.
EUPHRANOR. Be pleased now to exclude the consideration of its subject and effects, and contemplate force itself in its own precise idea.
ALCIPHRON. I profess I find it no such easy matter.
EUPHRANOR. Take your own advice, and shut your eyes to assist your meditation. Upon this, Alciphron, having closed his eyes and mused a few minutes, declared he could make nothing of it.
EUPHRANOR. But, notwithstanding all this, it is certain there are many speculations, reasoning, and disputes, refined subtleties and nice distinctions about this same force ... Upon the whole, therefore, may we not pronounce that - excluding body, time, space, motion, and all its sensible measures and effects - we shall find it as difficult to form an idea of force as of grace?
ALCIPHRON. I do not know what to think of it.

EUPHRANOR. And yet, I presume, you allow there are very evident propositions and theorems relating to force, which contain useful truths ... And if, by considering this doctrine of force, men arrive at the knowledge of many inventions in mechanics, and are taught to frame engines, by means of which things difficult and otherwise impossible may be performed ; and if the same doctrine which is so beneficial here below serveth also as a key to the celestial motions; shall we deny that it is of use, either in practice or speculation, because we have no distinct idea of force? Or that which we admit with regard to force, upon what pretence can we deny concerning grace?

Berkeley believes that the view of Alciphron, which is called "semantic atomism" is misconceived. When we hear words, we don't form ideas distinct from the words at every turn. Instead, as in solving a math problem, we manipulate words according to rules and don't necessarily stop to think about what it means until we get to the end. This parallel is made more explicit in sect. 14:
the algebraic mark, which denotes the root of a negative square, hath its use in logistic operations, although it be impossible to form an idea of any such quantity. And what is true of algebraic signs is also true of words or language, modern algebra being in fact a more short, apposite, and artificial sort of language, and it being possible to express by words at length, though less conveniently, all the steps of an algebraical process.

Some symbols may not correspond to anything at all, but gain meaning by being part of the system. The purpose of the system, as Berkeley remarks repeatedly in Alciphron 7, and also in the Introduction to the Principles, is not always the communication of propositional content, but can also involve inspiring emotion or action. For more on Berkeley's theory of reference, see Anthony Flew, "Was Berkeley a precursor of Wittgenstein?" in W. B. Todd, ed. Hume and the Enlightenment: Essays Presented to Ernest Campbell Mossner (reprinted in David Berman, ed. Alciphron in focus), and my "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley", under the heading "Berkeley's theory of reference."

So how does the critique of matter proceed? You may have noticed in the passage from the Three Dialogues that Philonous is careful to distinguish between a "positive idea" and a "relative notion." Positive ideas are the "distinct ideas" of the Alciphron. These are limited to what we can perceive or imagine. Relative notions are concepts like the imaginary number i. We don't have a "distinct idea" of i, but we have a theorem: i2=-1. This establishes a relation (hence "relative") between i and a real number, and thus allows us to apply the rules of algebra to get back to real numbers, which we understand. Berkeley believes that we can do this with words like "grace" and "force," but Hylas fails to do even this with "matter." A relative notion of matter actually might be something like "that which has mass and takes of space," which is what we learned in physics and chemistry classes, but this, according to Berkeley, is meaningful only because it actually relates to our perceptions. Therefore, such a definition does no good to someone arguing for a materialist metaphysics.

Posted by Kenny at March 15, 2008 2:49 PM
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Very interesting stuff. I am both impressed at how sophisticated the philosophers of Berkeley's time were, and also wondering what real progress we have made in the intervening centuries in settling the issues he raised? We have progressed scientifically and technologically for sure, but have we really progressed in relations to the more fundamental questions that Berkeley raises?

Posted by: Stephen at February 16, 2010 3:51 AM

Stephen -

There has certainly been a lot of progress since Berkeley's time in the philosophy of language; so much so that many of the questions formerly asked in the philosophy of language are now part of the discipline of formal linguistics. (It has typically been the case, in the history of philosophy, that whenever someone develops a productive research program that nearly everyone can agree on, it is 'spun off' into a separate discipline - this is what happened with natural science and with psychology, for instance. Both were once regarded as part of philosophy, but once fundamental methodological agreement was reached, they spun off.) Since the 19th century, our philosophical understanding of language has radically deepened. Incidentally, some Berkeleian views came back with the rise of 'pragmatics' in the 20th century, though Berkeley is rarely credited in these discussions.

As far as the fundamental questions about the nature of matter, there is today a much clearer understanding of what the various possible answers are and what consequences/problems each of them has. So to the degree that we understand the question better, we have made progress toward answering it. But that is not to say that there is anything like agreement on the answer itself.

Posted by: Kenny at February 16, 2010 8:18 AM

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