November 11, 2008

Does Philosophy 'Trickle Down'?

(Cross-posted to Houynhnm Land Guest Blog.)

One of the interesting things about George Berkeley as a historical figure is that he labors under the peculiar belief that he is writing philosophy out of pastoral concerns. I like to illustrate Berkeley's purposes by reference to the subtitles he gave to his works. The Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge is subtitled, "wherein the Chief Causes of Error and Difficulty in the Sciences, with the Grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion, are inquired into." Berkeley thinks he has discovered two philosophical doctrines which are indeed "the Chief Causes of Error and Difficulty in the Sciences" and also "the Grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion." These are the epistemic/linguistic doctrine of abstraction, and the metaphysical doctrine of corporeal substance.

Abstraction, in the relevant sense, is the claim that we can form 'clear and distinct' ideas by 'taking away' (the literal meaning of the Latin 'abstraho') their specificity. For instance, Berkeley quotes Locke who says that the abstract idea of 'triangle' "must be neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equcrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 4.7.9; quoted by Berkeley at Principles, Introduction 13) We start from some particular triangle and take away all of the characteristics which make it particular, and then we have the general abstract idea of triangle. Berkeley thinks this is nonsense. The reason I have called it an 'epistemic/linguistic doctrine' is that Berkeley is also concerned to refute a related linguistic doctrine which has been called 'semantic atomism'. This is the view that meaningful words are meaningful because they are connected with particular clear and distinct ideas in the mind. The word 'triangle' is meaningful because we have an abstract idea of triangle in general which we connect to that word. Berkeley thinks this too is nonsense.

By 'corporeal substance' or simply 'matter', Berkeley means the view that matter - the stuff physicists and chemists mean by that word - is a mind-independent metaphysical substance with inherent causal powers. (Matter without causal powers, a la Malebranche, is superfluous, but not so dangerous as the matter of Descartes, Newton, or Locke.)

These two doctrines, Berkeley believes, lead to skepticism, atheism, and general muddle. Furthermore, Berkeley believes, they are affecting the entire culture. Atheism - or at least 'irreligion' in the form of, for instance, Socinianism - and skepticism is infecting the whole country of England, and Berkeley's native Ireland, and perhaps the whole of Europe, because of these pernicious doctrines. What exactly the connection is, according to Berkeley, I won't go into here, but isn't this an interesting claim? I mean, who actually reads philosophy? And take into account that literacy in 18th century England and Ireland was much lower than today (although those that could read probably, by and large, had much broader education than most westerners today). Do philosophical assumptions like this 'trickle down'?

Berkeley makes this claim again in Siris, his last published work:

Prevailing studies are of no small consequence to a State, the religion, manners, and civil government of a country ever taking some bias from its philosophy, which affects not only the minds of its professors and students, but also the opinions of all the better sort, and the practice of the whole people remotely and consequentially indeed, though not inconsiderably. Have not the polemic and Scholastic philosophy been observed to produce controversies in law and religion? And have not Fatalism and Sadducism [i.e. the denial of an after-life, a belief of the Sadducees in the New Testament] gained ground during the general passion for the corpuscularian and mechanical philosophy, which hath prevailed for about a century? This, indeed, might usefully enough have employed some share of the leisure and curiosity of inquisitive persons. But when it entered the seminaries of learning as a necessary accomplishment, and most important part of education, by engrossing mean's thoughts, and fixing their minds so much on corporeal objects and the laws of motion, it hath, however undesignedly, indirectly and by accident, yet not a little indisposed them for spiritual, moral, and intellectual matters. Certainly had the philosophy of Socrates and Pythagoras prevailed in this age among those who think themselves too wise to receive the dictates of the Gospel, we should not have seen interest take so general and fast hold on the minds of men, nor public spirit reputed to be γενναῖαν εὐήθειαν, a generous folly, among those who are reckoned to be the most knowing as well as the most getting part of mankind. (Sect. 331)

Now, this does seem, in some degree, to be true. For instance, in the middle of the 20th century, Keynesian economics was dominant, but after the 1970s, Friedmanian economics began to be better respected. Now, I suppose, Keynes is likely to make a comeback in light of recent events. These sorts of internal debates among an (if I may say so) rather esoteric field of learning, which is really beyond the knowledge of most ordinary people, have a huge affect on our culture and government. Similarly, in politics, differing philosophical accounts of political 'rights' have a tendency to trickle down.

Does the same thing happen in metaphysics and epistemology? To hear most contemporary practitioners, you would think the answer was unequivocally 'no' - many philosophers seem to think that there are these pristine 'intuitions' uncorrupted by education and most of us have them. Berkeley himself sometimes appeals to 'common sense' in this way. However, it isn't clear that this is so at all. Perhaps metaphysics does trickle down. Berkeley seems to think it trickles down only to 'the better sort', by which he means 'high society' types. It is true, certainly, that biases of this sort get into education - and today in the West nearly everyone is educated enough to receive these biases. Furthermore, our biases are similar to the ones Berkeley discusses in this passage and throughout Siris: intoxicated by the successes of science (which, in Berkeley's day, was considered part of 'philosophy'), we slide into 'scientism' - the view that science is the ultimate source for all answers to everything whatever (and therefore we should have no interest in "spiritual, moral, and intellectual matters"). This is the sort of thing Berkeley is considering in relation to the 'corpuscularian' philosophy. One problem with this is a sort of circularity used to exclude certain entities (e.g., God or immaterial souls): science is defined, in advance, to deal with only certain sorts of explanations, and then the fact that science hasn't discovered the excluded entities is taken to show that they (probably) don't exist. In Cartesian physics, the limitation was that the only explanations allowed were 'matter in motion:' material objects run into each other, and they produce effects. The 'corpuscularian' philosophy was similar, except that it took a Democritean 'atoms in the void' view, with little indivisible bits floating around in a vacuum and bumping into each other, instead of a 'plenum' (an infinitely divisible 'stuff') of matter filling space entirely, excluding all vacuum. Newton's introduction of attraction and repulsion at a distance was extremely controversial (and, depending on your interpretation, modern physics may get rid of it anyway, since, post-relativity, we know that gravity propagates as a wave, and we now suspect the existence of gravity particles called 'gravitons'). Today the philosophical/methodological limits on scientific explanation are rather more complicated, but the same general idea applies: some things are ruled unscientific 'out of court' and then assumed not to exist because they are not discovered by science.

Isn't this logical positivism trickling down? Of course it doesn't effect everyone: perhaps only those that our culture (or at least our media) might call 'the better sort'. Happily, the tides are turning in academic philosophy, and there has, over the last few decades, been a resurgence of real metaphysics and a realization that not everything is science and/or language. Philosophy is changing, and perhaps these changes will trickle down as well.

Berkeley didn't succeed in changing the 'prevailing studies.' His successor, according to the standard narrative of modern philosophy, was David Hume, the naturalistic skeptic. And, indeed, "Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion" continued to increase.

So perhaps Berkeley was right. Perhaps philosophy does trickle down. Perhaps the 'prevailing studies' of a culture have a great deal of effect on it, and especially on its self-understanding, even among people who don't read philosophy. What biases have you and I been absorbing?

Posted by Kenny at November 11, 2008 5:21 PM
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