September 16, 2009

The New Cambridge Berkeley Volume

A brief review of George Berkeley, Philosophical Writings, ed. Desmond M. Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-70762-6. 338 pp. $29.99 on Amazon.

I recently acquired a copy of the new Berkeley volume in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, edited by Desmond M. Clarke. Clarke's selection of texts is quite good. As far as I know, this is the only collection of its kind to include excerpts from Alciphron and Siris, and the excerpts are well chosen. From Alciphron, we have the Dialogue IV's divine language argument for the existence of God, and Dialogue VII's theory of human language. From Siris, Clarke has selected enough of the tar water stuff to give the reader a feel for the structure of the work, but focused on the more philosophical second half.

The most notable omissions are Berkeley's notebooks and "The Theory of Vision Vindicated", both of which were included in Michael Ayers' edition, Philosophical Works Including the Works on Vision, which is unfortunately out of print. However, those are both works which basically serve to clarify the interpretation of the works which Clarke has included, so I think the inclusion of Alciphron and Siris more than make up for these omissions.

Clarke's introduction to the book is interesting. I disagree with almost everything he says about the interpretation of Berkeley. I will list just three main points where Clarke is wrong:

  1. Clarke humorously remarks that "It remains an open question, then, whether the Bishop of Cloyne travelled to Oxford while denying the reality of the boat in which he sailed, or whether he merely claimed that his travel experiences could be described adequately in the language of phenomenalism' (p. xxiii). This presents a false dilemma, one horn of which is, contrary to Clarke's claims, totally indefensible. Berkeley is completely clear, especially in the Dialogues, that he believes that plain language statements about material objects are true, when properly understood. So the first horn of Clarke's dilemma must be rejected. However, it is an open question whether Berkeley was a reductive phenomenalist. The most commonly proposed alternative is that, rather than reducing physical object talk to experience talk, Berkeley thinks that physical objects really exist and are made out of ideas.

  2. Somewhat ridiculously, Clarke tries to paint Berkeley as an opponent of the new science, while admitting that Berkeley's instrumentalism does not greatly differ from certain remarks by Newton (pp. xxiii-xxvii).

  3. Clarke is too quick to suggest that accept the idea that Siris involves very significant revision of Berkeley's early immaterialism (pp. xxxiii-xxxv). In this discussion, Clarke never seems to realize that Berkeley might intend his corpuscularian talk in Siris to be interpreted in terms of his instrumentalism, and this despite the fact that the early part of Siris is clear intended to be 'scientific' in nature.

I do, however, want to note two high points of Clarke's treatment. First, throughout the introduction are quite comprehensive citations for Berkeley's immediate historical context and the 18th century reactions to his views. Second, pp. xxvii-xxx provide a very interesting discussion of the charge of theological anti-realism made against Berkeley's account of theological language in Alciphron 7. This topic has, to my knowledge, not been sufficiently explored in recent literature.

Overall, I think this would be a truly excellent volume to use for a full-semester undergraduate seminar on Berkeley, though I might recommend that the students read only the biographical portion of the introduction. For myself, I also expect to find the introduction quite useful both for its treatment of the immediate historical context, and because there is much to be learned by refuting its various erroneous claims.

Posted by Kenny at September 16, 2009 12:46 PM
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Thank you for your comments on the new Berkeley volume edited by Clarke. My own recent readings on Berkeley (including your own articles) have given me not only pleasure but insight into a truly remarkable mind. Regards, IK

Posted by: Ivan Kelly at December 30, 2009 8:45 AM

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