December 4, 2008

The Reason for Berkeley's Anti-Abstractionism

(Cross-posted to Houyhnhnm Land Guest Blog)

In my post, Does Philosophy 'Trickle Down', I noted that "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." In this post I want to examine how the doctrine of abstract ideas is supposed, according to Berkeley, to lead to "Error and Difficulty in the Sciences ... [and] ... Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion."

The doctrine of abstract ideas is usually framed in epistemic or psychological terms: that is, it is usually framed as the view that human beings have a faculty of 'abstraction' whereby we form new 'clear and distinct ideas' by taking away the specificity of existing ideas, so that, from particular ideas of triangles, we form the abstract idea 'triangle' which is "neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once" (Locke, Essay 4.7.9; quoted by Berkeley at Principles, Introduction 13). However, when Berkeley criticizes the doctrine of abstract ideas, he is not primarily concerned with epistemology or psychology. Berkeley's critique of abstraction takes place largely in the Introduction to the Principles. The body of the Principles is concerned primarily with establishing the negative result that corporeal substance, as conceived by modern philosophers such as Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke, does not exist, and the positive result of Berkeley's reductive phenomenalism - the view that our everyday statements about familiar objects are both true and certain because they can be analyzed in terms of sense experience. Why, then, should the principles by introduced by the critique of abstraction? Berkeley explains:

In order to prepare the mind of the reader for the easier conceiving what follows, it is proper to premise somewhat, by way of introduction, concerning the nature and abuse of language. But the unraveling this matter leads me in some measure to anticipate my design, by taking notice of what seems to have had a chief part in rendering speculation intricate and perplexed, and to have occasioned innumerable errors and difficulties in almost all parts of knowledge. And that is the opinion that mind hath a power of framing abstract ideas or notions of things. (Principles, Introduction 6)

What is the "abuse of language" Berkeley is talking about, and how is it related to the faculty of abstraction? The claim is that terms like 'triangle' or 'cherry tree' get their meaning by being associated with an 'abstract idea' - a clear and distinct, but underspecified, idea of a triangle with no particular lengths or angles, or a cherry tree with no particular height or color. It is precisely this notion which leads to materialism: those who believe that language works this way suppose that I have some abstract idea of a cherry tree, a particular type of material object, and that I can abstract further to get an idea of material objects in general, abstracted away from any particular sense experiences. Thus the sentence 'there is a cherry tree over there' takes on all sorts of metaphysical significance: there is a natural kind, 'cherry tree', which is a sort of material object, having a substratum which exemplifies certain properties, such as its color, size, and shape.

This, Berkeley claims, is just silly. I don't have any idea of a cherry tree of no particular size, shape, or color. Furthermore, even if I did, what would having such an idea have to do with my linguistic competence with respect to the term 'cherry tree'? For linguistic competence it suffices that I know a cherry tree when I see one, so the meaning of the term 'cherry tree' is, in some sense, exhausted by the proper conditions for its application. (The proto-Wittgensteinian element of Berkeley's understanding of language should be immediately apparent to those familiar with Wittgenstein.)

Once this is understood, the pretense that a material substratum is required to account for the truth of plain language statements like 'there is a cherry tree over there' can be dropped.

So how does this view lead to "Error and Difficulty in the Sciences ... [and] ... Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion"? The answer is simple: external world skepticism, like Descartes' 'evil demon' skepticism and dream skepticism, was made possible only by a mistake about the truth conditions for external world beliefs. That is, Descartes was worried about skepticism because he thought that the truth of his external world beliefs depended on the presence of corporeal substance, but once it is realized that I don't even have any concept of corporeal substance, and, even if I did, it would have no role in the correct interpretation of ordinary language, it becomes clear that the truth of my ordinary beliefs has nothing to do with corporeal substance, even if such a thing exists. Rather, it suffices for the truth of my belief that "there is a cherry tree over there" that I (consistently) have the right sort of sense experience, and I have privileged first-personal access to the truth of this claim.

(An exercise for the reader: compare Berkeley's linguistic refutation of external world skepticism with Putnam's. I find the points of analogy and disanalogy between the two quite interesting, but that is a subject for another day. I will just quickly note one point of analogy: both claim that once you properly understand how external world language works, and where its truth conditions come from, it becomes clear that you cannot possibly be radically deceived in your external world beliefs.)

Posted by Kenny at December 4, 2008 11:42 AM
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