July 21, 2011

Berkeley and Sergeant

John Sergeant was a late seventeenth century English proponent of Roman Catholicism and Aristotelian philosophy. He is now mostly forgotten, though he is occasionally mentioned as a critic of Locke, partially because Locke and Stillingfleet discuss Sergeant's criticisms of Locke in their famous dispute. (Stillingfleet disowns Sergeant's criticisms; Stillingfleet and Sergeant had earlier been embroiled in a theological dispute about the rule of faith.)

I mentioned a while ago that I think the Locke-Stillingfleet debate was an important influence on Berkeley. It looks like Sergeant may have been an important influence as well. First, in section 12 of the preface to Solid Philosophy Asserted (1697), Sergeant criticizes Locke on abstraction and sets up 'general notions' in place of abstract ideas. He sounds a lot like Berkeley, though he doesn't (at least at this point) develop a theory of general notions like Berkeley does in the Introduction to the Principles. Second, compare these two passages:

We cannot possibly know at alll the Things themselves by the Ideas, unless we know certainly those Ideas are Right Resemblances of them. But we can never know (by the Principles of the Ideists) that their Ideas are Right Resemblances of the Things; therefore we cannot possibly know at all the Things by their Ideas. The Minor is proved thus; We cannot know any Idea to be a Right Resemblance of a Thing, (nor, indeed, that any thing whatever resembles another rightly,) unless they be both of them in our Comparing Power; that is, in our Understanding or Reason, and there view'd and compar'd together, that we may see whether the one does rightly resemble the other, or no. But this necessitates that the Thing it self, as well as the Idea, must be in the Understanding, which is directly contrary to their Principles; therefore by the Principles of the Ideists, we cannot possibly know that their Ideas are Right Resemblances of the Thing. (Sergeant, Solid Philosophy Asserted, Preliminary Second, sect. 13)

It is [the representative realist's] opinion, the ideas we perceive by our senses are not real things, but images, or copies of them. Our knowledge therefore is no farther real, than as our ideas are true representations of those originals. But as these supposed originals are in themselves unknown, it is impossible to know how far our ideas resemble them; or whether they resemble them at all. We cannot therefore be sure we have any real knowledge ... The result of all which is, that we are thrown into the most hopeless and abandoned scepticism. (Berkeley, Three Dialogues, L&J p. 246)


It is certainly possible that Sergeant and Berkeley came upon this line of thought independently, but it is similar enough to be interesting, especially if we take the talk of 'general notions' as evidence that Berkeley read Sergeant.

Of course, Berkeley's aims and Sergeant's are quite different: Sergeant is writing against the 'Way of Ideas' seeking to set up the Aristotelian view that our 'notions' just are the things themselves existing in the understanding. (I haven't got to the part where he explains what on earth that's supposed to mean yet.) This is supposed to be compatible with physical realism: the things exist both in the understanding and outside it. Berkeley thinks it's just obvious that whatever exists in the understanding must be of such a nature that it has to exist in the understanding in order to exist at all. As a result, if the objects themselves exist in the understanding then the objects themselves must be (composed of) mental particulars, i.e., ideas, the very things Sergeant is trying to get rid of.

Posted by Kenny at July 21, 2011 10:38 AM
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