April 29, 2009

Locke, Berkeley, and 'Common Sense'

(Cross-posted to Houyhnhnm Land Guest Blog)

John Locke is often portrayed as a 'philosopher of common sense' (or, 'tempered common sense', some say), and George Berkeley as a proponent of a bizarre and novel metaphysics which is radically discontinuous with common sense. However, it is Berkeley, much more than Locke, who is constantly appealing to 'common sense' in support of his views. Why is this? And how is it that Berkeley, with his radical metaphysical claims, purports to be a defender of common sense?

The answer, I believe, is that the philosophies of Locke and Berkeley are related to our ordinary beliefs in radically different ways. Locke's goal, it seems, is to turn our ordinary beliefs into a system of metaphysics. To this end, he takes material objects to be more or less metaphysically basic, and to have more or less the properties - color, location, texture, etc. - we ordinarily take them to have. (I say 'more or less' because I am ignoring some important complications, such as the famous primary/secondary qualities distinction.) However, as Berkeley recognizes, 'common sense' doesn't actually tell us about metaphysics. Instead, it tells us about matters relevant to the ordinary conduct of our lives. Berkeley's accusation against Locke is that by attempting to turn common sense into a theory of metaphysics, he has undermined common sense in its own domain. For instance, according to Berkeley, common sense tells me that if I can see and touch my desk, then it is most certainly here; but, Berkeley argues, Locke's view leads inexorably to skepticism about these most basic of claims. Locke's claim that my desk is a 'material substratum' removes the desk from the realm of my knowledge, and falsifies an enormous number of 'common sense' beliefs.

Berkeley's project is, as he famously put it, to "think with the learned, and speak with the vulgar." His metaphysical system, he is well aware, bears no resemblance whatsoever to common sense. Nevertheless, he claims, his system preserves the correctness of common sense within its own domain. Is he correct?

Posted by Kenny at April 29, 2009 5:10 PM
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A Simple Argument for Idealism
Excerpt: One of Berkeley's key arguments for his idealism (his positive view that the only fundamental entities are minds and ideas) is something like the following: (1)The gardener is justifiably certain that he waters the cherry tree daily. (2)One can be just...
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Tracked: February 8, 2010 12:31 PM


My trackback system still doesn't work very reliably for some reason (even after upgrading), so allow me to manually refer readers to the following further discussions:

Posted by: Kenny at May 1, 2009 11:39 AM

Please find a radical criticism of the limits of common sense via this reference.


Posted by: Sue at May 7, 2009 10:46 PM

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