October 12, 2011

Locke and Berkeley on Cartesian Skepticism

Descartes's First Meditation is one of the most striking texts in the history of philosophy. As anyone who has taught the text can attest, students are immediately gripped by the problem, and often despair of a way out.

John Locke was evidently not such a student, for he responds to these doubts primarily with ridicule:

If any one say, a Dream may do the same thing [as sense perception], and all these Ideas may be produced in us, without any external Objects, he may please to dream that I make him this Answer, 1. That 'tis no great matter, whether I remove his Scruple, or no: Where all is but Dream, Reasoning and Arguments are of no use, Truth and Knowledge nothing. 2. That I believe he will allow a very manifest difference between dreaming of being in the Fire, and being actually in it. (EHU 4.2.14)

Berkeley, however, is having none of it. The Cartesian doubts, according to Berkeley, cannot simply be laughed off. They need an answer, and Locke's philosophy is not in a position to give that answer.

Why is it that the skeptical doubts need an answer? In Berkeley's view, I think, it is precisely because they are initially psychologically gripping. As he observes:

Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected, that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater calm and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men. Yet so it is we see the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the high-road of plain, common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed ... They complain not of any want of evidence in their senses, and are out of all danger of becoming sceptics. But no sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds, concerning those things which before we seemed to fully comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation; till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find our selves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn scepticism. (PHK Intro 1)

Berkeley's aim is, in fact, to show that "find[ing] ourselves just where we were" is not so bad. Thus he says in the preface to the Dialogues (1713 ed.):
And although it may, perhaps, seem an uneasy reflection to some, that when they have taken a circuit through so many refined and unvulgar notions, they should at last come to think like other men: yet, methinks, this return to the simple dictates of nature, after having wandered through the wild mazes of philosophy, is not unpleasant. It is like coming home from a long voyage; a man reflects with pleasure on the many difficulties and perplexities he has passed through, sets his heart at ease, and enjoys himself with more satisfaction for the future.

(Bibliographic trivia note: I believe the metaphor of setting out on a philosophical journey only to find oneself back where one began is a reference to Peter Browne, Letter in Answer to Christianity Not Mysterious (1697), p. 3.)

This is indicative of what, for Berkeley, would constitute an adequate answer to the skeptical worries: an adequate answer must bring us back home. This is why, according to Berkeley, Descartes's answer, even if successful, would not be adequate: first, Descartes's position even in the Sixth Meditation is still much less trustful of the senses than commonsense (see notebook entry 794). Second, Descartes only gets to know the existence and qualities of external objects after proving the existence and veracity of God and generally going through a lot of complicated philosophical reasoning (DHP, pp. 229-230). The gardener didn't do anything like this before believing in his cherry tree. Thus, Berkeley thinks, it follows from Descartes's view that the gardener doesn't know his cherry tree exists. That is, even if the philosopher gains knowledge of external objects, the unsophisticated gardener does not. This, Berkeley thinks, is unacceptable. An adequate (i.e. sufficiently anti-skeptical) solution must entail that the gardener knows most of the things he ordinarily takes himself to know about his cherry tree, and this despite the fact that he is not a philosopher.

Posted by Kenny at October 12, 2011 6:41 PM
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