July 6, 2018

Philosophy and Trust in the Senses, from Montaigne to Berkeley

I want to begin this post with a longer sequence of quotations than is usual. The reason is that simply juxtaposing the quotations goes a long way toward telling the story I want to tell. Here, then, is a sequence of comments on philosophy and trust in the senses, ranging in date from 1580 to 1713:

We want to find out by reason whether fire is hot, whether snow is white, whether anything within our knowledge is hard or soft. There are ancient stories of the replies made to the man who doubted whether heat exists—they told him to jump into the fire—or to the one who doubted whether ice is cold—they told him to slip some into his bosom: but a reply like this is quite unworthy of the professed aims of philosophy. Philosophers could have spoken in this way only if they had left us in a state of nature, simply accepting external appearances as they offer themselves to our senses, or if they had left us to follow our basic appetites, governed only by such modes of being as we are born with. But they themselves have taught us to make judgements about the universe; they themselves have fed us with the notion that human reason is the Comptroller-General of everything within and without the vault of heaven; they themselves say that it can embrace everything and is the means by which anything is known or understood. Such replies would be good among the Cannibals1 who live long and happy lives, in peace and tranquility, without the benefits of Aristotle's precepts and without even knowing what the word 'physics' means. Perhaps such a reply could even be better and more firmly based than all the ones which philosophers owe to reason or discovery. Such arguments would be within the capacity of ourselves, of all the animals and of all for whom the pure and simple law of Nature still holds sway. But they themselves have renounced such arguments. They must not tell me: 'This is true; you can see it is; you can feel it is.' ... [If they do,] let them abandon their professed intention, which is to accept nothing and approve nothing except by following the ways of reason.
- Michel de Montaigne, "An apology for Raymond Sebond" (1580), Screech, pp. 607-608

a piece of paper or a feather lightly brushed over any part of our body performs exactly the same operation with regard to itself namely, moving and touching. But with regard to us, by touching between the eyes, or on the nose, or under the nostrils, it produces an almost intolerable titillation, whereas in other parts it is hardly felt. That titillation is entirely in us and not in the feather, and if the animate and sensitive body is removed, it is nothing but an empty name. Now, I believe that many qualities that are attributed to natural bodies (such as tastes, odors, colors, and others) may have a similar and not greater reality ... I do not believe that in order to stimulate in us tastes, odors, and sounds, external bodies require anything other than sizes, shapes, quantity, and slow or fast motions. I think that if one takes away ears, tongues, and noses, there indeed remain the shapes, numbers, and motions, but not the odors, tastes, or sounds; outside the living animal these are nothing but names, just as tickling and titillation are nothing but names if we remove the armpits and the skin around the nose.

- Galileo, The Assayer (1623), Finocchiaro, pp. 186-187

There are, however, many other things which I may appear to have been taught by nature, but which in reality I acquired not from nature but from a habit of making ill-considered judgements; and it is therefore quite possible that these are false. Cases in point are the belief that ... the heat in a body is something exactly resembling the idea of heat which is in me; or that when a body is white or green, the selfsame whiteness or greenness which I perceive through my senses is present in the body; or that in a body which is bitter or sweet there is the selfsame taste which I experience, and so on.

- Descartes, Sixth Meditation (1641), CSM 2:56

the illiterate bulk of manking that walk the high-road of plain, common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, [are] for the most part easy and undisturbed ... They complain not of any want of evidence in the 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 fully to 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.

- Berkeley, Principles (1710), Intro §1

I assure you, Hylas, I do not pretend to frame any hypothesis at all. I am of a vulgar cast, simple enough to believe my senses, and leave things as I find them ... I cannot for my life help thinking that snow is white and fire hot.

- Berkeley, Three Dialogues, Luce and Jessop 229

I am presently reading (portions of) Montaigne's famous Essays for the first time. I found his remark on trust in the senses (the first of the quotations above) quite striking, because it seems to me to form an interesting prequel to the story I tell in "How Berkeley's Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree".

Montaigne's aim here is skeptical, but he believes that a sort of escape from skepticism can be accomplished by a return to 'a state of nature' which is a state of naive trust in the senses. One can find (very different!) versions of this strategy in Berkeley, Hume, and Reid.2 Montaigne is arguing against 'the philosophers' who, according to him, want "to accept nothing and approve nothing except by following the ways of reason."3 This is objectionable to Montaigne, in part, because it leaves no room for religious faith. In fact, in an earlier passage that is strikingly similar to a famous remark of Kant's (though used for a totally different purpose), Montaigne suggests that Pyrrhonian skepticism is the best of philosophical systems because it "shows us Man ... annihilating his intellect to make room for faith" (Screech 564).4

The discussion of trust in the senses is part of Montaigne's argument that reason is unable to serve as our sole guide in everything. If someone denies that fire is hot, Montaigne suggests, no one can argue that person into accepting this proposition; appeal must be made to experience. However, according to 'the philosophers' (whoever they are?) the senses can't provide an independent basis for belief. Trust in the senses is legitimate only to the extent that reason tells us it is. Thus 'the philosophers' have no basis for believing that fire is hot or snow is white.

Oddly enough, only a few decades later, philosophers were actually arguing that snow is not white and fire is not hot! According to Galileo, thinking that the fire is hot is like thinking that the feather is ticklish. Descartes classifies the belief that "the heat in a body is something exactly resembling the idea of heat which is in me" among the 'childish' beliefs that his course of meditations is meant to eliminate.

What is even more interesting, is that both Descartes and Galileo do this as part of an effort to assert the supremacy of the intellect over the senses. In so doing, they take themselves to be going against Aristotelianism, although Montaigne blames reverence for Aristotle for teaching people to despise the senses. Galileo wants to argue that only those qualities of bodies that can be understood geometrically really inhere in the body itself. This ensures the role of pure intellect for interpreting the 'book of nature'. According to Descartes, the "greatest benefit [of the method of doubt] lies in freeing us from all our preconceived opinions, and providing the easiest route by which the mind may be led away from the senses" (Synopsis, CSM 2:9). When he comes to his anti-skeptical conclusion in the Sixth Meditation, the conclusion is not that all of my faculties are trustworthy but rather that "there [is not] any falsity in my opinions which cannot be corrected by some other faculty supplied by God" (CSM 2:55, emphasis added). The senses are not completely to be despised, according to Descartes, but it is a serious error to "treat[] them as reliable touchstones for immediate judgements about the essential nature of the bodies located outside us" (CSM 2:56). The senses cannot be relied upon for 'immediate judgements'; instead, they require constant correction by the pure intellect. In other words, Galileo and Descartes can be seen as leaning into Montaigne's characterization of 'the philosophers' in a way that is much more extreme than anything one would find in the Aristotelian tradition.5

Berkeley, on the other hand, advocates for an anti-skeptical, philosophical return to "the dictates of nature." Like Montaigne, he ridicules 'the philosophers' for casting doubt on the veracity of the senses. Unlike Montaigne, he refuses to blame this on the inherent weakness of our faculties. As he famously writes:

The cause of this [skepticism] is thought to be the obscurity of things, or the natural weakness and imperfection of our understandings ... But perhaps we may be too partial to our selves in placing the fault originally in our faculties, and not rather in the wrong use we make of them ... Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to our selves. That we have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see (Principles, Intro §§2-3).

Berkeley's view, mediating in a way between Descartes and Montaigne,is that when reason is used properly it casts no doubt on the senses, and in fact explains why they were worthy of our trust all along. In this way Berkeley advocates a return to Montaigne's 'state of nature' in which we can be 'simple' or childish enough to believe that snow is white and fire is hot.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad)


  1. The 'Cannibals' were a tribe the Portugese were said to have encountered in Brazil, who were said to practice cannibalism. In his essay "On the Cannibals" (Screech 228-241) Montaigne argues that the Cannibals are in fact less cruel, savage, and barbarous than the Europeans and live happier more moral lives. Even their cannibalism, he argues, can be understood to be motivated by the same sort of desire for 'ultimate revenge' that leads Europeans to commit a variety of atrocities, in the Americas and at home, and is no worse than those European atrocities.
  2. I could have continued my list of quotations for several pages, but I decided not to!
  3. Due to too many years in academia, I have lost the ability to write without footnotes.
  4. Screech, in his introduction and notes, is for some reason very concerned to deny that Montaigne is a skeptical fideist, but I am not at all sure what Screech thinks the phrase 'skeptical fideist' means. The nature of Montaigne's book makes it difficult to be confident in attributing any view to him, but I really can't see how one can deny that he holds that the inadequacy of human reason for finding the truth means that we must have faith of a sort that goes beyond—and perhaps even conflicts with—(natural, human) reason. As far as I know that's all that philosophers (and scholars of the history of philosophy) mean by 'skeptical fideism'.
  5. Interestingly, Montaigne also ridicules belief in mountains and valleys on the moon (Screech, 505). The observation of such mountains and valleys was one of the main results reported in Galileo's Starry Messenger (1610).
Posted by Kenny at July 6, 2018 9:00 PM
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