May 21, 2019

Berkeley on Divine and Human Spirits

It is pretty widely accepted, among those scholars who have considered the matter, that Berkeley endorses a univocal account of theological language. That is, Berkeley holds—contrary to traditional philosophical theology—that the word 'wise' is applied to God and to Socrates in the same sense, although with an infinite difference of degree. Philosophers who hold such a view are often said to anthropomorphize God (see, e.g., O'Higgins). However, comparing Berkeley's account with the prior tradition, it would be more accurate to say that Berkeley divinizes the human being than that he anthropomorphizes God.

The strongest indication in this direction is found in two notebook entries in which Berkeley uses the Latin phrase 'purus actus' (pure act)—a traditional definition of God—in connection with the human spirit. The entries are as follows:

701 The Substance of Body we know. The Substance of Spirit we do not know it not being knowable. it being purus Actus.

828 The Will is purus actus or rather pure Spirit not imaginable, not sensible, not intelligible. in now wise the object of ye Understanding, no wise perceivable.

In a subsequent entry, 870, Berkeley resolves not to use this language in print: "I must not give the Soul or Mind the Scholastique Name pure act, but rather pure Spirit or active Being." This, however, does not sound like a change of view, but rather a resolution to avoid Scholastic jargon. The version of this thought that makes it into the published text of the Principles looks like this: "Such is the nature of spirit, or that which acts, that it cannot be of itself perceived, but only by the effects which it produceth" (ยง27). This too was something said of God in the tradition: we cannot know what God is in Godself, and instead we approach the knowledge of God through the effects of God's action in the world (see, e.g., book 1, chapters 54 and 58 of Maimonides' Guide).

We can even go a step further than this. According to the (strong) doctrine of divine simplicity, God's activity just is God's essence which just is God's existence which just is God. This too Berkeley says of created spirits: "Existere is percipi or percipere [or velle i.e. agere]" (notebook entry 429; bracketed text added above a caret). Clearly in Berkeley's system ideas are those things whose existence consists in being perceived, while spirits are those things whose existence consists in perceiving or willing, i.e., acting. Further, Berkeley seems to reject the notion that spirit has some other unknown essence distinct from its existence/activity.

In a sense, then, Berkeley's philosophical theology may be somewhat more traditional than I have suggested in previous work (see, e.g., here). Berkeley holds that God is pure act, that God's essence, existence, and activity are all one, and that God is knowable only through the effects of God's activity. Berkeley's radical departure from the tradition lies in his claim that in all of this God is just like you and me.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at May 21, 2019 11:42 AM
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