November 7, 2011

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Berkeley's 'Master Argument' and the Theory of Mental Representation

I apologize for the very light posting; I have been busy stressing about my upcoming qualifying exam. But I thought I would break my silence today for some thoughts about (as usual) Berkeley.

The following passage from Berkeley's Dialogues (L&J p. 200) is rather notorious:

Phil. ... I am content to put the whole [debate] upon this issue. If you can conceive it possible for any mixture or combination of qualities, or any sensible object whatever, to exist without the mind, then I will grant it actually to be so.

Hyl. If it comes to that, the point will soon be decided. What more easy to conceive a tree or house existing by itself, independent of, and unperceived by, any mind whatsoever? I do at this present time conceive them existing after that manner.

Phil. How say you, Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?

Hyl. No, that were a contradiction.

Phil Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of 'conceiving' a thing which is 'unconceived'?

Hyl. It is.

Phil. The tree or house therefore, which you think of, is conceived by you.

Hyl. How should it be otherwise?

Phil. And what is conceived is surely in the mind?

Hyl. Without question, that which is conceived is in the mind.

Phil. How then came you to say, you conceived a house or tree existing independently and out of all minds whatsoever?

This passage (and the parallel passage at PHK 22-24) is notorious because it appears that Berkeley is making a rather elementary mistake. There is, it appears, a difference between having an unconceived conception of a house (which is obviously contradictory, for to have a conception is to conceive it) and having a conception of a house as unconceived. That is, one can represent the house as being unconceived while all the while conceiving of it oneself. This is because conceiving of things as having properties does not involve having conceptions which exemplify those properties. When I conceive of my bookshelf as being three feet wide, I don't have a three-foot-wide conception. So goes the thought.

While I won't deny that Berkeley has made a mistake, I want to suggest that Berkeley has made a rather less elementary mistake, and one which does much less to undermine the overall arguments of the Principles and Dialogues than the one indicated in this sketch. Berkeley is, as we say, in the grip of a theory. (This sort of thing commonly happens to philosophers.) He is 'gripped' by a particular theory of mental representation to such an extent that he thinks the truth of this theory is immediately apparent on introspection. This is clearly false: other people introspect carefully without discovering the theory in question. However, this error does not cause serious and widespread problems for Berkeley, because he does defend the theory, or at least some parts of it. As Berkeley says at PHK 22, "I am afraid I have given cause to think me needlessly prolix in handling this subject. For to what purpose is it to dilate on that which may be demonstrated with the utmost evidence in a line or two, to any one that is capable of the least reflexion?" In other words, he has so far been mounting a defense of something that he thinks anyone can just see on introspection.

So what's the theory? It goes like this: ideas can represent in two ways, either by resemblance, or by convention. (Winkler, in his article in the Cambridge Companion to Berkeley, calls these representation and signification, and Berkeley does sometimes use those words in ways that contrast like this, but I will continue to speak of this as two species of representation.) Now, in order to establish a convention whereby an idea signifies something, we must have immediate experience of that thing, or something that represents it by resemblance. But we have immediate experience only of that which perceives (the self) and of that which is perceived (ideas). So we can't represent an object by convention unless we first represent it by resemblance.

Now suppose we want to represent, by resemblance, that an object has a certain feature. We can do this, Berkeley thinks, only by having an idea that resembles the object with respect to that feature, i.e. an idea that shares that feature with that object. But now we're stuck: I surely can't conceive of something by having an idea that shares the feature being unconceived with it, since, if the idea was unconceived, then I wouldn't be able to use that idea to represent anything.

If representation is to be somehow reduced to resemblance, it's hard to see what else representing an object as having some feature could amount to.

Insofar as Berkeley expected all of this to be obvious on introspection to his readers, he was clearly mistaken. It may really have seemed obvious on introspection to Berkeley, but I'll wager that it wouldn't have seemed so if Berkeley hadn't been reading Locke. However, arguments for this view can be found in the first 21 sections of the Principles, so, although Berkeley is (mistakenly) willing to rely on his readers' introspection, he doesn't need to.

Posted by Kenny at November 7, 2011 3:58 PM
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