Thursday, September 22, 2016

Berkeley's Metaphysical Works

Review of:
1. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
2. Three Dialogues between Hulas and Philonous.
3. Siris. A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water.

Hardly any English writer on philosophical subjects has attained a reputation so pleasant in itself as Bishop Berkeley. It is impossible to read his works without feeling for their author something of the sentiment which led Pope to attribute to him 'every virtue under heaven.' In all that he writes there is an air of genuine goodness, united with an amount of precision and force of thought, and also with an enthusiasm for his opinions, to which it would not be easy to find any parallel in his own time and country.

Besides this, it ought to be said in his favour that he is always high-minded and public-spirited. The only charge indeed which can properly be brought against him is that, though no writer of his age had greater intellectual gifts—if indeed any one was his equal in acuteness of thought and accuracy of expression—he cared too much for the utility, and too little for the truth, of his speculations.

His inquiry into the nature of human knowledge, his dialogues on the same subject, and Siris, are undoubtedly three of the most subtle speculations of the eighteenth century, yet each is mainly directed towards a rigidly practical object. To confound scepticism, atheism, and irreligion is the object of his inquiry into the reality of matter. To preach the virtues of tar-water, which he does, with an unhesitating conviction, and an unqualified vigour of language, which reminds one at times of the literary department of the establishment of Moses and Son, and of Morison's British College of Health, is the main object of what may also be regarded as a treatise on ancient philosophy.

Of the three works on which Berkeley's metaphysical reputation rests, the first, the treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, was published in 1710, when its author was only twenty-six years of age. The Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous were published three years afterwards, and Siris in 1744, in his fiftieth year. He was far from being a voluminous writer, for the Minute Philosopher, published in 1732, some mathematical tracts, and a few occasional, though very remarkable, sermons and pamphlets, make up the list of his publications.

The Theory of Vision, which may be put half-way between his mathematical and his metaphysical writings, was his earliest work, being published in 1709. It was perhaps because he published so little that Berkeley was one of the most consistent and pertinacious of philosophers. In every one of his works, the doctrines which he announced at twenty-five, to the great astonishment and almost to the scandal of his contemporaries, are maintained with unabated vigour and complete consistency, and they are always connected with the same practical results.

We will try to give some account of his views, for though their general tendency is sufficiently well known, there is, we think, a good deal of misunderstanding as to their real nature, and as to their place in the history of English philosophical thought.

The essay on the Principles of Human Knowledge is to a great extent in the nature of a refutation of part of Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, Berkeley's great object was, as he says, to deliver philosophy, 'the study of wisdom and truth,' from 'the uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation,' and from which he thought Locke's philosophy was not more free than that of his predecessors—a doctrine which he would probably have supported by reference, amongst other things, to the twenty-third chapter of the Second Book of the Essay, on Our Ideas of Substances, in which Locke teaches that our faculties are dark and weak, and are fitted only ' to provide for the conveniences of living,' but not for acquiring knowledge of the 'true essence, secret composition, and radical texture of bodies.'

Of this limitation Berkeley was impatient. He says, 'The far greater part of the difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers are entirely owing to this theory; that we have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.' Clear away the puzzles needlessly introduced into philosophical speculation by the philosophers, and you would be able, thought Berkeley, to speculate with perfect clearness, and to solve every question which could be stated, at all events in natural philosophy.

Of the puzzles thus introduced the two most important were, first, a false notion of abstraction; and, secondly, the doctrine of the existence of matter. The process of abstraction, as described by Locke, consists in analysing the various objects which we perceive into their elements, and in then regarding such of those elements as are common to a number of different things as general abstract ideas. 'For instance, there is perceived by sight an object extended, coloured, and moved; this mixed or compound idea the mind resolving into its simple constituent parts, and viewing each by itself, exclusive of the rest, does frame the abstract ideas of extension, colour, and motion.' By the application of this process to complex things, such as men, animals, trees, etc., the mind can frame abstract ideas of them as well as of extension or colour. Thus, the abstract idea of man includes colour and stature, but no particular colour and no particular stature.

Berkeley altogether denied the possibility of such a process, the results of which he describes as monstrous and incredible. He totally denied, for instance, that we could form the general idea of a triangle which, in Locke's words, 'must be neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once.'

His own view was that words are only symbols, and that abstract words are only the names of parts of things common to an indefinite number of particular things to which the same name is applied. 'An idea which, considered in itself, is particular, becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular things of the same sort.' I draw a triangle on a piece of paper, and argue from it about all triangles, and this is perfectly legitimate so long as the triangle from which I argue has the same qualities as those about which I conclude. I take, say, a right-angled equilateral triangle as a specimen, from which I demonstrate the proposition that its three angles are equal to two right angles, and this demonstration applies to all triangles, whether right-angled and equilateral or not, inasmuch as neither of those qualities is in any way introduced into or relied upon in the course of the demonstration. I am arguing, therefore, not about the abstract idea of a triangle, as described by Locke, but about one specific triangle which is the type of all figures whatever that have in common with it the property of being enclosed by three straight lines.

What, it may be asked, is the practical difference between these theories? The best answer to this is to be found in a reference to Locke's political works, and those of his disciples—Warburton, for instance, in his Alliance of Church and State. The effect of Locke's theory of abstract ideas, when applied to such topics, is to produce what has the appearance of a remarkable inconsistency with the rest of his theories. His abstract ideas become a sort of bastard innate ideas, for whether you are told that such and such things are laws of nature because they follow from the abstract idea of justice or of a State, or from the innate ideas of justice or a State, is really of very little importance.

The notion that there are such things as abstract ideas had its origin, according to Berkeley, in a misconception of the use of language. Locke's account of them was that they were 'made in order to naming,' and this he connected with the further opinion, that every word ought to have some one precise settled signification. This, said Berkeley, is not the case. 'There is no such thing as one precise and definite signification attached to any general name, they all signifying indifferently a great number of particular ideas.' Words, in short, he regarded not as the medium by which ideas were to be raised in the mind, but rather as symbols, like the symbols of algebra, which are capable of representing an indefinite number of particular things.

By getting rid of abstract ideas Berkeley expected to simplify very materially the whole process of thought. First, he expected to get rid of all merely verbal controversies, because, as words, in his view, were only counters reducible to particular specific thoughts and not denoting abstract ideas, he would be always able to translate his language into perfectly intelligible thoughts. 'So long as I confine my thoughts to my own ideas divested of words I do not see how I can be easily mistaken. The objects I consider I clearly and adequately know. I cannot be deceived in thinking I have an idea which I have not. It is not possible for me to imagine that any of my own ideas are like or unlike that are not truly so. To discern the agreements or disagreements that are between my ideas, to see what ideas are included in any compound idea, and what not, there is nothing more requisite than an attentive perception of what passes in my own understanding.'

Having thus, as he considered, laid the foundation for clearness of thought in a proper theory of the functions of language and the nature of words, Berkeley proceeds to use the instrument which he has devised.

He reckons up three different sets of ideas: those which are imprinted on the senses, those which are perceived by attending to the operations of the mind, and those which are formed by the help of memory and imagination. Besides these, he says, there is the mind itself, that which knows or perceives these ideas, and which is called 'I, mind, spirit, soul, or myself' —a thing distinct from all ideas whatever, and being that wherein they exist, and whereby they are perceived.

These ideas, moreover, exist only in so far as they are perceived: 'Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds, or thinking beings, which perceive them. Consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind, or in that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit, it being perfectly unintelligible to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit. To be convinced of which the reader need only reflect, and try to separate in his own thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.'

This is the essence of Berkeley's famous system, and, short as is the statement of it, the whole of the treatise on the principles of human knowledge, and of the Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, is only a development of its various consequences, and an answer to the objections which may be made to it.

The phraseology of Berkeley's system is rather puzzling at first sight, and this may probably be the reason, or at least one reason, why, as Hume says, 'it admits of no answer, and produces no conviction'; but, if it is carefully examined, the system, we think, will be found to fall into a few of the very plainest propositions that ever were conceived by any human creature, as thus:—
That which we have no reason to believe to exist is to us as if it did not exist.
We have no reason to believe in the existence of anything unless we either perceive it or infer its existence from something which we do perceive.
We perceive nothing except what we perceive with our senses. The eye perceives colours, the ear sounds, the finger solidity, etc.
Every sensible object, whatever else it is, is a combination of such perceptions. Whatever else a stick may be, it is hardness+weight+a certain colour+a certain sound on being struck+a certain smell, etc.
But, besides these things, there is nothing else in the stick that we know of.
So far, therefore, as we know, the stick is a bundle of perceptions or ideas, and the notion of any substance or matter over and above the immediate objects of our senses is purely gratuitous—a mere metaphysical subtlety, the existence of which we have no more reason to believe than we have to believe, for instance, that there are gryphons in Sirius.

To this extent Berkeley appears to us, not only to be unanswerable, but to produce conviction. That 'matter' and 'substance,' used in any other sense than that of the idea of resistance derived from the touch, are merely unmeaning sounds, and that the endless disputes to which they have given occasion and of which numerous illustrations are to be found, e.g. in Bayle's Dictionary, are mere unmeaning beatings of the air, appear to us self-evident propositions when they are once fully understood.

They are indeed so clear to those who receive them at all that the minute and patient ingenuity with which Berkeley unravels and refutes every conceivable objection to them becomes at last wearisome. More ingenious writing than is to be found in the Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous does not exist anywhere; yet, after all, it all comes down to this: The sum total of our perceptions constitutes the sum total of our knowledge of things without us. There are no other things that we know of except our perceptions. To be, and to be perceived, are two ways of expressing the same thought, of which one very simple proof is this, that not to be and not to be perceived are obviously identical. What do we mean when we say that there is no money in a purse, except that no one can see or feel any, when they look or put their fingers into it?

There can, we think, be no doubt that, by the vigorous manner in which he preached this doctrine, Berkeley did considerably simplify speculation. At least he contributed greatly to the growth of the only school of thought which has resolutely turned its mind away from the fantastic and utterly incomprehensible puzzles into which every one may, and indeed must, be driven who supposes that he has some truer and deeper knowledge of things than the aggregate of what his senses tell him.

It appears to us, however, that the great achievement of Berkeley was of this negative kind, and that when he tried to raise a general system of philosophy upon the negative basis which he thus laid down, he failed conspicuously. His great leading doctrine on this subject was that, as esse and percipi are identical, and inasmuch as things exist when I do not perceive them, there must be some other being who does perceive them; and as this applies to every finite creature, there must be an infinite percipient being who always perceives everything, and so gives it existence. The whole world is thus the thought of God.

There is a certain sublimity about this way of viewing the subject, yet it has also its grotesque side. When I leave this room all the furniture in it would cease to be till somebody else came in and looked at it, if the fact that it is perceived by God did not keep it in esse. This might be exactly expressed by saying, in the language of English conveyancing, that Berkeley regarded his Maker as a universal trustee to preserve contingent remainders.

His theory, if worked out consistently, leads, not to the doctrine that there must be a God to perceive the things which I do not perceive, but that I cannot affirm that the things exist except when I perceive them; and that when I assert that they exist in my absence, all that I mean is that I should perceive them if I were in different circumstances from those in which I actually am. I actually know nothing but my own perceptions. What other people's perceptions may be is only matter of inference, and what God's perceptions may be is matter of remote and difficult inference. Now if it be true that God's perceptions of things differ entirely from man's perceptions, so that where, for instance, man perceives a flat solid piece of wood, God perceives something infinitely more elaborate than any microscope could show to any man, it will follow that as soon as I cease to look at the piece of wood in question the flat solid surface will not be perceived—which is equivalent, in Berkeley's system, to saying it will not exist till I look at it again. It does not exist in God's mind, for that which does exist in God's mind is something altogether different. The idea has to be received into my mind before it can take the particular shape which I perceive — before it can be itself. The fact, therefore, that when I come back to the room where it is, I see it where I left it, does not prove that there must have been a God taking care of it for me in the interval, for what God perceives is not my perception, but his.

The substance of what Berkeley established appears to us to be that the whole of our knowledge of things other than ourselves, is made up of the sum total of our perceptions, and that these perceptions are external to us in the sense of being permanent, or at all events of recurring permanently, and according to fixed rules, and of being altogether independent of our own will, by which they are sufficiently distinguished from mere hallucinations created by disease, or chimeras produced by the voluntary exertions of our own imaginations — a sufficient answer, by the way, to the absurdly small wit which has often been levelled at Berkeley, for not getting run over by carts, etc. — and that such words as 'matter' and 'substance,' and such inquiries as the question whether matter is or is not infinitely divisible and the like, are simply unmeaning nonsense, about which people ought not to waste time which might be better employed.

If any one wishes to see how little real extravagance there is in Berkeley's doctrine, and how very much truth there is in his assertion that he was the real enemy of scepticism and also of mystifications of all kinds, and the real friend of common sense, he had better study the three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which all the popular objections to his theory are discussed and dissipated with perfectly marvellous ingenuity.

We have seen a copy of this work, the owner of which had attempted to sum up the controversy between Berkeley and Reid in a marginal pencil note which does state the matter in rather a pointed way: Berkeley: What I perceive is real. Reid: I perceive real things.

By far the most curious of Berkeley's writings is the Siris. It is indeed as strange a book as ever was written by a man of genius. It is, however, not difficult to understand how it came to be written. During the greater part of his life Berkeley lived very much alone, either in America or in his diocese of Cloyne, where he appears, amongst other things, to have done a great deal of amateur doctoring; for he was one of the best and most charitable of men, and left nothing untried which could be of service to the poor of his diocese.

For some reason or other, he fell violently in love with tar-water; and, being possessed of a great amount of strange and recondite learning about ancient philosophy, and also of a considerable knowledge of the physical science of his own time, he seems to have occupied himself in working up into one strange mass all that he had to say about tar-water, physical science, and ancient philosophy.

Siris is emphatically an elderly man's book. It has the fancifulness, the enthusiasm, and the accumulated reading which are often to be found in an elderly man who has lived a good deal alone, and is a little apt to be positive and enthusiastic about his own particular fancies. The virtues of tar-water, in Berkeley's eyes, were almost miraculous. It would cure foulness of blood, ulceration of bowels, lungs, consumptive coughs, pleurisy, peripneumony, erysipelas, asthma, indigestion, cachectic and hysteric cases, gravel, dropsy, and all inflammations. It was a preservative against smallpox; it was of great use in the gout; it cured gangrene, scurvy, all hypochondriac maladies, and fevers. It was 'particularly recommended to seafaring persons, ladies, and men of studious and sedentary habits.' It was excellent for children, and it 'answered all the purposes of elixir proprietatis, Stoughton's drops, best turpentine, decoction of the woods and mineral waters.'

Whence came all these virtues? This leads to an inquiry into vegetable life, the nature of air, the 'pure ether or invisible fire' of the ancients and moderns; and this of course sets the Bishop off on all his great metaphysical hobbies as to the impossibility that matter should be a cause, as to the necessity of referring all motion to spiritual agency, as to the wisdom of the ancients, as to absolute space and fate, as to innate ideas as conceived of by Plato and Aristotle, as to the excellencies of Plato in particular, and finally, as to the Platonic Trinity.

This work is followed up by 'Farther Thoughts upon Tar-water'—the last of Berkeley's performances, in which we learn that, besides curing almost every kind of disease—cancer, for instance, diabetes, the plague, dropsy, yellow fever, and most other things — it will make stupid children clever: 'It may render them for a time perhaps unseemly with eruptions, but withal healthy and lively, and I will venture to add that it lays in the true principles of a good constitution for the rest of their lives. Even the most heavy, lumpish, and unpromising infants appear to be much improved by it. A child there is in my neighbourhood of fine parts who at first seemed stupid, and an idiot, but by constant use of tar-water grew lively and observing, and is now noted for understanding beyond others of the same age.'

It is interesting to contrast the easy natural way in which, in his old age, the Bishop gradually runs through the pure ethereal fire up to the Platonic Trinity, and then gently runs down the scale to 'Captain Drape's affidavit of the great and surprising efficacy of tar-water in the cure of the smallpox,' with the terse, systematic, combative energy with which in his youth he put forward and defended his speculations about the non-existence of matter.

There are several points in the Siris well worthy of more attention than we can at present give to them. For instance, Berkeley gives in a very few words his own theory as to innate ideas, which closely corresponds with one which has of late years been accepted by many writers, and which is by no means inconsistent with Locke's doctrine on the subject: 'Aristotle held that the mind of man was a tabula rasa, and that there were no innate ideas. Plato, on the contrary, held original ideas in the mind, that is, notions which never were nor can be in the sense, such as being, beauty, goodness, likeness, purity. Some perhaps may think the truth to be this: that there are properly no ideas or passive objects in the mind but what are derived from sense; but that there are also besides these her own acts or operations: such are notions.'

The whole attitude of Berkeley's mind towards the old philosophers is very remarkable. He held something of the same opinion about them as was long afterwards held by De Maistre, though he expresses it in a much more reasonable and less mystical way.

Though for many reasons we may not agree with them, the following passages have a liberal and enthusiastic tone which is as attractive as the substance of the remarks themselves is noticeable.
'There are traces of profound thought as well as primeval tradition in the Platonic, Pythagorean, Egyptian, and Chaldaic philosophy. Men in those early days were not overlaid with languages and literature. Their minds seem to have been more exercised and less burdened than in later ages; and, as so much nearer the beginning of the world, to have had the advantage of patriarchal lights handed down through a few hands.'
'The human mind is so much clogged and borne downward by the strong and early impressions of sense, that it is wonderful how the ancients should have made even such a progress, and seen so far into intellectual matters, without some glimmering of a divine tradition. Whoever considers a parcel' of rude savages left to themselves, how they are sunk and swallowed up in sense and prejudice, and how unqualified by their natural force to emerge from this state, will be apt to think that the first spark of philosophy was derived from heaven; and that it was, as a heathen writer expresseth it, θεπαράδοτος ϕιλοσοϕία.’
'In the Timseus of Plato mention is made of ancient persons, authors of traditions and the offspring of the gods. It is very remarkable that, in the account of the Creation contained in the same piece, it is said that God was pleased with his work, and that the night is placed before the day. The more we think, the more difficult shall we find it to conceive how mere man, grown up in the vulgar habits of life, and weighed down by sensuality, should ever be able to arrive at science without some tradition or teaching which might either sow the seeds of knowledge, or call forth and excite those latent seeds that were originally sown in the soul.'
Saturday Review, September 7, 1867.

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