welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Rebel Realities

Berkeley’s Suitcase

Hugh Hunter unpacks the sources of Berkeley’s idealism.

You will be familiar, in these days of inelegant travel, with the exercise of trying to fit everything you might plausibly need into a very small suitcase. It sometimes happens that there is one thing which frustrates the process, an object with awkward contours that ensure it cannot be packed along with the other necessities. It is of some value to identify the troublesome object. Would it not be a small triumph if you not only identified it, but realized that you didn’t need it after all?

It was a similar realization in the realm of metaphysics that led the young unpublished George Berkeley (1685-1753) to breathlessly write in his private philosophical journal, “I wonder not at my sagacity in discovering the obvious tho’ amazing truth, I rather wonder at my stupid inadvertency in not finding it out before. ‘tis no witchcraft to see.” (Notebooks, in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne eds A.A. Luce, T.E. Jessop, n.279.) Berkeley had been trying to fit together a number of beliefs, and he found that he could not do it. Then, in a single insight, he saw that one belief frustrated his project, and that he could do without it.

The problem lay in fitting together a belief in perception by means of ideas in immaterial minds, a belief in atoms, a trust in common sense, and a belief in matter. It was the last belief Berkeley suddenly recognized that he had never needed and that by discarding it he could make the others fit together. This freed him from a double puzzle of being isolated from the physical world in two separate, if related, ways.

Travelling The Perilous Way of Ideas

Let us begin with the sort of isolation caused by a belief in material things plus a belief in ideas.

Looking back on early modern philosophy [that is, from the early seventeenth century on], Thomas Reid (1710-96) observed that his predecessors had followed the ‘way of ideas’. In this observation he was certainly correct. The reason was that early modern philosophers could see no way for material bodies to be present in immaterial minds: how could a material tree be in the mind of a man? Instead there must be some intermediate entity, an idea. Ideas tie together the material world of bodies and the immaterial plane of minds, for ideas can represent bodies but are present in minds. Some interaction between someone’s sense organs and the tree causes the idea to come into being with properties so as to represent the tree, enabling the person to perceive it.

There was, of course, a great deal of dispute as to how ideas ought to be understood. Antoine Arnauld (1612-94) thought of ideas as aspects of the act of perception. Berkeley found this view implausible. It seemed to him that a more robust understanding of ideas was needed, and he found it in the works of Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and John Locke (1632-1704). Both men took ideas to be not the perceptual acts themselves. With this Berkeley was in full agreement: whatever it is that we have in mind, it cannot be a material tree, nor is anything clarified by saying that we have in mind an aspect of the act of perceiving a tree. Rather, ideas must be entities such that (a) we may have them in mind, and (b) they convey to us the properties we associate with trees.

But consider now how this view isolates us, the perceivers. Take the case of colours. Since the early modern period it has been widely thought that colours are not in bodies. Instead, colours are the result of interactions between the surface properties of bodies and our sensory organs; and the same is true of smells, tastes, and sounds. As Galileo wrote in 1623, “I think that tastes, odors, colours, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated” (The Assayer, p.274). Following the way of ideas, then, colours and other sensations are features of ideas, not of bodies. The world of our experience is a carnival of smells and tastes and sounds and colour, but we carry it about in our minds through a reality that is in itself silent, dark, flavourless. That is what I mean when I say that the way of ideas leads the perceiver into isolation.

Moreover, this isolated state of man invites the sceptic to ask: How can you be sure that every property of ideas is not like colours, and just in the mind? How can you be sure there really is a material world at all? On this point the sceptic Pierre Bayle joked in his philosophical Dictionaire Historique et Critique (1697) that the way of ideas had produced a stronger sceptical challenge than was known even in antiquity.

“Today the new philosophy takes a stronger line [than classical Pyrrhonian skepticism]: heat, smell, colours, etc, are not in the objects of our senses; these are modifications of my soul; I know that bodies are not those that appear to me. Some wanted to exclude extension and movement, but it wasn’t possible, for if the objects of sense seem coloured to us, or hot, cold, or odorous, while they are not these things, why can’t they seem extended and figured, at rest and in motion, while being none of these?” (My translation.)

Bayle wrote toward the end of the seventeenth century, and even then his argument was hardly new. The father of early modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650), had considered the question of the trustworthiness, or not, of our perception of an external world as the very origin of his philosophy, and the power of the sceptical threat can be seen in just how far that great man and his successors were from answering it. In the end, Descartes argued that it would be inconsistent with the goodness of God for Him to deceive us by presenting us with ideas of a material world with no material world corresponding to them. The empiricist Locke argued that a certain “sensitive knowledge” answered scepticism – this being knowledge “of the existence of particular external objects, [gained] by that perception and consciousness we have of the actual entrance of ideas from them” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.2.12, 1689). Malebranche appealed to Scripture: God is said to have created heaven and earth, after all.

These arguments are all, and in the same way, question-begging. The sceptic’s question is whether ideas do in fact reveal a material world. To say that God would be a deceiver if they didn’t, or that our awareness of ideas goes even a whit toward showing that they do, is to assume what is to be established. And in order to deflate Malebranche’s reply, the sceptic need only ask, Does Scripture say that God created a material heaven and earth?

The sceptic shows how deep the isolation of early modern man is with regard to bodies and his perception of them. It is here the conflict arises with Berkeley’s trust in common sense. He wrote:

“Upon the common principles of philosophers, we are not assured of the existence of things from their being perceived. And we are taught to distinguish their real nature from that which falls under our senses. Hence arise scepticism and paradoxes. It is not enough, that we see and feel, that we taste and smell a thing. Its true nature, its absolute external entity, is still concealed. For, though it be the fiction of our own brain, we have made it inaccessible to all our faculties. Sense is fallacious, reason defective. We spend our lives in doubting of those things which other men evidently know, and believing those things which they laugh at, and despise.”
(Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Preface, 1713)

Berkeley’s closing words express his own sympathies with common sense. It does seem to him both laughable and contemptible to suppose that the real world cannot be known through the rich world of experience.

It is important to note here that an appeal to common sense is not an appeal to everything that is common. There are many people who do not understand Shakespeare, but so much the worse for them. Nor is it the claim that any belief that’s held by virtually everybody is therefore true. It is rather the claim that there are things that people cannot help but knowing (which is why they are common), and that this inescapable knowledge should bear some weight in our philosophical reflection. And two things that we cannot help knowing, according to Berkeley, are that we directly perceive bodies, and that we see them as they are. The way of ideas leaves us isolated, when common sense tells us that we are crowded about with readily accessible things.

George Berkeley
George Berkeley by Darren McAndrew 2016

Atomic Confusion

The second type of isolation of perceivers from the material world is caused by a belief in material atoms. Already by the middle of the seventeenth century it was observed that, “All the Learnedest Philosophers have acknowledged that there are such Atomes, not to speak of Empedocles, Democritus, Epicurus… And Galen makes mention of them… And indeed every where amongst Philosophers and Physitians both Ancient and Modern, mention is made of these little Bodikies or Atomes, that I wonder the Doctrine of Atomes should be traduced as a Novelty.” (Daniel Sennert, Epitome Philosophiae Naturalis, 1618). These ‘little bodikies’ about which everyone was talking, were understood to be tiny, indivisible fragments of matter. Tables and chairs, our bodies and animal bodies, all these are just assemblages, or as contemporary philosophers tended to think of them, mechanisms, made up ultimately of material atoms. In Berkeley’s time, the English called this view ‘corpuscularianism’.

By the time Berkeley was writing, atomism had lost none of its appeal. That is because, as the distinctive philosophy of the early modern period grew in confidence, so too it grew confident of its judgment of the medieval period as obscurantist, authoritarian, and confused. To do without atoms seemed to risk a return to a medieval Aristotelian account, in which living bodies were understood as more primary than their parts, since on that view organisms consisted of indeterminate matter taking the determinate forms of the organisms. Much better, thought Berkeley’s contemporaries, to have determinate matter – atoms – producing all other kinds of entities through their arrangements. Then, instead of a multiplication of kinds of explanations of things (cat kinds, tree kinds, kinds of humans) as the Aristotelian account required, the early modern intellectual project became one of reducing explanations to combinations of a few basic atomic kinds.

So appealing was the atomic picture that philosophers were willing to struggle to make sense of atoms’ most puzzling property: indivisibility. It was crucial that atoms be indivisible, for if they were not, their changes must be explained by some even more basic kinds. Locke thought it might be a brute fact that the smallest things are indivisible. But why should they be? If they take up space, why could God not separate their left and right halves? And if some things have this brute property of indivisibility, why must they be small, as all early moderns, including Locke, supposed? Faced with this question, Democritus, one of the ancient Greek originators of the idea of atoms, admitted that there might be atoms as big as houses. And early modern man is again isolated by atomism, because all that he knows or understands is vastly larger than the scale on which the workings of the world proceed. Once more, early modern man is like a Chinese emperor who is born, lives, and dies in a Forbidden City of the mind. What happens beyond its walls he does not know. As David Hume (1711-1776) wrote in another context:

“We learn from anatomy, that the immediate object of power in voluntary motion, is not the member itself which is moved, but certain muscles, and nerves, and animal spirits, and, perhaps, something still more minute and more unknown, through which the motion is successively propagated, ere it reach the member itself whose motion is the immediate object of volition. Can there be a more certain proof, that the power, by which this whole operation is performed, so far from being directly and fully known by an inward sentiment or consciousness is, to the last degree, mysterious and unintelligible?”
(An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 7.1, 1748)

This mystery and unintelligibility, let us note, is in our own bodies. But these are the bodies that are closest to us. Early modern philosophy hoped to explain all bodily changes as variations of atomic motions. But even if such an explanation could be given (and that still seems as unlikely today as it did in Berkeley’s day), it would not free man from his walled citadel anymore than an Emperor walks among his people because his economic advisor explains their condition to him.

Another way to put the puzzle is this. If changes in bodies are produced at the level of atomic motion, then the bodies themselves seem to be reduced to a secondary explanatory state. Material bodies are like political bodies in this sense: we may generalize about the actions of some political party, but we recognize that the party itself is really an amalgam of many individuals, and that to generalize about them all is to say something that will not do justice to any one of them.

Locke was duly troubled. He wondered whether it is consistent with the goodness of God that He reserved for Himself the true atomic knowledge of things, and gave us only the sort of knowledge we get from our senses. Locke concludes that although “a man with microscopical eyes” might see things more truly, he would see things less usefully, for with our everyday vision we can discern things on the scale which is necessary for us to live our lives (see his Essay 2.18.12). Our creator had to choose on our behalf between the true and the useful, and He chose the second. This is not very satisfying justification for God’s activities – theodicy – for surely God Himself sees both the small and the large together; but Locke does not consider why God did not make us so as to see that way too. As we will shortly appreciate, Berkeley’s suggestion is that God created us in precisely this fashion.

The Doubts & Beliefs of Bishop Berkeley

I hope it’s become clear why the recognition that there were problems to be solved was something for which Berkeley took no credit. Galileo, Descartes, Bayle, Malebranche, Locke, and (eventually) Hume all noticed many of the same things. Double isolation, on account of both his means of perception and the scale of his perception, is the sad lot of early modern man. But Berkeley’s insight was that this depressing picture hung on a single shaky nail: the belief in matter.

Consider first the isolation brought on by following the way of ideas. The suggestion that bodies (things that cannot be in minds) must be perceived indirectly by means of ideas (things that can be in minds) hinges on the belief that bodies cannot be in minds. Now, the reason for thinking that bodies cannot be in minds is that bodies are supposed to be of a nature incompatible with being in a mind: they are material. But if their materiality is put in doubt, there would be no reason to think that bodies cannot be in minds. And then the first sort of isolation would be unnecessary: man could directly perceive the world he inhabits.

Doubting that there are material bodies does not entail doubting that there are bodies. It is rather a question of reevaluating the status of ideas. For most early modern philosophers, ideas are intermediaries which bring us information about material things. But perhaps this is like one of those fairy tales where the messenger is really the prince in disguise; and as in the tale, once the onlookers know, they can clearly discern the princely features that had been there all along, for the ideas that were considered mere intermediaries have all the features of the bodies we always supposed they represented. All the colours and smells and sounds and tastes which early modern philosophy had banished to the mind are as common sense have always supposed they are – characteristics of the thing itself. We can therefore state Berkeley’s suggestion that ideas are bodies in the sense that a combination of shape, colour, smell, taste and so on is a cake, and another combination is an apple.

What Berkeley discovered is that doubting the existence of material bodies actually removes a great many other doubts. And so what seemed to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke a sceptical attack, is to Berkeley merely a purgative. Of course our ideas do not point to anything beyond themselves, any more than bodies point to anything beyond themselves! Or in Philonous’ final words in Berkeley’s Three Dialogues, “the same principles which at first view lead to scepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.” We find ourselves once again believing what Berkeley was so ashamed to doubt – that the world is rich with colours, odours, sounds and tastes.

Without matter, the second isolation, which is brought about by scale, can also be resolved. Bodies are made of ideas; but on Berkeley’s account, the ideas are composed of atoms. Consider what you see before you. Berkeley’s argument is that if you choose an object and narrow your vision, and then repeat this process, you will soon encounter a limit beyond which you cannot gain any more clarity. You have reached a sensory minimum. The sensory minimum is Berkeley’s atom.

Berkeley redefines the atom, then. On this view, God has given us simultaneously micro- and macroscopical eyes, insofar as perception reveals large-scale bodies, and simultaneously (though we may have to narrow our attention), their sensory minima. So his redefinition is just what Locke implicitly takes to be impossible even for a good God to create. Berkeley’s account also provides an elegant answer to the question of why atoms are indivisible. They are indivisible because they are atoms of sensation; so a limit on their divisibility is also a limit on what can be sensed by us. Another consequence of this approach is that research into atoms is likely to be restricted to those fields which study sensory phenomena, for example optics. And although ideas are composed of sensory atoms, there seems to be no reason to look to the atoms rather than to complex ideas for explanations. In other words, the truth about the body of a cat is as likely to lie at the macro- as at the micro-level of perception. This is a consequence of occupying the divine adjustable point of view Berkeley opens up to us. And so Berkeley has supplied us with the tiny, indivisible composing parts of bodies, and can also give bodies a sort of explanatory priority without following the path back to Aristotelianism.

Berkeley Being Realistic

With the need for material atoms or material bodies removed, the double isolation that so troubled Berkeley and early modern philosophy is removed. On this view the true natures of bodies, along with their atomic structures, are completely manifest to us in perception. It is in this sense that Berkeley can rightly be called a direct realist.

We can also see why Berkeley’s reaction to his discovery was humility, remarking that the wonder was that he had not seen it sooner. Berkeley understands his role as that of the boy who first saw the emperor as naked. As in the story, pretension is punctured, but this merely enables daily life to go on as before. “The Philosophers lose their Matter… as for bodies &c we have them still” (Notebooks, n.391). Descartes recommended to his readers a process of meditation that would provide their beliefs with a fresh firm foundation. The Berkeleian meditation could hardly be more different. The meditator discovers how unshakeable are the foundations of the beliefs he gained at mother’s knee. Nothing changes: “the horse is in the stable, the Books are in the study as before” (Ibid. n.429).

But a very great deal is changed, the physicist and the mathematician might object. Are all of our fruitful theories concerning unobserved particles about nothing at all? What of our mathematical models of material objects? These are good questions, to which there are, I believe, good Berkeleian replies, according to which mathematics and science are understood as instruments for the dissection of the world of perception. But that discussion will have to wait. Let me just respond now with a Berkeleian question: Which is more certain, that the table is a cloud of atoms and has some independent mathematical shape, or that is it solid, brown, scratched, and smelling faintly of varnished wood?

© Hugh Hunter 2016

Hugh Hunter lives in Ottawa, where he teaches philosophy at the Dominican University College. Please visit jhughhunter.com.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X