Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I tackle philosophers I find inspiring, interesting, intriguing, and occasionally, incomprehensible and even infuriating. These entries are not meant to be in any way comprehensive or reflective of the general opinion held by the scholarly community. This will be the last Philosopher Fridays entry for a little while, as I’ll be shifting my focus to building up The Philosopher’s Lexicon in the next few weeks.
BERKELEY: George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, was an early modern philosopher, born in Ireland 1685 and died in Oxford in 1753. While he wrote widely, covering everything from apologetics to medicine, he is undoubtedly most famous for his defense of what is known as empirical idealism, subjective idealism, or immaterialism, depending on who you ask. He took the central tenet of empiricism – simply put, that “seeing is believing” – to it’s furthest conclusion, arguing that sensing objects isn’t merely epistemology important, but ontologically constitutive. To put it even more succinctly, he argued that an object could not exist unless it was being actively perceived.
In modern parlance, the words “empiricism” and “apologetics” are not often found in such close proximity, but in early modern philosophy, it was not so unusual. Empiricism, in its purest form, is the notion that the only things which can be known – and thus, justified – are things which can be perceived by the senses. If this is the case, argued Berkeley, then there is no reason to believe that there is a true objective existence outside of our experience.
What we’re left with is pure subjectivity. To the spider, the water bottle appears undoubtedly large, but to us, it seems relatively small. To our view from a position adjacent to the table, it appears to have only two legs, and it is not until we change positions that we are able to verify that there is another pair of legs on the other side, during which time we might lose sight of the original pair.
Without immediate verification of an object, for the pure (or naive) empiricist like Berkeley, there is no way to say with any certainty that the object exists. Even if we have seen the object before, the moment we turn our backs we no longer have the justification of our perception. All we have available to us, then, is the image in front of our eyes, or the idea of the object we construct in our minds in the object’s absence. With this in mind, Berkeley’s empiricism becomes a doctrine of immaterialism, as there is no way to guarantee that any material object exists independent of a mind immediately perceiving it. The mind becomes the locus of reality, and our perception is more than just a way for us to know the object – perception is constitutive. Thus, “the world consists of nothing but minds and ideas”. Berkeley didn’t just think that something must be perceived in order to be known; he thought that a thing must be perceived in order to be.
All we can have assurance of is the idea of the object, which we can call to mind at any time, rendering his vision of empiricism utterly idealist in nature. But this kind of empirical idealism comes with a built-in problem: if all we can know are the ideas of objects in our own minds, how can we share experiences, or explain object permanence? How can things continue to exist in understandable and predicable ways (as in ideas), even if we are not there to perceive them? Why wouldn’t everything just be randomly constituted as we perceived things in utterly solipsistic ways? Or rather: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Of course, if there truly was no one around to hear the tree fall, then there’s no way to say that there was a tree in the first place, far from it making any sound. The answer, for Berkeley, is simple. If there was someone there to perceive the tree, that someone would also necessarily perceive the sound. And here comes his apologetics: the fact that we have shared experiences and object permanence is evidence that there is always someone perceiving all things that exist, and that there must be an immortal, all-perceiving being grounding our existence for us.
Which brings me to the main reason I’ve decided to devote a week to Berkeley; I give you his answer to the question of the tree, in the form of a limerick:
God in the Quad
There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”
I thought this would be a nice way to continue the St. Patrick’s Day celebration just a bit longer. Even the most critiqued and rejected philosophy can be delightful if rendered in the form of a limerick, don’t you think?