Berkeley… Here We Go Again!

Well, what is summer for except for dabbling in the writings of “Enlightenment Thinkers?” I enjoy this particularly because it is kind of like investigating a crime scene…”Who Killed Liberal education?”

For the past several years I have been heaping blame on Sir Francis Bacon, and I think this accusation sticks fairly well. He was pretty bad!

Given that we live in a time where enlightenment philosophy appears to be the atmosphere we breathe (e.g. “knowledge is power,” “Ideas don’t matter” “Aristotle held back the progress of science for almost two thousand years”,  “Philosophy is a waste of time”) it is probably a good thing for us think about the origin of these ideas and the people involved with them. Might as well know why we all think the way we do… eh?

After having discussed Locke’s apparent denial of the universal  (about which there has been a spirited debate over in the “combox”)

I thought I would refresh myself with Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) who appears on the intellectual scene at the end of Lock’s career. Although he seems to disagree with Locke (I think he maintains that Locke didn’t go far enough in denying the existence of universals…he really should have denied the existence of the very things from which universals are purportedly abstracted….but don’t quote me.)

But take a look at this little paragraph where Berkeley appears to manifest how much of a disciple of Locke he really is.

Whether others have this wonderful faculty of ABSTRACTING THEIR IDEAS, they best can tell: for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself, the ideas of those particular things I have perceived, and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper parts of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Likewise the idea of man that I frame to myself must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever. (A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge)

I think it is noteworthy that Berkeley mentions the “imagination” with regard to abstraction. As Werner Heisenberg points out somewhere (and I am still looking for this text!) when we imagine things we can’t help but to make the things that we imagine “actual.”

And so we might point out that the power of abstraction (which is sort of important when it comes to hatching “ideas”) is something different from the power of imagination.

Don’t get me wrong here…I think the imagination is great…but no wonder St. Thomas identifies the imagination as a chief source of error.

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
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One Response to Berkeley… Here We Go Again!

  1. Samster says:

    Berkeley’s method here seems to be like a “thought experiment” – “Try to think of a concept without it having particular characteristics (shape, size, color, etc.). Since it is impossible to do this, what we call ‘concepts’ must be nothing more that our phantasms. Q.E.D.!”

    Berkeley is describing the fact that imagining always goes along with any ideas that we have, which Aristotle never denied. But to conclude that concepts are nothing more than our phantasms is circular reasoning. It assumes that whatever we have in our heads we can experience and analyze directly, like a sense impression. But this is precisely what Berkeley is trying to prove.

    He writes: “And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving.” The key term here is “distinct.” I would agree with him had he said that, as a point of fact, it is “impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion apart from the image of the body moving.” But he somehow jumps from this notion, which I think everyone experiences, to the assertion that the image is really not distinct from the concept. To say that the image is (de facto) inseparable from the concept is very different from saying it is not distinct from (i.e. the same as) the concept. The first experience is readily admitted; the second assertion is unfounded.

    It may be impossible for him to distinguish images from concepts, but not for the many millions of people who have never given it a second thought. It never occurred to me that my ideas were reducible to my imagination until I read Berkeley.

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