October 21, 2007

How this way of overcoming skepticism could leave us with anything as object of knowledge

Review - The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley by Kenneth P. Winkler Cambridge University Press, 2005
Review by Gabriele M. Mras, Ph.D. Oct 9th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 41)
The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley, edited by Kenneth Winkler, is an impressive collection of twelve articles about a philosopher whose work has all too often been regarded as resting on some basic confusions or even being plainly unintelligible. The peculiarity of Berkeley's "subjective idealism" makes it indeed hard to understand how this way of overcoming skepticism could leave us with anything as object of knowledge. That, in addition to Berkeley's conviction that that realism had to be given up, and so that all we ever perceive are ideas, that matter is mind dependent, and that there are no causal relations, represents a challenge to anybody seeking to expound Berkeley's views. One of the aims of this Cambridge Companion therefore, is to make understandable how common sense and the doctrine "esse est (aut) percipi" could be thought to go together. A further aim is to place Berkeley in the philosophical as well as the scientific contexts of the times in which he developed his philosophical theories.
These goals and the more general goals of the whole series as a whole are amply fulfilled. In the centre of this Companion (chapter 2 to chapter 7) there is an illuminating study of Berkeley's relationship to empiricism and rationalism (Chapter 2). two interesting essays about his theory of vision, and his account of "signs" (Chapter 4 and 5), an assessment of the "master argument" for immaterialism (Chapter 6), a brief account of what Berkeley held to be true of that which perceives (Chapter 7), as well as an informative outline and discussion of Berkeley's early views about, among other things, "extension", "substance", vision, and the distinction between primary and secondary qualities (Chapter 3).
These six essays taken altogether are not only worth studying because they give a good picture of Berkeley's relationship to "modern philosophy" -- by Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Malebranche -- whose account of our relationship to material objects he was so strongly opposed to. What they manage to bring any reader to appreciate is that Berkeley's views about vision, language, and thought in general have their source in philosophical puzzles that arose from 17th century empiricism but still are present in our current philosophical thinking. Michael Ayers in "Was Berkeley an empiricist or rationalist?" traces the philosophical problems 17th century and early 18th century philosophers faced and Berkeley's relationship to empiricist views about the sources of all knowledge. Berkeley's turn to immaterialism is illuminatingly explored by Ayers as a decision to break down the connection between empiricism and materialism in order to account for the explanatory function of experience which on his view was the only way to secure common sense. Kenneth Winkler in "Berkeley and the doctrine of signs", as Ayers before, traces the crucial role the criticism of "abstract ideas" plays for Berkeley's own understanding of what could count as objects of our thoughts. The representational picture of the mind takes "ideas" as that which enable thought to be about something. Berkeley's insight that neither by resemblance nor by the postulation of a causal dependency can "ideas" be said to be about material objects led him to an account of vision and language that is radically different from is radically different from Locke's theory of ideas, though indebted to it.
Berkeley's account of how our beliefs are about objects like "houses, mountains, rivers" is the main topic of Winkler's essay in which he offers an interpretation of Berkeley's account of language. He thereby suggests understanding Berkeley's concern with questions about generality of thought have led him to the assumption of "natural signs" instead of role "abstract ideas" which cannot fulfill that explanatory role. Whereas Winkler investigates the further metaphysical implications of taking "natural signs" as objects of conventional linguistic expressions, Margaret Atherton in "Berkeley's theory of vision and its reception" stresses the significance for his theory of vision of Berkeley's criticism of abstract ideas - their incapacity to account for the combination of different kinds of sensations. Both authors explore the dependence of Berkeley's theory of vision on his theory of signs. All these authors, as well as A.C. Grayling in his "Berkeley's argument for immaterialism", are far from defending the view that Berkeley's repudiation of abstract ideas implies metaphysical claims about what there is in the external world. It is thereby made clear that Berkeley's understanding of "ideas", and his distinction between two kinds of signs are seen as decisive steps in Berkeley's "core argument" for immaterialism but only in conjunction with further assumptions involving his views of "existence", "substance" and ultimately his religious convictions and objectives. All this shows is that Berkeley broad philosophical work should neither be reduced to one premise in his "argument" for immaterialism, nor should the premise itself -- "what we perceive are only ideas" -- be viewed as simple confusion between what is represented and the representing of it.
This Cambridge Companion deals, too, with a lot of issues that were of great of importance to Berkeley, such as moral and political questions, but also questions about the basis of scientific explanation. There is one essay that focuses on Berkeley's engagement with scientific questions in general in "Berkeley's natural philosophy and philosophy of science" (Lisa Downing, Chapter 8), a careful discussion of Berkeley's extensive criticism of Newton's and Leibniz' infinitesimal calculus in "Berkeley's philosophy of mathematics" (Douglas M. Jesseph, Chapter 9), and one essay "Berkeley's economic writings" by Patrick Kelly (Chapter 11). Stephen Darwall in "Berkeley's moral and political philosophy" and Stephen R.L. Clark in "Berkeley on religion" discuss the significance of Berkeley's defense of immaterialism for questions in moral philosophy and religion (chapter 10 and chapter 12). At the very beginning there is an interesting and quite balanced account of Berkeley's personality and life by David Berman "Berkeley's life and works", showing him as philosopher that was engaged with a variety of much diverse projects.
The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley is an excellent volume, covering a wide range of topics -- from metaphysical, epistemological and ethical issues to his philosophy of mathematics and natural science, as for sure his deep concern for religious matters. It will be helpful to students and of great interest to Berkeley scholars. © 2007 Gabriele M. Mras
Gabriele M. Mras, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Vienna, Philosophy Division, Vienna University of Economics

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