why berkeley is a skeptic: an experiment in poetically bracketed prose

preliminary poetic profundity

(with apologies to Ronald Knox)

there was an old don who said, God
would think it exceedingly odd
  if his thought of this tree
  were the thought given me
when i'm strolling about in the quad!

Berkeley, like Decartes before him, is greatly concerned with skepticism. he sees the chief virtue of such writings as his principles to lie in their ability to banish skeptical arguments, so that thinkers can get on with more important things. Berkeley clearly thought that he had written the last word. (this point is excellently made by Kenneth Winkler in the conclusion of his introductory essay, printed in the front of the Hackett edition of the principles.)

but also, like Descartes before him, Berkeley failed to accomplish his goal, and instead provided great ammunition to skeptics everywhere. just as Descartes would probably see Berkeley as an irremedial skeptic, Berkeley would see Hume as an irremedial skeptic. and, again like Descartes, Berkeley has developed himself all the tools necessary to demolish his own system.

in this paper, my aim shall be to focus specfically on Berkeley's notion of skepticism and his belief that his system is immune to the skeptical attacks that plague materialists. i will conclude with an explicaton of a skeptical attack on Berkeley which exactly parallels the attack Berkeley find skeptics can make against materialist systems of whatever sort.

first, we must be more precise about the meaning of the word skepticism. an initial guess will take it to mean there is nothing that we can know. but this position is not seriously held (at least, not by skeptics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), for surely we at least know our own mental states in some (perhaps muddled) fashion. a second potential definition is there are things which are utterly unknowable. but this possibility is oxymoronic, for if something is utterly unknown, then we cannot know its existence, so nobody could seriously claim to be such a skeptic. a slight modification yields a more agnostic version, then: there might be things which are utterly unknown. but this is also no help, for now the possibility of existence is being attributed to putatively utterly unknowable things.

having excluded all other possibilities, we will take the following definition: a skeptic believes that there are things which we can have only partial knowledge of. to be a skeptic, then, is to admit to partial knowledge about a thing, and claim that perfect knowledge is in principle unattainable.

at this point, i would like to address in passing that Berkeley offers a reason for defeating skepticism which is somewhat different from Descartes' to establish [something] firm and lasting in the sciences. rather than excluding doubt from knowledge, Berkeley seems to have a more limited goal, found in section 88 of the principles. he tells us that doubt...makes philosophy ridiculous in the eyes of the world. this because philosophers distrust their senses and doubt of the existence of heaven and earth, of everythnig they see or feel, even of their own bodies.

Berkeley's analysis of the relationship between skeptical attacks and materialism is found centrally in section 87. he believes that skepticism follows, from our supposing a difference between things and ideas. the materialist supposes that there is a difference between our ideas and things as they really are, and this causes the problem. the materialist is always open to the skeptical attack that our ideas might have no genuine relationship to things as they really are.

Berkeley offers two slightly different, but connected, mechanisms for defeating this possibility. first, he proposes that a tree has no reality apart from our idea of the tree. we can have no doubt then that our idea matches the reality of the tree. second, he redefines such terms as real, exist, and thing in such a way that most of our sentences using them remain true, but now refer to his idealistic system; in this way our sentences about reality, existence, and things are not only preserved intact, but stood about with a bulwark against skepticism.

there are several advantages to Berkeley's strategy. he is correct that (with respect to matter) a skeptic cannot gain a foothold. as far as he goes, he has satisfactorily ended debate about whether our ideas match an external material reality. in his discussion of newtonian mechanics, for example, he is able to accurately predict several flaws in the original newtonian model, which would come to be universally recognized as such in the nineteenth century. (see the discussion of relative motion in sections 112 to 116 of the principles, for example.) he is only able to do this because of his clearheadedness that absolute existence is a meaningless notion.

and, as must be important to his analytic heirs in britain, his ability to retain ordinary language (after suitable translation) is strikingly good. his definition of real, for example, allws him to identify all the same sorts of things as real as the materialist might: dogs, clouds, trees, and an occasional miracle, but not dreams, drug-induced hallucinations, or mental images generated while reading fictional novels. in this way a philosopher such as Berkeley can avoid looking ridiculous in the eyes of the world—for he is able to affirm the existence of heaven and earth, of everything [we] see or feel, even [our] own bodios.

two preliminary flaws must be noted before i can address the skeptical argument Berkeley inadvertently offers against himself. first, Berkeley's attitude towards spirits is susceptible to exactly the same kind of skeptical attack as the materialist's towards matter. we find the same studied ignorance about how exactly it is that our knowledge derives from the thing, the same possibility that we can know precious little about other spirits than our own. (this becomes most glaringly obvious when he tells us that God is known as certainly and immediately as any mind or spirit whatsoever, distinct from ourselves (section 147). shame, shame! he has never told us any good reason to think that we do know any mind or spirit distinct from ourselves!)

second, is this kind of redefinition really acceptable? Berkeley seems to be saying the skeptics are right—there is really nothing outside our (and God's) minds and then coddling with a soothing coo, but don't worry, you can still call trees real if you like. the relationship of language (particularly philosophical terms) to the essence of our ideas about the subjects we are describing is a murky and unclear realm. it is, at least at first blush, not quite reasonable for Berkeley to redefine terms such as these and then say nothing has really changed. he needs to lay some more analytic and linguisic groundwork first.

but it is still possible to force skeptical attacks on Berkeley even if we permit him his game of relabeling and redefining. for each thing (section 90 grants us the use of this term) we will call the thing in itself the idea God has of it. we will agree with Berkeley that such a thing exists only insofar as it is perceived by God, but this will be an unimportant point. it is sufficient to note that God has a larger view of any such thing than any human can, and that God's view includes within it all the perceptions of other (finite) spirits.

(the error of Berkeley that gives rise to my present argument is found in section 90 where he notes that things cannot subsist without [that is, outside] the minds which perceive them. he is correct in saying that they are [not] resemblances of any archetypes existeng without the mind: since the very being of a sensation or idea consists in being perceived. but God's perception differs from ours—and in fact, our sense ideas must resemble archetypes existing in God's mind in order for God to put them in our minds at all. the fact that a thing cannot exist outside a mind, does not mean that it has no external origin; merely that the external origin must itself be spirit.)

what relation does our idea of the thing have to God's idea of the thing? it is a partial and incomplete knowledge of the thing. as Berkeley grants in section 62 there is a great deal of fine detail in nature which is not ordinarily visible to our minds. a human being without a microscope would be unable to view some of this detail. it is not impossible to imagine human beings with no ability to make microscopes—for them, the level of detail in the thing is permanently not visible. they can have no ideas of this hidden detail. this is no immediate obstacle, for Berkeley defends in sections 65 and 66 the excellent reply that these hidden (but potentially visible) effects are necessary to the presence of rule and artful contrivance in the laws of nature.

but note that some sorts of such lack of knowledge are not merely accidental, but in fact necessary. God's idea of the thing includes an infinite number of vantage points and unrealized hypothetical possibilities, all perceived simultaneously. this is in principle beyond our human ability to perceive. moreover, it is an essential consequence of the multiplicity of spirits, some of which are finite. again, however, i do not think it is possible to build a substantive objection in the manner of the eleventh objection (sections 60 through 66) along this road. but see where it does lead us:

Berkeley is forced to admit a distinction between the thing in itself (as it exists in God's mind) and the thing as it exists in our mind. i submit that, in fact, this skeptical attack is the very one that Berkeley thinks he has refuted. the root of skepticism for Berkeley is an imagined difference between things and ideas; he has merely substituted a difference between things as God knows them and things as we know them—between our ideas and God's.

now, to the materialist skeptic, the issue is whether our ideas of things bear any relation to the things as they exist materially. our new idealistic skepticism has an exactly parallel question: do our ideas bear any relation to God's ideas of the thing? what answer can Berkeley provide? he gives none in the principles, but it's easy to guess: God would never deceive us, he would say. and we already know why that's a problematic defense! but even if we grant such a defense, Berkeley is hardly relieved of our assault. for he is still forced to admit that God might see a thing in ways which are simply not possible for mortals to see.

all is not lost for our idealistic young friend. the materialistic skepticism our ideas cannot be known to resemble material archetypes is defeated by denying material archetypes. just so, our idealistic skepticism is defeated by denying any divine archetypes. Hume will be pleased to provide just such an argument. it is difficult, however, to see in what sense Hume could claim not to be a skeptic without blushing beet red. the project to defeat skepticism seems doomed to fail, for it appears we will always be able to identiy sorts of knowledge that are unattainable for finite humans.

concluding unprosaic postscript

i said i'd write in verse of iambs five&mdash
how Berkeley's stab doth work and fail
(the both at once). and yet to think of how
to say all that i might to give a full
and humble answer to the question posed
and yet to fill not more than only five
and not exceed a length of thirty-three
(the count of lines a standard page will hold)
at this i pale and blanch—i cannot see
for i would write a verse of epic length
on skeptics, God, ideas and matter all.
and then, i fear, i would be asked, of which
five pages should i grade, for fifty is
too much?
and then i'd find that i cannot
make poems short as prose on topics deep.
and now i fear that i have dashed the hope
you might have had to read a poem fine
instead of just another paper full
of this my prose, so drab and dreary, thus
i offer this a final plea to you.
as once the bard said in the mouth of puck—
(in lines of four, not five as i prefer—
though who am i to quibble with a man
whose reputation is so long and grand?)
and so without a further pause i ask:

gentles, do not reprehend.
if you pardon, we will mend.
and as i am an honest puck,
if we have unearned luck
now to 'scape the serpent's tongue
we will make amends ere long,
else the puck a liar call.
so good night unto you all.

things i wrote for my b.a.