Monday, April 5, 2010

Modern Philosophy 11

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about Berkeley's Treatise . The following is my submission:

Berkley’s purpose for writing Treatise was to refute skepticism and demonstrate the immateriality of God and immortality of the soul. To these ends, Berkeley, who observed valid deduction from true first principles should always yield consistency, purposed to examine how various beliefs about first principles like logic and metaphysics can lead to error.

One mistaken belief pertains to the notion of abstract ideas. Berkeley argued that Locke did not extend the scope of the impossibility to abstract far enough when he wrote that brutes cannot, for men too, said Berkeley, are unable to abstract: abstraction requires perception of particulars, particulars which, upon reflection, have unique predicates. To ignore these predicates, which one must necessarily do when abstracting from particulars, may lead to unforeseen difficulties such as relativity, arbitrariness, or abstracting from infinite particulars. An example which represents many of these difficulties is numbers: numbers can represent arbitrarily derived, relatively used measurements (for instance, feet and inches) and are also relevant to the concept of infinity. One can only think about and communicate the particulars (or amalgamations of particulars) which one has perceived, perhaps for the purpose of disposing oneself to a certain frame of mind.

The origin of ideas is another point on which Berkeley believed one may easily stumble. Sensation, substance, and reflection are the only means of conceptualization. But while Locke was concerned with one end of the epistemological spectrum – those who deny to necessity of the senses – Berkeley seemed to focus his polemical attention on materialism. God is one example of an immaterial substance who is discerned by recognizing nature is orderly and harmonious. Obviously, to recognize such implies perception, which Berkeley defined as an essential property – along with the will – of a spirit or mind. Furthermore, Berkeley noted that what one senses is not necessarily corporeal. He reasoned that one cannot observe an external object without perceiving it, and to suggest that one’s perception of an external object implies corporeality begs the very point in question. We could suppose an immaterial being (like God) could affect our senses. What knowledge we gain, then, is of our senses, not the object of sensation per se. This is perhaps better understood when one recognizes that what Locke called primary qualities – qualities which are allegedly not dependent upon perception – cannot be known to exist apart from perception. Primary qualities, then, are indistinct from secondary qualities: shape, extension, &c. can be distorted or relative to distance or medium of perception just as color.

Berkeley’s Treatise seems to be a sounder, if less common, variant of empiricism. However, while Berkeley resolved some tension amongst Locke’s beliefs, Berkeley left several fundamental, epistemological questions unanswered, such as an explanation for the way in which a sensation causes a perception. The way in which Berkeley uses sensation against materialism is difficult to understand; if Berkeley means to suggest that an intelligent being can possibly cause us to “sense” apart from physical external bodies, what does he mean? The only rational interpretation in light of his argument against materialism seems to be that it is unreasonable to suppose an immaterial, intelligent being cannot use external bodies as occasional causes to produce sensation. The subjectivity of sensation and human fallibility are, in any case, points which imply needed access to a source which is unconditioned and omniscient, something which Berkeley does not address.

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