Nothing but ideas

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The work of the Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) is often treated as “a museum piece”, writes David Berman, who seeks to rectify the situation in an extraordinary new book. After analysing aspects of seventeenth-century Berkeleianism, Berman “introduces Neo-Berkeley”, his attempt to disinter (and extend) what is “right, at core” in the work. In his time Berkeley was countering the philosophical claim that humans don’t directly perceive material things, only “ideas”: representations of them that they cause in our minds via our sense organs. He contended that ideas are indeed all that individuals perceive – yet they are not caused by physical things (which don’t exist), but, instead, directly by God. As a result, there is no gap between the thing and the idea, and thus no room for the ungodly scepticism he feared this would promote.

Yet Berkeley’s immaterialism opened up other problems. Could his arguments against matter not equally serve against mind? Berman adamantly opposes those such as A. J. Ayer who claim that, logically, if it is only ideas that are experienced, the upshot of Berkeley’s empiricism should be phenomenalism: a reality that lacks minds, composed exclusively of ideas. He also disagrees with more standard interpretations of Berkeley – as a monist who believed that only minds (both human and divine) exist, and that ideas are either their modes (aspects or ingredients) or their activities. Berkeley, Berman insists, was a dualist for whom the world comprised two irreducibly distinct elements – not the mental and the physical (as argued by Descartes), but “active minds and passive objects [ie ideas]”. “The question”, writes Berman, is: “Do I know I am a mind directly or immediately in experience, or indirectly, by inferring it from the objects I perceive or experience and/or produce?”. Given Berkeley’s active/passive division, it is clear that minds and mental acts cannot be objects for the mind to perceive; his frequently mocked solution is that, although we cannot have “ideas” either of our own, or of others’ minds, instead we have “notions” of them. Apparent inconsistencies across his works of this “notion account” are, argues Berman, in fact stages in the development of a striking new theory. Berkeley writes (in his essay “De Motu”) that we know and understand our minds by some “inner consciousness”. Berman suggests that this was his way of expressing the cde” (“core dualistic experience”), which is “somewhere between perceptual knowing and notional knowing”: an awareness of being aware, like Leibniz’s “apperception”, that enables the mind to observe itself, just as “the head of the snake can curl around and be aware of its tail”.

According to Neo-Berkeley, however, not all minds have this capacity. “Berkeley was a strong imager”, and believed that while all humans experience mental images, only some are “dualistic types”; others, “like Hume”, are monistic and do not experience themselves distinct from their other perceptions. Falling somewhere along a spectrum, one’s primary sense of contact with the world may, moreover, be tactile or visual. Whether or not Berkeley himself would agree with all this, Berman’s audacious reinterpretation of his work makes him “a living force again”: perhaps even a doughty contender in current philosophy of mind.

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