Correcting Russell on Berkeley

From a working paper (and a very hard-working one too, I might add):
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Bertrand Russell devotes a chapter of his History of Western Philosophy to Berkeley. After a generally accurate discussion of the role of God in Berkeley’s metaphysics, he claims: “If there were no God, what we take to be material objects would have a jerky life, suddenly leaping into being when we look at them; but as it is, owing to God’s perceptions, trees and rocks and stones have an existence as continuous as common sense supposes.” (1945: 647)
But this is absurd: for Berkeley, without God, there would simply be no “material” objects (or other beings to see their jerky existence, for that matter). What characterizes something for Berkeley as being a part of the physical world is that it has existence not just in a human mind, but in the mind of God: that is what gives it its solidity, its ineleuctable character.
Russell goes on to discuss Berkeley’s “argument against matter” (1945: 648), and, as with so many others, ignores the fact that it is an argument against matter as conceived by Locke et al. Russell continues by attempting to show various fallacies committed by Berkeley. First he takes up the nature of objects of the senses:
‘[Berkeley] says: "That any immediate object of the senses should existing in an unthinking substance, exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction." This is here a fallacy, analogous to the following: "It is impossible for a nephew to exist without an uncle; now Mr. A is a nephew; therefore it is logically necessary for Mr. A to have an uncle." It is, of course, logically necessary given that Mr. A is a nephew, but not from anything to be discovered by analysis of Mr. A.’ (1945: 652)
But what Berkeley is claiming is that “analysis” of objects of the senses does show that they cannot exist in an unthinking substance. He may be wrong about that, but Russell has seriously misunderstood what he is doing to think it is analogous to his nephew example, which is most likely due to the fact that Berkeley’s “analysis” is not recognized as such by Russell, who only would admit logical deduction of analytical truths and induction from empirical regularities as possible sources of knowledge. But, as T.H. Green noted about a different, but similar idealist argument:
"Proof of such a doctrine, in the ordinary sense of the word, from the nature of the case there cannot be. It is not a truth deducible from other established or conceded truths. It is not a statement of an event or matter of fact that can be the subject of experiment or observation. It represents a conception to which no perceivable or imaginable object can possibly correspond, but one that affords the only means by which, reflecting on our moral and intellectual experience conjointly, taking the world and ourselves into account, we can put the whole thing together and understand how... we are and do what we consciously are and do." (1986: 250)
Russell continues:
‘There is a somewhat analogous  fallacy as regards what is conceived. Hylas maintains that he can conceive a house which no one perceives, and which is not in any mind. Philonus retorts that whatever Hylas conceives is in his mind, so that the supposed house is, after all, mental. Hylas should have answered: "I do not mean that I have in mind the image of a house; when I say that I can conceive the house which no one perceives, what I really mean is that I can understand the proposition 'there is a house which no one perceives,' or, better still, 'there is a house which no one either perceives or conceives.'" The proposition is composed entirely of intelligible words, and the words are correctly put together. Whether the proposition is true or false, I do not know; but I am sure that it cannot be shown to be self-contradictory. Some closely similar propositions can be proved. For instance: The number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite, therefore there are some that have never been thought of. Berkeley's argument, if valid, would prove that this is impossible.”
Berkeley would have benefited from the work of later idealists in making his argument more clear here. Of course one can formulate the propositions that Russell formulates without self-contradiction. But they are what later idealists would term "empty abstractions." We can similarly formulate and even manipulate propositions about geometrical shapes lacking any color or texture, about infinitely thin lines extending forever, and points with no magnitude whatsoever. And forming such abstractions may be very useful, but we should never confuse them with concrete reality.
And Berkeley's answer to Russell on the proposition about multiplications ought to have been clear to Russell himself, had he not completely lost track of the mind of God after his initial, brief discussion of it: Berkeley would answer that God's infinite mind certainly has thought of the infinity of possible multiplications of two integers.
In another unwarranted swipe at idealism in general, Russell notes that “G.E. Moore once accused idealists of holding the trains only have wheels while they are in stations, on the ground that passengers cannot see the wheels while they remain in the train.” (1945: 657)
Once again, Russell ignores the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's philosophy, as he does yet again here:
‘Such a statement as "there was a time before life existed on this planet," whether true or false, cannot be condemned on grounds of logic...’ (1945: 657) Nor would Berkeley have tried to do so. Again, if Russell simply recalled what he himself had written only a handful of pages previous about the mind of God, that the possible truth of this statement would not have troubled Berkeley one wit.

Russell concludes by offering his own definition of matter, thinking he is correcting Berkeley: ‘My own definition of "matter" may seem unsatisfactory; I should define it as what satisfies the equations of physics.’ (1945: 658) But Berkeley would not have objected one bit to the idea of matter existing in the sense of there being things which satisfy the laws of physics.

10 comments:

  1. "f course one can formulate the propositions that Russell formulates without self-contradiction. But they are what later idealists would term "empty abstractions. ... And forming such abstractions may be very useful, but we should never confuse them with concrete reality."

    Gene I've asked you this in previous threads as well, but what is the argument for "material objects unperceived by any mind" being a *mere* abstraction?

    I can understand the argument that people formulate propositions like "there is a house unperceived by any mind" by abstraction from concrete experiences. But what is the argument that these are *mere* abstractions, i.e. that they don't have a referent in reality?

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    1. Where is the referent in our concrete experience?

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    2. And on the kind of argument that is used here:

      "We saw reason to hold that the existence of one connected world, which is the presupposition of knowledge, implies the action of one self-conditioning and self-determining mind... Proof of such a doctrine, in the ordinary sense of the word, from the nature of the case there cannot be. It is not a truth deducible from other established or conceded truths. It is not a statement of an event or matter of fact that can be the subject of experiment or observation. It represents a conception to which no perceivable or imaginable object can possibly correspond, but one that affords the only means by which, reflecting on our moral and intellectual experience conjointly, taking the world and ourselves into account, we can put the whole thing together and understand how... we are and do what we consciously are and do." -- T.H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics

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  2. I'm not sure about this (Gene, you are more than welcome to chime in here), but I'm not sure that you can have knowledge of the particular without knowledge of the general. For example, it seems very strange for someone to say "I cannot conceive of [the content or concept] of a house without the mind; when I try, I fail" and then say, "Okay, I grant that; but what about a *particular* house that isn't conceived by any mind...?"

    Knowledge of the general is necessary for knowledge of the particulars; for example, one must have a concept of what a "car" is before one can imagine or question something about a particular car. It likewise seems to be silly to say something to the effect of, "Okay; I grant you that trying to conceive of a house devoid from experience is impossible; but what about a *particular* house that no one conceives?" The first part of the sentence says that general knowledge (or conception) of the thing "house" is impossible without the mind - but then the second part of the sentence contradicts the first by asking the question "what about a particular house that no one perceives?" Russell seems to ignore this with his statement "The number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite, therefore there are some that have never been thought of." This doesn't show that there is something possible that isn't conceived by the mind - for reasons that Gene gave (i.e., the perceiving mind of God, which perceives and knows everything knowable). It seems to show that Russell didn't phrase his question well with respect to his argument that particular things might exist without them being merely abstractions from perception. What he should have asked was, "If no one could conceive of the idea of a 'number', could we then have (and practice) number theory?"

    If he had asked this question, the answer would have probably been apparent to him; "no." Again, knowledge of the particulars relies on knowledge of the general. If you can't conceive of the features of X existing generally, then asking the question "but can I conceive of a particular thing, Y, that is part of X?" seems incoherent to me.

    Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what is going on here, but those are the thoughts of someone who is beginning to study Idealism.

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  3. At the risk of annoying you by appearing to trivialize things:

    Would it be correct to say that what Berkeley calls "the mind of God" and what physicists (and by the sound if it Russell) call "objective reality" are actually pretty much the same thing ? And this thing (whatever we call it) is something that we have had some success in describing in the equations of physics?

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  4. Well, yes, for Berkley it is precisely the mind of God that generates objective reality. And interestingly, people like Galileo, Kepler and Newton often put their work in terms of reading the book in which God wrote the rules of the universe.

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    1. Belated follow up question:

      If someone wanted to define the world of the senses as "subjective reality" and the fundamentally unknowable world described by the equations of physics as "objective reality" would you see this a fundamentally flawed or just a way of saying the same thing as idealists believe but defining the terms differently ?

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    2. That is the disastrous way of looking at things that idealists are fighting against. The world of physics is not objective reality: it is an abstraction.

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    3. If one insists on calling it "objective reality" even while aware that it is unknowable through direct experience and that the equations that describe it are abstract - what disasters will one encounter ?

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  5. It seems as though a lot of folks don't understand how "abstraction" is being used by Idealists. I was certainly one of them. Like most people, I thought "abstract" meant either "in your own mind" or "subjective," and this put it outside of "objective reality" as rob seems to suggest.

    But that can't be so. To exist is to be in objective reality - if something doesn't exist, it isn't a part of reality. Rob, your ideas (and the laws of physics) 'exist' in that they are in reality; if they weren't in reality, just where do you think they could exist...? =)

    The meaning of "abstraction" here is one of dependence; the abstraction depends upon the concrete to exist. Would there be any laws of physics (or a science of physics) if the 'real' world didn't exist...? (No.) This is what Gene means when he says that physics is an abstraction. The first seventy or so pages of Oakeshott's phenomenal (no pun intended) "Experience and It's Modes" fleshes this idea out, Rob, but you really must get it. It is dense, and will require more than one thorough reading to get all of it - but it is powerfully argued. I'm still not sure if I am an idealist - I still have to go through Collingwood, Bradley, Green, and others - but the more I consider it, the more it makes sense, despite how peculiar it sounds to folks.

    Right now, I'm becoming increasingly certain that Idealism is the only way to understand philosophy of mind, and I'm certain that the definition of "abstraction" as "something that exists outside of reality" or "something that exists only in the mind independently of reality" is ridiculous.

    Perhaps this question will get you going, Rob (it seems to be on my mind a lot right now, at least!): if there were two different (or more) substances, our "mind" on one part, and "the world" or "reality" on the other, how would reality be intelligible to the mind? There would seem to have to be some 'mental' characteristics of the mind that is just in reality. By mental, I don't necessarily mean that there is a bunch of "little minds" out there in atoms or whatnot - though you could certainly go there it seems. What I mean is that "reality" has intelligibility because it is intelligible; it has value, order, and structure that we can come to understand because it is intelligible. For something to be intelligible to our minds, it must have something that our minds can wrap themselves around; it must be 'rational', as I believe Hegel insisted. These 'ideas' of value, structure, rationality, etc., don't make sense without the mind - and the mind doesn't make sense without them. This is why idealists (correct me if I am wrong, Gene, on any of this) say that 'reality' is fundamentally mental in nature, and since our minds are a part of this reality, they too must be fundamentally mental in nature as well.

    Of course, there is a difference between "how I know that X" and "what X is"; epistemology and metaphysics. But to totally separate the two - to say that "coming to know of something" is totally unrelated to "what that thing is" must be an absurdity, for it seems to put the objects that your mind is aware of totally outside of your mind's ability to understand them. If value, structure, rationality, and order didn't exist in the real world, then it would be completely unintelligible to us - we wouldn't know anything. But these characteristics - order, structure, intelligibility, and value - are 'mental' or 'mind like' in their nature.

    Whoo! Sorry for the long rambling. Rob, you really, really *must* get "Experience and It's Modes". Going through it a second time, I am surprised at just how damned brilliant it is.

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