Thursday, September 25, 2014

Responding to Stove's critique of Berkeley

Another excerpt from my forthcoming paper:


David Stove, in his essay “Idealism: a Victorian Horror Story (Part One),” begins by at least granting Berkeley his historical context, as we saw Hegel also did:
Berkeley is one of those philosophers who are always arguing, and he gave a number of arguments for abridging the Cartesian world-view to the exclusive benefit of its mental half.  Once he had done it, everyone could see, even if they had not seen before, that Cartesianism had begged for an idealist abridgement, and that it had got it from Berkeley. (1991: 102)
But what he gives with one hand he immediately takes away with the other: “There was only one catch; but it was a rather serious one.  This was that no one could believe the world-view to which those arguments of Berkeley led.” (1991: 102) Stove is certainly correct here in so far as his depiction of Berkeley’s world-view strains credulity, as it is as follows:
You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of Berkeley’s philosophy, without contracting at least some tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or “phenomenal kangaroos.”  But on the contrary, all sane use of language requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we speak.  Berkeley would persuade us that we lose nothing, and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose everything.  Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for murderers.  At least a suspected murderer may happen to be also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be also a kangaroo. (1991: 110)
Once again, we find Berkeley’s case being badly misconstrued, in this instance in order to make it appear crazy. Berkeley certainly does not want us to “give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos.” In fact, the very view he is criticizing is the Lockean one that drives a wedge between the real world and the phenomenal world, that, indeed, creates the idea that there is a phenomenal world separate from the real world in the first place. Berkeley is insisting that the kangaroos you see in front of you are not “phenomenal kangaroos” at all: no, the kangaroos you are perceiving are the real thing. For Berkeley, we directly perceive reality, and we can do so because reality is a world of ideas. It is by first adopting a view that idealists reject, that ideas are “just in our heads,” and then reading idealist metaphysics through this anti-idealist filter, that misunderstandings like Stove’s are generated.
Stove goes on to attribute more denials of reality to Berkeley: “...his idealism... denies the existence of human beings.  Indeed, there are no land-mammals at all in Berkeley’s world.  In fact there is not even any land” (1991: 111). Again, it is only necessary to point out that it is the very reality of all of these things that Berkeley set out to assert to see that Stove has seriously misinterpreted him.
To Stowe’s credit, he does avoid one frequent error committed by Berkeley’s critics:
People think, that is, that Berkeley maintained a causal dependence of physical objects on perception: that things go in and out of existence, depending on whether or not we are perceiving them… [this view] is certainly not Berkeley… The benevolence and steadiness of the Divine Will, and nothing else, ensure that the ideas produced in the various finite spirits are, on the whole, in harmony with one another. (1991: 108)
But as before, having gotten that much right, Stove immediately goes very wrong, claiming that it follows that “there are no physical objects Berkeley’s world” (1991: 109). Once again, we must point out that Berkeley never denies the existence of the physical world of common sense: the wall you see in front of you is really there in the exact way common sense thinks it is, as a solid, say red, flat surface, which, if you try to run through it, you will fail and be hurt in the process. As Laird put it, “[Berkeley] gloried in being a realist because he affirmed and proved the full reality of what any sane man regards as real, just as he regards it before he allows himself to become debauched with learning” (1916: 309). What Berkeley is doing is trying to get at the source of why the common sense world is the way it is, and his answer is, “Because God wills it.” One may not like that answer, but it is far from the nonsense Stove attributes to Berkeley: there certainly are physical objects in Berkeley’s world, just as God willed there to be.
In part two of the “Horror Story” essay, Stove accuses Berkeley of having reached a contingent conclusion from a tautological premise. As he puts it, one of Berkeley’s central arguments for idealism, which he calls “the Gem,” runs: “You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.” (1991: 139) This is basically a rehash of Russell’s critique, discussed above, of this contention of Berkeley’s, and it is flawed in a similar way, but let us address this particular formulation of it: Stove had to add a step to Berkeley's argument to make it appear so bad: “without having them in mind.” The actual argument is that you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, period. What Berkeley is noting in the passage Stove cites is that when you attempt to have trees-without-the-mind in mind, you fail. And that failure is inevitable. “Trees-without-the-mind” is a mere abstraction, and to mistake mere abstractions for things that actually exist is what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."


  1. Gene, can I get a definition from you of the word abstraction, as you're using it? Perhaps that may help me understand what you're saying better.

  2. So, the idea that has the world of mind separated from the world of experience can be traced back to John Locke? I thought it went back to Descartes.

    1. See the next post: Collingwood says it is already there in Galileo. By Locke is Berkeley's immediate predecessor in expressing it.


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