Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The Worst Argument in the World Is Stove's Own

David Stove famously rejected idealism as being based on the "worst argument in the world." He said this argument runs as follows:

You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind.
Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.
Now, it is not really that Stove's case against the above is bad. It is that no idealist (that I know of) ever made the above argument. All Stove as demonstrated is that he does not understand Berkeley or idealism.

Here is a version of an actual idealist argument for the interdependence of mind and reality:

The view that objectivity signifies independence of experience because the notion (which it implies) of a world of existence outside experience is self-contradictory. If what is real is what is objective, what is objective must stand for something other than merely what is not subjective -- that which is untouched by consciousness, that from which experience has been withdrawn. For, in the first place, what is objective must, it would appear, be an object, and an object is always an object of consciousness. And secondly, a reality distinguished merely as what is interfered with by experience, must be unknowable and therefor a contradiction. Objectivity, then, if it is to be a characteristic of reality, must imply, and not deny, experience. -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 59

Whether you buy the above or not, it is clearly not the very bad argument Stove sticks in the mouth of idealists. Oakeshott is arguing not epistemology but ontology: he claims it is an intrinsic part of the "objective world" that it is objectively real to us: to consciousness. (And out the window goes the idea that idealists are some sort of "extreme subjectivists" as well.)


  1. Gene,

    I'll be reading this document about Berkeley's Idealism, which I am becoming more and more interested in. But it does seem as though Berkeley was proposing some part of this argument.

    He states in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

    "But, you say, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine trees, for instance, in a park or books existing in a closet and nobody nearby to perceive them... I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of anyone that may perceive them? But do not you yourself perceive or think of them all the while?"

    Ariew, Roger, and Eric Watkins, eds. Modern philosophy: an anthology of primary sources. Hackett Publishing, 2009.

    I'm not trying to start an argument, however! I'm just curious about clarification. I'm finding Idealism promising - especially after the problems that entail dualism - but I'm stuck on some points. Any clarification would be appreciated!


    1. Right: the point is that what Berkeley is showing here is not what Stove thinks he is showing.

    2. In particular, Berkeley's point is that the idea of these things "existing" without any consciousness is an empty abstraction, and not Stove's silly argument.

  2. Oh, and let me recommend Oakeshott's Experience and Its Modes as a great intro to idealism.

  3. Gene,

    Thank you! I have just bought it! Should be here any minute now... I am incredibly excited; Oakeshott sounds brilliant!

  4. Gene,

    While I get ready to read Experience and it's Modes, (I've also ordered Speculum Mentis, and I'm looking into buying stuff from other Idealists once I am done with these two books) I just have one problem;

    Berkeley - and Idealism - seems to suggest that if no one perceives something, it can't exist ("To 'be' is to perceive, or to be perceived"). But surely there are objects that exist such as some table in a storage room that is abandoned and forgotten, or some other substance that isn't necessarily a world, but an object.

    I guess we could say some things about this, such as (1) I am, in my mind, dimly perceiving this table, (2) someone perceived the table at some point, which granted it it's existence, or (3) the table is somewhat aware of something else in a fundamental way.

    (1) seems to have problems, as while I might be dimly aware of some table somewhere that everyone has forgotten about, I am most certainly not aware of the *specific* table that presumably exists. (2) is seems to be a problem as well, as it would appear that something would have to perceive something continuously in order for it to exist. Perhaps God could be the one perceiving this forgotten table. But this poses a problem as well, since it would seem to be the case that we would have invoke God in order to justify Idealism - and this seems like a big pill to swallow. Perhaps a metaphysical theory should point to God. (3) seems most promising, but also poses a problem too; the "table" is certainly not conscious; you can't talk to it, and it wont talk back. I suppose you could say that the atoms in the table are somewhat dimly having an experience, but that would require reductionism - seeing the table as nothing more than just a bunch of atoms. Reductionism seems.... "iffy", though.

    Do you have any thoughts on this? I will be reading Oakeshott tonight, and going through my re-read of Berkeley. The semester is out, and I have a lot of free time to dig into important topics such as this.

    But these questions are the things that trouble me the most about Idealism.

    1. Alex, first of all, realize that there are many varieties of idealism. There is no single answer to your conundrums.

      For Berkeley, the answer to the "unobserved" object problem is that ALL of interpersonal reality is "ideas in the mind of God." I think if you deeply contemplate this notion, you will find it not as off-putting as you might at first think. But other idealists have handled your question differently: this is not a monolithic body of thought! If I wanted to capture the "essence" that unites all idealist philosophers, I would say it is "Consciousness is an essential component of reality."

  5. Gene,

    Thanks a ton. I'll be reading Experience and It's Modes as well as Speculum Mentis. I started 'Experience' today - unbelievable. If Idealism is right, then it might be one of the most profound things that one can discover; the other two being the existence of objective morality, and the final one being the biggest; the existence of an Ultimate Mind; God.

    I'll ponder what you have said. I hope that you don't mind me asking questions from time to time; I'm just a very curious philosophy and psychology major!

  6. Gene,

    Just a quick update here; I am still early into "Experience and It's Modes", but I can see the overlap between Oakeshott and Berkeley, and a lot of their points are really starting to hit home - and the book is taking off. The assertion that we cannot have something 'experienced' without something doing the 'experiencing' is subtle, but profound. I am finding it to be the most astonishing read I have had all year, and if it continues this way, it might be the most astonishing read I have ever had.

    So, people on here (especially dualists); please do yourself a favor and take up Gene's advice on buying 'Experience and It's Modes': I really cannot say how fantastic it is. Oakeshott was absolutely *brilliant*.

  7. Gene, just one quick question, if I may; what is your response to those who say that 'matter comes before the mind', and not the other way around? It seems as though Oakeshott could be saying that 'experience' is broadly enough defined so that even protons and electrons could be said to be 'experiencing' something, but I do not know if this is exactly what he is hinting at. I'm still reading 'Experience and it's Modes'; perhaps Oakeshott addresses this in there.

    Any comments would be appreciated!

    1. Out in the woods typing on a phone, Alex. Will respond in two days when back in civilization. Please prompt me if I forget.

  8. Gene, I saw it; thanks! It did clear some things up! Experience and it's Modes, by the way, is *astonishing*. You know a book on metaphysics is good when you can't stop raving about it to your non-philosophy friends!


Distraction Deterrents in Small Contexts

"distracted from distraction by distraction" - T.S. Eliot I've been reading a little on how Facebook and other social netwo...