Correcting Russell on Berkeley
From a working paper (and a very hard-working one too, I might add):
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)
‘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.