George Berkeley | 4. Immaterialism and Perception


George Berkeley
 (1685 –1753)

Immaterialism and Perception | Part 4

1. Arguments for Immaterialism

The arguments now to be considered are set out in the Principles and in the Three Dialogues:

They are largely concerned with what Berkeley called “ideas,” “ideas or sensations,” “sensible things,” or “sensible qualities.”

The very use of the word idea itself and, even more, its use in apposition with sensation had the purpose of indicating something that does not exist apart from the perception of it.

Pains and itches are typical sensations, and no one supposes that they could exist apart from a subject that experiences them. Rocks do not suffer, and water does not itch.

When, therefore, sensible things such as colours, sounds, tangible shapes, tastes, and smells are called ideas, they are assimilated with sensations and hence relate to the perceiving beings that have them.

It is now necessary, therefore, to examine the arguments with which Berkeley justified this.

2. 17th Century Materialism

Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism can be understood only if we first consider the sort of view it was intended to refute.

When Berkeley was forming his views,

the natural sciences had been so far advanced by the work of such men as Galileo Galilei, Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, and Newton as to have given rise to a scientific view of the world.

Such a view had been elaborated, in its philosophical aspects, by Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690):

Space and time were, so to say, the containers within which material things were situated.

The movements and relations of material things could be explored by experiments and characterized in mathematical formulae.

1) Explanation in terms of particles in motion.

The features of the world, thus revealed as fundamental, were those of place, shape, size, movement, weight, and the like; and it was in terms of these that heat and cold and colour and sound found their explanation.

Heat was thought to be due to the rapid movement of atomic particles,
colour to the transmission of particles or to the spreading of waves, and
sound to the movement of the air between the emitting object and the ear.

Whereas solid, shaped, moving objects, and the air and space within which they existed, were regarded as basic features of nature,

the colours we see, the heat we feel, and the sounds we hear were held to be the effects that substances possessing only the basic characteristics produced in creatures with sense organs.

If all creatures with sense organs and consciousness were removed from the world, there would no longer be any experienced sounds, but only pulsations in the air;

particles would increase or decrease their speed of movement, but no one would feel hot or cold; light would be radiated, but there would be no colours as we know them.

In such a world colours and sounds, heat and cold, would exist, as Boyle put it, in his Origins of Forms and Qualities (Oxford, 1666), only “dispositively, ”

that is, those primary things would be there that would have given rise to the secondary ones if creatures with the requisite sense organs and minds had been there too.

2. Primary and secondary qualities.

In this way a distinction was made between the primary qualities of things, which are essential and absolute,

and their secondary qualities, which are those among the primary ones that give or would give rise to heard sounds, seen colours, and felt heat.

It was an important element of this view that nothing could be perceived unless it acted upon the sense organs of the percipient and produced in his mind an idea.

What was immediately perceived was not the external object but an idea representative of it.

Locke had made people familiar with this theory,

and had maintained that whereas the ideas we have of heat and cold and of colour and sound correspond to nothing like themselves in the external world;

for all that exists in the external world are solid bodies at rest or in movement,

the ideas we have of the solid, shaped, moving bodies, that is, our ideas of primary qualities are like their sources or archetypes outside us.

According to the view, then, that Berkeley was considering, material objects are perceived mediately or indirectly by means of ideas,

some of which, the ideas of primary qualities, are like their originals;

others, the ideas of secondary qualities, are relative to percipients and are unlike anything that exists in the external world.

3. Materialism Leads to Scepticism

Berkeley had 2 objections to the view that material objects are perceived mediately by means of ideas:

1) One is that since it is held that we never perceive material things directly, but only through the medium of ideas,

then we can never know whether any of our ideas are like the qualities of material substances since we can never compare our ideas with them; for to do so we should require direct or immediate acquaintance with them (Principles, §18).

Indeed, if we accept Locke’s position, then the very existence of material substances is in doubt, and we are constantly under the threat of scepticism (Principles, §86).

Thus Berkeley argued that Locke’s theory was in fact, although not by intention, sceptical, and that it could be remedied only by the elimination of material substances that could never be directly apprehended.

4. Distinction between Primary and Secondary Qualities Untenable

2) Berkeley’s second objection is that there can be no distinction between ideas of primary qualities and ideas of secondary qualities such as to make secondary qualities relative to the mind in a way in which primary qualities are not.

In the Three Dialogues Berkeley elaborated the arguments, already used by Locke, to show that the ideas we have of secondary qualities are relative to the percipient and are what they are by reason of his condition and constitution.

- Things have no colour in the dark;

- the same water can feel hot or cold to different hands, one of which has been in cold water and the other in hot;

- heat and cold are inseparably bound up with pain and pleasure, which can only exist in perceiving beings; and so on.

But Berkeley then went on to argue that

just as heat, for example, is inseparably bound up with pleasure and pain, and can therefore, no more than they can, exist “without the mind, ”

so extension is bound up with colour, speed of movement with a standard of estimation, solidity with touch, and size and shape with position and point of view (Principles, §§10–15).

Thus Berkeley’s argument is that nothing can have the primary qualities without having the secondary qualities, so that if the latter cannot exist “without the mind, ” the former cannot so exist either.

5. All Sensible Qualities Must Be Either Perceived Or Perceptible

The preceding argument, however, is only a hypothetical one to the effect that if secondary qualities cannot exist “without the mind,” primary qualities are in like case.

What must now be considered are the reasons for holding that secondary qualities and, indeed, all sensible qualities can exist only in the mind so that their being is to be perceived.

Berkeley, as already indicated, stated and elaborated well-known arguments to show that heat and cold, tastes, sounds, and the rest are relative to the percipient.

Perhaps the most persuasive of these are those that purport to establish an indissoluble connection between heat, taste, and smell on the one hand, and pain or pleasure or displeasure on the other.

Since no one denies that pain and pleasure can exist only if felt, then this applies to heat so intense as to be painful and to lesser degrees of heat as well.

But in the Principles, his systematic treatise on the subject, Berkeley did not make use of these arguments, but said that

“an intuitive knowledge may be obtained of this, by any one that shall attend to what is meant by the term exist when applied to sensible things” (§3).

His view here is that “sensible things” are by their very nature perceived or perceivable.

He supported this by asserting that

- to say there was an odour is to say that it was smelled,
- to say that there was a sound is to say that it was heard,
- to say that there was a colour or shape is to say that it was seen or touched.

According to Berkeley, unsmelled odours, sounds unheard, colours unseen, and shapes unseen or untouched are absurdities or impossibilities;

brown leaves could not rustle on a withered tree in a world where life was extinct and God was dead. The very notion is absurd or impossible.

Can more light be shed on the matter than is provided by the assertion that we have “intuitive knowledge” of it?

It must be remembered, in the first place, that Berkeley was contrasting the sounds we hear, for example, with the movements in the air, which men of science sometimes call sounds. Sounds in the latter sense, he said, “may possibly be seen or felt, but never heard” (Three Dialogues, 1).

From this it may be seen that Berkeley looked upon sensible qualities as each the object of its own mode of perception, so that sounds are heard but not seen or touched, colours seen but not heard, heat felt but not seen, and so on.

Hence colours require a viewer, sounds a hearer, and heat someone who feels it; and this is one reason why the being of sensible things is held to be their being perceived.

The various modalities of sense are distinguished from one another by the mode of perception peculiar to each one, and in making these distinctions it is implied that perception is essential to them all.

It is well known, of course, that Berkeley’s critics accuse him of failing to distinguish between the object perceived and the perceiving of it:

The perceiving of it, they say, can only be an act of a percipient without whom it could not exist,

but the perceived object, whether it be a sound or a colour or a shape, is distinct from the perceiving and could conceivably exist apart from it.

Whatever may be thought of this argument, it should not be used against Berkeley as if he had not thought of it:

In fact he put it into the mouth of Hylas in the first of the Three Dialogues and rejected it on the ground that in perception we are passive and so are not exerting an act or activity of any kind.

It should also be noticed that when Berkeley discussed sensation in detail he stated that sensible things or sensible qualities are perceived immediately, that is, without suggestion, association, or inference.

We say that we hear vehicles and that we hear sounds:

According to Berkeley, we hear sounds immediately,

but vehicles, if they are out of sight, are suggested by or inferred from what we do hear, and so are heard only mediately or by means of the sounds immediately heard.

Thus the sound we hear immediately is neither suggested nor inferred, but is heard just as it is.

For this to be so, it must be before the mind; for if it were not before the mind, it would have to be inferred or suggested.

Thus sensible qualities, as immediately perceived, must be objects of perception; their being is to be perceived.

# Inconceivability of a sensible object existing unperceived:

A very famous argument is now to be considered:

It is inconceivable that anything should exist apart from, or independent of, mind:

This argument was put forward by Berkeley in similar terms both in the Principles (§§22, 23) and in the Three Dialogues (1) and takes the form of a challenge to the reader to conceive of something—e.g., a book or a tree—existing absolutely unperceived.

Berkeley argued that the attempt is impossible of fulfilment,

since in order to conceive of a tree existing unperceived we who conceive of it, by the very fact of doing so, bring it into relation to our conception and hence to ourselves.

As Hylas admits, in recognizing the failure of his attempt,

“It is a pleasant mistake enough.

As I was thinking of a tree in a solitary place, where no one was present to see it, me-thought that was to conceive a tree as existing unperceived or unthought of, not considering that I myself conceived it all the while.”

This is an argument that was later accepted as fundamental by idealists of such different persuasions as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Francis Herbert Bradley,

- who held that it shows that mind or experience is essential to the universe.

# Sensible objects are complex ideas.

Berkeley’s example of a tree makes it necessary to consider how trees and other things in nature are related to ideas, sensible qualities, sounds, colours, shapes, and so on.

According to Berkeley, such things as trees, books, and mountains are groups of ideas or sensible qualities and are hence as much within the mind as the latter are.

Indeed, in his view, books, trees, and mountains are ideas, though complex ones.

He admitted (Principles, §38) that this use of the word idea for what is ordinarily called a thing is somewhat odd, but held that, the facts being as they are, idea is better than thing.

A tree is a group of ideas touched, seen, and smelled; a cherry, a group of ideas touched, seen, smelled, and tasted.

The sensible qualities or ideas, without which we should have no conception of a tree or cherry, do not belong to some unseen, untouched, untasted substance or substratum,

for the very conception of such a “something I know not what” (as Locke had called it) is incoherent, and rests upon the false view that we can conceive something in complete abstraction from ideas of sense.

6. Sensible objects, as ideas, are perceived directly

Berkeley therefore concluded that it is his theory that conforms with common sense, not that of the materialists or the dualists.

For according to Berkeley we perceive trees and cherries directly by seeing, touching, and tasting them, just as the plain man thinks we do,

whereas his opponents regard them as perpetually hidden from us by a screen of intermediaries that may be always deceiving us.

Berkeley considered that by this view he had refuted scepticism of the senses,

for, according to his theory, the objects of the senses are the things in the world: the trees, houses, and mountains we live among.

But trees, houses, and mountains, as compounded of sensible qualities or ideas, cannot exist “without the mind.”

7. Sensible Objects Not Copies of Material Archetypes

Berkeley’s arguments showing that all sensible qualities or ideas exist only as perceived

and that, therefore, things in nature, being groups of such ideas, cannot exist “without the mind” have now been expounded.

It is now necessary to complete this account of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism with his argument to show that not only must sensible qualities or ideas exist in the mind, but also that nothing like them can exist outside it:

For anyone reluctant to accept immaterialism is likely to fall back on the view that our ideas, although in our minds, are copies of material archetypes.

Berkeley’s objection to this in the Principles (§8) is that “an idea can be like nothing but an idea,” which he illustrated by saying that a colour or shape can only be like another colour or shape.

In the Three Dialogues (1) he expanded the argument in 2 ways:

1) Ideas, he said, are regarded by some as the perceived representatives of imperceptible originals, but “Can a real thing in itself invisible be like a colour; or a real thing which is not audible, be like a sound?

2) His other reason for holding that ideas cannot be like any supposed external originals is that

ideas are “perpetually fleeting and variable,” and “continually changing upon every alteration in the distance, medium or instruments of sensation,”

while their supposed originals are thought to remain fixed and constant throughout all changes in the percipient’s organs and position.

But something that is fleeting and relative cannot be like what is stable and absolute, any more than what is incapable of being perceived can be like what is essentially perceptible.

8. Summary

The following are Berkeley’s central arguments in favour of immaterialism:

They arose out of his exposure of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the then current scientific view of the world, with its distinction between primary and secondary qualities and its theory of representative perception.

According to Berkeley,

since primary qualities cannot exist apart from secondary qualities, and since secondary qualities, and indeed all sensible qualities, cannot exist “without the mind,”

- the independent material world of the then current scientific view was a conceptual absurdity.

This was supported by the argument that our ideas cannot be likenesses of an external material world, since there is nothing conceivable they could be likenesses of except mind-dependent existences of their own type.

The theory of representative perception was held to be essentially sceptical,

and Berkeley claimed that his own theory, according to which we directly perceive ideas and groups of ideas that exist only as perceived, eliminates scepticism and accords with common sense.