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Archive for June, 2012

Berkeley’s Immaterialism

Posted by allzermalmer on June 25, 2012

This blog is a paper that I had to do on George Berkeley. We had to talk about Berkeley’s “Immaterialism”. I received an A on this paper but this does not mean much.

George Berkeley was a Scottish philosopher who lived from 1685-1753. He was a philosopher of the empiricist type, which means that he believed knowledge of the world is based on experience, which is to say the human senses. He became famous for his stance of Immaterialism, which is the denial of a material substance and a mind-independent world. He is the philosopher who has become famous for the slogan of esse is percipi, or to be is to be perceived.

Berkeley starts out his book A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge by trying to go over a topic called Abstraction. It is from this that he believes that many problems have arisen and have misled people. One of the things he says in the introduction is “That we have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see.”[1] Berkeley believes that abstraction has come about from an abuse of language, and he is going to try to rectify this problem. Berkeley does this by pointing out that when we come across a particular object, like an apple, we find that it has many qualities existing together. Abstraction is where we come to think of each of these qualities being separated from each other in this apple, and we come to hold that each quality can, or does, exist apart from the other qualities in which we originally found them. As Berkeley says, “the mind being able to consider each quality singly, or abstracted from those other qualities with which it is united, does by that means frame to itself abstract ideas.”[2]

We perceive particular objects by our senses, and we find that there is something alike, or different, between those particular things we experience when we make a comparison between them. We will find that there are certain qualities that these two objects have in common when we are comparing them, and find that they share the same quality, like the color red. We come to separate these qualities from those two objects and hold that they exist without the particular object itself.  Take an example of comparing Peter and James, two particular human beings. They are two particular human beings, and they have some different qualities and similar qualities. One of them is white in skin color and the other is black in skin color, but both have color; they both have different hair colors in that one is blond and one is black, but they both have colored hair; they both have hair but different styles of hair; they both have arms but different lengths; they both have legs but of different length; they both have a height but one is tall and the other is short. We can go on like this and find that the abstract idea of Human contains all of these qualities and none of these qualities. A Human is both white and not white, both 6 feet tall and not 6 feet all, both has two legs and no legs, and etc. Abstract ideas are not something that Berkeley can think of and does not find in experience. But we get caught up in taking abstract ideas as if they exist or represent something that exists.

When Berkeley is told to think of “human”, he thinks of something particular. He imagines that it is white in skin color, has red hair, has hair down to its shoulders, has long hairy forearms, is tall and has long legs, and etc. In other words, when he is asked to think about a human being he thinks of a particular human with particular qualities, not this “all and none” qualities that is found with an abstract idea of a human. This is the same when he does something like mathematics, which is supposed to be a very abstract science. He comes to think of a particular triangle, but a triangle in geometry can be either a right triangle, or acute triangle, or obtuse triangle, or equilateral triangle, or isosceles triangle, or a scalene triangle.

One thing about abstraction, which can be made a case and point with geometry, is that we do not find them in experience. One of the definitions for a line is a “breadthless length”. None of these things are found in experience. In fact, we cannot experience these things. When a line is drawn on a sheet of paper, it is not a line in geometry. We are calling something a line which is not a geometrical line. If triangles are built off of lines and lines are not experienced, then those triangles of geometry are not experienced either. But we apply this abstract idea to experience, or we apply something to its contradictory. We are applying a breadthless length to a line with breadth.

Once we clear up this problem with abstraction, Berkeley comes to deal with this idea that there is something that is primary qualities and secondary qualities. It was held by some people during Berkeley’s time, that we do not directly experience the “external world”. The position of perception was known as representational theory of perception. When the external world caused our perceptions, we indirectly had experiences of it. Primary qualities are said to be qualities of mind-independent objects, which are extension, figure, motion, rest, solidity, and number, and are the qualities that exist in the object itself. Secondary qualities are said to be mind-dependent objects, which are colors, sounds, tastes, and etc, and do not exist in the object itself. Matter, which is said to be mind-independent, has these primary qualities and when we have these mind-independent objects affect our senses to cause our perceptions, we only view a part of it that is the primary qualities and the secondary qualities are what our minds add on to the primary qualities. In other words, our perceptions both have something from the mind-independent world and something from the mind-dependent world. But what is key to keep in mind is that what we experience with our senses is not the external world itself. The experiences themselves are mind-dependent, which is our individual minds.

One way in it was said to be determined what qualities are from the external world, and those qualities from ourselves, was with the primary and secondary qualities distinction.  The primary qualities were supposed to be stable and did not change, much, if at all. It was to persist through change. And secondary qualities were said to change through time frequently, being in a sort of flux. There was one way to distinguish through primary and secondary qualities are with a simple argument. One of the things that was said to be a secondary quality was that of heat. Take the example of taking a bucket filled with water. “Suppose now one of your hands hot, and the other cold, and that they are both at once put into the same vessel of water, in an intermediate state; will not the water seem cold to one hand and warm to the other?…It will.”[3] But the heat of the water cannot both be hot and not hot, so heat is not part of the mind-independent world. These types of arguments were supposed to show that some of things we experience are not part of a mind-independent world, and arguments of the same kind were used to show what qualities were mind-independent and which qualities were mind-dependent.

What Berkeley does in this situation is to use the same type of arguments to show that even primary qualities are mind-dependent. Solidity, for example, is said to be mind-independent. Now take an example where an ant and a human come to touch a cherry. To the human, when they touch the cherry, they find that it gives way to them touching it, but when an ant touches it feels very hard. But the cherry, based on solidity, cannot both be hard and not hard. We also find extension is relative to different animals in that one animal will see one shape and another animal will see another shape, but one shape in a mind-independent world cannot be of two different shapes. This shows the relativity of different qualities that one human can experience from another, and the different qualities that one species experiences from that of another.

Berkeley shows that primary qualities fall to being mind-dependent as well, but he goes on to point out something else. Every time we experience a primary quality, it always is associated with secondary quality. So I may experience the primary quality of something with the shape of being round, but it will have a color of either being black or white, or blue or yellow. If it had no color, then I could not observe the object itself. When I pick up an object, I feel its shape in my hand but I also feel if it is hot or cold. Berkeley is pointing out that primary qualities are found to constantly have secondary qualities associated with them when we experience them. So not only are secondary qualities mind-dependent and so are primary qualities, but what we call secondary qualities and primary qualities are found to show up together and cannot separate one from the other without forming an abstract idea.

We find that primary qualities were of extension, shape, motion, rest, solidity and number. They were supposed to persist through change. These primary qualities were supposed to be of this substance called matter. Matter was supposed to be inert and a passive thing that was unthinking. Berkeley points out that this “matter” would be an abstraction. This is because the shape would be of neither a triangle, nor a square, nor polygon, or whatever else the mind can imagine, but all of them. Motion would be of one shape moving relative to another, and it would be at rest to another. It would be both at rest and moving. Matter turns out to be an abstraction, if not an outright contradiction. Now it is agreed that secondary qualities are mind-dependent, and Berkeley shows that arguments to show the mind-dependence of secondary qualities can also be used for primary qualities. Thus, all qualities that we experience are reduced to being mind-dependent.

Berkeley has left alternatives for matter, for it either is a contradiction, an abstraction, or something that we have no experience of. Being either an abstraction or having no experience of it is to make it meaningless by being a sign with no signification in experience, or being an empty term. So Berkeley believes that he has given enough ground to ignore matter as anything. He may ignore it if matter is meaningless and we have no experience of it, because one is just using words without anything signified by them. But Berkeley admits that even though it is meaningless in that no experience for it, it is still logically possible. But being logically possible is fine, but we cannot even think about it because it is an abstract idea. What is the point of using something that is possible that you cannot even think about it or experience it? He may also ignore it if it is a contradiction because it is a logical impossibility.

Now that Berkeley has dismissed of “matter”, he is going to go down a different route. One of the best ways to see where Berkeley is starting from, and part of what he is rejecting, deals with a certain passage from Renee Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy talks about particular bodies like a piece of wax. He says: “it has only just been removed from the honeycomb; it has not yet lost all the flavour of its honey; it retains some of the scent of the flowers among which it was gathered; its colour, shape, and size are clearly visible; it is hard, cold, easy to touch, and if you tap it with your knuckle, it makes a sound. In short, it has all the properties that seem to be required for a given body to be known as distinctly as possible. But wait—while I am speaking, it is brought close to the fire. The remains of its flavour evaporate; the smell fades; the colour is changed, the shape is taken away, it grows in size, becomes liquid, becomes warm, it can hardly be touched, and now, if you strike it, it will give off no sound. Does the same wax still remain? We must admit it does remain: no one would say or think it does not. So what was there in it that was so distinctly grasped? Certainly, none of those qualities I apprehended by the senses: for whatever came under taste, or smell, or sight, or touch, or hearing, has now changed: but the wax remains.”[4]

Berkeley holds the opposite. Descartes is holding that there is something that is this body below the sensible qualities that he just reviewed. Descartes said he did not find the “body” in the senses and moves on to the imagination, where he finds that a particular body does not derive from the imagination. Berkeley would say that anything beyond the sensible qualities that are supposed to be a particular body is an abstraction and not even possible to experience with the senses, or being in the imagination would need the sensible quality of color which is mind dependent. This particular body beyond the senses becomes meaningless, even if possible. When we use the sign of “apple”, it is meant to signify a pattern of sensible qualities found to be distinguished from other sensible qualities surrounding it, which happens to be red, have a certain shape, a certain smell, certain taste, and certain tactile sensations. In other words, a particular “body” is a specific pattern, and regularity, of sensible qualities found to go together, as distinguished from other sensible qualities.

Part of Berkeley’s position on experience is based on the Molyneux’s problem. This is based on a thought experiment of someone who is born blind and has tactile senses. This blind person has become accustomed with a tactile sensation that he calls a “cube”, and those with sight would understand to be a cube, and they are also accustomed to one of a “sphere”. Now imagine that the blind person has both objects before them on a table, and develop a sense known as sight. The person will not be able to pick out which object that he sees is associated with his tactile sensations that he knows as the “cube”. It shows that each sense is distinct from every other sense, but we eventually, through constant experience, begin associating one sense with another to form the idea of the “cube” or “bodies”.

When we are left with Descartes in some sort of solipsism, Berkeley has a way out. Berkeley finds that he has the ability to think and imagine things, like what he will do tomorrow. He also finds that when he wills to move his arm, his arm moves. He also finds that when he experiences sensible qualities, he is constantly associating one sense with another and associating sensory qualities in order to form what are known as “bodies”. He also makes connections to help form chains of cause and effect, as well as forming some understanding of what is going on to act. All of these things he finds to be a sign of activity or Mind. But he finds that when he closes his eyes, he cannot make whatever he wants to show up. It is against his will what he will see when he closes his eyes and then reopens them. These sensory qualities are forced upon him, or these flux of sensory qualities. He does not find the power for him to produce these sensory qualities, and so it means that there is something else besides Berkeley bringing about the experience he has. This shows a cause outside of Berkeley bringing about these experiences.

Now some might wonder how we can differentiate between reality and between dreams. Berkeley points out that “reality” is more vivid than that of a dream, and that dreams lack a coherence and vividness that we find with “reality”. This is, also, how we typically differentiate between “reality” and a “dream”. We find that what we are experiencing in a dream lacks a coherence from that which we have experienced when waking, and the experiences in reality are more vivid and stronger than what we find in dreams. We also find that we have a memory of things in the past while we have a tough time of remembering dreams and have a tough time fitting dreams into our experiences in a coherent way that we say that they are a dream. As Berkeley says, “The ideas formed by the imagination are faint and indistinct; they have, besides, an entire dependence on the will. But the ideas perceived by sense, that is, real things, are more vivid and clear, and being imprinted on the mind by a spirit distinct from us, have not a like dependence on our will. There is therefore no danger of confounding these with the foregoing; and there is as little of confounding them with the visions of a dream, which are dim, irregular, and confused. And though they should happen to be never so lively and natural, yet by their not being connected, and of a piece with the preceding and subsequent transactions of our lives, they might easily be distinguished from realities. In short, by whatever method you distinguish things from chimeras on your own scheme, the same, it is evident, will hold also upon mine.”[5]

The sensory qualities that he experiences as bodies, he observes them and finds that he does not see the power for one to move the other. He finds that those things he observes are passive, or that they are inert. Berkeley’s opinion of cause and effect is that we observe no necessary connection between these sensory qualities, but that we find one pattern of sensory qualities following another pattern of sensory qualities. There is no connection between these events or see one thing move another, and this makes them appear to be passive. One just follows the other, and do not see one making the other move or the other one to stop moving, or any necessary connection between them at all. Each event is distinct from one another and have no influence on one another.

From the position that he finds himself to be active and those sensory qualities that happen against his will to be passive, and that matter is either logically ruled out as being the cause or meaningless to assert it as the cause, so he finds that another mind to be the cause. This is because he cannot see how a passive thing can make itself show itself against his will or move one another, but he has found with himself that he can will his body to move and it moves. This shows that an active thing can move sensory qualities, and so another mind is the one that is giving Berkeley, and us, these sensory qualities. He finds that the active can move the passive with his own experience, and he is having experiences against his will and has ruled out “matter”, which leaves another mind moving and making these sensible qualities come against Berkeley’s will.

Berkeley finds that what he immediately perceives is from God, which means those sensory qualities that are forced upon him are from God. These are sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell which all come from God and giving them to Berkeley. Now Berkeley points out that we immediately perceive the sensible qualities, but we also mediate them. This mediation is a sign of activity, because we are making associations with our senses to form one “body” and observe a regularity in which “bodies” move amongst each other, and making judgments about them. We notice that when we come to predict these regularities that we can obtain food to nourish ourselves and predict when the water will flood to plant our food, and what to do to obtain pleasure and what not to do to escape pain. These regularities, by making the world predictable, show wisdom and providence of God to us and help show another mind.

Berkeley gives an example of mediation, or what he is talking about. “From what we have shown it is a manifest consequence that the ideas of space, outness, and things placed at a distance are not, strictly speaking, the object of sight. They are not otherwise perceived by the eye than by the ear. Sitting in my study I hear a coach drive along the street; I look through the casement and see it; I walk out and enter into it. Thus common speech would incline one to think I heard, saw, and touched the same thing, to wit, the coach. It is nevertheless certain, the ideas intromitted by each sense are widely different and distinct from each other; but having been observed constantly to go together, they are spoken of as one and the same thing. By the variation of the noise I perceive the different distances of the coach, and know that it approaches before I look out. Thus by the ear I perceive distance, just after the same manner as I do by the eye.”[6] He is pointing out that through constant association of different sensible qualities; we come to combine them into one thing called the “coach”. “Coach” becomes the sign for the sensible qualities signified by it. And the “Coach” is not in experience but something that we do with them. This helps form a basis for theory-laden observation, as the modern term goes, which shows a sign of activity of mind.

Now Berkeley has established an external world, which his that of God. He comes to discover other minds, or other finite minds like himself. Strictly speaking, we never experience other minds immediately by sensory qualities that we call “bodies”. That which is presented by immediate perception is passive and minds are active. So how does Berkeley come to other minds? Imagine that we are in a land that has “inanimate” objects. We find that these inanimate objects move in a regular fashion, like when I hold the rock in my hand and let go of it, it falls to the ground. We find that “inanimate” things in this world are works with regularity and move in a very predictable fashion. But in our experiences we find some “bodies” that do not move in a predictable and regular fashion.

“We experience certain ides of reality. These ideas exhibit a variety, order, and coherence far beyond anything that is within our ability to produce. Some other spirit must therefore produce them and this spirit must be supremely wise and benevolent. But among our ideas of reality there are some, those of the motions of animate bodies, which exhibit a degree of irregularity, inconsistency of purpose, greed, stupidity, and sheer perversity which is simply inconsistent with the notion that these ideas are produced by a wise and benevolent thing. One plausible way to deal with these phenomena is to postulate that there exist certain other spirits whose wills the divine spirit is disposed to indulge when moving animate bodies. Since the wills of these spirits are circumscribed to particular animate bodies and since their motions evidence a degree of reason and purpose, we may postulate further that they are finite, intelligent spirits, that is, beings “like ourselves”. It is in this way that we deduce the existence of other minds “from their operations, or the ideas by them excited in us.”[7]

The point becomes that when we notice certain sensory qualities known as “human bodies” and these do not move in the same way “inanimate” products. We notice a difference in their motions from one another. When we notice motion we come to infer a cause, and we notice that these motions do not match up with the regularities of “inanimate” objects, and these bodies appear to move with a purpose and greed. For only an active principle may move these “bodies” that we observe. We also notice that they look similar to our body and come to infer that there is another active agent besides that of us and God. The main point becomes that God’s actions are contingent, and we notice that the world works a certain way when there are no other finite minds. In other words, if it were not another finite mind, then those actions would have been different, which means it would have looked like a regularity of “inanimate” bodies.

Now Berkeley holds that all sensible qualities cannot exist without being perceived by a mind. This is because matter has already been eliminated and we are left with minds. So sensible objects are mind-dependent, which is that for them to exist, they must be perceived by a mind. This forms the slogan of “esse is percepi”, or “to be is to be perceived”. All unthinking things are dependent on being observed by some mind. This could either be myself, Berkeley, a group of humans/finite minds, or by God. This means that no sensible qualities exist outside of a mind. Now these sensible qualities may exist outside of human perception, but not that of another mind, like that of God. It may exist outside of the perception of all finite minds, but not that of the infinite mind of God. So the general rule of “esse is percepi” is true of sensible qualities known as “bodies”. For human being, sensible qualities are “esse is posse percepi”, also known as “to be is to be possibly perceived”. This means that for sensible qualities to exist for us finite minds known as humans, is that they be possible perceptions or actual perceptions. These possible perceptions might not be experienced by us, but they are at least experienced by God.

When Berkeley leaves a room with a desk and books, and no other finite minds perceive it, then the books and desk are still there because they are being perceived by God. But they are also a possible perception for finite minds, because if Berkeley were to enter the room, then he would perceive the desk and books. “The table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed, meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it…so long [as “bodies” are] not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit: it being perfectly.”[8]

Berkeley was, it seems, a concurrentist when it comes to causality and finite minds willing their bodies to move. “First, concurrentists maintain that God’s activity is not merely required to create the world but also to conserve it in its existence…Second, concurrentists insist that creatures are endowed with genuine active and passive powers, and that they exercise their powers in ordinary causal interactions…Third, and most distinctively, concurrentists maintain that although creatures are endowed with genuine causal powers, no creaturely causal power could be efficacious in bringing about its appropriate effects without God’s active general assistance, or “concurrence”.”[9] The point is that God, being wise and disposed to humor us, God allows us to do, or will, to do certain actions. We may say that there is a certain law on what bodies are allowed to do, and anything within those laws that do not violate are allowable for us to do by goods kind disposition to us. God gives finite spirits what can be called an allowance, and may do whatever they want to do within that allowance. God humors us in allowing us to do it what we will to do.


Berkeley, George, and Desmond M. Clarke. Berkeley: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Descartes, René, and Michael Moriarty. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Luce, A. A. Berkeley’s Immaterialism; a Commentary on His “A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1945. Print.

Bettcher, Talia Mae. Berkeley: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Foster, John, and Howard Robinson. Essays on Berkeley: A Tercentennial Celebration. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. Print.

Falkenstein, Lorne. “Berkeley’s Argument for Other Minds.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 7.4 (1990): 431-40. Print.

Jeffrey K. McDonough. “Berkeley, Human Agency and Divine Concurrentism.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 46.4 (2008): 567-90.

[1] Berkeley, George, and Desmond M. Clarke. Berkeley: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 69

[2] Ibid. Pg. 70

[3] Ibid Pg. 162

[4] Descartes, René, and Michael Moriarty. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Pg. 22

[5] Berkeley, George, and Desmond M. Clarke. Berkeley: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 216

[6]   Berkeley, George, and Desmond M. Clarke. Berkeley: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 23

[7] Falkenstein, Lorne. “Berkeley’s Argument for Other Minds.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 7.4 (1990): 431-40. Print. Pg. 438-439

[8] Berkeley, George, and Desmond M. Clarke. Berkeley: Philosophical Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 84-85

[9] Jeffrey K. McDonough. “Berkeley, Human Agency and Divine Concurrentism.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 46.4 (2008): 567-90. Pg. 568-569

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