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Philosopher George Berkeley And His the Three Dialogues

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George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, was one of the great philosophers of the early modern period. His concern to see reality as lying subjective to human knowledge and interpretation is joined with his religious devotion. Berkeley said that he wrote the Three Dialogues, to “demonstrate the reality and perfection of human knowledge”, and “the incorporeal nature of the soul, and the immediate providence of a deity in opposition to skeptics” (Adams, xi). Utilizing Berkeley’s constructed dialogues between Hylas and his spokesperson Philonous, I explicate his metaphysical system and locate myself as an object within. Berkeley is foremost an empiricist, that is someone who believes all knowledge is derived through and from the senses. His main argument is derived through examination of the set of properties of which sensible objects are composed of.

These properties are constituted as secondary and primary qualities which define the object they belong to. He asserted that any material or object are not existentially independent of mind and are existentially entirely dependent upon the perceiver’s perception. He held that there is no such thing as matter, the only things that actually exist are minds and ideas. Additionally, he asserted that the notion which most people believe as ‘common sense’, that matter and objects are existentially independent of the mind, is a contradiction and counter to ‘common sense’. In his dialogues ‘Hylas’ represents Berkeley’s opponents and critics, the concept that matter is mind independent and holds a materialistic view of reality.

Philonous is Berkeley’s spokesperson who represents the concept where matter is mind-dependent and an immaterialist view of reality. Berkeley’s assertion through Philonous, “That there is no such thing as what philosophers call material substance, I am seriously persuaded … contrary opinion” (Berkeley, Adams, 8), argued against physical substance as he saw belief in it to cause more skepticism, than a lack of belief in it. In the first dialogue Berkeley through Philonous explained that the objects of our perception are ideas “inert, passive or particular sensations”. Secondly his goal is to prove that we do not have any evidence for the existence of mind – independent material objects, and that “ideas exist only in the mind.”.

Berkeley posed both his representation Philonous, and his critics’ representation Hylas, as skeptics in order to place them in a position from where they debated the reality of sensible things. A skeptic is one who denies the reality of things perceived through senses, sensible things. According to Hylas a sensible thing is, “Things that are perceived by the senses” (10), Philonous made further distinction of a sensible thing by its directness. He argued the difference of sensible things as ‘immediate perception’ or direct experience such as colors and shapes of letters and texts, and ‘mediate perception’ or inferential experience such as the letters and texts which convey content for which they have been constructed for, such as virtue or truth derived from the immediate perception. Berkeley said that all we perceive immediately or directly, are sense data such as colors, sounds, shapes, etc. which are the qualities which collectively constitute a sensible thing.

He added that if sensible qualities are taken away from a thing, nothing remains that is sensible. As Hylas objected that there may be other qualities to an object other than their sensible qualities, Philonous assured that sensible objects are collections of sensible qualities as much as they can be perceived by sensory data. However, Hylas distinguishes between existence and perception, by stating that there is a “real, absolute” kind of existence which has no relation to perception and is outside the mind. Berkeley, or Philonous in this dialogue, counters by referring to their initial agreement where they were to discuss sensible qualities, not qualities that cannot be definitely sensed. It is known that an object is a composite of its’ qualities, which some define as secondary or primary. To convince his critics that everything we perceive is mind-dependent, Berkeley first through Philonous examined secondary qualities such as heat, taste, sound, smell, color, of a material object as well as pain and pleasure sensations.

Intense heat, like intense cold is unpleasant and painful. Pain like pleasure is experiential in that cannot exist outside minds and consciousness. Therefore, when someone feels intense heat or intense cold, Berkeley reasons, what he feels is in his own mind, not in some inert, unfeeling object existing outside his consciousness. The awareness of intense heat is simply to be aware of a type of experience, or in this case pain sensation. Berkeley noted the object here that intense heat is a cause of pain, and not inherently pain itself. To which he replied that when one is perceiving intense heat, the heat of which one is aware is not distinguishable from the pain sensation of which one is aware. In perceiving the heat, the person is not aware of two things; heat and a pain sensation, but of only a painful sensation, ergo pain is mind-dependent. Therefore, intense heat and all degrees of it must be of the same kind, as in mind-dependent. Berkeley follows up with an argument regarding perceptual relativity to prove the temperature that an object appears to have differs per circumstance.

It is acknowledged that the same thing cannot at the same time be warm and cold materialistically. For example: if my right hand, warm from being above a bonfire; and my left hand, cold from interacting with ice; were inserted into a pool of water, I would perceive the water as cooler through my right hand, and warmer through my left. This proves that feelings induced such as warmth or cold do not belong to material objects such as water. From this fact, Berkeley concluded that the heat that one feels cannot be a feature of some object existing outside one’s mind as no single object could have the incompatible properties of warmth and coolness at once. Additionally, that the warmth and coolness that one perceives are sensations within one’s own experience. He cemented his philosophy by drawing parallels from these arguments regarding heat, to other secondary qualities of sensible objects such as taste, smell, sound, and sight. Berkeley successfully defended his claim that secondary qualities only exist in the mind, and so he moved to prove that this is true of primary qualities as well.

As the truth of perceptual relativity is reason enough for Berkeley to conclude that secondary qualities do not exist outside of the minds, Berkeley followed that this is also applicable to primary qualities. He explained that the extension that an object appears to have varies as the object is perceived from different positions. A tree, for example, is visibly extended, but accordingly to my perception it grows larger the closer I am to it, and shrinks smaller the further I move from it. Berkley noted that an argument regarding standards of measurements such as feet or inches is irrelevant in this matter, as it too is inconsistent and contingent upon relativity. Furthermore, Berkeley argued that a sensible object may present differing visible extensions at one and the same time, such that the acorn of a tree would seem tiny to my human eye, yet large to an ant.

Through Philonous, Berkeley concluded that the extension of a sensible object is not a property of an object that exists outside consciousness but a property of a sensation in the mind of a perceiver. This consideration, which shows that the extension of a sensible object has no existence outside a mind, also demonstrates that this is applicable to shape, hardness, and the other primary qualities are only properties of sensations within the minds of perceivers. Following suit perception varies from one perceiver to another when the object is viewed under different conditions. Berkeley provided another reason as to why primary qualities are similar to secondary qualities in as they all coexist in a sensible thing such as the extension and shape, which from perception highlights the color and motion of a chair.

Additionally, for that matter Berkeley also argued the master argument, which is essentially, “… it is a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived” (35). In his view, this proves conclusively that materialism is false. If there were a tree which existed outside of my own mind, and all other minds, then as I attempt to think about this ‘unconceived’ tree, I have immediately conceived it. According to Berkeley we must determine fiction from reality in respect to fictitious and real ideas. Fictitious ideas exist only in one individual mind, are weaker than ideas perceived by sense, and cease to exist one the mind it is a part of ceases to exist as well. A real idea must have regularity, stability, and durability that enables the real idea to not be contingent on the perception of an individual mind but subsist within all minds. Berkeley said that our real experience is characterized by stable, regular, durable experiences and real ideas, which fit into patterns and characterized as laws of nature.

Berkeley asserted that God wills these regularities into existence, that the laws of nature are whatever regularities God decides to make into patterns. God is the ultimate perceiver, He provides reality to the universe through its maintenance of real ideas. Because of God’s inherent qualities such as supremacy and omnipotence, all ideas and objects in God’s perception and mind are inherently real, unlike perceptions of human beings. Additionally, Berkeley asserted that God created a mind-dependent universe where nothing can exist beyond His mind. For Berkeley all causation is agent causation, but some agent causation is not all causation. He noted certain differences; not all causation is divine, can be human too. An understanding of Berkeley is that the whole world is full of sensible experiences, and the unexperienced things or aspects are merely what we call “matter”. Error according to Berkeley are not formally false ideas, they are inferences that are not justifiable or sustained by further ideas (71). Mistakes do not lie in perception, but in a wrong judgement.

Error lies within inferences or judgements one makes based upon their perception (63-64,71). We can acknowledge immaterialism through materialism as there are no forms that can account for the universe, it is all based upon particulars. We are able to infer minds, not matter, as inferences of minds do not contain the problems that inferences of matter contain; metaphysically matter is incapable of producing ideas, unlike minds and ideas themselves. Epistemologically matter which is incapable of experiential process is unable to be the cause of what we experience. Subsequently, we need empirical data in our premises to reach any conclusion, as Berkeley believes that deductive processes don’t tell us anything new because the ‘idea’ contains the conclusion inherently.

Per Berkeley’s philosophical system I recognize that I as a ‘human being’ do not have a material body independent of the mind, as no material exists outside the mind without perception. However, I do have a body which is a bundle of ideas, sensations, and empirical data such as my extensional secondary and primary qualities, that are dependent upon observation. By repeated experiences and patterns, I recognize that I am not a fictitious idea, in fact I am a real idea as a stable, regular and durable thing, despite varying perceptions. As I am a real idea, I subsist in all minds and the perceptions when perceived that of, because I exist in God’s mind, who willed my existence and validated it into being. This is how I can trust what I know of myself as a human being in Berkeley’s view.

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