The Book of Logical Fantasy

January 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Principles of Human Knowledge (Berkeley, George)

Truth is not the only merit that a metaphysic can possess. It may have beauty…
-Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

If, as Jorge Luis Borges remarks in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, metaphysics is nothing more than a fantastical branch of literature, George Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge would qualify as extreme fantasy, the real hard-core stuff that only die-hard afficionados have a stomach for. It must have taken tremendous originality of thought to conceive of such a book, extraordinary courage to publish it 300 years ago, and a liberal dollop of eccentricity to adopt the views espoused in it, as a philosophical outlook to life. A survey of Bishop Berkeley‘s life confirms his eccentricity and courage in the face of public ridicule, and even a casual breeze-through of the Principles leaves one with no doubt whatsoever concerning his singular intellect.

Naturally, the book was received poorly upon publication in 1710, as indeed were all of Berkeley’s books, except for his late treatises extolling the imagined miraculous medical benefits of tar-water.  Incredibly, the tar-water books were Berkeley’s only bestsellers in his lifetime. The fact that they are wholly ignored now and it is the rest of his oeuvre that has stood the test of time, is not the only paradox on display here. I marvel equally at these: in the Principles, Berkeley employs cold logic to arrive at mystical conclusions, and the most severe form of scepticism to affirm the existence of God.

When it fell, did it make a sound? (Picture nicked from someones collection on

Berkeley begins, logically enough, with the argument that abstract concepts don’t exist “in the real world”, that is, outside the human mind. So: representative democracy, the iambic pentameter, the principle of natural justice, the Ptolemaic model of the solar system…none of them would be out there, if sentient beings weren’t around to dream them up.

Next, Berkeley denies the existence of physical bodies as we think we know them. We can assert that something looks like a duck, or that it sounds like a duck – but not that it is, in fact, a duck, because our sense perceptions are all that we know for certain. This argument is Berkeley’s best-known one, but it is a subtler one than he is usually given credit for. He is usually quoted as saying that an unperceived (or unperceivable) thing – objective reality, in other words – does not exist; I think he means that unperceived things cannot be proved to exist – and if something is not proved, it is merely something that we believe, not something that we know; it is meaningless to talk about our knowledge of things we cannot or do not perceive.

Irrespective of whether it is one’s world or one’s language that Berkeley draws limits to, immaterialism is a fairly devastating and contentious theory, sufficiently so to grant him immortality as a polemical philosopher, but Berkeley is just getting warmed up.

Having reduced all reality to perception, all physical objects to mere ideas in our head (when they are perceived) and to meaningless words (when they are not), Berkeley then proceeds to show that Time does not exist outside the human mind, either. It is, he avers, only a notion arising out of the particular sequence of ideas occurring to the mind. He then attacks the laws of Natural Philosophy, including the ones newly propounded by the celebrated Isaac Newton: they are empirical observations, Berkeley says, not necessary laws. To the extent that the mathematical models are consistent with the observations, they are correct; the act of generalization of observed phenomena into a universal law is an arbitrary leap of faith of the human mind.  Thus the study of Physics is subordinate to the mind: if there was no observer to measure the phenomena, the Laws of Motion would cease to exist. Motion itself is purely relative, and it is as meaningless to speak about motion in the absence of an observer (that is, a mind that can compare two states and confirm a change in position), as in the absence of a frame of reference.

By now, Berkeley is in his element. Space is merely the absence of Matter, he claims; since Matter has already been shown not to have independent existence, Space doesn’t, either. Arithmetic, then! The numbers!  Surely one plus one is two, even in the absence of sentience? Not true, says Berkeley. One – the concept of Unity – is an abstract idea. Two things being of one and the same kind is a gigantic mental abstraction: take away the mind, and the abstraction will vanish into thin air. All numbers are built from One, and so are abstract ideas, all arithmetic is based on numbers, all science on arithmetic; and thus – ta da! -Berkeley refutes all science.

It is only at this point, at the very end, when he has worked himself up into a veritable frenzy, that I felt he displays a lack of understanding of geometry and of the new science of calculus. This doesn’t, in my mind, take much away from the construction of his general argument. I am even willing to forgive him the somewhat weak argument that a tree still exists, even when unperceived by any human being, because it is perceived by God. I forgive him on the intellectual grounds that the idea that our world is a figment of the febrile imagination of a hallucinating God has great potential as mind-bending fantasy.

The Principles of Human Knowledge is one of the most exhilarating flights of intellectual fantasy that it has been my privilege to take. The flight was not without its rough moments – when the good Bishop got mystical and theological, for instance – but whenever it soared, it took the mind to dizzying heights, which, of course, is the aim of all philosophy.

And so on to the final paradox: a man who refutes the existence of physical reality is easily dismissed as a crackpot; but this man counts Hume and Schopenhauer, Einstein and Leibniz, Wittgenstein and Borges as his intellectual descendents; he was no ordinary crackpot, he was a genius as well.


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