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Berkeley and the Ineffable
Author(s): Thomas M. Lennon
Source: Synthese, Vol. 75, No. 2, Thought and Language in the Philosophy of the
Enlightenment (May, 1988), pp. 231-250
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20116529
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THOMAS

BERKELEY

AND

M.

LENNON

THE

INEFFABLE

of what he took to be its moral
and religious
implications,
was
about
the
concerned
of his
very
proper
Berkeley
interpretation
work. For one thing, he tried to indicate how the various notable parts
of what he was trying to refute fit together. With
respect to what will
concern me here, Berkeley
rests on the theory
tells us that materialism
of abstract ideas, and that this theory in turn rests on a certain view of
Berkeley's
language. Despite
lengthy insistence on these connections
to the Principles,
in the introduction
the literature
has generally
Because

to ignore them. My thesis is that Berkeley
is right about these
and that taking them seriously offers a philosophically
and
to
was
of
what
up
historically
interesting
interpretation
Berkeley
what he was rejecting as materialism.
To make
specifically
concerning
out this thesis, I shall follow a course opposite
to Berkeley's,
beginning
to
that Berkeley
with an argument
regards as his ultimate objection
to
and
then
abstract
ideas
and
I'll
materialism,
only
turning
language.
not insist on the foundations
image of one thing resting on another.
abstract
ideas,
My aim is to show that the three issues of materialsm,
are (to change
and language
from
of a piece woven
the metaphor)
the same question. The question
of Cartesian
is the very possibility
a metaphysics
to Berkeley
and Lockean metaphysics,
which according
chosen

connections

cannot

even

be

expressed.1

1.

THE

MASTER

ARGUMENT

was prepared,
at least in the person of his spokesman
in the
Berkeley
on a single argument,
to stake his entire position
Three Dialogues,
which for this reason has recently been dubbed his Master Argument.
of the way
The argument
the first
appears
three-quarters
through
a
which
the
of
has
materialism,
proponent
dialogue,
point by
Hylas,
to admit that one aspect after another of a reality he
been forced
the mind
in fact exists only in the mind. Since
thought existed outside
that
for
exist only in the mind because
colors,
Hylas agreed
example,
under
he was forced to agree
conditions,
vary
they
varying perceptual
Synthese 75 (1988) 231-250.
?

1988

by Kluwer

Academic

Publishers.

232

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

it too varies under
exists only in the mind, because
And
if
extension
exists
conditions.
varying
perceptual
only in the
on
what
for
then
exists
extension,
mind,
depends
example, motion,
only in the mind, and so on. Berkeley's
barrage of argument
against
even
if
is unrelenting,
and yet Hylas with an invincible
materialism
to
after realism continued
hold out, changing
his
confused
hankering
In dramatic
with
and his position
them.
arguments
desperation
is led to say the following:
Philonous
also

that extension

it for nothing,
if you will have it so)
said and reckon
(to pass by all that has been hitherto
to put the whole
it possible
I am content
this issue. If you can conceive
for any
upon
or combination
or any sensible object whatever,
to exist without
of qualities,
the
mixture
to be so.
then I will grant it actually
mind,
soon be decided.
to that the point will
more
If it comes
What
than to
easy
Hylas:
a tree or house
conceive
of, and unperceived
existing
by itself, independent
by, any
I do at this present
time conceive
them existing
after that manner.
mind whatsoever?
can you
say you, Hylas,
that were a contradiction.

Phil. How
Hyl. No,
Phil.
Is

it not

see a thing which

a contradiction

as great

to

talk of

is at the same

time unseen?

a

conceiving

thing

is un

which

conceived?
Hyl.
Phil.

It is.
The

Hyl. How
Phil. And

tree or house,
therefore,
it be otherwise?
should

which

you

think of

is conceived

by you?

what
is conceived
is surely in the mind?
that which
is conceived
is in the mind.
Hyl. Without
question,
a house or tree existing
Phil. How
then came you to say you conceived
out of all minds whatsoever?

independent

and

an oversight,
It is a
but stay, let me consider what
led me into it.
was
a
a
no one
tree
I
As
of
in
where
enough
pleasant
thinking
solitary place
a tree as existing
or
was present
to see it, methought
that was to conceive
unperceived
that I myself
it all the while.
But now I plainly
conceived
of, not considering
unthought

Hyl.

That

was

I own

mistake.

see

in my own
is to frame ideas in my own mind.
Imay
indeed conceive
this is far from
the idea of a tree, or a house, or a mountain,
but that is all. And
out of the minds
of all spirits.
that I can conceive
them existing

that all I can do

thoughts
proving
Phil. You
sensible

acknowledge
should

thing

I do.
Hyl.
Phil. And yet you will
as conceive?
Hyl.

I profess

I know

then
exist

cannot

that you

otherwise

than

earnestly

contend

not what

to think;

possibly
in a mind?

conceive

for the truth of

how

that which

any one

you

cannot

corporeal

so much

for
is not mere hyperbole
claim on behalf of this argument
is never
in the dialogue.
unlike Hylas,
dramatic purposes
Philonous,
or change his mind on anything. Thus
the same
forced to concede
once
argument appears in Berkeley's
again Berkeley
Principles, where

Philonous's

BERKELEY

AND

THE

INEFFABLE

233

it
to put the whole
is "content
upon this issue; if you can conceive
or in general,
for
one
moveable
for
extended
substance,
any
possible
than in a mind
one idea or any thing like an idea, to exist otherwise
it, I shall readily give up the cause".2
perceiving
from historians
has not drawn attention
This
propor
argument
to Berkeley,
and among
those who have
tionate to its importance
been viewed as nothing more
has generally
noticed
it, the argument
on
a
is found to be
howler
than
part. Typically,
Berkeley
Berkeley's
simply confused.
not to say
in print to the hostile,
I daresay
the only exception
Ten years ago he wrote of
reaction has been Ian Hacking's.
outraged,
as the most
"This proof, widely
the Master
regarded
Argument:
ever to achieve
lasting fame among philoso
argument
preposterous
But as far as I can make out,
phers, seems to me very impressive".
never gave any good reason why he should have been so
Hacking
impressed, although he rightly enough saw that the argument was tied
to Berkeley's
the universal
of abstract
ideas.3 Otherwise,
rejection
as simply
to regard Berkeley
to the argument
has been
reaction
can
to
in fact,
be classified according
confused. The whole
literature,
suffers. One
from which Berkeley
five kinds of confusion
allegedly
and conceiving
is in the order of the existential
confusion
operators;
to A. N. Prior4 and J. L. Mackie,5
doesn't see the
Berkeley
according
I conceive
that it
between
difference
saying there is a tree of which
that there is a tree that exists
and I conceive
exists unconceived,
to this is a second confusion
Related
unconceived.
charged by Robert
con
conflates
and Andre Gallois7 who find that Berkeley
Turnbull6
true
of
A
it.
of
is
with conceiving
that something
ceiving
something
came
Barton
also
from
from
but
third charge
Gallois,
Ralph
Perry8
all find
and Mackie
again,10 who basically
Marc-Wogau9
a
because
he
confuses
of
modal
(x is con
fallacy
Berkeley
guilty
Still
with x is conceived ?> Dx is conceived.
ceived?> x is conceived)
and
is found by George
another confusion
Marc-Wogau,12
Pappas11
confuses
who effectively
conceiving
that-p with
charge that Berkeley
Konrad

that-p. The final and best known charge, coming most
is that Berkeley
and George
G. E. Moore13
Pitcher,'4
and the object perceived.
tinguish the act of perceiving
The
strategic
problem
on which
interpretations
out to be a philosophical

notably from
fails to dis

the
with
these criticisms,
and thus with
is that they make Berkeley
they are based,
if eccentric,
Irishman is
nitwit. The astute,

234

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

errors in what he regards as the linchpin of his
guilty of sophomoric
system. Surely there is a better interpretation.
I shall arrive at the interpretation
in due course, but first we need to
as
in the empiricist
conceived
tradition of
about ideas
say something
on
an
that conception.
based
this period and
argument
got
Berkeley
who
of an idea from Locke,
his conception
got it from Fran?ois
or
it to Hobbes
who also gave
who got it from Gassendi,
Bernier,
perhaps got it from him. I'll not insist on the lines of influence, for the
had essentially
the
important point here is that all these empiricists
to which
same conception
ideas are
of an idea, a conception
according
for example,
refers to ideas as pictures,
iconic. Locke,
repeatedly
are reasons
and using Gassendi's
term, images. There
resemblances,
I
should be iconic and
shall at least
ideas for the empiricist
why
a
now
moment.
For
what is important is the role they
suggest them in
an
in
first advanced
argument
against Descartes
by Gassendi
play in
in 1675, and finally by
1642, then by Foucher
against Malebranche
in 1693. The argument
Locke,
goes
again against poor Malebranche,
can it represent
as follows. Only
if an idea has extension
extension;
can it represent what has
only if it has shape and location, for example,
an
But
for
it represents.
idea must be like what
shape and location,
can it be joined to
shape or position
only if an idea has no extension,
to
unlocated
the unextended,
unshaped,
thing that the mind is alleged
essence
to
of
the
is
which
the mind
be thought,
be, for
supposed
of extension.15
excludes properties
as the materialist
Gassendi
is upset by denying,
The
argument
an
is
unlocated
that
the
self
unextended,
unshaped,
urged,
essentially
Locke and even Gassendi
thing. But the primary concern of Foucher,
on this argument
can be
than skepticism,
which
is less materialism
ideas as actually extended. The idea of a square
avoided by construing
it actually
is square. It is important to note
represents a square because
this move
that although
which Ber
materialism,
strongly encourages
course
to save
it
made
of
be
and although
might
rejects,
keley
no
it is a
which
less
certainly
Berkeley
rejects,
representationalism,
move

for example,
his
that Berkeley
himself
made.
Consider,
argument with respect to the intense degree of heat as pain, the very
No unperceiving
of the Three Dialogues.
first argument
thing is
is unperceiving,
hence incapable
substance
capable of pain, a material
substance
of pain; but the intense degree of heat is pain, thus material
the intense degree of
is incapable of, i.e., cannot have as a property,

BERKELEY

AND

THE

INEFFABLE

235

is true of the intense degree of heat, we
heat. And, of course, what
that
of all properties.
But notice
later learn, is true mutatis mutandis
as
own
must
of
bundles
of
his
ideas,
Berkeley
given
analysis
objects
In the Dialogues
he never quite says that the
reject the first premise.
but he is
of an object,
of pain could be a constituent
sensation
to this when he says that the sensation of color could be,
committed
he allows that "I may say the
Commentaries
and in the Philosophical
to
etc.
in
is
Doctrine".16
my
my
finger
according
pain
on 'capable'.
of course equivocates
in the Dialogues
The argument
a
as
of
No unperceiving
is
such
die,
capable
sensing pain, but
thing,
neither

Thus understood,
is in
neither
as a member
of the bundle of
understood
pain too should be capable

is it capable of sensing color.
color can be in the die

the die. But

it. Thus
sensations
composing
for Berkeley.
of being in the die. Nor is this particularly
problematic
in fact
The problem of how we come to view sensible qualities, which
exist only in the mind, as qualities of things existing outside
the mind
was much discussed
in the period. The perception
of pain in phantom
itself
is still but vaguely
tends to show
limbs, which
understood,
by
was guilty of no confusion
at all in modeling
all
that Berkeley
on
no
Pains
less
than
colors
and
be
perception
pain.
shapes may
as constituents
that are projectable
into the world
of
sensations
that
In
the
is
with
shares
case,
any
objects.
important point
Berkeley
the materialist
of physical
the view that all ideas have the character
to have.
that
have
ideas
the
is,
they appear
things;
really
qualities
are
some
not
of
They
representation
physical objects only
intelligible
to have the qualities of those objects. To put it another way,
appearing
we have only perception
and no intellectual
of sensible
objects,
- in
of Plato's divided
intuition of non-sensible
short
half
only
objects
line. This is a key point worth dwelling on.
Imagism is the thesis that all ideas are iconic
they are images, or at
least, like images of what they might be taken to represent.
Strictly
this thesis about the nature of ideas is independent
of any
speaking,
thesis about the function of ideas. That is, the question of imagism is
of direct and indirect realism, for exam
of the question
independent
an
Thus
hold
that we are at least sometimes
ple.
imagist might
directly
aware of physical
objects,
although more
typically he will hold with
we are only ever aware of ideas which
Locke
that in direct perception
take the place of physical
of imagism
is also
objects. The question
even
of
the
of
realism
and
idealism.
the
Thus
independent
question

236

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

ideas exist only when
(for
perceived
imagist may hold that while
Locke
this is a tautology),
the objects
they are taken to represent may
Or the imagist may
like Berkeley
hold that ideas
exist unperceived.
are the sole constituents
of physical
which
thus exist only
objects,
is why the thesis must read that ideas are like
This
when perceived.
since for Berkeley
images of what they might be taken to represent,
ideas don't represent at all, at least not in the way they do for Locke.
What
about an imagist idea? To give first an
then is distinctive
what we know about the idea, and
characterization,
epistemological
on either
the idealist or typical realist
the object
therefore
about
is in the idea. Ideas are like pictures,
and our knowledge
is
account,
to what is in the picture. Put in these terms, imagism is the
restricted
in Meditations
II when
thesis Descartes
he claims
that our
rejects
wax
our
of
of
of
the
for we
it,
goes
knowledge
piece
beyond
image
in shape
know the piece of wax to be capable of infinite variation
no image or succession
of images will ever represent
for us
whereas
more
than a finite number of shapes. To put it another way, not all
for him not all
because
ideas can be imagist
ideas for Descartes
can
In
Descartes
in Replies
be
fact,
knowledge
pictorially
represented.
II says he here refuses the "title of ideas" to "images
for what we
To account
in
the
corporeal
depicted
imagination".17
are
its
intuition
and
intellectual
know,
(mentis
inspectio)
object
to
Descartes
in
addition
and
its
draws
imagination
images.
required
VI when he
in a familiar passage
from Meditations
the same contrast
a triangle we can
argues that while we can both imagine and conceive
a triangle
a chiliagon.
can distinguish
from a
We
only conceive
we
use
we
cannot
form
from
of
but
the
them,
pentagon
images
just
a chiliagon
to distinguish
from a
(a thousand-sided
figure)
images
to Objections

is
sided figure). Our image of a chiliagon
(a ten-thousand
and yet what we
the same image we have of a myriagon,
know of the one clearly differs from what we know of the other.
of imagism is
the question
Now, as this line of argument
suggests,
a psychological
not merely
of
about
the
kinds
thoughts we as
question

myriagon
apt to be

a matter

that might be
of fact do have. It is not the sort of question
seems
to have
tests
that
Hume
answered by the hopeless
introspective
this one. It would
invited with respect to a range of issues, including
if the difference
here between Descartes
be a great disappointment
a
were attributable
to
in their inner
difference
and Berkeley
solely
a
it is
of
is
thesis
about
the
kind
lives.18 Instead,
thoughts
imagism

BERKELEY

AND

THE

INEFFABLE

237

to have. And Berkeley's
thesis is that we have no intellectual
In particular, we do not apprehend
of metaphysical
entities.
or bare particulars,
that are not individuals or
universals
i.e., qualities
that are not qualities. To put it another way, Berkeley
individuals
is
or Lockean
extension
insisting that any talk about either Cartesian

possible
intuition

the one a universal and the other a bare particular,
substance,
relies on an intellectual
intuition that goes beyond our ideas. It gives
access to what is not in the picture.

material

2.

ABSTRACT

IDEAS

the picture, we
had intellectual
intuition and could go beyond
would
have abstract
ideas. Despite
strong and frequent
Berkeley's
insistance on the connection
between
the issues of abstract
ideas and
in establishing
have been less than successful
realism, commentators
to
of Berkeley's
that connection,
because
failure clearly
primarily
on abstract
It seems to me that Berkeley
his opponents.
characterize
If we

on innate ideas. In both cases there are very
ideas is like Locke
a strong front on behalf
issues at stake and each advances
significant
of his cause. But each is so possessed
of his cause that he does not
in any refined way the differences
among his opponents.
distinguish
can really understand
can hold the views he
Neither
how anyone
attacks,19 and they both tend to lump together as holding all the same
to hold any of them.
views everyone
they understand
a position
it clear he is attacking
makes
that not only
Berkeley
Locke
Locke
is a "deservedly
esteemed
held.20
philosopher
has given
it very much
but the position
is
countenance",21
[who]...
not at all unique
to him. I think this is true even if Locke's
passage
about the abstract
idea of triangle from Essay
4.7.9
is "in his mind
and colours all his argument".22
from the start of the polemic
Perhaps
sees a
the best way to think about the matter
is as follows. Berkeley
crucial and pernicious
thesis of Scholasticism
the
among
persisting
more or less naturally,
and also in Locke, where
it should
Cartesians,
have no business at all. The intramural dispute with Locke, of course,
to Locke,
will be most pronounced.
But if the animus is directed
the
view is under attack wherever
it is found.
The literature regards as de rigeur both the question
of Berkeley's
fairness to Locke and the answer to it that he was not. For one thing, it
was Berkeley,
not Locke, who in his citation of the celebrated
passage

238

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

at Essay
distracted

'all and none' and inconsistent',
and thus
italicized
4.7.9
from what Locke
attention
said, viz., that some parts of
ideas are put together.
Consider
how differently
inconsistent
the
reads thus restored and given a different emphasis:
passage
it not require some pains and skill to form the general
nor Rectangle,
be neither Oblique,
neither Equilateral,
In effect,
it is something
but all and none of these at once.
an Idea, wherein
some
of several
and
different
parts

Does

must

Idea

for it
of a Triangle,...
nor Scalenon;

Equicrural,
imperfect,
inconsistent

that cannot
Ideas

exist;
are

put

together.23

this reading might
the idea of a centaur, for example,
immunize
from Berkeley's
criticisms, but what parts of different
triangles are put
to form the abstract idea of a triangle? There seems to me no
together
to say the
that Locke's
is unfortunately
inaccurate,
denying
language
to which
the idea of
least, since it does not express his view according
a triangle in general,
all triangles,
is the
i.e., the idea that represents
idea of a triangle in particular,
It must be if,
i.e., is itself a particular.

Now

as he says, "all things, that exist [are] Particulars".24
it must be
Thus
or rectangle,
or
either oblique
and
scalenon,
equilateral,
equicrural
not all of these, nor yet none of them. In so far as it is a general idea, it
need be neither oblique nor rectangle,
neither equilateral,
equicrural
nor scalenon;
is
view as well. The
but this is Berkeley's
language
to Berkeley
two kinds of abstraction:
unfortunate
since it suggests
("none of these") and quality from thing ("all of
thing from quality
is
latter
is to be found in Descartes,
and the former
these"). The
not
to
if
in
be found,
here then elsewhere,
Locke.
indeed
to the Principles
The introduction
7-9), seems to clas
(paragraphs
texts
is concerned
with, but they are elusive
sify the views Berkeley
not
with
of
and I'm
them. Even
so, they
any reading
fully satisfied
two basic levels of illicit abstraction
and
might be taken as establishing
a third level which
is derived
from them. The first level occurs when,
a color is abstracted
it is the
for example,
from the thing of which
of a thing is treated as a thing itself.
color,
i.e., when a constituent
Such

abstraction

complete
Hylas

("none

ultimately

is impossible
the abstracted
item is in
because
of these"). It is this process of abstraction
that leads
as a bare
to represent Locke's material
substance

particular:
Philonous:

It seems

the general

abstract

that you
idea of entity.

then

include

in your

present

notion

of matter

nothing

but

AND

BERKELEY

Hylas:
those

else,

Nothing
particular

save

things,

apprehend.
...
Phil.:

tell me

general..

,.25

that

only
qualities,

sincerely

THE

239

INEFFABLE

to this general
I super-add
of all
idea the negation
or in any wise
ideas that I perceive,
imagine,

or

whether

you

can

occurs
The second level of abstraction
abstracted
from this and that triangle.
or
quality from different perceptions,
and may be thought of as
perception,
results in a second-order
universal.

frame

a

distinct

idea

of

entity

in

when extension,
for example,
is
is of a common
The abstraction
from different parts of the same
a higher level in the sense that it

This may be the Cartesian
ab
abstraction
is impossible
because
the
abstracted
item is inconsistent
of
("all of these"). The
impossibility
comes
to the same thing. A mere
these two levels of abstraction
of a thing is also inconsistent
constituent
in that it could have
and a common
is also incomplete
in
incompatible
properties
quality
that it is not determinate.
The third level, finally, results from combin
e.g., the
ing ideas from either of the two basic levels into a complex,
idea of man. Here, Berkeley may have inmind the substantial
forms of
straction

of

extension.

Such

the scholastics.
But what has any of this to do with
Consider
the following:

esse est percipil

(1) Berkeley
regards a false theory of abstract
or realism, as I shall prefer
of
materialism,
support
is thus at great pains to refute this theory.

ideas as the main
to call it. Berkeley

If we

examine
this tenet [materialism
thoroughly
on the doctrine
to depend
the bottom
of abstract
abstraction
than to distinguish
the existence
perceived,

so as to conceive

them

existing

or realism],
it will, perhaps,
be found at
ideas. For can there be a nicer strain of
of

sensible

objects

from

their

being

unperceived?26

of this false theory is Locke.
If Berkeley's
(2) The main proponent
on some points,
of
is
Locke
mistaken
it is not likely mistaken
reading
with respect to what he takes to be his main difference
from Locke,
as he sees it is a big one.
for the difference
That

a man

who

talk at this rate
it be considered
forth
brought
sciences.27

Berkeley's
not.

laid so great a stress on clear and determinate
ideas should nonetheless
seems very surprising.
But the wonder
will lessen if
[i.e., at Essay
4.7.9]
that the source whence
this opinion
flows is the prolific womb which
has
errors and difficulties
innumerable
in all parts of philosophy
and in all

metaphors

might

be somewhat

mixed

up, but he himself

is

240

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

res
in no significant
ideas differs
(3) Berkeley's
theory of general
calls general
ideas. This is
pect from Locke's
theory of what Berkeley
a long story the short of which
is to distinguish
attention
(or partial
from separation
theories of abstraction
(or extraction)
consideration)
Think of the difference
between Abelard
theories of abstraction.
and
to attention
The rough idea is that according
theories we
Aquinas.
to features of things, or perhaps only attend to things in
to separation
theories we take on the
while according
in things. Both Locke and Berkeley
component
intelligible
employ the
former and reject the latter.
an inconsistent
to avoid
A plausible
triad is to deny
the
way
that the theory of abstraction
commonly made,
Berkeley
assumption,
is a theory about general
ideas. What problem,
attacks in Locke
then,
to it?
with and what
is the false theory with respect
is he concerned

attend
merely
a certain way,

I believe

that Berkeley
is attacking
the following
transcendental
that he finds implicit among
the realists. Consider
how the
If there are appearances
would
realism.
go for Lockean
argument
or ideas), there must be things that appear (noumena or
(phenomena
to appearances;
is restricted
but sensory knowledge
physical objects);
argument

of objects,
there is non-sensory
thus, if there is knowledge
knowledge.
in conjunction
with his crude
because
Berkeley
rejects this conclusion
- it
is sensory knowledge
the only knowledge
entails
empiricism
to objects.
of
with
The non-sensory
respect
knowledge
skepticism
attacks when he attacks the theory
noumenal
is what Berkeley
objects
of abstract
ideas. Since he rejects non-sensory
but agrees
knowledge
to appearances
is restricted
that sensory knowledge
(ideas), he must
which he does because
distinction,
reject the phenomenal-noumenal
A
he finds the noumenal
thing apart from sen
object unintelligible.
an
as
our
not
for
is
sible qualities
inability to describe
object
thought,
uses against Locke
the argument
Berkeley
precisely
of the
that Gassendi
had used against Descartes's
alleged knowledge
wax. Descartes
that we know the wax by the mind
had claimed
itself
that
and not through the senses or imagination. But Gassendi
objected
"Tell us in good faith whether
the wax in itself is inconceivable
you
it attests.

Thus

it apart from any extension,
conceive
figure and colour?"28 This gives
us the sense of Berkeley's
claim that the denial of esse est percipi is a
In order to say of a thing that its esse is not percipi, we
contradiction.
must describe
is to
the thing, i.e., we must have it in the picture, which
esse
as
an
it
whose
is
When
i.e.,
appearance,
something
percipi.
regard

BERKELEY

AND

THE

INEFFABLE

241

to be able to conceive
of something
first claims
that exists
Hylas
he claims to be able to think of and describe
unconceived,
something
that is not in the picture. To put it a different way,
there is no
and therefore no identity, in terms of a bare particular.29
identification,
A thing is necessarily more
than mere
individuality.
a
is also
version of the transcendental
There
Cartesian
argument.
or kinds rather than bare parti
Here
the concern
is with universals
the crucial permise
culars or individuality.
involves
however,
Again,
an ontological
distinction
between appearances
of the real and the real
as it is itself. The argument
one that
in fact is the familiar Platonic
we
of sensory knowledge
what
know upon occasion
transcends what is
Descartes's
version of the argument
to the single Form necessary
and, as
he thinks, sufficient
to the New Science,
If there is
viz., extension.
what he calls extensa or extended
of physical
knowledge
objects,
if you like) then there must be knowledge
of
things (appearances,
extensio (reality, if you like). Individual
extension,
things like a piece
of wax can be known through the senses, but what
is real about the
it participates
in which
wax, namely the essence
along with all other
things, can be known only by the mind alone.
If this interpretation
is at all plausible,
then we can see how
at
Principles 99 is carefully chosen.
Berkeley's
language
provided
restricts

... when

by sensory experience.
the forms thus invoked

we

to abstract
extension
and motion
from all other
and
qualities,
we presently
lose sight of them, and run into great
themselves,
on a two-fold
of which
abstraction:
first it is supposed
that
extravagancies.
depend
for example,
be abstracted
from all other sensible qualities
and secondly
that
extension,
attempt

consider

them

the entity

of extension

by
All

may

be abstracted

from

its being

perceived.30

-

The Cartesians
and perhaps Locke
the realists in any case
would
or
and motion
make extension
in
the
But
itself.
when
thing,
things,
are
our
we
are
from
of
abstracted
them
they
perception
epistemically
cut off from them; we lose sight of them in Berkeley's
is
phrase, which
run into
not just a synonym
for the phrase
that follows
it. We
as he puts it, when we talk about things we don't see,
extravagancies,
we
talk
when
about what is not in the picture.
i.e.,
a
is
There
the picture metaphor
is
very important sense in which
A standard criticism of Berkeley's
attack on Locke's
inappropriate.
an
ideas is that (1) Berkeley
is working
with
theory of abstract
an
to which
of an idea, according
imagist conception
impoverished,

242

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

I think of it, and that (2) Locke
image of a thing is the idea by which
held some other conception
of an idea. The second claim I think is
to think of something
is typically
false; but so is the first. For Berkeley
to think of it, not some idea (image or otherwise)
of it. To be sure,
what I think of may, like an image, be necessarily
particular and itmay
be in the mind
calls
(which is the reason why Berkeley
necessarily
what I think of an 'idea'). But what
I think of, even in the case of
or dreaming,
are things.
In Berkeley's
view, previous
imagination
and certainly Locke,
Malebranche,
philosophers,
probably Descartes,
had failed to see that in talking about what
ideas
they were calling
in fact talking about things. This
is why he says, with full
they were
of the significance
realization
of what he is saying, that he does not
make
the reality of things) but ideas
things into ideas (thus denying
into things (thus recognizing
their reality).31
The upshot
is that Berkeley
is not an imagist at all, but simply a
nominalist.
Thus the attack on abstract ideas has very little to do with
or any other epis
the nature of ideas as they figure
in Locke's
It has to do rather with the nature of the things we perceive,
temology.
are all of them particular.32
which
too is why something
This
is a
case
a
of
in
it
is
since
existent;
possible
object
thought just
possible
can exist, only they can be objects of thought. In the
only particulars
case of general
than one thing,
ideas, or rather, thought about more
one
others. On
those occasions
when
thing goes bail for several
it from that of
Berkeley
speaks of the idea of a thing, distinguishing
which
it is an idea, he is referring to some other thing of which
it is the
In Berkeleian
terms, the lan
sign (either natural or conventional).
guage of names is the algebra of things.33

3.LANGUAGE

Consider

a position
often attributed
means
of an abstract
dogs by

to Locke:
to in
'dog' applies
idea dog, which contains all the
and significant
for an individual's being a dog.
necessary
properties
Now we know that according
to Berkeley,
there are no abstract
ideas. But then, how does 'dog' apply to individual dogs? According
to George
texts allow two possibilities:
Pitcher, Berkeley's
dividual

(1)

'Dog'
ideas.

applies

to dogs

directly

without

mediation

of

any

BERKELEY

(2)

Mediating
general

AND

THE

243

INEFFABLE

but determinate
ideas are necessary,
vs. abstract ideas) suffice.

images

(i.e.,

is right that
is textually
but I think Pitcher
complex,
in the Draft of the
opted for (1), more obviously
Berkeley
consistently
so in the published
but nonetheless
less obviously
version.34
Principles,
idea - "an idea, which
What,
then, is the role for Berkeley's
general
The

issue

in itself is particular,
considered
[that] becomes
general by being made
to represent or stand for all other particular
ideas of the same sort"?35
Pitcher's
ideas, which are not to be found in the
story is that general
are
not in order to show
in
introduced
the published Principles,
Draft,
a
reason. They were
to
how
for
different
'dog' applies
dogs, but
serve
as
to
of thoughts that
introduced
those (non-verbal)
constituents
to general terms. Previously
had thought that all
correspond
Berkeley
(and some individual)
general
thoughts were purely verbal. The only
I think that Melampus
idea I have when
is an animal is the idea of
an
to the effect
there is
additional
component
Melampus,
although
that 'animal' can also be a name for Melampus.
then came to
Berkeley
as intellectually
condemn
and to recommend
misleading
language
restricting
thought to bare ideas, without words. His recommendation
we should confine our thoughts to
is that in order not to be mistaken
ideas divested of words. The idea to which we attend in addition to the
idea of Melampus
in thinking
that Melampus
is an animal
is the
idea of animal.36
general
But Pitcher's
is already
story cannot be right. In the Draft Berkeley
"to
resolved
make as little use of [words] as I possibly can. Whatever
to take them bare and naked into
I shall endeavour
ideas I consider,
out
of my thoughts, so far as I am able, those names
my view, keeping
use have so strictly united to them".37 It is
constant
which
long and
the same resolution
almost
that appears
the
verbatim,
including
in
In addition,
the
the distinction
version.38
qualifications,
published
between
verbal and non-verbal
thought should have no ontological
for
For words are bundles of ideas; what else
significance
Berkeley.
could they be?
Even so, the story is correct in pointing out that Berkeley's
primary
concern with abstract ideas is not with respect to a false theory about
how a general
term is applied to its extension
in our ordinary ways of
In the first paragraph
the world.
in which
the issue of
describing
errors and
abstract
ideas arises, he tells us that the innumerable

244

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

are due to
of epistemology,
its intricacies and complexities,
difficulties
"the opinion
that the mind has the power of abstract
ideas or the
awareness
notions of things".39 Notions
of
of things; i.e., non-sensory
Now
such
be
accounted
the
for
insensible
things
might
object
things.
for geometry,
all kinds of sciences:
such things as squareness
horse ness for animal husbandry,
and so on. For Berkeley,
such an account
But his primary concern
is the use to
would of course be mistaken.
is put in philosophy
that false account
itself. "[Abstract
which
ideas]
are in a more
to be the object
of those
especial manner
thought
those
sciences which
go by the name of logic and metaphysics"
awareness
say, that depend on non-sensory
alleged sciences, we might
of insensible

things. And at the outset of the next paragraph Berkeley
of
insinuates
the proper
analysis of things as bundles

immediately
sensible qualities.
then, is the gibberish of metaphy
worry over language,
Berkeley's
in words
that are really only particular.
sics expressed
the
Despite
of generality,
stand
for
themselves.
appearance
nothing beyond
they
in this Berkeley
is consistent
between
the Draft
And
and published
In these terms.
of the Principles
and across his whole work.
versions
to introspect whether we have abstract
invitation
ideas is
Berkeley's
an entreaty
to see the way things really are, without mistaking
terms
for ideas, i.e., words for things. (Remember G. E. Moore's
nightmare
in which

between
tables and propositions.)
distinguish
Says
is
in
in
Mathematics:
his
"Nothing
Freethinking
Berkeley
Defense
of
that which
is incomprehensible
easier than to define in terms or words
as any words can be either separated or joined as
in idea; forasmuch
you please, but ideas always cannot. It is as easy to say a round or an
The extension of
oblong square, though the fomer is inconceivable".40
he couldn't

of ideas, it is apparent. When
thinks, is disguised;
to consider
the source of the mistaken
view of
ideas, itself the chief source of realism, he tells us that it is
if there had been no such thing as speech or universal
"...
language:
signs there never had been any thought of abstraction".41
Berkeley
to this effect. Locke's
then cites Locke precisely
mistake
is
subsequent
to think that all descriptive
terms, as we would
say, including general
"a precise
have
and settled
names,
i.e., a fixed
significance",

words,

Berkeley
abstract

Berkeley
comes

reference.
anyone

as he says "will clearly appear to
view, which
Berkeley's
a
little
is
that
"there is no such thing as one
reflection",
by

BERKELEY

AND

THE

245

INEFFABLE

to any general
annexed
term, they all
precise and definite signification
a great number of particular
ideas".42 Presumably
signify indifferently
what
of
terms, a matter
is, as in the case of singular
they signify
we
this
conventionalism
convention.
Given
might well ask how it is
to attend to things rather than ideas, or to ideas rather than
possible
seems to think
are things, and things are ideas. Berkeley
words. Words
there is something
about the connection
between
ideas and things that
it from the connection
between words
and things. He
distinguishes
seems to want something
like the so-called
natural logics commonly
in the sixteenth
in the seventeenth
century and epitomized
by
that the order and connection
of ideas is the order
Spinoza's doctrine
and connection
of things. But this is just what Berkeley's
nominalism
even between Melampus
himself and all
denies him. The connection,
other things we call dogs for whom we make Melampus
the sign, is no
less conventional
and logically arbitrary than the connection
between
the words
'dog' and 'Melampus' and what we apply them to. Perhaps
we can answer this difficulty by making
it more pressing.
at
of
The semantics
least as far as one dog, as a sign,
'dog' is easy
can exist apart from another. What
about 'red' or 'round'? On these
account of general
Reid
ideas was in trouble. "If
thought Berkeley's
a figure merely
we consider
as triangular, without
to the
attending
particular quality of the angles or relation of the sides, this, I think, is
prized

conceiving

separately

things

cannot

which

exist

as

separated...."

Julius Weinberg
followed up Reid with the comment
that "both the
are obscure",
and
and the logic of 'separate consideration'
psychology
to features of an image if those
asked "how can we fail to attend
features are ostensibly
present?"43 To answer this, consider describ
can
a part without
we
how
the whole? Or,
describe
ing;
describing
why

aren't

all

names

proper

names

or

all

common

names

common

to

answer to these questions
all things? The nominalist's
is the Humpty
we
to
of
what
words
Dumpty
theory
meaning:
apply them to.
apply
a
use
a
I
in
said
rather
scornful tone,
word', Humpty-Dumpty
("'When
mean
nor
more
'itmeans
I
to
what
it
choose
neither
less'. 'The
just
can
mean
so many
'whether
make
words
said
Alice,
is',
you
question
'which is to
is', said Humpty-Dumpty,
things'. 'The question
is why Berkeley
I
be master
that is all'").44 This
says that what
to
of this triangle will be true of all triangles answering
demonstrate
even though there may be things true of it not
the same description,
different

246

THOMAS

M.

LENNON

true of others, which
do not figure
in the demonstrations.
Thus
as
of
truth
well.
"It
Berkeley must opt for the Humpty-Dumpty
theory
is true, the diagram
I have in view includes all these particulars,
but
then there is not the least mention
made of them in the proof of the
[i.e., in this sense] it must be acknowledged
a figure merely
as triangular,
without
to the particular qualities..
.".45 If there is a problem here, it
attending
is ontological:
our descriptions
in the world makes
what
true? If
nominalism
is correct,
the answer is nothing.46
To be sure, convention
is constrained
On the details
by pragmatics.
of such constraint Berkeley
is not very helpful. However,
at least this
much emerges:
that the model
for the relation of natural signification
between
ideas and things is the causal relation, which Berkeley
of
course explicitly
in terms of the relation of sign to thing
analyses
signified. As heating water is as a matter of fact a sign of its boiling, so
our sign either Melampus
himself or the word
'dog' is as a matter of
fact a sign for what we call dogs. People who make Melampus
or the
a
we
now
word
for
or
what
call
seashells
'dog'
sign
turnips, hairpins
have terrible causal problems
in dealing with the world. The recom
or to things
mendation,
then, to attend to ideas rather than words,
to attend to causal relations
rather than ideas, is the recommendation
and the relations among our conventional
signs constrained
by these
proposition_And
that a man may

here

consider

relations.

At
this point we have reached
of all philosophical
the deepest
between
nominalism
and its conventionalist
disagreements,
theory of
truth on the one hand, and realism with an absolutist
theory of truth
on the other. According
to the one it is we who make
truths piece
to the other Truth
comes
for our
meal;
according
prepackaged
discovery.47
at all, but
tuition.48

The Master Argument,
then, turns out to be no argument
rather the expression
of a fundamental
in
metaphysical
The Berkeleian
stands or falls with
the Master
system
but only because
it expresses
the fundamental
intuition of

Argument,
that system. The intuition is begged by Berkeley when at the outset of
the Dialogues,
for example,
to the existence
he limits the question
of
sensibles. He begs the question,
for the realist would claim that there
exist some things that are unperceived
I have tried to
by sense. What
show is that the petitio occurs at a level where
there is no argument.
It
is a philosophical
nitwit, but it will take more
may yet be that Berkeley
than a quick refutation of the Master Argument
to show that he is.

BERKELEY

4.

AND

THE

CONCLUDING

INEFFABLE

247

POSTSCRIPT

I began by saying that the three issues of materialism,
abstract
ideas
and language were of a piece for Berkeley
and were woven
from the
same question.
of course
The question
is the very possibility
of a
realist metaphysics
that involves
it
for
would
of
the
author
(as
awareness
an
Truth
the
and
of
in
non-sensory
Language,
Logic,)
sensible object.
In these terms it is tempting to explicate
the metaphor
of what is in the picture and what is not as anticipating
any number of
own distinction
modern
variants: Ayer's
between what
is empirically
and what is not, or Carnap's
verifiable
between
internal and external
or Quine's
between what can be said in a theory and what
questions,
can be said only in some further background
theory, or Goodman's
between what
is in a version and what
is not in any version. These
involve long stories and will have to be resisted. A shorter
temptations
variant
is Gustav
thesis of ineffability.
Bergmann's
Wittgensteinian
Consider
'a is an individual', which we might represent as
the sentence
the predicate
"is an individual" or the quality
Ta', with T representing
even
to
In
order
Ta' we must already under
understand
Individuality.
it we must understand
it says, for to understand
stand what
that 'a'
the subject place. What
to say, ac
the sentence
occupies
attempts
to
is
and
An
ineffable
shows
itself.
cording
Bergmann,
only
analogous
to the quality Individuality.
arises with respect
problem
Bergmann's
to these problems,
solution
him to talk metaphysics,
is the
allowing
much-bruited
crucial
the
feature of which
is that by
turn,
linguistic
about such sentences we are able to say
talking in a metalanguage
about the non-linguistic,
real world. Given
something
metaphysically
on
the
distinction
nominalism,
however,
Berkeley's
language-world
rests is no more
which
this solution
tenable than the Lockean-Car
tesian distinction
between
ideas and things. Bergmann's
to
attempt
talk about even an ideal language no more gets him to a metaphysic
than the Lockean-Cartesian
to think about
ally real world
attempt
means
no
of
are
ideas.
Words
less
than
ideas
by
things.

it

NOTES
1
Martha
the

'essse

work

on

grateful.

Brandt

and George
'Abstract
Ideas and
Bolton, Mark Lambert,
(1985,
Pappas
is percipV Thesis',
Hermathena
have
let me see their unpublished
CXXXD?)
the issues of this paper;
for this and also for discussion
with
them I am very
I am also heartened
of our views. Rolf George,
Jill
convergence
by the general

THOMAS

248

M. LENNON

Vance

G. Muehlmann
Robert
E. Butts
and Robert
read earlier
Buroker,
valuable
criticism
and encouragement.
provided
2
A. Luce
and T. Jessop
The Works
1947-1958,
(eds.):
of George Berkeley,
see also Philosophical
vol.
43, 50, 200-201;
Commentaries,
1, pp. 71, 59;

drafts

and

vol.

2, pp.

vol.

2, pp.

472, 572.
3
Ian Hacking:

to Philosophy?
Matter
1975, Why Does Language
Cambridge
University
and Bolton
take the Master
Press, Cambridge,
p. 41. Pappas
very seriously.
Argument
See note 48.
4
A. N. Prior:
in Logical
117-22.
Theoria XXI,
1955,
Form',
'Berkeley
5
J. L. Mackie:
Clarendon
Locke
1976, Some Problems
Press,
Oxford,
pp. 53-54.
from
6
in unpublished
Robert
Turnbull
from the mid
lectures
'sixties.
7
Andre
Gallois:
Master
The Philosophical
Review
1974,
83,
'Berkeley's
Argument',
55-69.
8
et al. (eds.):
W. G. Mueller
'The Ego-centric
The lournal
1910,
Predicament',
of
and Scientific Method
et al.
inW. G. Mueller
1, 5-14,
Philosophy,
Psychology
reprinted
(eds.):

1960,

Cambridge,
9
Konrad

The
pp.

Development
331-37.

of American

Philosophy,

2nd

ed.,

Riverside

Press,

Sensationalism
and the Esse Est Percipi
1957,
Marc-Wogau:
'Berkeley's
in C. B. Martin
and D. M. Armstrong
Theoria XXIII,
(eds.), Locke
Principle',
reprinted
New York,
and Berkeley:
1968, Doubleday,
pp. 338-39.
especially
10
Mackie
pp. 53-54.
11
and Berkeley',
American
Quar
1980,
'Ideas, Minds,
George
Pappas:
Philosophical
p. 193.
terly 17, especially
12
p. 332.
Marc-Wogau,
especially
13
G. E. Moore:
'The Refutation
of Idealism', Mind,
N.S. XII,
1903,
(1922)
reprinted

in Philosophical
and Kegan
Studies, Routledge
Paul, London,
pp. 1-30.
14
Pitcher:
and Kegan
Paul, London,
1957, Berkeley,
pp. 189-203.
George
Routledge
in Berkeley',
See George
Pitcher:
'Minds and Ideas
American
1969,
Philosophical
6, 198-207.
Quarterly
15
on which
This
is the epistemological
version
of the argument
Richard
A. Watson
of Cartesianism.
the demise
See Richard
A. Watson:
1966, The Downfall
predicated
of
Cartesianism:
Martinus
Dordrecht.
1673-1712,
Nijhoff,
16
222: "Men are in
Commentaries
444, vol. 1, p. 55. See also Philosophical
Berkeley
the right in judging
their simple
ideas to be in the things themselves,
Heat &
certainly
as figure, motion,
Colour
is as much without
the mind
time etc.". p. 29.
17
AT VII, pp. 160-61; HR
Descartes
II, p. 52.
18
in Philosophical
Commentaries
of ideas of
398, probably
Says Berkeley
speaking
"I Publish
sensible
extension:
this not so much
for anything
else as to know whether
other men

have the same ideas as we Irishmen. This
ismy end and not to be informed
to my own Particular".
vol.
47.
1,
p.
Berkeley,
19
"For my life I cannot
abstract
Draft
ideas". Principles,
introduction;
comprehend
2, p. 125.
20
G. A.
Johnston:
The Development
1923,
London,
of Berkeley's
Philosophy,
118-19.
21
11, vol. 1, p. 30.
Berkeley,
Principles,
introductory
paragraph
22
Richard
I. Aaron:
2nd ed., p. 196.
1965, lohn Locke, Clarendon
Press, Oxford,
to bring
the killing blow at
Commentaries
1, p. 84: "Mem:
687, vol.
Philosophical
to bring Locke's
last v.g. in the matter
of Abstraction
general
triangle at the last".

as

vol.

pp.

See
the

BERKELEY

AND

THE

INEFFABLE

249

23
P. Nidditch
Human
Clarendon
1975, An Essay
(ed.):
Concerning
Understanding,
Press, Oxford,
p. 596.
24
An Essay Concernimg
Human
3.3.1; p. 409.
Understanding,
25
vol. 2, p. 222.
Principles,
26
5 et passim,
vol. 2, p. 42.
Principles,
paragraphs
27 A
New Theory
125, vol. 1, p. 222.
of Vision,
paragraph
28
At VII, p. 272; HR II, p. 147.
29
95.
Principles,
paragraph
30
vol. 2, p. 84.
Principles,
31
Three Dialogues;
vol. 2, p. 244.
Principles,
32
Thus Martha
Brandt Bolton
ties Berkeley's
of the idea
ideatum distinction
collapse
to his rejection
of abstract
ideas: "If an idea has been identified with its own object,
then
if its object
the idea is impossible
of the idea coincide
is, and the properties
evidently
with those of its object".
33
cf. G. J. Warnock:
in which we speak of the physical world
"...
the language
refers
to what we see and feel, taste, hear, and smell. Indeed, he regards
this, rightly,
directly
as one of his most
1953, Penguin
Books,
important
Berkeley,
pp. 77-78.
principles".
34
Pitcher:
and Kegan
1977, George Berkeley,
Paul, London,
George
p. 82ff.
Routledge
35
12, vol. 1, p. 32.
Principles,
introductory
paragraph
36
vol. 2, p. 36; Principles,
19-25.
Draft,
paragraphs
introductory
37
vol. 2, p. 141.
Draft,
38
21, vol. 1, pp. 38-39.
Principles,
introductory
paragraph
39
6, vol. 1, p. 27.
Paragraph
40
48, vol. 4, p. 135.
Paragraph
41
18, vol.1, p. 36.
Principles,
introductory
paragraph
42
18.
Principles,
paragraph
43
Julius Weinberg:
and Induction,
Relations
of Wis
1965, Abstraction,
University
consin Press, Madison,
p. 30.
44
See J. W. N. Watkins:
A Study
in the Political
1973, Hobbes
System
of Ideas:
2nd ed., Hutchinson,
Theories,
of Philosophical
Significance
occurrence
of the Humpty-Dumpty
in Hobbes.
Theory
45
16, vol. 2, pp. 34-35.
Principles,
introductory
paragraph
46
Or nothing
but convention,
which
is why Berkeley
does
Pitcher
47
The

London,

not

p.

104,

a problem

see

for

the

where

does.

of truth is the basis for Berkeley's
fabrication
piecemeal
to cannot have qualities
that what we attend
about which we

for something

thesis, viz.,
transparency
are ignorant or mistaken;
A.
say it has them. Robert

has the qualities we say it has just because
we
on Abstract
General
Ideas', loumal
Imlay: 1971,
'Berkeley
of the History
of Philosophy
that unless
to some qualities
the notion of attention
and not to others
is
IX, has argued
must
thesis (and that having
done so he is
incoherent,
Berkeley
reject the transparency
in trouble,
for ideas may
then be active,
to us). But the
etc., unbeknown
independent,
in which
assumes
a
the realist distinction
between
very way
Imlay frames his argument
See especially
(to which we may or may not attend).
thing and its qualities
p. 323.
48
of Berkeley's
of abstract general
ideas
Pappas points out the connectedness
rejection
not only with his Master
and idealism generally,
but also with such issues as
Argument
absolute
of the senses. He concludes,
however,
space and the heterogeneity
morality,
that

there may

abstract

general

a version

be

ideas

that

of the argument
is independent
of

on which
the Master

Berkeley
Argument.

bases

his

Bolton

rejection
argues

of
that

250

THOMAS

of abstract
rejection
Berkeley's
an application
of his metaphysical
and its object.
of Philosophy
Department
of Western
Ontario
University
Ont N6A
3K7
London,
Canada

ideas

M. LENNON

lies behind

collapse

his Master

of his opponent's

Argument,
distinction

which
between

in fact is
an idea


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