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Now the second question was How Berkeley could think that a denial
of the belief in ideas, i.e., the belief in something whose whole nature
consisted in being perceived, involved us in absurdity; and he thought so
primarily because of his notion of the self-subsistence of spirit and
consequently of the essentially relative character of anything other
than spirit. (Spirit is taken to be the inner nature or identity of t
those beings which we call spiritual and anything else that we refer to
must also be described in terms of identity of the same kind).

The original identity of consciousness or spirit was expressed by
Descartes roughly in the form:- “I cannot think that I do not think”;
and that is an expression of my spiritual identity. And similarly the
proposition:- “What is perceived cannot be unperceived or cannot have an
existence independent of being perceived” is Berkeley's expression of
the identity of ideas---an identity which is dependent upon the ultimate
identity of spirit. And Berkeley thinks, just as Descartes did, that
such identities are undeniable; that to attempt to ,deny them involves us
in contradiction. And here we have the notion of self-evident truths; a
notion which was also prevalent in mathematics and which led rationalistic
philosophers of the time to regard mathematics as of very great
importance. In fact we may say that what Descartes and his immediate
followers wished to do was to make philosophy mathematical or to discover
philosophical truths which had mathematical certainty. In fact it is
curiously enough only Berkeley among the predecessors of Kant who takes
up the empirical position that there is nothing peculiar about the science
of mathematics, i.e., that it has no greater certainty than any other
science but is made up of propositions which we have to discover by
experience. But although he takes that view of mathematics, still, in his
account of perception, he begins with rational or supposedly undeniable
truths and attempts, by means of them, to work out his theories and to
refute his opponents.

Now we can see at once that if a proposition were strictly identical,
i.e., if of the form “A is A”, then it could not give us any information;
and if it were used in an argument that only sort of conclusions
that would be possible would be one which had already appeared in the
premises. In syllogistic form:-

A is A  A is B 
B is A  A is A 
Therefore:- B is A   therefore:- A is B 

On the other hand, if a proposition is not identical, if it conveys
real information, then it requires proof or it requires support from
observation; and Berkeley is not entitled to say that his propositions
must be self-evident to everyone when he finds that, as a matter of fact,
most people deny it; and most people will continue to deny it unless it
can be shown to be strictly undeniable but that same demonstration will
show it to be uninformableative . Taking the statement that “What is perceived
cannot be unperceived” we should admit that only if it is expressed
as a pure identity, namely, that “What is perceived is perceived or is not
unperceived”; but we cannot admit it in the sense that What is perceived
can never be unperceived, i.e., that what is perceived at one time might
not be unperceived at another time. That is the assumption that we
commonly make in the observation of things, namely that those things
which we are now perceiving had existed in the same form immediately
before we perceived them even although no one else was perceiving them.

  ― 19. ―
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And Berkeley's demonstration of contradiction or absurdity has no
application to that belief and there is not contradiction in saying that
what is now perceived by me was previously unperceived by anyone. It
may be, of course, that there is a difficulty in being certain of this,
but it is none the less possible to believe it and, as far as we know, it
might well be the case. To say, then, that what is perceived at one time
is not perceived at another is an intelligible proposition and if Berkeley
wishes to disprove it he must advance, in opposition to it, some
definitely observed facts and not any mere identity.

As before, his argument depends on confusion between an identity
and something which is not an identity. He asks, “Can there be a nicer
strain of abstraction than to distinguish the existence of sensible
objects from their being perceived, so as to conceive them existing
unperceived?”. His proof, then, that what is perceived cannot be unperceived
is that what is perceived cannot be thought to be unperceived
without involving abstraction; so that the guarantee that whatever is
perceived is essentially perceived or has it in its nature to be perceived
is that that is how we conceive it or think of it. Now whether this
is true or not it is quite different from the identity which people
might be expected not to reject. We now have the definitely informative
proposition that “What is perceived is thought of as perceived; in other
words, when we contemplate any of those things which Berkeley calls ideas
we not only recognise their peculiar characters but we also recognise
that they are ideas, or if we fail to recognise them, we are guilty of

Now what Berkeley does not show is how abstraction is possible, i.e.,
how, if those objects are ideas and nothing but ideas, it is possible for
anyone to think of them without thinking that they are ideas. And again
the same difficulty arises as confronts Descartes in connection with his
theory of the thinking essence, namely, that if a number of things or
what we suppose to be a number of things all have the very same essence
or nature, then they cannot really be different but must be one single
thing. If all that can be said of a thinker as he really is, is that he
thinks then there can be no real distinction between one thinker and
another. And, in the same way, if the whole nature of ideas consists in
being perceived, there can be no real distinction between one idea and
another but we simply have one essential idea in place of the variety
of objects which we ordinarily recognise. And again if the whole nature
of a particular object is to be perceived then what we call its peculiar
character, for example, its colour, green, yellow, cannot really belong to
its nature and so we cannot really properly say that the object is green.

So long as we retain the theory of inner natures or ultimate
identities, these difficulties will continue to arise and will remain
insuperable. All that Berkeley's argument amounts to, then, is that there
is a certain class of things which we can call perceived things but he
is not entitled to say that any particular thing which has once been in
that class can never go out of the class again, and also he is not entitled
to say that perceived things are necessarily thought of as perceived
because that would imply that whenever we think, we think about ourselves
in taking any particular object as related to us whereas the fact is that
we think of many things without considering their relation to ourselves
at all and that, as our ordinary language shows, we distinguish quite
definitely between the way in which things are related to us and the

  ― 20. ―
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characters which they themselves have; and Berkeley himself has to speak
in that way about the other spirits, the existence of which he affirms,
because, in order that we should know them they must come into relation
to us and yet they are to be thought of as having characters of their
own and as existing quite independently thereby.

Now if that is possible as regards other spirits, it should logically
be possible as regards any object whatever; but this is not a complete
refutation of Berkeley; it might have been a mere accidental
inconsistency on his part, and separate proof would be required to show
that we cannot in general regard things we know as being dependent
upon us.