Berkeley's Idealism: A Critical Examination

Berkeley's Idealism: A Critical Examination

Berkeley's Idealism: A Critical Examination

Berkeley's Idealism: A Critical Examination

Synopsis

In George Berkeley's two most important works, the Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues Bewtween Hylas and Philonous, he argued that there is no such thing as matter: only minds and ideas exist, and physical things are nothing but collections of ideas. In defense of this idealism, he advanced a battery of challenging arguments purporting to show that the very notion of matter is self-contradictory or meaningless, and that even if it were possible for matter to exist, we could not know that it does; and he then put forward an alternative world-view that purported to refute both skepticism and atheism.

Using the tools of contemporary analytic philosophy, Georges Dicker here examines both the destructive and the constructive sides of Berkeley's thought, against the background of the mainstream views that he rejected. Dicker's accessible and text-based analysis of Berkeley's arguments shows that the Priniciples and the Dialogues dovetail and complement each other in a seamless way, rather than being self-contained. Dicker's book avoids the incompleteness that results from studying just one of his two main works; instead, he treats the whole as a visionary response to the issues of modern philosophy- such as primary and secondary qualities, external-world skepticism, the substance-property relation, the causal roles of human agents and of God. In addition to relating Berkeley's work to his contemporaries, Dicker discusses work by today's top Berkeley scholars, and uses notions and distinctions forged by recent and contemporary analytic philosophers of perception.Berkeley's Idealismboth advances Berkeley scholarship and serves as a useful guide for teachers and students.

Excerpt

This book is a critical study of Berkeley’s idealism, as he propounds it in his two most famous works, the Principles of Human Knowledge and the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. I see Berkeley as a reactive philosopher, responding to the work of mainstream seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers, especially Locke. Accordingly, the book begins with an extended analysis of these philosophers’ treatment of some key issues on which Berkeley opposed them, such as the theory of primary and secondary qualities and the problem of perception. But these issues remain live ones, and Berkeley’s responses to them are relevant to metaphysical and epistemological questions that engage us today. For this reason, I do not hesitate to make use of contemporary notions and distinctions that were not current in Berkeley’s day, but that are helpful for attaining a clear grasp of the issues. For the same reason, the focus of this book is squarely on the arguments that Berkeley used in his campaign to subvert the Cartesian-Lockean world-view and to replace it with his extraordinary idealist metaphysics. The book goes systematically through most of the arguments that Berkeley deploys in his attempt to destroy the prevailing views and to construct his radical alternative.

In covering those arguments, there is what may seem to be a certain awkwardness. It may seem that there is a duplication of effort as between two self-contained works, the Principles and the Dialogues, so that any textually sensitive treatment of their arguments must involve a fair amount of repetition. One fruit of this book’s analysis of the arguments is that it shows that there is very little such duplication. The compact direct arguments for idealism that Berkeley puts forward in the opening sections of Part I of the Principles take for granted a crucial premise that Berkeley defends only in the Dialogues, so that in at least this respect the two works are not as self-contained as they may appear. Further, the indirect arguments—those in which Berkeley supports his idealism by attacking the mainstream views—are presented in the two works in ways that are complementary rather than duplicative. Likewise, when one comes to the arguments by which Berkeley seeks to support his alternative world-view, as well as the many places where he anticipates and tries to refute objections to it, the texts are complementary rather than repetitive. It is my hope that the treatment of Berkeley as a reactive philosopher, and the dovetailing, seamless treatment of his two most important defenses of idealism, will make this work both a contribution to the literature and a self-contained, useful teaching tool.

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