The notions of Berkeley's philosophy
Notions govern mankind …
Alciphron, Dialogue 4
Pray tell me, are not speech and style instrumental to convey thoughts and notions, to beget knowledge, opinion and assent?
Alciphron, Dialogue 6
The title of this chapter is intentionally ambiguous. Usually we take the term “notion” to refer to Berkeley's characterization of the knowledge of spirit (soul, mind) and of God (and also of relations). That use of the term distinguishes it from the way we know physical objects, by sensation and perception. But the phrase “notions of” signals a more interesting use of “notion, ” to use one of the OED definitions, as “ideas, views, opinions, theories or beliefs, ” a use which the OED dates to 1603. Thus, the ideas, views, opinions, theories and beliefs found in Berkeley's writings, which he defended, would fit that definition. In fact, when we examine his various books and essays, the terms “notion” and “notions” occur frequently throughout. In the dialogue books, Three Dialogues and Alciphron, he employs these terms to refer to views of the different interlocutors in those exchanges. Theories or opinions or beliefs that one of the dialogue characters wishes to reject are labeled as disruptive, impious, evil and leading to skepticism or atheism. We also find many examples of specific notions; the terms are occasionally used interchangeably with “idea” or “impression. ”
Paying attention to an author's use of certain words or phrases can sometimes disclose aspects of his thought, or of the tradition behind his writings, not always noticed when we read and analyze his writings. Whether a careful inventory of the uses of the term “notions” in Berkeley's books will add to our understanding of his thought, whether