Realisms: truth and Berkeley (part 2)

This post is a continuation of a multi-part series that began here.

Many philosophers patrol the armistice line between realism and anti-realism. These philosophers optimistically claim that there is a substantive disagreement between the schools.

Some of these philosophers might be described as hybrid theorists, owing to their acceptance of both realism and anti-realism, albeit in different senses. These philosophers have noticed that the conditions of presumption and modesty are not very clear. They contend that our cognitive abilities have limits, and the degree of access we have to the world must be held up against the horizon-line of our abilities.

This is how I think we should read Kant. He made the distinction between phenomena and noumena (thing-in-itself), and argued that powers of reason could be used to access the former but not the latter. In his way of speaking, noumena could only be contemplated by speculative reason, even though such speculations held no potential for vindication. In other words, the noumenal realm is mind-independent, in that it transcends the evidence accessible to our cognitive powers, while phenomena are mind-dependent.

Other hybrid theorists suggest that there might also be different ways of construing the meaning of “the world”. In effect, such forms of thought would argue that there are two interacting worlds. I think Descartes‘s substance dualism might be cited as an example.

The Kantian and Cartesian views are remarkable because they are optimistic about the use of the realism/anti-realism language, at least once one accepts the nuances they want to add to our conceptions of modesty and presumption. The conviction in favor of the preservation of the realism/antirealism debate is given succinct expression by Wright: “If anything is distinctive of philosophical enquiry, it is the attempt to understand the relation between human thought and the world… If our successors come to reject not the details but the very issue of the contemporary debate concerning realism, it will be because they have rejected philosophy itself.” (1)

But other philosophers have outright rejected the distinction by arguing that we can’t make much sense of what the debate amounts to. Rosen explains, “… after a point, when every attempt to say just what the issue is has come up empty, we have no real choice but to conclude that despite all the wonderful, suggestive imagery, there is ultimately nothing in the neighborhood to discuss.” There can be many kinds of failures at articulation. If the debate, for example, rests upon a misguided use of language (as Wittgenstein insisted), or a muddled understanding of how metaphysical access fits with the substance of the world, or a bogus distinction between appearance and reality (as Rorty claimed), then we ought to abandon all hope of progress towards enlightenment on the issue. At its most extreme, pessimism results in theory quietism, and indifference towards generic realist/anti-realist debates. Whether or not this amounts to a “rejection of philosophy itself” remains to be seen.


I count myself among the pessimists. In order to argue for quietism, in the sense of indifference towards any generic claims about realism, I am interested in exploring the very slight role that immodesty plays in George Berkeley‘s anti-realism. That is to say, I wish to show that, as far as human knowledge of truth and meaning are concerned, he is a realist.

It goes without saying that, as far as the broad caricature of Berkelean idealism goes, objects are dependent upon the operations of the understanding and ideas before the mind (dependent on the mind). Berkeley is at his clearest at the outset of the Principles, when he writes: “It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly ideas formed by help of memory and imagination”. (89) So Berkeley, when reduced to slogan form, can be considered immodest. But there is no question that he would support explication of what the knowing subject happens to be. For “…all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence, without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit.” (91)

Berkeley chooses John Locke‘s realism as a central target. Specifically, Berkeley argues against Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. For Berkeley, the distinction between these qualities raises the question of how ideas (secondary qualities) could resemble insensible material things (primary qualities), which cannot be given a credible answer. Hence, the distinction acts as a wedge that can be exploited by the skeptic. So, again, it would seem logical to characterize Berkeley as an anti-realist. He does, after all, abhor the idea of material substances, lurking beneath our sensations like the dullest of ghosts.

Yet this surface anti-realism is merely apparent. A.C. Grayling comments, “Berkeley’s denial of the existence of matter is not a denial of the existence of the external world and the physical objects it contains, such as tables and chairs, mountains and trees. Nor does Berkeley hold that the world exists only because it is thought of by any one or more finite minds. In one sense of the term ”realist”, indeed, Berkeley is a realist, in holding that the existence of the physical world is independent of finite minds, individually or collectively.” (Grayling:168) The fact that Grayling takes pains to talk about realism in terms of finite minds, we can infer that the phrase “independent of the mind” need not be ambiguous about the knowing subject.


The debates that have informed present-day arguments on realism/anti-realism have rested upon different philosophical ways of speaking about the phrase “independent of the mind”. Hence, the denial of modesty is ambiguous unless the definite article is replaced by reference to the kind of knowing subject. If we try to fill in the gaps, we find that there are at the very least three kinds of immodesty: dependence upon our collective of minds, dependence on an individual mind, and dependence on the divine mind. In Berkeley, and in scholarly commentaries on Berkeley, we find explicit illustrations of this threefold distinction. We shall examine each in turn.

Berkeley’s arguments frequently seem to begin from an individualistic point of view. This is evidenced by constant explicit personal references, marked by phrases like “for my part”, “I sense”, and so forth. This is just to say that he chooses a phenomenal examination of the objects of his senses as his provisional starting point. Such a strategy is to be expected of philosophers that have proceeded in the wake of the Cartesian method. Yet he frequently leans away from the egocentric and into the social by explicitly leaving the ultimate verdict up to the audience, and by advertising himself as being of one mind with the “vulgar”. He continually asks the reader to troll their own thoughts and put his claims to the test of their own experience.

But, of course, this starting point is merely provisional. For it is also common knowledge that Berkeley believed that objects, like the tree in the yard, had an quality of “outness” that persisted even when we were not attending to it. As he puts it in the Second Dialogue (through the mouth of Philonous): “…I conclude, not that [sensible things] have no real existence, but that seeing they depend not on my thought, and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist.” (Berkeley, 202; emphasis his) We are left, at the very least, with individualistic realism.

Where he drew upon his individual experience for the purposes of explaining that real things must be comprehended by cognitive powers, we fnd him abandoning his own experience in application to his metaphysics. In that way, the tree in the yard continues to exist in such a way that transcends his evidence for it. The passage continues: “As sure therefore as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it.” So Berkeley’s anti-realism is only relative to the divine knower.

So far, we have looked at the objectivity of truth relative to individuals, and relative to the divine. But we have left out two other issues: the objectivity of meaning, and the collective as a knowing subject. That’s saving the best for last. After all, if it turns out that Berkeley thinks that we have no collective access to the world, then we will have found some grounds for saying that Berkeley is an anti-realist about human knowledge. But if we can’t make that claim, then the whole debate over realism and anti-realism ends up being vapid pontification over God’s ideas.

Whereas, musing over God’s ideas is about as worthwhile as asking the question, “How now Brown Cow?”; and whereas, the realism/anti-realism debate is a keystone to philosophy; we must be resolved to face the possibility that, if Berkeley is not an anti-realist about collective access to the world, we will have shown that much of philosophy is absurd.

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