Realisms: collective realism (part 3)

This is the penultimate section of an essay in four parts. Here is a recap of the argument so far.

In part 1, with the help of Crispin Wright, I argued:

1. Realism is modesty (the world is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have epistemic access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.
2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.
3. If it turns out that there aren’t any general claims being argued about in the classic debates when it comes to realism about truth or meaning, then we might as well be pessimists about the conversation.

In part 2, I began to show how the antecedent in (3) is correct. There aren’t any general claims to argue about in the classic debates. I began this argument:

A. Berkeley is essential to the classic debates.
B. To make sense of Berkeley’s perspective on truth, we have to disentangle the different kinds of knowing subject: the individual, the collective, and the divine.

C. If it turns out that Berkeley is a realist in one sense of (B) but not the others, then it would be trivially true that there are no general claims under dispute in the classic debates.

To that end, I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. Now my task is to show:

(a) He is a realist about the objectivity of truth as it is understood by collectives. (Part 3)
(b) He is a realist about the objectivity of meaning. (Part 4)

It is not obvious as to what extent Berkeley would think that the collective subject has a relationship with objective truth. In his commentaries on Berkeley, George J. Stack is quite explicit in denouncing the social collectivist view. “Now, it would seem that, in accordance with Berkeley’s statements, we would have to assume that if twenty men were looking at, say, the moon, they each would perceive certain sense-data which would be mind-dependent. But the collection of sense-data they would identify as THE MOON would be numerically distinct for each perceiver. It would be erroneous to assert that each of the twenty participants would be perceiving the ”same” moon… it follows that no two persons can perceive THE SAME THING at all.” (Stack:68) In Stack’s final interpretation, there is no common object of discussion at all. So in that view, Berkeley denies collective modesty, and (strictly speaking) he denies collective presumption as well. As far as collective knowledge goes, Berkeley must be a nihilist.

I have reasons to doubt that the case is quite so bleak. An incidental comment in Berkeley’s Notebook (A) suggests that Berkeley would endorse collective realism. In passage 801, Berkeley writes, “I differ from the Cartesians in that I make extension, Colour etc to exist really in Bodies & independent of Our Mind.” Clearly, we know something, together. Notice that this is unusually dramatic language for a man who is characterized as the doctrinal champion of immodesty. It is an unusually explicit endorsement of realism, at least when it comes to our knowledge, our minds. Given the boldness of the statement, it seems plausible to read that passage as saying that Berkeley is at least willing to grant that any given knowing subject mediately perceives the same ideas as their neighbors when they gaze out at the moon.

This is not to say that Stack is entirely off-base, however. Berkeley has tended to be skeptical of the notions of identity, individuation, or sameness. How, then, could he agree that many different persons are looking at the same object? The only way that Berkeley can say this is by supposing that ideas across persons are merely similar. As Stack admits, “Berkeley tends to affirm, in regard to this question of identity, that if we take the word SAME to mean what it ordinarily means, then it may be admitted that different observers may be said to perceive the same thing or that the same thing ”exists” for different perceivers. Berkeley assumes that the word ”same” is ordinarily used to refer to those conditions under which no distinction or variety is perceived… In this sense, Berkeley admits that the ”same thing” can be perceived by, and exist ”in the minds” of, different persons.” (Stack, 67)

Admittedly, this is a peculiar view, since we can legitimately wonder how it is that I can see if my ideas can even resemble your ideas – I can hardly pluck your ideas out of your head and lay them side by side next to mine for easy comparison. Actually, I can’t even compare many of my own ideas to one another. For, crucially (in the New Theory of Vision), Berkeley holds the heterogeneity thesis — the idea that my ideas of touch, sight, smell, etc., have nothing in common with one another. Now if my tactile idea of a box cannot even be similar to my visual idea of a box, when both are available to me, then how am I supposed to make the even greater inferential leap by supposing that my tactile ideas are similar to yours? (Berkeley, 60)

It is hard to make sense of Berkeley on this, and I will not pretend that I can resolve his views on identity in any satisfactory way. The matter will, I think, have to be given a provisional resolution by attending to the ambiguity of words like “collective” and “Our Mind”. In one sense, the word “collective” is meant to imply a community of knowers that exchange ideas back and forth like parcels in the mail. This sense is clearly impossible for Berkeley.

But there is another sense of the word, corresponding to aggregate opinion in relation to the divine. In this, there is no suggestion that one person’s ideas can resemble another’s in some way that is introspectively obvious. Rather, one person’s ideas are judged to be similar to another’s person’s only by virtue of God‘s perspective, which we presuppose is out there.

We know that objects possess a quality of “outness” for which God is the guarantor. Perhaps this is the ultimate import of the phrase, “independent of Our Mind”. Let us assume so. What does this tell us about Berkeley’s account? It is as true as ever that Berkeley’s arguments are advertised as a form of anti-realism, e.g., repeating that objects cannot exist without being perceived by some mind or other. But the upshot of his argument, especially when accented by selections from his Notebooks, indicate that his anti-realism is, in effect, restricted to the knowledge of the divine maker. As for sensible objects and their relation to finite humans, he is as modest as can be. And so, in that sense, he is a self-affirmed realist about truth.

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It might be objected that the individualistic and collectivistic stances towards realism are nevertheless entirely dependent upon the divine stance toward anti-realism. For it seems that Berkeley wants to argue that individualistic and collectivistic stances are capable of grasping a quality of the outness of sensible data, and that they owe this presumption of outness to the divine form of anti-realism. In that way, it could be alleged that Berkeley is not a realist in any significant sense after all, since his realist doctrines all collapse into his divine anti-realism.

In order for this reductionist objection to be right, it would have to involve an asymmetric dependency – the collectivistic sense of realism would have to be grounded in the anti-realism of the divine, but not vice-versa. So if, for instance, Berkeley claimed that we had knowledge of God through mere faith, then it would be natural to conclude that there was such an asymmetric dependency. But Berkeley’s theology would have him argue quite the opposite. We have reasons to suppose that God exists, and these reasons are manifest in the operations of the real world. “Philonous” is explicit on this point: “Men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by God, because they believe the being of a God, whereas I on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a God, because all sensible things must be perceived by him.” (202, emphasis mine) Making the same point, again: “sensible things really do exist: and if they really exist, they are necessarily perceived by an infinite mind” (202, emphasis omitted). The doctrines of human realism and divine anti-realism are co-dependent. The language of realism and anti-realism about truth proves to be moot.

I have been trying to stress that this analysis of Berkeley forces us to end on a stalemate between realism and anti-realism. Yet at this point, it might be objected that there is a sense in which the game has been fixed in such a way that the anti-realist’s argument has been given surface plausibility. By placing accent on the knowing subject, and refusing to treat the phrase “independent of the mind” at face value, we have tacitly endorsed the idea that any plausible form of realism must take due care to be sensitive to the limits of the knowing subject. The realist, then, can rightfully complain that this trivially entails anti-realism. For they might allege that the demand for that an account be phrased in terms of perspective begs the question in favor of the anti-realist. For we are reduced in Berkeley’s case to a position of speaking in terms of “realism for us, anti-realism for God”, and the relativistic implications of this view are unpalatable to the realist.

I think that’s too harsh. An open-minded realist might argue that the language of “knowing subjects” can be accommodated. All we need to show is that realism holds for all minds alike. That is, the facts of the matter must be independent of all minds, universal to all genuine knowers: me, you, and God too. But then, of course, we are faced with a regress. In the first place, the question arises as to how we are supposed to establish that one subject knows has the same thing as their neighbor. If we say that we know they share the same knowledge because we reliable third-person narrators are observing the two subjects attend to the same stimuli, the question of how we know that, and so on. And if we stop the regress by appeal to the actual states of affairs, we are left appealing to the same bugbear that the open-minded realist had sought to dispatch.

It would be better if we were to hang up our hats on the objectivity of truth.

Unless, of course, we are atheists — in which case the question of God does not arise.

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  1. Benjamin,
    Read the first two of these and hope to do this one too. I’m finding them not altogether easy to follow, but then my training in philosophy is close to zero. Who knows? Maybe after reading this one I’ll have a proper comment.

  2. Ralph, I hope the blue box summary at the top will make it easier. If that doesn’t work, we can talk about it — sometimes what seems unclear in print becomes clear in conversation!

  3. I should add that I have presupposed knowledge of Berkeley’s work in the posts. The series was originally an essay for a graduate class. It’s pretty high octane philosophy.

    Perhaps not everything about the essay is very important to know. (Though in some sense, it’s all important!) But there is one extremely important thing about the essay, which you find in the final lines of this part. That is, I suggest that the assumption of God as a live possibility makes a conversation about realism impossible.

  4. Benjamin,
    I’m going on holiday for 2 weeks during which time I’m hoping to “master” all 3 essays. If I don’t I’ll let you know about it.

  5. Excellent!

    I’ll have the fourth and final instalment up soon, though all things considered I do not think it is as interesting as the others.

  6. Yes, this was challenging reading, which is what made it so enjoyable. And, I expect to enjoy digesting it for some time yet. And, I do appreciate discussions of Berkeley.

    I do have what is likely a fairly rudimentary question:

    To what extent is there discussion of other minds as external objects?

    It’s clear that there has been discussion that there are limits on comparing knowledge between different minds. But, it still seems as if external minds (individual or collective) are given a similar status the individual internal mind. As much as the assumption seems unavoidable, I have to wonder if there is anything useful in discussing that distinction.

  7. An excellent and important point, and equally good question. I do deal with the problem of other minds — too briefly — in the next section. You would be right to point out that it is something I *should* have dealt with in this section, because it seems to bear heavily on the subject of collective truth. Hopefully that oversight is forgivable!

    On the question itself. The long and the short of it is that Berkeley had almost nothing to say when it comes to the problem of other minds. From the start, his audience was the Many, the Vulgar, so it might be considered bad manners to question their existence while also trying to convince them of exotic metaphysics.

    As a matter of autobiographical fact he reports having had written a second section of the Principles. This missing section was supposed to have dealt with the problem of other minds. He ostensibly lost the manuscript while he was riding on a train in Italy. Here’s a very impressive source on the subject: http://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/#H5

  8. Talking Philosophy | Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4) - pingback on August 5, 2010 at 7:37 pm

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