Tag Archives: Berkeley

Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.

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Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4)

This is the final 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 and part 3, 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.

I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. After rounding out an account of collective knowledge, I will show you that

Berkeley is a realist about the objectivity of meaning.

Before we conclude our examination of collective truth, we have to answer one more nagging question. How do we know that other people exist? Might they just be the products of some dream of mine? In short, what, exactly, is Berkeley’s solution to the problem of other minds, and how does it bear on the prospects of reading him as a collective realist?

Of course, Berkeley had quite a bit to say on the philosophy of mind in general. Berkeley is a particularist about ideas — he insists that the notion of an abstract idea is unintelligible. And he’s a nominalist, since any jumble of ideas might fit with a single, general name. Nothing connects a set of particular ideas with their general heading except the learned association between pain and ideas, and habitual use of the name to govern the ideas.

But Berkeley famously gives no explicit answer to this problem of other minds. His efforts are largely spent on the problem of the external world. So Stack might object: it is very fine to bring up a few scraps from his Notebook, but it isn’t fine to think that Berkeley is a realist about collective truth.

While it is tempting to inquire at length as to what Berkeley could or could not have said in his own defence, I think that his silence is much more interesting. It is best to say that Berkeley simply takes it for granted as a prior assumption that other people exist, and that they too are governed by the laws of associational psychology. He does not require evidence, argument, or proof. For all intents and purposes, we might treat the existence of other minds as a priori true, for Berkeley. (Or, if that terminology does too much violence to his empiricist project, we at least have to admit that the existence of other minds is dogmatically held.) And that is how he is so casual in his offhanded remark in the Notebook concerning a world “independent of Our Mind”. He could not bring himself to doubt the existence of others, or the prospect that their experiences differ radically from each other.

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The focus so far has been on objectivity about truth (and more recently on objectivity relative to the collective of human knowers). However, we are also in a position to inquire into the objectivity of meaning. Since the question of meaning is a subject that is intimately related to collective truth, I have left it till last.

In what follows, I will be assuming that meaning can be understood as the assertability-conditions for sentences or utterances. This is cheating, in a way, because assertion-conditional semantics has been a relatively recent research programme. However, my use of this anachronism in assessing Berkeley is indispensable. For it is difficult to imagine any other candidate theory of meaning that is clearly and uniquely concerned with linguistic meaning, as distinct from the contents of a truth-claim or the contents of a judgment (each of which can be discussed in their own sections). (I am using assertion-conditional semantics instead of truth-conditional semantics because technical debates over the concept of “truth” have relapsed into the muddled state that they were in a century ago.)

Objectivity about meaning involves a distinction between the conditions under which an individual believes a sentence can be asserted, and the conditions under which the sentence really can be rationally asserted. The meaning of a sentence “is a real constraint, to which we are bound… by contract”. (Wright, 5) In other words, an individual can be wrong about the meaning of a sentence, and this wrongness may or may not owe to failures of perception or cognition by the individual. Another way of putting the same point is through discussion of the normativity of meaning.

Here, we have to find the grounds for two kinds of languages — private languages, as formed by the individual alone, and collective languages shared amongst a community.

Recall that, for Stack, Berkeley appears to have a difficult time with the notion of collective modesty. For Berkeley (interpreted by Stack), we cannot speak of two people immediately confronting the same objects of experience. We can only mediately perceive that the same objects are being attended to through the constant observations of the divine.

Suppose that Stack were correct when he interpreted Berkeley on the subject of our collective knowledge of objective truth. What would that tell us about the objectivity of meaning? One consequence would be that, as far as Berkeley is concerned, if we did not suppose that God existed then we would be left with no basis for collective modesty at all. Hence we would have no basis for understanding one another. Our grammars would at best be idiolects. There would be no reason to suppose that “we” share any common ground at all, and we surely couldn’t mean the same or even similar things by our sentences.

But the situation might even be worse. All private languages require rules to follow — we have to be able to look at a sentence and say that it is true or false depending on some stable conditions. Arguably, private languages cannot exist, since in a private language there would be no stable distinction between correctness and error. For when the speaker of a private language were confronted with stimuli that refute his or her semantic rules, they could always unconsciously redefine the rules to make themselves a permanent and exclusive arbiter of what is correct. Some would argue that this would be semanticide, or the death of all meaning. It would entail semantic anti-realism for private languages.

***

Before we make sense of either form of language, we have to recall the salient facts about Berkeley on truth. I have tried to show that Berkeley is a realist about the collective’s stance towards objective truth. His use of the phrase “independent of Our Mind” in the Notebooks (801) is more than merely suggestive — he means it.

But how is it that we know anything? Consider the following passage from the Principles. “Upon the whole, I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author Nature, whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions in order to attain those things that are necessary to the preservation and well-being of our bodies, as also to avoid whatever may be hurtful and destructive of them.” (emphasis mine) There are two things we need to take away from this section. First, that we are aware of the hand of God because our experience teaches us that we have the skills to look after our own well-being and avoid painful stimuli. Second, we have that relationship by recognizing the universal language, or the meaning, of God’s works. “[T]he manner wherein they signify and mark unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment, which do not suggest the things signified by any likeness or identity of nature, but only by an habitual connexion that experience has made us to observe between them.” (61-62)

While these are nice things for us to know about truth, they’re not very helpful when it comes to the question of the objectivity of meaning. After all, we — well, most of us — certainly do not defer to God in order to get insight into what we mean by what we say. And it’s certainly not helpful to refer to Him when the common meaning of the language of nature is the proof of Him in the first place.

But actually, when it comes to individual languages, or idiolects, the solution is not hard to find. The arbiter of the meanings of individual utterances is the force of habit that associates two or more unlike ideas to one another, mixed with behavioristic psychology. The meaning of a sentence is established by the conditions under which the sentence warns me about cold and toothy things, and/or draws me towards warm and fuzzy things. That, at least for the moment, seems enough to make sense of how we can possess private languages for Berkeley.

From this point on, collectivistic meaning is not hard to come by. In order to broach the subject of collectivistic meaning, we would have to solve the problem of other minds, and we have to have an account of how individual languages work. I have suggested that the existence of other minds is supposed a priori, for Berkeley. We have individualistic languages due to the facts of associational psychology. Since we know others exist a priori, and that they roughly have “similar” experiences, react to “similar” things with pain, and so on, we have a common basis for distinguishing true from false sentences. In slogan form: so long as we have collective pains, and names for the pains, we have collective languages.

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I have endeavored to look at Berkeley in a fresh light. I’ve tried to demonstrate that his metaphysical idealism straddles the lines between realism and anti-realism. I have examined his doctrines in two ways — with respect to the objectivity of truth, and with respect to the objectivity of meaning.

I have made the case that his metaphysics is systematically ambivalent between realism and anti-realism. Since the terms can only be properly applied when they are explicitly connected to a knowing subject, and since the result is not uniformly realist or anti-realist across all knowing subjects, there are no grounds for thinking he deserves either label. And since his view is supposed to be a canonical example of anti-realism, we are left to wonder whether or not an issue of any general significance is under dispute.

At this point, a critic might claim that Berkeley is a hybrid-theorist, of the sort mentioned with respect to Kant and Descartes. If so, then we could preserve the language of realism and anti-realism to describe his general views.

This would not be a successful argument. For Berkeley does not distinguish between different kinds of access by saying that some are more sensitive to skepticism than others, nor does he distinguish between different kinds of worlds. From the first, Berkeley denies the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, out of fear that allowing these different kinds of access will allow the skeptic to gain credibility. (Granted, however, he does distinguish between mediate and immediate perception, and these can be thought of as distinct kinds of access. But the entire point of his metaphysical idealism is to protect both forms of perception from the scrutiny of the skeptic, so they are not distinct in the sense of being threatened by skepticism.)

To be sure, there is a sense in which God has more “access” than we do – He is omnipotent, we are not – but this hardly has the power to generate a categorical distinction of the kind we see between phenomena and noumena. It is phenomena (ideas) and notions (minds) all the way down. And at no point does he suggest that God inhabits a different world from ours. His entire point, on the side of theology, is to provide evidence of God on the basis of the natural order.

All that is left to consider is the objectivity of judgment, which I do not challenge. There is no inconsistency, or threat of inconsistency, in generally stipulating the kinds of things that one considers to be irremediably real. (Berkeley tells us that spirits and ideas are real, while abstract ideas are not, for instance.) But stipulation is exactly the problem; debates over the objectivity of judgment retain an aura of arbitrariness, of being language-games. If this is the only ground upon which Berkeley can draw a general dividing line between things that are real and things that are not, then we are left with nothing to talk about except our interesting opinions.

***

…at least, not so long as we are stuck in the classical debates.

I suggested at the end of the last post, that the use of God as a knowing subject is what contributes to Berkeley’s systematic ambivalence. If we treated atheism as the only viable possibility, and if we could construct a viable epistemology for both individual and collective knowers, then we could be realists about all three kinds of objectivity (truth, meaning, judgment). To make a long essay shorter: if they are interested in keeping their realism intact, then epistemologists must be methodological atheists. And if I am right, this is a claim that even metaphysical theists must concede.

Works Cited

  • Berkeley, George. (1985) Philosophical works: including the works on vision. Michael Ayers (ed.) (London: Dent)
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006) “Berkeley’s argument for immaterialism.” The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Ed. Kenneth P. Winkler. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 20 April 2010.
  • Miller, Alexander, “Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • Rosen, G., (1994) “Objectivity and Modern Idealism: What is the Question?”, in M. Michael and J. O’Leary-Hawthorne (eds). Philosophy in Mind: The Place of Philosophy in the Study of Mind. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 277–319.
  • Stack, George J. (1991) Berkeley’s Analysis of Perception. (New York: Peter Lang)
  • Wright, Crispin. (1992) Truth and Objectivity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
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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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