Tag Archives: Meaning

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.


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.


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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