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12 Mar

Berkeley’s Pragmatism

So far from denying the external world which we know, Berkeley corroborated it. It was the scholastic notion of a material substance unapproachable by us, BEHIND the external world, deeper and more real than it, and needed to support it, which Berkeley maintained to be the most effective of all reducers of the external world to unreality. Abolish that substance, he said, believe that God, whom you can understand and approach, sends you the sensible world directly, and you confirm the latter and back it up by his divine authority. Berkeley’s criticism of ‘matter’ was consequently absolutely pragmatistic. Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning. Berkeley doesn’t deny matter, then; he simply tells us what it consists of. It is a true name for just so much in the way of sensations.

William James (1907/1981) Pragmatism Hackett Publishing, p. 44.

16 Jun

The Veil of the Temple

I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice. The good bishop of Cloyne took the veil of the temple out of his shovel hat: veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field. Hold hard. Coloured on a flat: yes, that’s right. Flat I see, then think distance, near, far, flat I see, east, back. Ah, see now! Falls back suddenly, frozen in stereoscope. Click does the trick.

James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 3: Proteus.

This episode of Ulysses is set at 11am on Sandymount Strand where Stephen sits on the rocks, idling away the hour and a half before he is due to meet Mulligan. While he sits, he reflects on form and substance, echoing the episode in the classical Ulysses, where Menelaus grips Proteus as Proteus changes into many forms.
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12 Mar

“I refute him thus!”: Misunderstanding Berkeley

Dr Johnson

Johnson definitely not considering kicking the cat
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Public Domain
“Johnsoniana” (1836), p. 124

The philosophy of Berkeley seems to have been consistently misunderstood, from Swift refusing to have the door opened to Berkeley since Berkeley believed he could walk through it and Dr Johnson kicking a stone to refute Berkeley’s thought1, to the 19th century satirical summarising of Berkeley’s thought as “I’ve proved it, it’s nothing, depend on it—nothing—bona fide nothing” and Bill Nye’s “if you drop a hammer on your foot, is it real or is it just your imagination? You can run tests a couple of times and I hope you come to agree that it is probably real.” (For more on Nye, see this post by Massimo Pigliucci which includes the video and critiques it.)

There are two different problems here. The first is a misunderstanding of Berkeley’s argument, as shown by the 19th century satire and Bill Nye. Both suggest that Berkeley is saying that everything that exists is not real. That is not what Berkeley is saying. It is almost precisely the opposite.

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14 Jan

Ideas about Berkeley

Berkeley, in his lifetime, was regarded as a disciple of Malebranche. Subsequently he came to be regarded as a Lockian. The new opinion was a natural growth. In the course of time British acquaintance with Malebranche sank, and the fame of Berkeley rose. National sentiment adopted him as the English philosopher in succession to Locke. It may therefore be in place here to mention the danger of over-estimating the degree to which the young Berkeley was anglicized.

There are two national sentiments to be considered, and to hold the balance is not easy. To speak of him, without qualification, as an English philosopher cannot be right. Leslie Stephen’s statement ‘Berkeley always considered himself an Englishman’, is misleading, if not mistaken. Berkeley was born and bred in Ireland. His education was entirely Irish. He speaks of himself as an Irishman several times in the Commonplace Book. Newton to him was ‘a philosopher of a neighbouring nation’. As with many his sentiments were necessarily mixed and his loyalties divided. But credit must go where it is due. Berkeley’s system in so far as it forms part of the heritage of international philosophy was complete before he set foot in England, and in England he wrote little or no philosophy.

The changing views of Berkeley’s influences and nationality. From A. A. Luce (1934) Berkeley and Malebranche, Oxford University Press, pp. 10-11. (archive.org)

29 Apr

Root and STEM

Taming the Electric Fluids (c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Taming the Electric Fluids
(c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the general consciousness, philosophy is more associated with the arts than with science. The nesting of philosophy under “literature” in the Oxford Reference timeline tool is one example. In the case of Irish philosophy it’s understandable given great writers such as Swift, Wilde and Yeats fit into the category of Irish philosopher. But Irish philosophy (as all philosophy) also includes people who are interested in the natural world, mathematics and technology.

AE wrote in 1925 (Irish Statesman): “Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.” Four of those names unequivocally played a role in the history of STEM. Three of those were also philosophers.
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10 Mar

Lecture Series, David Berman on Berkeley and neo-Berkeleian thought. 23rd, 25th, 26th March, 10am-12noon, Trinity College Dublin

This three part lecture series on The Essential Berkeley and Neo-Berkeleian Idealism/Empiricism will be given by Prof. David Berman as part of Trinity College’s Berkeley Initiative.

All three lectures will be held in the Neill Hoey Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub Building, Fellows’s Square, Trinity College Dublin.

Monday 23 March, 10am–12pm
Wednesday 25 March, 10am–12pm
Thursday 26 March, 10am–12pm.

The lectures are free, but registration is required on Eventbrite.

The Lecture Series Abstract from EventBrite:
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26 Nov

Moon Illusion

berkeley moon

When, therefore, the Horizontal Moon is said to appear greater than the Meridional Moon; this must be understood, not of a greater Visible Extension, but of a greater Tangible Extension; which, by reason of the more than ordinary Faintness of the Visible Appearance, is suggested to the Mind along with it.

Berkeley on the Moon Illusion in his 1709 An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision. These lines are from section LXXIV. The Moon Illusion is discussed from section LXVII – note in LXXV his mention of the “gross blunders” of Descartes, Hobbes and Gassendi, shown up by Mr Molyneaux (not William but his brother Thomas.) Thomas Molyneaux’s paper in Philosophical Transactions is here.

Both the 1709 and the 1732 versions of An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision are available here , more on the Moon Illusion from Nautilus Magazine here.

28 Jul

George Berkeley Summer School, Thomastown, August 15th & 16th 2014

schedule berkeley 2014

The George Berkeley Summer School will be held on the 15th and 16th of August, 2014 in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. George Berkeley was born at Dysart Castle, Thomastown.

Cost: 10 euro (per adult)/8 euro (senior citizens,students,unwaged), includes all events and picnic. Come along on the 15th/16th of August or to register in advance please email georgeberkeleysummerschool@gmail.com Payment can be made on the day by cash or cheque.

Find out more on the George Berkeley Summer School Facebook page.

23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.
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