Tuesday, April 21, 2009


In the Introduction to A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge Berkeley critiques a doctrine of abstract general ideas. He argues we don't need such ideas in order to know stuff or to communicate. Berkeley pointedly blames language, specifically its power of naming, for misleading the learned into an acceptance of the notion that we need abstract general ideas to intervene between our direct experience of the world and our knowledge of the world–if I'm not misreading him terribly on this point. We can say triangle and mean all triangles at once but it is difficult to think an abstract general idea of a triangle that is in fact all triangles at once.

Berkeley argues that names and ideas have no one-to-one correspondence. He seems to present a now familiar argument that words are polysemous while meanings are determined by contexts of use. What he says in fact is that words, in their relation to ideas, function like variables in algebra, "in which though a particular quantity be marked by each Letter, yet to proceed right it is not requisite that in every step each Letter suggest to your Thoughts, that particular quantity it was appointed to stand for" (XIX). Notice that by this analogy he hasn't erased representation completely from his thinking about words; if variables could not represent quantities at any step at all there would be no algebra. (And likewise, if variables had to represent quantities at every moments they wouldn't be variables; a dimension of time is introduced into our thinking, an other time, or a partial time: the sometimes.) He continues with his critique:

Besides, the communicating of Ideas marked by Words is not the chief and only end of Language, as is commonly supposed. There are other Ends, as the raising of some Passion, the exciting to, or deterring from an Action, the putting the Mind in some particular Disposition; to which the former is in many Cases barely subservient, and sometimes intirely omitted, when these can be obtained without it, as I think doth not unfrequently happen in the familiar use of Language. I intreat the Reader to reflect with himself, and see if it doth not often happen either in Hearing or Reading a Discourse, that the Passions of Fear, Love, Hatred, Admiration, Disdain, and the like, arise immediately in his Mind upon the Perception of certain Words, without any Ideas coming between. At first, indeed, the Words might have occasioned Ideas that were fit to produce those Emotions; but, if I mistake not, it will be found that when Language is once grown familiar, the hearing of the Sounds or Sight of the Characters is oft immediately attended with those Passions, which at first were wont to be produced by the intervention of Ideas, that are now quite omitted. May we not, for Example, be affected with the promise of a good Thing, though we have not an Idea of what it is? Or is not the being threatned with Danger sufficient to excite a Dread, though we think not of any particular Evil likely to befal us, nor yet frame to our selves an Idea of Danger in Abstract? If any one shall join ever so little Reflexion of his own to what has been said, I believe it will evidently appear to him, that general Names are often used in the propriety of Language without the Speaker's designing them for Marks of Ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the Mind of the Hearer. Even proper Names themselves do not seem always spoken, with a Design to bring into our view the Ideas of those Individuals that are supposed to be marked by them. For Example, when a Schoolman tells me Aristotle hath said it, all I conceive he means by it, is to dispose me to embrace his Opinion with the Deference and Submission which Custom has annexed to that Name. And this effect may be so instantly produced in the Minds of those who are accustomed to resign their Judgment to the Authority of that Philosopher, as it is impossible any Idea either of his Person, Writings, or Reputation should go before. Innumerable Examples of this kind may be given, but why should I insist on those things, which every one's Experience will, I doubt not, plentifully suggest unto him?

(XX, Berkeley's emphasis)

Berkeley goes on to request that we read him charitably and creatively, as the occasion of our own thinking: "Whoever therefore designs to read the following Sheets, I intreat him to make my Words the Occasion of his own Thinking, and endeavour to attain the same Train of Thoughts in Reading, that I had in writing them" (XXV). We should attain a train of thought, mimetically, through our reading of Berkeley's words. However, Berkeley also tells us that we can reach knowledge through our hands but not through our words, which only serve to obscure knowledge–but I don't know if he thought this, and I don't think this thought's consistent with his earnest attempt to communicate his thoughts through words. Is it an erroneous reading? He says, plainly, "we need only draw the Curtain of Words, to behold the fairest Tree of Knowledge, whose Fruit is excellent, and within the reach of our Hand" (XXIV). How would it be possible then to read Berkeley at all? Can Berkeley's words here be anything but a curtain? When we want them to be a curtain, because we know what is really meant, that is, once we have reiterated his procession of thought, followed the same path through his words he followed without being misled in the slightest by his words, then his words are merely a curtain; yet to arrive at this knowledge we need along the way some indication of what he's thinking, in which case his words are for us rather like the hand that enables us to reach the fruits of knowledge. In essence then Berkeley asks to be read whimsically.

If Berkeley never pondered a philosophical practice of defamiliarization, a process by which "the reach of our Hand" becomes strangely enough, nakedly, the reach of our hand, then his words tell us of a desire to pursue such a path nonetheless. The entirety of empiricism cries out to be so led. Empiricism in its undisguised meaning calls upon us to investigate experience to full extent, including the experience of language, which always comes under our sway, within our ambit, along our own paths of rumination. We engage language concretely, yet the concreteness of language is not something that it would possess on its own, in the way in which language possesses things, but rather it emerges with our engagements, which are exactly sometimes defamiliarizing. This is an algebra.

What's presupposed here in the algebra of the estranging engagement–the engagement that comes with concretization (artefactual concretion), with all the weirdness, weird growth of real stuff–in addition to the sometimes, is a power of whimsy. The two go together. However, not so much an addition to the sometimes, the whimsical rather thrives as the affective life of the sometimes. Whereas the sometimes merely points, the whimsical communicates. For that purpose it relies upon the sometimes, or perhaps an abstract general idea of the sometimes, but naturally it does so whimsically.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:28 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page