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ON THE IDEALISM OF BERKELEY.
ON SOME PREVAILING MISTAKES WITH RESPECT TO THE IMPORT AND
AIM OF THE BERKELEIAN SYSTEM.
It is not my intention, in this essay, to enter at all into the argument with respect to the truth of the Berkeleian theory; but only to correct some mistakes concerning the nature and scope of that speculation, which have misled many of its partizans as well as of its opponants. Of these mistakes there are two which more particularly deserve our attention. The one confounds the scheme of idealism with those sceptical doctrines, which represent the existence of the material world as a thing which is doubtful : the other confounds it with the physical theory of Boscovich, which, while it disputes the correctness of the commonly received opinions about some of the qualities of matter, leaves altogether untouched the metaphysical question, whether matter possesses an independent existence, or not?
1. It is well known to all who have the slightest acquaintance with the history of philosophy, that, among the various topics on which the ancient sceptics exercised their ingenuity, the question concerning the existence of the material world was always a favorite subject of disputation. Some doubts on the same point occur even in the writings of philosophers, whose general leaning seems to have been to the opposite extreme of dogmatism. Plató himself has given them some countenance, by hinting it as a thing not quite impossible, that human life is a continued sleep, and that all our thoughts are only dreams.* This scepticism (which I am inclined to think most persons have occasionally experienced in their early years t) proceeds on principles totally different from the doctrine of Berkeley, who asserts, with the most dogmatical confidence, that the existence of matter is impossible, and that the very supposition of it is absurd. “ The existence of bodies out of a mind perceiving them,” he tells us explicitly, “is not only impossible, and a contradiction in terms; but were it possible, and even real, it were impossible we should ever know it.”
The attempt of Berkeley to disprove the existence of the material world, took its rise from the attempt of Descartes to demonstrate the truth of the contrary proposition. Both undertakings were equally unphilosophical ; for, to argue in favor of any of the fundamental laws of human belief is not less absurd than to call them in question. In this argument, however, it must be granted, that Berkeley had the advantage; the conclusion which he formed being unavoidable, if the common principles be admitted on which they both proceeded. I It was reserved for Dr. Reid to show, that these principles are not only unsupported by any proof, but contrary to incontestable facts; nay, that they are utterly inconceivable from the manifest inconsistencies and absurdities which they involve. All this he has placed in so clear and strong a light, that Dr. Priestley, the most acute of his antagonists, has found nothing to object to his argument, but that it is directed against a phantom of his own creation, and that the opinions which he combats were never seriously maintained by any philosophers, ancient or modern.||
With respect to Mr. Hume, who is commonly considered as an advocate for Berkeley's system, the remarks which I have offered on the latter writer must be understood with great limitations. For, although his fundamental principles lead necessarily to Berkeley's
* Τί άν τις έχοι τεκμήριον αποδείξαι, εί τις εροίτο, νύν ούτως εν τω παρόντι, πότερον καθεύδομεν, και πάντα α διανούμεθα ονειρώττομεν, &c. &c. +
“ We are such stuff
Is rounded with a sleep."-Shakspeare, Tempest. | Note (E.)
|| Note (G.)
conclusion, and although he has frequently drawn from them this conclusion himself, yet, on other occasions, he relapses into the language of doubt, and only speaks of the existence of the material world, as a thing of which we have not satisfactory evidence. The truth is, that, whereas Berkeley was sincerely and bonâ fide an idealist, Hume's leading object, in his metaphysical writings, plainly was to inculcate a universal scepticism. In this respect, the real scope of his arguments has, I think, been misunderstood by most, if not by all of his opponents. It evidently was not, as they seem to have supposed, to exalt reasoning in preference to our instinctive principles of belief; but by illustrating the contradictory conclusions to which our different faculties lead, to involve the whole subject in the same suspicious dark
In other words, his aim was not to interrogate Nature, with a view to the discovery of truth, but by a cross-examination of Nature, to involve her in such contradictions, as might set aside the whole of her evidence as good for nothing.
With respect to Berkeley, on the other hand, it appears from his writings, not only that he considered his scheme of idealism as resting on demonstrative proof, but as more agreeable to the common apprehensions of mankind, than the prevailing theories of philosophers, concerning the independent existence of the material world. “ If the principles," he observes in the Preface to the Dialogues, “which I here endeavour to propagate are admitted for true, the consequences which I think evidently flow from them are, that atheism and scepticism will be utterly destroyed; many intricate points made plain ; great difficulties solved ; speculation referred to practice; and men reduced from paradoxes to common sense.'
That Mr. Hume was perfectly aware of the essential difference between the aim of his own philosophy and that of Berkeley, is manifest from the following very curious note, in which, while he represents it as the common tendency of both to lead to scepticism, he assumes to himself entirely the merit of this inference. After stating the argument against the existence of matter, he adds: “This argument is drawn from Dr. Berkeley; and indeed most of the writings of that very ingenious author, form the best lessons of scepticism which are to be found either among the ancient or modern philosophers, Bayle not excepted. He professes, however, in his title-page, (and undoubtedly with great truth,) to have composed his book against the sceptics as well as against the atheists and free-thinkers. But that all his arguments, though otherwise intended, are in reality merely sceptical, appears from this, that they admit of no answer, and produce no conviction. Their only effect is to cause that momentary amazement and irresolution and confusion which is the result of scepticism."
The observations which have been made on the scope of Berkeley's argument, may serve, at the same time, to illustrate that of Dr. Reid's reply to it, which has been, in general, strangely misunderstood. In order to have a just idea of this, it is necessary always to bear in mind, that it is not directed against the sceptical suggestions of the Pyrrhonists, but against Berkeley's inferences from Locke's principles; or rather against the principles from which these inferences were deduced. The object of the author is not to bring forward any new proofs that matter does exist, nor (as has been often very uncandidly affirmed) to cut short all discussion upon this question, by an unphilosophical appeal to popular belief; but to overturn the pretended demonstration, that matter does not exist, by exposing the futility and absurdity of the principles which it assumes as data.
That from these data (which had been received, during a long succession of ages, as incontrovertible articles of faith,) both Berkeley and Hume have reasoned with unexceptionable fairness, as well as incomparable acuteness, he acknowledges in every page of his works; and only asserts, that the force of their conclusion is annihilated by the falseness and inconsistency of the hypothesis on which it rests.
It is to reasoning, therefore, and to reasoning alone, that he appeals, in combating their doctrines; and the ground of his objection to these doctrines is not that they evince a
blameable freedom and boldness of discussion;-but that their authors had suffered themselves too easily to be carried along by the received dogmas of the schools.
The very gross misapprehensions which have taken place with respect to the scope of Dr. Reid's book have probably been owing, in part, to the unfortunate title which he prefixed to it, of “ An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the principles of Common Sense.” So far, however, from meaning, by that phrase, to intimate a more than due respect for the established opinions of any particular sect or party, it must appear evident, to those who have taken the trouble to read the work, that his sole intention was to disclaim that implicit reverence for the current maxims, and current phraseology of the learned, which had misled so widely his two illustrious predecessors, Berkeley and Hume ;—to assert, in this most important branch of science, an unlimited right of free inquiry; and to set an example of this freedom, by appealing from Locke's fundamental hypothesis (a hypothesis for which no argument can be produced but the authority of school-men,) to the unbiassed reason of the human race. It is this common reason of mankind which he uniformly represents as the ultimate standard of truth; and of its decisions he forms his estimate, neither from the suffrages of the learned nor of the ignorant, but from those fundamental laws of belief which are manifested in the universal conduct of mankind, in all ages and countries of the world; and to the guidance of which the speculative sceptic must necessarily submit, the very moment he quits the solitude of the closet. It is not, therefore, vulgar prejudice that he wishes to oppose to philosophical speculation, but the essential principles of the human understanding to the gratuitous assumptions of metaphysical theorists. But on this topic I intend to explain myself more fully on a future occasion.
While Reid, however, in his controversy with Hume and Berkeley, thus opposes argument to argument, he does not follow the example of Descartes, in attempting to confirm our belief of the existence of matter, by the aid of deductive evidence. All such evidence, he justly