Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge: Book Review

Author: George Berkeley (with introduction by Kenneth Winkler)

Length: 87 pages (plus a 36 page introduction)

What is ItAn argument against abstractionism*. A philosophical exercise in defense of immaterialism**. An examination of the consequences of success with the aforementioned- on philosophy, science, and atheism. A philosophical basis for the existence of a divine power. Principles is organized in 156 paragraph-like sections, which largely break Berkeley's arguments into digestible blocks.

What's SaidEverything we perceive exists in the mind (ideas and objects). The mind is the only thing of substance. Nothing can exist independently of it. Every thing that is, therefore exists only there. Abstraction of ideas is not directly perceivable and is therefore impossible. This foundation of materialism is the cause of much confusion in philosophy, science and religion. Things cannot cause ideas or vice versa. Cause and effect as we know it therefore does not exist. Things and ideas can only be caused by minds because minds are the only substances capable of defining an intentional purpose. As imagination exists in ours, the real world of sense exists in that of a superior mind. God therefore exists.

What's TrueIt takes a while to understand the ebb and flow of Berkeley's writing style. This edition is well organized: useful companion notes, reference notes, timelines and a glossary. Berkeley is obsessed with language/semantics and its connection to thoughts and things. His arch enemy is apparently John Locke, whom he singles out several times. Berkeley is a very witty and pithy debater, as a result this book is sometimes very entertaining! Berkeley defends his argument more than he advances it. It is not obvious at first, but he has an agenda - convincing the reader to logically accept the existence of God. Principles is a somewhat challenging read, thus it is not necessarily a page turner. Despite that, when it comes to philosophical texts, this is a very accessible piece of work.

So What: On occasion it is worth reading a book that challenges the way you think. This is a relatively short (albeit dense) treatise that does just that. Principles challenges fundamental views of the world, which means that it pushes you to think: differently, empathetically, and critically. This also makes Principles an exercise in patience and persistence, but these are all of the things that make reading philosophy rewarding.

Final Word: Worthwhile Read

Concrete Examples from Winkler in the Berkeley School of Thought:
* Abstractionism: The abstract idea of "man" [for example] represents every man without representing any man in particular. It is an indifferent representation of all men. [Berkeley's view is that this] "man" must be the product of some kind of mental manufacturing because this would be an image (a kind of object) of a very unusual kind - try to imagine a "man" without all the ideas of particular men derived from experience directly. [It is impossible].
** Immaterialism: If a tree falls in the forest when there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? [According to Berkeley], if there is really no one around, then not only is there no sound, but there is no tree, and no forest. [Berkeley believes] there [is] no material substance. [That which we think is], is only a collection of ideas which depends for its existence on the mind.

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