Monday, March 5, 2012

Locke vs Berkeley Essay

Locke vs. Berkeley Essay

1. Abstract
In this essay paper I will critically evaluate and discuss rival views of John Locke and George Berkeley on abstract ideas. I will try to explain why one theory apply more to me and is better therefore from my point of view, and also emphasize on philosophical significance of both views.

2. Introduction
What is truth? Is it something that the majority of people consider to be truth? Or the truth is very relevant and each person taken individually can decide what can be truth for him or her on the basis of his or her personal experience? What is idea? How is it formulated in people’s minds? Is it just the reflection of the surrounding environment? Or vice versa, it is the idea creates the reality and things around us? People usually use common sense in their everyday life. They do not try to think and perceive the essence of things. All their lives they are being taught how things are, and how they work and how they are called. But still on practice, people living in the same society perceive things differently, and for different people same, from the first glance, things are different, as well as events, various situations and experiences. It is like in the known case when eyes of several people were closed and they were proposed to touch different body parts of the elephant; one touched the trunk and said it was a snake; another touched a leg and said it was the column and the other touched the tusk and said it was the statue. The elephant did not transformed to a statue, a snake or a column, the reality of the elephant did not changed, but people changed their own realities. Generally speaking they were all mistaken, but it changed nothing. So, the matter exists as long as someone thinks about it.


The notion of abstract idea is very controversial and in this paper I will present point of views of two outstanding philosophers- George Berkeley and John Locke.

3. Berkeley against Locke
The main philosophical thesis of George Berkeley is said to be: there is no such thing as matter. Even though is can seem a little bit strange from the beginning, but Berkeley envisioned this statement as inevitable philosophical tradition consequence that he inherited from Locke. Berkeley was anti-materialist and claimed that it was his reaction and direct consequence of position on substance of John Locke. According to Locke, substance is something that cannot be seen or touched; it is stuff in which we perceive things around us. And people cannot know the substance directly without knowing its qualities. And everything what is known about substance is ideas of qualities. One of the most important questions Locke asked is how people are able to have any idea about the substance purity if they are not even able to see it or experience it in any other way? He claimed that all people know is their ideas. Locke was extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that substance exists beyond people’s experience about it. The support was obviously needed. Otherwise the world could loose its structure and there will be just the mess of qualities. If there should order in the world, qualities are to be grouped together, otherwise there will be no things and no substances. Qualities’ grouping needs the substratum for their support, as they cannot be simply grouped together without anything. And the idea in the mind about the grouping and collection of qualities’ ideas is called an abstraction. This concept of abstract idea is central to philosophy of Locke.

Berkeley recognized that Locke was unable to find the consistent conception of the substance; he decided that he can find the one for the idea of material substance. From the first glance it is the complete rejection of the assumption of Locke that qualities cannot exist separately. But he decided to investigate the very notion of the abstract idea. In accordance with Berkeley, Locke was not right, as Berkeley considered that there is no concept of an abstract idea at all. He considered ideas to be passive objects that are observed by people and what people perform mental operations on. And such things cannot obviously be abstract, as they are always particular and definite. Therefore, Berkeley insisted that the mind of the person had to be completely different than the idea itself and he divided the reality into two kinds of things: spiritual substance that is nonmaterial and ideas. He said that only spirits can be active and operate, and it is a process while ideas are objects that cannot act. 

Pure substance in the world that we live in cannot be of material origin, as people are not able to have an idea of it, spirit might be. But it should not be the spirit of some people, as they do not cause their own ideas, but sensations. There should have been a greater spirit that causes the ideas of sensation. This idea is very close to the idea that God causes all people’s ideas of sensation and leaves no space for material objects. If one sees the table in the room, then it is God who put the idea about the table directly in his or her head. And it is not the chair that is material caused this idea in one’s head. And it is God that orders and structures ideas in people’s heads in the definite way. This idea seems a little bit strange to me, as Berkeley insisted that the spirit was a real substance that is not true. And all arguments of Berkeley against abstract ideas and mater can be turned against him. The idea of an existence of an abstract idea is quite realistic, and Berkeley should formulate and defend his point of view not rejecting the ideas of Locke, but try to reject and support the rejection of the concept that ideas and their qualities cannot exist separately.

Berkeley claims that there are two major kinds of abstraction and he rejects just one. Abstraction consists in gathering particular qualities from the reality and leaving the rest of them behind. In some cases, it can be assumed that the collection of those qualities can exist on their own without any other ideas, but not without mind to think about them, according to Berkeley: “I proceed to examine what can be alleged in defence of the doctrine of abstraction, and try if I can discover what it is that inclines the men of speculation to embrace an opinion so remote from common sense as that seems to be. There has been a late deservedly esteemed philosopher who, no doubt, has given it very much countenance, by seeming to think the having abstract general ideas is what puts the widest difference in point of understanding betwixt man and beast. "The having of general ideas," saith he, "is that which puts a perfect distinction betwixt man and brutes, and is an excellency which the faculties of brutes do by no means attain unto”.  For example, a person sees a tea cup on the table. In order to have an idea about the cup, one should abstract it out of the world – just taking the cup without the table, the chairs and the refrigerator. In such case, one should be able to imagine the existence of the cup separately, on its own. It is almost impossible on practice. Or possible if someone has the task: try to have “just a cup” idea. Therefore, it appears that it is almost impossible to experience the cup without noticing any other qualities around, though an idea to do this can fairly exist. It is possible to have an idea of the abstract cup. What I am trying to say, or to be more accurate- what is Berkeley trying to say- is that the idea of the cup can exist without what it is abstracted from, and therefore the abstraction is working and it is a real idea. And as abstraction can exist on its own, it is possible to call it the idea about the particular thing. Even though one abstracts the cup form the reality and the real world, it provides him with a particular idea. Even though the idea is obtained through abstraction, it is not abstract. It is a separate particular idea or a mental cup image of a definite color, shape and material.

In any case the abstraction can provide the person with something that does not exist in the real world. For example, the concept of “dogs” is definitely abstracted from all the dogs the person saw in his life. When the person says that he likes dogs, he means all dogs in general and no dog in particular. Therefore this idea is abstracted form all other ideas the person might have, as well as from all the dogs he saw. All dogs are grouped here, but just those whom the person saw, as he cannot say that he likes all dogs in the world, as he is “acquainted” just with group of them. And this it what Berkeley is trying to deliver- the idea of all dogs in the world is not possible and have no right for existence, as person’s mind is not infinite. 

According to Berkeley, things are static and the visual idea is said to be the mental image or the picture in one’s mind. And again, talking about dogs, when the person expresses his attitude towards those fluffy creatures, he is probably having the image of the particular dog from his experiences in mind while he speaks about his attitude to all of them in general. Berkeley also insists that people’s system of ideas consists of separate definite ideas, which are abstracted from their original context, and relations between them.

On the other hand, Locke is claiming that each idea that person thinks is said to be an affirmation of his presence and existence as the experience subject. Locke is sure that people’s knowledge cannot go further their ideas and he taught that people’s knowledge is tied and there are many such things in the world that the common mind just cannot understand and think of. So, knowledge is restricted to ideas and ideas are not internal and they originate from sense experiences. The mind is blank and empty until the person comes into contact with external world. It is experience that causes ideas to arise in person’s mind. So, as long as ideas are caused by external world, those ideas so not usually allow to see the world as it is, as they are usually interpretations based on people past experiences. External experiences that people have provide them with sensation that gives ideas about particular external objects. Locke says that people in general do not really know objects that surround them, but they know their ideas with which they say to themselves that a cup is a cup and not a dog. Locke says that the person’s mind perceives ideas that are caused by and represent objects that cause them. He insists that consciousness is that going on in particular person’s mind and what mind grasps is obviously not the reality, but ideas about what is the reality.

Locke claims that the objects of understanding are in mind and the term “idea” includes different sensations, representations, percepts, times, images, concepts, etc. He is sure that each person has innate facilities that permit mind to perceive, remember and combine ideas from the environment. According to Locke, mind is also capable of desiring, deliberating and wiling. And the transformation process of material provided by senses is the major mind activity and the material obtained cannot be restricted to ideas only.

There are two types of experiences according to Locke and two types of ideas- simple and complex. Types of experience are sensation and reflection. The scheme is that simple ideas are received from sense experience and through reflection the mind is capable of combining simple ideas to complex. And reflection just tells people about operations of their own minds. The experience of reflection is impossible without the experience of sensation. Simple ideas serve as raw materials for knowledge and complex ideas are built by mind as a compound of simple ideas. And it is mind that is capable of bringing ideas together, combining them and abstracting them. This is what Locke wrote to this relation: “The use of words then being to stand as outward marks of our internal ideas, and those ideas being taken from particular things, if every particular idea that we take in should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this, the mind makes the particular ideas received from particular objects to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances--separate from all other existences, and circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called abstraction, whereby ideas taken from articular beings become general representatives of all of the same kind; and their names general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas”. This seems very rational and close to truth.

The Locke claim that people know that they exist with the highest degree of certainty and they know that God exists with the second highest degree of certainty, as the notion of God is aid to be an idea of substance that is constructed from such simple ideas as knowledge, pain, pleasure, existence, etc. It is deducted from the intuitive knowledge of the person and the person understands that his existence as a conscious human being is stipulated by the will of something greater.

Berkeley split the world into two separate spheres. He is for spirit, but he replaced matter with the ideas alone. He insists that ideas cannot act. If they could, it would be able to unite any other ideas to form an abstract idea. Therefore, rejection of the idea’s actions leads to the rejection of the abstract ideas. Well, there is a piece of truth in such claims and has some philosophical significance. It is true that people are not able to get an image of some “general dog” into their heads, but they can utilize some mental images of particular dogs that reveal the understanding of the dog in general, so the general idea is essential here. But Berkeley argues that the person is not capable of manipulating images of dogs a s an idea, as it remains the part of person’s spirit and mental abilities. There is an impression that the world view and arguments of Berkeley are very much religious. In the very beginning of his Treatise he is appealing to God: “You will perhaps wonder that an obscure person, who has not the honour to be known to your lordship, should presume to address you in this manner. But that a man who has written something with a design to promote Useful Knowledge and Religion in the world should make choice of your lordship for his patron, will not be thought strange by any one that is not altogether unacquainted with the present state of the church and learning, and consequently ignorant how great an ornament and support you are to both”. His whole philosophy appears to be an attempt to confirm the existence of Christian God. He envisioned the concept of matter as atheism and an attempt to make the world purely mechanical and material. So, Berkeley just transferred everything that did not coincided with his understanding and beliefs to the “spiritual niche”.

Even though Berkeley’s ideas and arguments against matter can be accepted, his rejection of abstract ideas is completely irrational.

In order to remain consistent Berkeley is not able to put together his statements about the matter as unacceptable non idea and the acceptance of the spirit as the notion that cannot be defined. Even though he is right in his understanding that any passive structure demands process to make it really something, he has not sufficiently defended his contention that this process is not an idea. Berkeley is proposing the concept of “mental images”, which appear not to be as passive as they intended to be. As these images cannot be static and the “idea” is a process.

4. Conclusion
In the conclusion I would like to summarize and express my understanding of the main topic of discussion. My understanding of abstract ideas is closer to that of the Locke’s one. I agree that people create the description of the world with their thoughts and ideas about it. The mind of the person is tabula rasa until the person starts to experience and think about the external world. Knowledge is limited to ideas and ideas in their turn are originated from sense experience. Sensations tell people what is going on in the external environment. I completely support the Locke’s concept that ideas are caused by real world that is around us, but our ideas do not allow seeing the reality, the world as it is. Our ideas are just interpretations that are formed on the basis of our past experiences. They are not genuine. We already have a standard set of abstract ideas and notions to operate them and to formulate common ideas.

Locke suggests that the objects of understanding are in our minds and “idea” notion includes different sensations, percepts, times, images, representations, concepts and others. According to Locke, each person has internal facilities that allow mind to perceive, remember and combine ideas from the environment. Mind also has a capability of desiring, deliberating and willing. And the transformation process of material provided by senses is the major mind activity and the material obtained cannot be restricted to ideas only. 

Even though both philosophers are not consistent enough in their theories, they played an outstanding role in development of philosophy in general.
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