Berkeley, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rorty redux

Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis; John Campbell on Berkeley’s PuzzleVoltaire vs. Leibniz; and one more look at Richard Rorty.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson


The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley’s point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson’s demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.


Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radicallyRadical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real “external” world.

Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley’s puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. “If all I’ve got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?” His solution is no solution: “You can’t, it’s just an illusion… All we have are our ideas.” That’s a really bad idea, Bishop B.
Campbell himself makes more sense. There are “different levels in the description of reality,” and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/”objective” features of the world, is “out there,” i.e., real… but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies:

Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows.

That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn’t think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It’s up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, “it’s very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”
The latest In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.

Voltaire was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide


“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate“:

Leibniz’s feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind… 

And James’s comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. But if you like Leibniz’s defense of the ways of god, maybe you’d love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is an infinity of them?

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawnLeibniz@dawn… Spinoza Leibniz slides]

What’s more to say about Rorty,”unquestionably the best philosophical writer since Bertrand Russell… the Rhett Butler of professional American philosophy”? 

For one thing, his impact in advancing Applied Ethics. (“Applied” means practical, relevant, and useful. Our Lyceum is Applied.) “Applied ethicists tended to follow a Rortyan method in their practice– not handing down theories or edicts, but talking to their new colleagues, questioning hidebound assumptions.” I’d like to think I’d have done that anyway, with or without Rorty, in my approach to Bioethics and Environmental Ethics. But I appreciate the moral support.

I was also a big fan of his Achieving Our Country, with its “secular, reformist, anti-epistemological” message.

And I still applaud his observation that old noble-sounding vacuities like “the intrinsic nature of reality” and “correspondence to reality” really don’t help us discern things like the intrinsic nature of reality or correspondence between it and our ideas.

I also agree that our best guide to “objectivity” is usually intersubjectivity, and prefer “What use is it?” to “Is it real?” I like his lower case truths. I like his naturalism, holism, and non-reductivism. He was right: we can’t enjoy a View from Nowhere. He was right again: a good story tops a good theory. “Let me tell you a story…”

But, give up the appearance-reality distinction? No, not yet. Drop the goal of getting closer to truth? No. Define philosophical progress in terms of our ability to assimilate new theories to old ideas? No. But more imagination in philosophy? YES! 

In Rorty’s view, our traditional seeking of “authoritative guidance”—from God, 
Reason, “the fierce father,” “a nonhuman authority to whom we owe some sort of 
respect”—debilitated us as free agents.

But relying entirely on oneself for authoritative guidance is also  debilitating. Nietzsche, for instance, “served the hormonal imperatives of philosophical teen males” — (have you seen Little Miss Sunshine?) — as efficiently as Bart Simpson does those of normal adolescents.”

So, what is Rorty finally saying? Pretty much what Voltaire said: let us cultivate our garden.

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