Locke, Reid, and Berkeley

Today in CoPhi it’s John Locke (not the “Lost” one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke’s concept of toleration), George Berkeley, and John Campbell on Berkeley’s Puzzle.

(Happy birthday Older Daughter – still the same unique person!)

John Locke has become a more difficult figure to research, ever since the Lost  television series pushed his namesake to the forefront of popular consciousness and search results. The fictional John Locke can walk, not back in civilization but on his freaky island. (But I can’t listen to this song.)

The real John Locke apparently had trouble walking  too.

He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner…

[I have to keep reminding myself that these “riding” philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]

His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself… his usual drink was nothing but water…

Good for him, I guess. He’s not the philosopher I’d most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that “the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought.”

His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and “a state of preparation for a better.” Repugnant words, to a humanist. And yet, other words of his (“all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty”) inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.

And some of our strangest television. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.


Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter (“That’s the way it is”) Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”


Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state, and toleration. A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it.

And, we can blame him in large part for Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) startling esse est percipi thesis, since Berkeley drove through the hole Locke’s representational realism had opened. Also today, John Campbell on Berkeley’s Puzzle.

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.”

This In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

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

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