Thursday, March 02, 2023

The Philosophy of Fire


220. Force or power, strickly speaking, is in the agent alone who imparts an equivocal force to the invisible elementary fire, or animal spirit of the world, and this to the ignited body or visible flame which produceth the sense of light and heat. In this chain the first and last links are allowed to be incorporeal: the two intermediate are corporeal, being capable of motion, rarefaction, gravity, and other qualities of bodies. It is fit to distinguish these things in order to avoid ambiguity concerning the nature of fire. [Berkeley, Siris 220]

Not enough has been done to study George Berkeley's 'philosophy of fire' ('fire' in this sense is elemental fire, and Berkeley also calls it 'light' and 'aether'); doing so would, I think, correct a number of mistakes people make in thinking through his immaterialism. In any case, the world as presented here is:

Governing Mind (= God)
World Soul (= invisible elementary fire)
Sensible Body (= visible and tangible fire)
Sensing Mind (= us)

Perhaps the simplest approximation for thinking of these things is to take them as identifying levels of discourse. When we talk about 'light', there are four distinct levels of meaning at which we can be pitching the term: as a way of talking about God, as a way of talking about the world as a whole (as when we talk about laws of nature and the like), as a way of talking about things in the world, as a way of talking about things in our mind's experience. On Berkeley's view this will ultimately be true of every term used to discuss the physical world at all, 'light' or 'fire' just being among the most primitive and basic such terms. This is actually quite necessary; given Berkeley's immaterialism, the intermediate corporeal levels have no existence outside minds, and thus can only be a sort of communicative medium or language-system between the immaterial mind of God and other immaterial minds. In this sense, the golden chain (sereis, which Berkeley anglicizes as siris) of [God - World Soul - Body - Human Soul] is perhaps analogous to something like the chain of communication, [Storyteller - Story - Expression in Sentences and Words - Listener]. From the Storyteller end (and absolutely speaking), the Story has a priority over the expression of it, determining which words and sentences are used; from the Listener end, we learn the Story through its expression.