Monday, August 02, 2004

Berkeley and Buber (LFPA)

Citations: (a) David S. Forth, "Berkeley and Buber: An Epistemological Comparison," Dialogue vol. X, no. 4 (December, 1971): 690-707.
(b) Warren E. Steinkraus, "Berkeley and Inferred Friends," Dialogue vol. XI, no. 4 (December, 1972): 592-595.

Summary: Forth's article uncovers a number of interesting similarities between the epistemology of Buber and that of Berkeley. Forth suggests that the ground for a comparison of the two "lies in the religious orientation" of each (690). The particular issues that are compared are, on the one hand, Buber's I-Thou relation, insofar as every such encounter is in some way an encounter with God, the Thou who cannot become an It; and, on the other hand, Berkeley's divine visual language by means of which we receive information about the world. Forth suggests that "meeting" is the foundation of Buber's system and "perception" the foundation of Berkeley's, and "it is with God that we are, in each instance, dealing--or who is dealing with us" (691). Given this, he notes several of the similarities that result:

1. Forth first looks at basic similarities, claiming that "Buber and Berkeley are both self-declared empiricists" (691), i.e., the basic appeal for each is to experience. That sort of experience which is important for Buber is that which occurs between persons (in the I-Thou relationship). For Buber, one cannot have an I divided from the Thou or the It to which it is related; likewise, Berkeley argues (Prin. 1.98) that the mind or spirit cannot be severed from its cogitation. He also, of course, argues that what the mind thinks about (in the sense of ideas) cannot be severed from the mind (Prin. 1.91). Buber is not such an avowed immaterialist, but his understanding of the I-It experience approximates Berkeley's understanding of the spirit-idea relation. The differences are largely due to Buber's greater subjective, and Berkeley's greater objective, emphasis.

On other minds, there might seem some difference, given that Berkeley holds that other minds are known by signs, and Buber holds that they are known by encounter; Forth suggests that the difference is not so great as it might seem, but concludes:

The difference in their positions--and it is a vital difference--is that Buber extends otuwards to other minds the intuitive, direct knowledge which Berkeley recognizes as typical of our notional knowledge of ourselves. Berkeley's failure to extend the concept of notional knowledge deprives him of a way of characterizing those deep human involvements with other persons which Buber takes to be the only ultimately meaningful of human existence. (694)

2. Forth then looks more closely at this issue of inter-personal communication and commitment. He claims that "Berkeley limits all contact between persons to the impersonal exchange of 'signs'" (694) and that his interpretation of the divine-human relationship "excludes the possibility of prayer" (695). He goes on to note the importance of the divine visual language thesis to Berkeley's system, saying,

Not only does his proof of the existence and nature of God rest on it (Alciphron IV, 14), it also gives point and meaning to the whole sensory experience of man which his immaterialist thesis might otherwise seem to render vacuous (Prin. I, 30-31), provides him with an alternative to the physicalist theory of causality (Prin. I, 32), and suggests a rationale of the all-important distinction between 'real things' and 'chimeras' (Prin. I, 29, 30, 33). (696-697)

He also claims that it can be blamed for Berkeley's problem with inter-personal relationships because "All communication, all interpersonal relationships, must remain on the I-It plane, because it is only at that level that the Visual Language will work" (697).

3. He then discusses some problems with Buber's view of inter-personal relationships.

4. Forth then suggests a convergence of Berkeley and Buber, in that they both insist "on the effectiveness of our day to day world as the medium of communication. It is, to take the highest example, through our resolute turning to the everyday world that we meet God" (703). As he notes, "in that which each philosopher views as finally significant they speak as one: God meets us and deals with us in the hour by hour, minute by minute events of our everyday sense-experience world" (704). He then goes on to discuss some derivative agreements on issues like the nature of time, of causality, and of the self.

Steinkraus responds to this excellent paper in a later note (b). His particular concern is to correct Forth on the issue of Berkeley's ability to accommodate inter-personal relationships. He points out that how we get our knowledge of others need not have anything to do with friendship or warm or cold personal contacts. This is more an ethical issue than an epistemological one. He notes that it isn't actually clear why Forth thinks Berkeley's view excludes prayer, and that Forth interprets Berkeley's occasionalism too strongly.

My Evaluation: This is a great line of inquiry that needs development. Some thoughts:

1. Let's clear up this visual language issue a bit. It is not (pace Steinkraus) a metaphor; Berkeley is being quite literal when he says vision is a language. It is in some ways different from human language, but they belong to the same genus. Nor is it true (pace Forth) that all communication or inter-personal relationship remains on the I-It plane in Berkeley because of the visual language. On the contrary, it really isn't possible to think of vision as a language without thinking of it as an interpersonal communication (between God and ourselves, and in case of human-human communication, among the community of human 1, God, and human 2).

2. Forth is not right to say that "perception" is the foundation of Berkeley's system; a more accurate suggestion would be to say that "signification" is. And signification in Berkeley's system works both by inference (or, to be more strictly accurate, suggestion) and encounter. That is, it is an encounter suggesting other notions and ideas to the mind. "Inference" might suggest some sort of argument; but Berkeley denies that the sort of inference to which he refers is this type. Rather, he prefers to use the word "suggestion." A common example he uses is the blush: the blushing face of someone in front of us suggests something to us, given our experience with blushing people, and by this means helps us to understand the invisible spirit whose passions are expressed in the blush. There is nothing in this to prevent personal encounter. The exchange of signs is not 'impersonal'; it presupposes persons as its very heart. (Forth seems to claim that Berkeley refuses to grant that we have a notional knowledge of the self, this also doesn't seem right.)

3. Steinkraus is certainly right to note that Forth's claim that Berkeley can't accommodate prayer doesn't seem to be supported by anything.

4. Nonetheless, despite a number of technical objections, I think this paper has recognized something important about Berkeley, and deserves to be better known. (Hence my bringing it in as an article in the LFPA.)

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