Thursday, June 23, 2011

Berkeley's Descriptions

Michael Gilleland recently quoted a passage from George Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. The passage goes on at some length after the section Gilleland quotes, in something of the same vein. Berkeley is always a test case for me when it comes to distinguishing philosophers who read well and philosophers who don't, precisely because of his lush descriptions, of which he has several more in the Three Dialogues. There are philosophers who largely either skip them or treat them as merely pretty ornaments; such philosophers are not reading well. They are also not doing much justice to Berkeley, who is both an economical writer and a strategic arguer -- he does not in general do anything otiose. Lush descriptions in Berkeley always, always have a philosophical point and contribute to the argument. In the Three Dialogues, at least, every single lush description is an argument in its own right. The one quoted in the above post, for instance, is an argument against a misinterpretation Hylas makes against Philonous's position, and one that is still commonly made today. Berkeley's famously an idealistic immaterialist: he thinks that there is nothing more to sensible objects than our sensations (sensible ideas) of them -- the sensible world has no existence outside of the mind. People often read this as saying that sensible bodies don't 'really' exist; but the whole thrust of Berkeley's position is in the opposite direction: to say that something really exists is nothing other than to say either that it is a mind or that it exists in one. Berkeley keeps bringing the reader of the Three Dialogues back to the beauty of the garden in which the discussion is happening in order to drive home the point that every rational person takes this, the splendors you actually see, to be the real world. What you see does not merely represent the real world; this, and nothing else, is the world in which you live, and this is world enough for anyone. People who think nothing is an argument unless it is easily put into a form with numbered premises and a single conclusion easily miss an argument whose whole point is that the evidence is so overwhelming, so immense, so much a thing of every moment of every day, that you could spend the rest of your life cataloging it and never reach the end of it, and whose ramifications are endless. Berkeley is, after all, an empiricist: in the end all argument comes down one way or another to "Look and see."

The Three Dialogues is not the only work by Berkeley with lush descriptions. Alciphron, the dialogue Berkeley wrote while in Rhode Island, trying to finalize the plans for his proposed College of Bermuda, is filled with them as well. Just one example, from the first of the seven dialogues:

After Dinner we took our Walk to Crito's, which lay through half a dozen pleasant Fields planted round with Plane-trees, that are very common in this part of the Country. We walked under the delicious Shade of these Trees for about an Hour before we came to Crito's, House, which stands in the middle of a small Park, beautify'd with two fine Groves of Oak and Walnut, and a winding Stream of sweet and clear Water. We met a Servant at the Door with a small Basket of Fruit which he was carrying into a Grove, where he said his Master was with the two Strangers. We found them all three sitting under a Shade. And after the usual Forms at first meeting, Euphranor and I sate down by them. Our Conversation began upon the Beauty of this rural Scene, the fine Season of the Year, and some late Improvements which had been made in the adjacent Country by new Methods of Agriculture.

Just as improvements can be made to the beauties of nature by proper cultivation and new methods of agriculture, so improvements can be made to the beauties of the mind by proper cultivation and new ways of thinking; and this point will be traced throughout Alciphron, which is on whether a particular new way of thinking really brings any improvements at all. And each of the descriptions Berkeley gives has either some symbolic import, or provides some in to the argument, by presenting ideas in picture form. (Perhaps the most impressive and fun of these is the description of the mount of easy ascent and the fox hunters at the beginning of the fifth dialogue.) They also repeatedly emphasize the theme of expansiveness and real, natural freedom, which is what Berkeley intends to contrast to the minuteness and affected freedom of the so-called freethinkers. To jump over the descriptions is risky: they underscore the themes that bind the work as a whole together, and without attending to them one might take the work to be much less unified as an argument than it is.

These things, in other words, matter, and the quality of one's philosophical reading skills is in some degree measured by nothing other than one's ability to see how they do.

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