Is Real Communication Possible? Berkeley’s Particularism and Lacan’s Semantic Slippage


I’m currently rereading George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge as a friend of mine and I are considering writing a short book on Berkeley in the near future. In it we are hoping to discuss all of Berkeley’s work, including the little known fact that Berkeley was something of a Chartalist and advocated something very similar to Keynesian full employment policies. I’m hoping to also show that Berkeley’s Chartalism — which first and foremost views money as a mere symbol — is tied to his immaterialist philosophy that holds that material substance does not exist. I will return to this point at the end of this post.

The version of the Treatise that I am reading has an excellent critical introduction by the philosopher Jonathan Dancey. (I say this not because I agree with all the criticisms that Dancey raises in the introduction, many of which strike me as being deeply confused, but because as a survey of the work is it most useful).  In the introduction Dancey discusses many aspects of Berkeley’s thought but there is one that I here want to focus on; namely, Berkeley’s critiques of Locke’s abstract notion of General Ideas. Dancey points out that a key component of Locke’s argument for General Ideas was communicability. If there were no General Ideas, Locke said, then your and my understanding of, for example, the term ‘city’ would be different.

Why? Because your understanding of the term ‘city’ would be merely a collection of all the individual cities that you have ever seen while mine would be a collection of all the individual cities that I have ever seen. Thus, if you have only seen Paris and London and I have only seen Tokyo and Sydney our conceptions of cities will be entirely different. This means that proper communication cannot take place in that when you and I hear ‘city’ we will understand different things by the term.

To avoid this Locke posited General Ideas. So, for Locke, the term ‘city’ contains something beyond Particular cities. It contains an abstraction that we all recognise as ‘city’. Berkeley denies this. He says that if we examine our own thoughts carefully it will be clear that any time we try to grasp at the General Idea of a city we will always encounter in our own imaginations merely particular experiences of certain cities. This is what might be called Berkeley’s ‘radical empiricist’ position. Dancey writes,

[Berkeley] holds that a perfectly non-abstract idea, the idea of a particular man, can stand for all men whatever; and he also, more contentiously, holds that thought does not require the constant occurrence of ideas in the thinker’s mind, and that therefore communication does not require the speaker to raise a matching idea in the hearer’s mind . (p32)

This is a very interesting argument that I don’t think is often recognised in the philosophy of Berkeley. It implies that communication does not occur in human’s in the same way, for example, that communication takes place in computers. To put that another way: for Berkeley human communication is always imperfect. When I say or write certain words they call to mind different ideas in your mind as they do in mine.

This is actually a very similar argument to that made by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan started with the basic unit of semiotics; that is, the sign. The sign is made up of a signifier and a signified. So, for example, the word ‘tree’ calls to mind the object that we know to be a tree. The word ‘tree’ is the signifier and the object tree is the signified. Here is a diagrammatic representation,


Semioticians usually assumed that there was a firm relationship between the signifier and the signified. Lacan, however, always held that there was always a sort of slippage of meaning. In this, Lacan was following in Berkeley’s wake but was, I think, more radical. For Berkeley the signifier and the signified only slip when communication is taking place between two people that have different particular experiences of, say, trees. But for Lacan this slippage takes place within the single mind.

Think in this regard of a slip of the tongue. In Freudian psychoanalysis a slip of the tongue indicates a fundamental truth about our desire. Yet for the person making the slip they usually claim that it was an error and insist that they meant something else. Thus their signifier is intended not to signal the signified that would be assumed if we interpret what they say literally but rather a different signified that, perhaps, has a similar phonetic make-up.

(Take the example of ‘tree’. A man might say in a slip of the tongue that he always liked the muscle cars that came from the ‘Big Tree’ US auto-manufacturers. The Freudian would then detect a whole host of phallic references in this slip given its context but the man would insist that his signifier, ‘tree’, did not refer to a large wooden object but rather to the number ‘three’. Thus, his signifier referred to a different signifier and not to the signified usually designated it).

I think that Berkeley’s radical empiricism is leading in this direction. His rejection of General Ideas makes clear that people do not think in the mechanistic way that contemporary science and Enlightenment thought often conceive of them as thinking. Rather meaning is far more open to interpretation and really depends on our own personal experiences; not to even mention the fact that communication is a very haphazard phenomenon that often breaks down. In his introduction to the Treatise Berkeley writes,

[T]here is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to any general name, they all signifying indifferently a great number of particular ideas.

Later on, however, Berkeley takes a position even closer to that of the post-structuralists. Dancey summarises this as such,

The physical world is a genuinely linguistic system, whose elements are variously combined and concatenated in much the sort of way that letters and words are, so that they should be capable of carrying detailed messages. Just as a limited number of letters can be used to create an infinite variety of messages, so a limited number of physical elements can be combined for the same purpose. (p52)

Here Berkeley gives language a certain primacy in that he sees the world as being a giant mass of signifiers which we try to interpret as best we can. At a crude level dark clouds, for example, signify rain, while at a more complex level unemployment, for example, signifies a deficiency of effective demand. It is in and through the linguistic systems that we construct that we understand why one idea or event might lead to another and the more precisely our linguistic systems align with empirical experience the more useful they will prove to be and the better we can organise our actions for our desired ends (whether that be carrying an umbrella to avoid getting wet or engaging in fiscal stimulus to keep output and employment at desired levels).

This is, of course, a far cry from the ‘realist’ ontology usually associated with Post-Keynesian economics which holds that there are actual causes existing in something like an external material world. Rather it is more constructivist in that we actively participate in constituting these causes.

The example of fiat money — which Berkeley advocated — is instructive in this regard. If we agree with Chartalism that “taxes drive money” it should be clear that such a relationship does not truly exist “out there” but is rather a construction constituted in and through communicative language — you and I live under a state which subjects us to taxes which in turn dictates what we use as money; but this relationship is nothing material or existing “out there”, rather it is a contract entered into by each of us which can potentially be broken at any time. Examined properly it will quickly become clear that all the relationships that we deal with in economics, grounded as they are in some constructed accounting framework or other, are of some similar nature.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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5 Responses to Is Real Communication Possible? Berkeley’s Particularism and Lacan’s Semantic Slippage

  1. Interesting that you posted on this subject today. I was just thinking about how people with different experiences relate, especially when they have radically different experiences. In the end, it probably comes down to creating common experiences– implications here for chartalism etc. Then again, that’s the purpose of education, right? To create common experiences and reshape past experiences through a new (shared) analytical lens.

    • I agree. I think this goes to the heart of why fiat money subverts Minsky’s “We can all issue money the trouble is getting it accepted”. One might also say “We can all create a language the trouble is getting it accepted”. The problems are basically identical and I believe we should approach them with this recognition.

      • It speaks to creating communities of practice, I think.

      • Calgacus says:

        How does fiat money subvert Minsky’s dictum? Seems to me – and I think this is the usual view – that it illustrates it, exemplifies it. The credit, which anyone can create, is just called fiat money when the difficult task of acceptance has been accomplished. This is usually accomplished by making “the contract” very difficult to successfully break unilaterally. In the case of taxation, by the state not defaulting on its promise to taxpayers of a real benefit compared to tax evaders.

      • Perhaps “subverts” is the wrong word. “Circumvents the issue”, would probably be more accurate.

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