Bertrand Russell’s Teapot and His Misreading of George Berkeley’s Philosophy

Teapot 3

I recently picked up Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to have a look at the argument he makes against the philosophy of George Berkeley. Frankly, I have never liked Russell. He is a clear writer — and a convincing one — but a poor scholar. He also has a tendency to read his own biases into the works of others as being ‘mistakes’.

Most of what Russell does is that he assumes that his own Rationalist worldview is the correct one and then shows how other worldviews are ‘incorrect’ by the standards of his own worldview. I do not want to be misread here because I am the first person to criticise a worldview based on its inconsistency or its nonsensicalness. But I do recognise when another person is holding a worldview different to my own based on a principle which we disagree on as a matter of temperament but not as a matter of fact or logic. Russell does not or cannot do this; he is, in almost every respect, an intolerant thinker.

This is particularly clear in his criticisms against Berkeley. In what follows I will show how these criticisms not only completely misinterpret Berkeley’s intent but also chalk up the difference inherent in Berkeley’s worldview as a simple ‘logical error’ when it is, in fact, a deeply contentious issue that Russell cannot deal with because doing so would make him less sure of himself and undermine the platform of Truth on which he purports to stand.

Russell begins his criticisms of Berkeley by likening the latter’s claim that an object of the senses must exist in the mind,

Berkeley discusses the view that we must distinguish the act of perceiving from the object perceived, and that the former is mental while the latter is not. His argument against this view is obscure, and necessarily so, since, for one who believes in mental substance, as Berkeley does, there is no valid means of refuting it. He says: “That any immediate object of the senses should exist in an unthinking substance, or exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction.” There is here a fallacy, analogous to the following: “It is impossible for a nephew to exist without an uncle; now Mr. A is a nephew; therefore it is logically necessary for Mr. A to have an uncle.” It is, of course, logically necessary given that Mr. A is a nephew, but not from anything to be discovered by analysis of Mr. A. So, if something is an object of the senses, some mind is concerned with it; but it does not follow that the same thing could not have existed without being an object of the senses. (p593)

What Russell is saying is that Berkeley does not prove by showing that an object perceived is always an object of the senses that therefore it logically follows that this object could not exist without the senses. What Russell forgets to add, of course, is the empiricist thrust of Berkeley’s argument. Berkeley is convinced that we should only speak of things that we can actually experience. He claims that should we be allowed to speak too much in abstractions then we will quickly find ourselves talking nonsense. By these criteria it is silly to talk about an object sensed by no one because such a thing has never been experienced and cannot be inferred directly from experience. Properly speaking it cannot even be conceived of in the imagination — any time I try to imagine an object not being perceived I only come up with an image of myself perceiving this supposedly unperceived object.

Russell would not agree with this, of course. Being a good mathematician Russell is perfectly content to speak in abstractions — provided, of course, these abstractions don’t offend his militantly atheistic sensibilities. But this is a difference of temperament, not of logic. Berkeley insists that empiricism is the best means to avoid errors whereas Russell thinks that we can indeed speak in abstractions… even though he seems to decide somewhat arbitrarily which of these abstractions should be allowed and which should not. This becomes even clearer in the next passage.

There is a somewhat analogous fallacy as regards what is con­ceived. Hylas maintains that he can conceive a house which no one perceives, and which is not in any mind. Philonous retorts that whatever Hylas conceives is in his mind, so that the supposed house is, after all, mental. Hylas should have answered: “I do not mean that I have in mind the image of a house; when I say that I can conceive a house which no one perceives, what I really mean is that I can understand the proposition ‘there is a house which no one perceives,’-or, better still, ‘there is a house which no one either perceives or conceives.” This proposition is com­posed entirely of intelligible words, and the words are correctly put together. Whether the proposition is true or false, I do not know; but I am sure that it cannot be shown to be self-contra­dictory. Some closely similar propositions can be proved. For instance: the number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite, therefore there are some that have never been thought of, Berkeley’s argument, if valid, would prove that this is impossible. (ibid)

Note the last example of the integers. Here Russell completely misrepresents Berkeley’s argument because he doesn’t understand it. Berkeley would not claims that the proposition “the number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite” is “impossible”. Rather he would criticise it as being an abstraction. He would say, “Well, Bertrand, let’s be very clear here on what we are talking about. This notion of infinite, is it just a thought floating around your head or is it something that actually exists? And even if it is just a thought inside your head can you clearly conceive of it? Me, I cannot conceive of something called ‘infinity’. It seems to elude my conceptual abilities. So, I think that talking about it as anything other than an abstraction is silly.”

This is the thrust of Berkeley’s argument and, in fact, Russell makes identical arguments when he promotes atheism. Consider his famous statement on the teapot,

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Well, it would seem to me that the teapot that is infinitely small is very similar to Russell’s notion of infinity, is it not? After all, neither I nor Russell nor Berkeley can conceive of this entity called infinity yet Russell seems to take it on faith that it exists somewhere ‘out there’. Russell’s notion of infinity is identical to the teapot in his atheism example. He assures us that this infinity exists but he implicitly claims that it can never be experienced — either in reality or in our imaginations.

Russell is intolerant because he is confused. His own zealous proclamations about religion can easily be applied to many of the mathematical and ontological ‘truths’ that he holds. And it was only by misreading the work of George Berkeley, which would have demonstrated this to Russell clearly had he managed to actually grasp the arguments, that he managed to hide this fact from himself.

Update: Here is Berkeley’s own response to Russell’s attack from the former’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,

But, you will insist, what if I have no reason to believe the existence of Matter? what if I cannot assign any use to t or explain anything by it, or even conceive of what is meant by the word? yet still it is no contradiction to say that Matter exists, and that this Matter is in general a substance, or occasion of ideas; though indeed to go about to unfold the meaning or to adhere to any explication of those words may be attended with great difficulties. I answer, when words are used without a meaning, you may put them together as you please without danger of contradiction. You may say, for example, that twice two is equal to seven, so long as you declare you do not take the words of that proposition in their usual acceptation but for the marks of you know not what. (p75)

This is fantastic example of Russell’s own blindness. In thinking that those he disagrees with do not have answer for his criticisms because they were not thinking in the same advanced register as himself, he completely ignores that the thinker has actually anticipated his rather obvious criticism.


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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