BBC Radio Program on George Berkeley


BBC Radio 4 have released a fantastic discussion with three contemporary Berkeley scholars as a podcast on their website. I cannot recommend the discussion enough. I want to here run through some of the points raised by the commentators in a critical manner.

First of all, I highly recommend that listeners pay close attention to the discussion of Berkeley’s theory of vision which begins around the 10.00 mark. Berkeley’s theory, which is wholly empirical, is far superior to the others that were being promoted in his day. For Berkeley, vision was an empirical rather than an a priori activity. In a sense, we learn to see. A baby probably has a highly disorganised vision and only comes to order their world in a practical fashion after some time.

In this regard one of the commentators brings up Molyneux’s problem. This is the thought experiment wherein we ask if a person who suffered from blindness all their lives had their sight returned would they be able to distinguish a cube from a square given that they know both through touch. Berekely said that they would not and he was right. As the Wikipedia article says,

In 2003, Pawan Sinha, a professor at MIT in Boston, set up a program in the framework of the Project Prakashand eventually had the opportunity to find five individuals who satisfied the requirements for an experiment aimed at answering Molyneux’s question experimentally. Prior to treatment, the subjects —aged 8 to 17— were only able to discriminate between light and dark, with two of them also being able to determine the direction of a bright light. The surgical treatments took place between 2007 and 2010, and quickly brought the relevant subject from total congenital blindness to fully seeing. A carefully designed test was submitted to each subject within the next 48 hours. Based on its result, the experimenters concluded that the answer, in short, to Molyneux’s problem is “no”. Although after restoration of sight, the subjects could distinguish between objects visually almost as effectively as they would do by touch alone, they were unable to form the connection between an object perceived using the two different senses. The correlation was barely better than if the subjects had guessed. They had no innate ability to transfer their tactile shape knowledge to the visual domain. However, the experimenters could test three of the five subjects on later dates —5 days, 7 days, and 5 months after, respectively— and found that the performance in the touch-to-vision case improved significantly, reaching 80% ~ 90%.

It should be noted that Berkeley’s theory of vision is today in line by what would be known as the phenomenological approach — especially as seen in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I especially encourage anyone interested to read his excellent Phenomenology of Perception (available here).

Around the 19.00 mark one of the commentators tries to claim that Berkeley’s main theories are not much affected by the idea of God. I strongly disagree with this and one of the other commentators soon sets this right. I would like to say, however, that this reaction is interesting. I often see it when discussing Berkeley. The person discussing the philosophy quickly wants to shut down any questions about God or anything of that sort. It is a very strange, knee-jerk emotional reaction and while I have some ideas about why atheism has become an ideology with such extensive emotional investment for many today I think here is neither the time nor the place to discuss it.

The discussion of Berkeley’s work De Motu that follows is very limited and I wish it could have been more extensive. It is painted as some sort of simplistic idealist version of the standard theory of dynamic motion when what Berkeley was really putting forward was something more akin to the relativistic theory of space of Mach and Einstein.

At 33.20 the discussion of a “kind of dualism” in Berkeley thought that divides minds and ideas is very interesting. But, as the commentator notes carefully, we are not dealing here with a dualism of substances. Rather we have a single substance — mind — and separate qualities within that mind — ideas, abstractions, language and so forth.

Finally, I think it is nice that the program noted (at around the 38.00 mark) that Hume had no idea what Berkeley was talking about when he set out to basically take over his philosophy. To my mind, Hume, although his work on causality was noteworthy, was ultimately a second-rate Berkeley. He was completely unable to form a coherent metaphysical system and instead posited a form of Skepticism that he himself admitted was impossible to believe in without going mad.

Apart from that, it’s great to see that Berkeley is getting attention in philosophical circles. Apparently I’m not the only one that sees enormous promise in his philosophy — one which has been buried for so long by what can only be described as prejudice.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional. Writing about all things macro and investment. Views my own.You can follow him on Twitter at @philippilk.
This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s