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Monday, March 30, 2020

Berkeley’s progeny


JOHN Locke had this overpowering suspicion that the world as we perceived it was not the world as it really was. Later on, of course, German terms (coming largely from Immanuel Kant) would be given to these: the ding-an-sich, the things in themselves.

Locke thought the world of color, sound, taste, scent and texture was really made up of our subjective reactions to objective stimuli standing behind the appearances and, true to the biases of the day, he thought of the “real world” as one that was purely geometrical — made of shapes, dimensions, magnitude, volume, etc.

George Berkeley found no reason to be suspicious and he must have had Occam in mind who did not want explanations unduly complicated. Why postulate a “concealed substance” that had only the primary qualities concealed beneath the appearances and their manifestations in secondary qualities? Very often, Berkeley was misunderstood as having advanced the position that it is human perception that makes things come to be…which would have made him a dunce of course, which he definitely was not! Rather, for him “to exist” was to be perceived (or at least to be perceptible). There was absolutely no need, he held, to suppose a world other than that which could appear.

Immanuel Kant took this “subjectivism” (by which I mean nothing more than a referral to the subject) a step farther (several steps farther, in fact!). In everything we perceive, space and time will figure because that is the way we perceive, and we will always think in terms of cause and effect, singularity and multiplicity because so are our minds constituted. There is no way to perceive or to understand without these “forms” being at work.

In their shadow, we linger, for better or for worse. Reality is as we perceive it: as we see it, measure it, feel it, experience it, reckon it. That is not too far of course from an ancient conviction, one to which Protagoras gave voice: “Man is the measure of all things: of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not!” In a sense, that is a very easy position to maintain because it confines “real” to what is experienced, to the rather narrow realm of the palpable. One form that this philosophical bias takes today is scientism: What is real is that which is susceptible of measurement, detection, calculation by the methods and apparatuses of science. The only meaningful propositions then will be those that report what science observes. Aside from the fact that these makes of values and fundamental human dispositions such as love and friendship “unreal,” or at least “irrelevant,” this kind of position has striking similarities to Wittgenstein’s analysis of propositions in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Every meaningful assertion can be broken down into atomic propositions, each of which is a picture of a fact. But, aside from being unable to give an example of an atomic proposition, Wittgenstein soon realized that this rather straightforward — and attractive — story of the proposition was not the entire story at all!

The other manifestations of this attitude take on less philosophical conceits but are nonetheless as indebted to Berkeley and to Kant. Pro-abortion advocates who reduce the entire debate to a matter of what a woman chooses to do with “her body” are votaries, albeit unknowingly, of this school of thought. It takes some degree of thinking beyond what appears — the fetus as an appendage of the uterus — to recognize the realm of “rights” of “another.” Since, in the earlier stages of fetal development, the other does not appear, cry, speak, feel like an other, it is not reckoned as an other. It is the same thing with those who think of marriage simply in contractual terms (which, undoubtedly it also is). There is now recognized the “nothing-but” fallacy that one commits when one takes an aspect to be the whole. Surely, marriage is a contract, but to be unable to see beyond the contract into a unity as persons and promises that society has a right to rely on, that is the staunch refusal to grasp that which lies beyond immediate perception.

There is a very charming episode in Le Petit Prince (Antoine de St. Exupéry) that has a Turkish scientist delivering a lecture on a recondite subject, in Turkish native attire, and his entire audience paying no need at all. Who would believe a Turk on physics, after all? The same scientist then changed into Western business attire, and delivered the same lecture, and this time, all listened in raptured attention. Reality had been reduced to appearance — the kind of reductionism that has proved so deleterious to our age. Should it be any wonder why, in a world for which “esse est percipi,” it is embarrassingly difficult to talk about God, the human spirit, eternal life, love and mercy — and plain decency?


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