Something-we-know-not-what, something-we-know-not-why: Berkeley, meaning and minds

Philosophia 37 (3):381-402 (2009)
It is sometimes suggested that Berkeley adheres to an empirical criterion of meaning, on which a term is meaningful just in case it signifies an idea (i.e., an immediate object of perceptual experience). This criterion is thought to underlie his rejection of the term ‘matter’ as meaningless. As is well known, Berkeley thinks that it is impossible to perceive matter. If one cannot perceive matter, then, per Berkeley, one can have no idea of it; if one can have no idea of it, then one cannot speak meaningfully of it. But if this is Berkeley’s position, then there is a puzzle, because Berkeley also explicitly claims that it is impossible to perceive/have ideas of minds. So if he is relying on a criterion on which terms get their meaning by referring to ideas, then, just as Berkeley rejects talk of material substance, so, too, must he reject talk of mental substance. Famously, however, Berkeley insists that there is no parity between the cases of material and mental substance. It is typically suggested that the disparity between matter and minds rests on the fact that although one cannot strictly speaking perceive minds, nonetheless Berkeley thinks that one can have experiential access to minds via reflection, and that this access allows for meaningful talk of minds. Of course, one can only have reflective experience of one’s own mind. But what of other minds, which one cannot reflectively experience? Here the usual tactic is to suppose that, although one cannot have direct reflective experience of other minds, nonetheless one can indirectly experience such minds via analogy to our own minds, and that this indirect experience grounds the meaningfulness of talk of other minds. In this paper, I argue that the reasoning behind Berkeley’s ‘likeness principle,’ that an idea can only be like another idea, can be generalized to argue against this experience-based account of our access to other minds. I claim instead that Berkeley allows for the meaningfulness of talk of other minds by expanding the criterion of meaning in a different way. I argue that Berkeley holds a criterion of meaning on which a term is meaningful just in case it signifies either an object of experience or an object that one has reason to posit on the basis of experience, i.e., an object that is necessary to explain our experiences. When an object is neither experienced nor explains our experiences, then and only then is Berkeley willing to reject it as meaningless. Thus he writes of “the word matter,” that “it is no matter whether there is such a thing or no, since it no way concerns us: and I do not see the advantage there is in disputing about we know not what, and we know not why” (Principles, §77.) The word is not meaningless merely because we do not know what matter might be; it is meaningless because we also do not know why it should be. Correspondingly, I argue that the term ‘mind’ is meaningful because although we have no experience of minds, nonetheless they play an important role in explaining our experiences.
Keywords Berkeley  Locke  Minds
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DOI 10.1007/s11406-009-9177-5
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References found in this work BETA
Jeffrey K. McDonough (2008). Berkeley, Human Agency and Divine Concurrentism. Journal of the History of Philosophy 46 (4):pp. 567-590.
Douglas M. Jesseph (2005). Berkeley's Philosophy of Mathematics. In Kenneth Winkler (ed.), Philosophical Review. Cambridge University Press 126-128.
Todd Ryan (2006). A New Account of Berkeley's Likeness Principle. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 14 (4):561 – 580.

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