The Relation Between Anti-Abstractionism and Idealism in Berkeley's Metaphysics

George Berkeley maintains both anti-abstractionism (that abstract ideas are impossible) and idealism (that physical objects and their qualities are mind-dependent). Some scholars (including Atherton, Bolton, and Pappas) have argued, in different ways, that Berkeley uses anti-abstractionism as a premise in a simple argument for idealism. In this paper, I argue that the relation between anti-abstractionism and idealism in Berkeley's metaphysics is more complex than these scholars acknowledge. Berkeley distinguishes between two kinds of abstraction, singling abstraction and generalizing abstraction. He then rests his case for idealism, not on the denial of the possibility of generalizing abstraction, but rather on the denial of the possibility of singling abstraction. Moreover, Berkeley's argument does not rest on a blanket rejection of all forms of singling abstraction. Rather, the fundamental anti-abstractionist assumption, for his purposes, is the claim that primary qualities cannot be mentally singled out from secondary qualities. Crucially, the claim that the existence of physical objects cannot be mentally singled out from their being perceived is not a premise in, but rather a consequence of, Berkeley's argument for idealism. Berkeley's argument therefore avoids circularity inasmuch as it appeals to the impossibility of singly abstracting one idea in order to establish the impossibility of singly abstracting another
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DOI 10.1080/09608788.2012.679782
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