Berkeley's Realism: An Essay in Ontology

Dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin (2001)

Abstract
Berkeley's critics have long held that his ontology is nominalist. On this interpretation, Berkeley holds that sense qualities are particulars, completely determined and unique to the object they characterize. David Hume was the first to interpret Berkeley as a nominalist; he did so on three grounds. First, Hume sees Berkeley as inheriting Locke's empiricism and so too his nominalism. Second, Berkeley rejects the doctrine of abstract ideas. Hume, who identifies abstract ideas with universals, concludes that Berkeley must also reject universals. Hence, Berkeley cannot embrace realism; he must therefore embrace nominalism. Third, Hume finds in Berkeley an atomism in which sense qualities are ontologically primary and the objects they constitute only secondary. Subsequent critics have attributed nominalism to Berkeley on these same grounds. ;However, Hume's grounds for attributing nominalism to Berkeley are mistaken. Further, Berkeley's subscribing to nominalism is incompatible with his idealism. Idealism is the view that what is real is confined to the contents of one's mind. But nominalism and idealism taken together entail solipsism. For if sense ideas are particulars, they are private and belong uniquely to the mind in which they occur. One is directly acquainted only with one's own sense ideas. Hence, solipsism both deprives minds of the grounds necessary for making knowledge claims about objects and precludes the possibility of public knowledge of those objects. The result is skepticism with regard to objects. But such skepticism is the hallmark of representationalism, which doctrine Berkeley repeatedly attacks. Moreover, Berkeley claims vis-a-vis solipsism that one is directly acquainted with objects themselves and that public knowledge of objects is possible. ;Hence, the view that Berkeley is a realist with regard to sense qualities fits in more neatly with his thought. On this view, sense qualities are universals and so minds may share them. Berkeley's construing sense qualities as universals does not violate his antiabstractionism, for he does not identify universals with abstract ideas. That Berkeley affirms both realism and idealism disproves the view that his theory of knowledge is phenomenalist. Phenomenalism cannot ground the knowledge claims about objects that Berkeley maintains are possible.
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