Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World

Oxford: Oxford University Press (2017)
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Berkeley's philosophy is meant to be a defense of commonsense. However, Berkeley's claim that the ultimate constituents of physical reality are fleeting, causally passive ideas appears to be radically at odds with commonsense. In particular, such a theory seems unable to account for the robust structure which commonsense (and Newtonian physics) takes the world to exhibit. The problem of structure, as I understand it, includes the problem of how qualities can be grouped by their co-occurrence in a single enduring object and how these enduring objects can bear spatiotemporal, causal, and other relations to one another. I argue that Berkeley's solution to these problems lies in his views about language. At one level, human language allows us to exploit patterns in our perceptions to construct a highly structured representation of the physical world which allows us to make accurate predictions at minimal cognitive expense. At a deeper level, these patterns occur in perception because our perceptions themselves form a language in which God speaks to us.



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Berkeley’s Attack on Meanings

Most of Berkeley’s predecessors assumed that words get to be meaningful by having meanings, where a meaning is understood as a special intrinsically representational entity such as a Platonic form, an Aristotelian universal, or an abstract idea. Berkeley’s arguments in the Introduction to ... see more

Berkeley’s Early Thoughts on Language

Berkeley’s rejection of meanings (intrinsically representational entities) requires a complete rethinking of the philosophy of mind and language. This chapter addresses Berkeley’s remarks on these subjects from the 1708 Manuscript Introduction to the 1721 essay De Motu. In these works, Ber... see more

Rules and Rule‐Following

Rules and rule-following play a foundational role in Berkeley’s philosophy, yet Berkeley never offers an explicit theory of these phenomena. This chapter pulls together Berkeley’s scattered remarks on these topics to explain how Berkeley thinks about them. In particular, it is argued that ... see more

Reference and Quasi‐Reference

In De Motu, Berkeley distinguishes between two uses of language, which we may call ‘genuine reference’ and ‘quasi-reference.’ Genuine referring expressions, like ‘red,’ are used to label language-independent objects. Quasi-referring expressions function syntactically, and hence inferential... see more

Quasi‐Referring to Bodies

It is widely held that, in Berkeley’s view, bodies (ordinary macro-physical objects) are either ideas or collections of ideas. This interpretation underestimates just how radical Berkeley’s claims in metaphysics and philosophy of language are. Berkeley’s fundamental criticism of materialis... see more

Referring to Spirits and Their Actions

According to Berkeley, we may genuinely refer only to things that resemble the objects of our immediate awareness. Immediate awareness is, however, of two types: perception and reflection. By perception we are aware of our ideas, and by reflection we are aware of ourselves and our actions.... see more

The Linguistic Structure of Berkeley’s World

Berkeley holds that the perceived world is “a most coherent, entertaining and instructive discourse” which is ‘spoken’ by God. Berkeley intends this claim literally and holds that this discourse exhibits linguistic structure: it has a lexicography, a syntax, and a semantics. Interpreting B... see more

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Kenneth L. Pearce
James Madison University

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