George Berkeley was an idealist: he held that everything that exists is either a mind or depends upon a mind for its existence. Given this, one would expect him to provide an account of how minds are known. He does. Indeed, he provides two accounts. In the Principles of Human Knowledge, Section 27 he writes, “Such is the nature of spirit or that which acts, that it cannot be of it self perceived, but only by the effects which it produceth.” In the third of the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous he writes, “I know what I mean by the terms I and myself; and I know this immediately, or intuitively, though I do not perceive it as I perceive a triangle, a colour, or a sound.” The problem is that if minds are known only by their effects, they are known mediately, rather than immediately. The two accounts seem to be inconsistent. Can Berkeley have it both ways?
In his 1734 editions of the Principles and Three Dialogues, Berkeley introduced a technical sense of the word notion when talking about minds. He says we have notions, not ideas, of minds. According to Berkeley’s contemporaries, the ideas of which we are aware are the effects of things operating outside of our minds or the effects of the actions of our own minds. Berkeley agreed but held that the only things that operate from outside our own minds are other finite minds and God: there are no material substances. Since he remarked in the Second Dialogue “That from a cause, effect, operation, sign, or other circumstance, there may reasonably be inferred the existence of a thing not immediately perceived, and that it were absurd for any man to argue against the existence of that thing, from his having no direct and positive notion of it, I freely own,” the comment in the Principles that we know minds by their effects seems reasonable. Assuming, as everyone did, that an individual idea as an effect has an individual cause, we can single out the causes of ideas. Since Berkeley also held that minds perceive ideas, we can single out our own minds as that which perceives any idea of which we are aware.
Berkeley’s contemporaries even had names for such indirect conceptions of things. John Locke called them “relative ideas”. Thomas Reid called them “relative notions” or “relative conceptions”. So, a quarter century ago, when I wrote Berkeley’s Doctrine of Notions (Croom Helm, 1987), I argued that notions are relative conceptions that single out minds as individual causes or as individual perceivers of individual ideas. Berkeley’s celebrated criticism of abstraction in the Introduction to the Principles required that thing singled out could not be general, and since on my account the notion singled out individual things, the approach seemed promising. I also told a story that tried to make the passage from the Third Dialogue consistent with what I had said.
Of course, no one believed me; they thought the key passage was in the Third Dialogue and that my account of it was inadequate. So, when I re-examined the issue while working on a new book called Berkeley I paid closer attention to the Three Dialogues passage.
Recall that Berkeley wrote, “I know what I mean by the terms I and myself; and I know this immediately, or intuitively.” If Berkeley had a single, determinate account of our knowledge of minds, the or must be the or of synonymy. But “immediately, or intuitively” is ambiguous, and the ambiguity seems to point in two directions. On the one hand, an appeal to immediacy suggests that the mind is directly aware of itself in a way that is similar to ‒ but fundamentally different from ‒ the way in which it is aware of ideas. On the other hand, an appeal to intuition seems to allude to a philosophical tradition in which one immediately knows the nature of a thing. Both possibilities yield puzzles.
If we are immediately aware of our own minds – understood as that which acts ‒ we can distinguish minds from other things in much the same way we distinguish red things from blue things: we “see” the difference. This ability to see differences among ideas corresponds to John Locke’s notion of intuition. But while an idea of a blue thing might exhaust the notion of blueness, an awareness of our own minds does not exhaust the notion of mind, that is, it does not tell us what characteristics something must have to be a mind. Of course, the same problem arises for ideas as ideas, since having an idea does not tell us what characteristics something must have to be an idea.
Berkeley tells us what ideas and minds are: an idea is that which is perceived or known, and a mind is that which perceives ideas and engages in various acts regarding ideas. At one point he wrote, “A spirit is one simple, undivided, active being: as it perceives ideas, it is called the understanding, and as it produces or otherwise operates about them, it is called the will.” These descriptions seem to be what Berkeley called notions of ideas and minds. They do what philosophical concepts often do, namely, they make connections between kinds of things. And they are exactly what one would expect to be known by intuition. But this raises the second puzzle: while there were models of intuition available to him, Berkeley either rejects the model’s accompanying metaphysics or it does not provide immediate knowledge.
For Aristotle and his medieval followers ‒ Descartes sometimes makes similar claims ‒ intuition provides insight into the nature of a thing of a kind. Aristotle’s example is that we know by intuition that humans are rational animals. Descartes claims that our clear and distinct idea of a triangle represents a true and immutable nature. This nature or form is that in virtue of which something isa thing of a certain kind: the nature or form of a human is something over and above the flesh and blood. It is general and indeterminate. It is common to many individual things. It is just the kind of thing to which we might expect Berkeley’s general descriptions of ideas and minds to refer. And it is a kind of thing whose existence Berkeley rejects.
Berkeley held that everything that exists is individual and determinate, while Aristotelian forms are general and indeterminate. He famously argues that there are not abstract ideas, but the notion of mind as that which perceives ideas and acts with regard to them is certainly abstract, even if he would claim that it is not properly an idea. Is there an alternative sense of intuition?
There is. Some philosophers today use the word intuition more loosely. They appeal to their intuitions ‒ understood as plausible hypotheses or “insights” ‒ as the starting points for inquiry. The evidence that this intuition-as-hypothesis is true is that a consistent philosophical system can be built upon it. These intuitions, however, do not provide immediate knowledge.
Can Berkeley avoid these problems? I believe he can if he used intuition to represent something stronger than, but consistent with, the second sense of that term.
If we take note of Berkeley’s use of idea and mind in the opening sections of the Principles, we will notice that his usage is consistent with his contemporaries’ usage. If we take intuition to represent not merely some individual’s hypothesis but a hypothesis that is part of an ongoing research tradition, it is stronger than the second sense in so far as it is an insight that is common to many individuals, while avoiding the metaphysical commitments required by Aristotelian or Cartesian intuition. It is like the second sense of intuition in so far as it does not carry anything more than a notion of plausibility: it can be shown to be reasonable only in so far as a consistent theory can be built upon it. That, of course, is precisely what Berkeley attempted to do. And, his theory is superior in so far as it is simpler: it explains all one’s common beliefs without positing the existence of material substance and thereby avoids any of the inconsistencies he finds implicit in that theory.
But what, exactly, does this intuition give us? It gives us a notion of mind. It tells us the meaning of the word mind in so far as it tells us what minds are if they exist. It does not tell us that minds exist. And it is a plausible account of what mind is only if the theory of which it is a part is also plausible. If this is correct then, as I argue below, it reconciles the apparent inconsistencies between the passage in the Principles and the passage in the Third Dialogue. But this account also has an interesting side effect: it plausibly explains why Berkeley introduced a technical sense of the word notion in the 1734 editions of the Principles and the Three Dialogues.
The two passages that we are considering are found in the first and all subsequent editions of the Principles and the Three Dialogues. The first editions were published more than twenty years before Berkeley introduced the technical sense of the word notion. In the Introduction to the Principles, Berkeley develops an extensional theory of meaning: words apply directly to objects; there is no intermediary idea ‒ Locke’s “abstract ideas” ‒ that stand between the objects one perceives and the words that apply to them. If one is immediately aware of one’s own mind, as the first alternative in the Three Dialogues passage suggests, this is sufficient for an extensional theory of meaning; but it does not give the kind of understanding of mind that functions in his theory. His theory requires that we conceive of mind as that which perceives (knows) ideas, causes ideas, and acts upon them. Such an understanding reflects the common philosophical use of the word mind at the time. But the Berkeley of the first editions had no word for what is “known by intuition”. His technical use of notion fills that gap. If, as Berkeley tells us, everything is known either by sense or reason (Principles §18), then the notion of mind is known by sense in so far as it is gained by reading, but it is known by reason in so far as reason recognises that the notion is consistent. In this regard, the notion of mind or immaterial substance differs from that of material substance. As Berkeley added to the 1734 edition of the Third Dialogue, “I do not deny the existence of materialsubstance, merely because I have no notion of it, but because the notion of it is inconsistent, or in other words, because it is repugnant that there should be a notion of it,” and “In the very notion or definition of materialsubstance, there is included a manifest repugnance and inconsistency.”
So, can we now reconcile the passage in the Principles, “Such is the nature of spirit or that which acts, that it cannot be of it self perceived, but only by the effects which it produceth” with the remark in the Third Dialogue, “I know what I mean by the terms I and myself; and I know this immediately, or intuitively, though I do not perceive it as I perceive a triangle, a colour, or a sound”? Our account is promising in so far as the notion, in effect, tells you how to single out a mind as either that which causes or that which perceives a given idea. Sometimes one mind stand stands in both relations, as when I am aware of an idea of the imagination that I cause. But if this will render the two passages consistent, it seems that we must re-examine our understandings of some key philosophical terms.
If one reads perceives narrowly, so that only ideas are perceived, then the kind of immediate awareness of the self that is suggested the Third Dialogue in is not a case of perceiving: one’s awareness of oneself is not an awareness of an idea. But then the passage from the Principles is itself puzzling, since it suggests the mind is perceived by way of its effects: the effects-as-ideas are directly known, but the cause is known by inference. This suggests that perceiving is synonymous with knowing, as Berkeley seems to suggest in the opening sections of the Principles. But in those sections the “objects of human knowledge” are ideas, and, as things known, ideas are contrasted with knowers: it is only in one of the additions to the 1734 edition of the Principles that minds are included under “objects of human knowledge”. But even if you allow that a mind can be an object of human knowledge, puzzles remain.
Assume that to perceive is synonymous with to know. The Principles passage says “Such is the nature of spirit or that which acts, that it cannot be of it self perceived [known], but only by the effects which it produceth” (my emphasis). What happened to the perceptual relation? Can you not single out a mind as that which perceives a given idea? Did not Berkeley include perceiving in his notion of mind? The apparent answer is puzzling. The sentence we are discussing comes from a section that begins, “A spirit is one simple, undivided, active being: as it perceives ideas, it is called the understanding, and as it produces or otherwise operates about them, it is called the will.” If we take this at face value, a mind or spirit is fundamentally active. This implies that the division between the understanding and the will is a distinction between two actions of the mind. Actions fall under the purview of causal relations. So, this implies that perceiving is one kind of causal relation; willing is another. If this is so, then from the perceiving of an idea as an effect, you can infer the existence of a perceiver as the cause of the perceiving. While this fits the passage, it is historically odd.
Berkeley’s contemporaries generally held that the mind is passive in perception. It was on this basis that they inferred the existence of objects outside themselves. But if Berkeley held that the mind is fundamentally active, such a model was not available to him. He would have to redescribe it in terms of those actions that are actions of the will and those that are not. This is what one finds. When developing his argument for the existence of a mind outside of himself, a mind that causes the ideas of sense, he writes, “But whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view” (emphasis added). The cause of the ideas of sense is the will of another mind. Our own minds cause us to perceive the ideas: we open our eyes, we attend to what is visible, and so forth.
Have we shown that the Principles passage and the Three Dialogues passage are consistent? Perhaps. If the allusion to knowing the meaning of I and myself “immediately, or intuitively” in the Third Dialogue is understood as direct awareness of oneself, then it is irreconcilable with the passage from the Principles. But if such an awareness is an awareness of substance as a thing that acts, it provides no insight into the actions in which the mind engages. Further, it is not the kind of notion of a mind that could be the basis for a philosophical system. On the other hand, if Berkeley holds that one knows what a mind is by intuition, it provides the basis for knowing minds as causes by their effects. Given any idea as an effect, one can infer the existence of a mind as a cause. Given the variety of effects, we can infer the kinds of mental acts in which minds engage. Thus, if the “immediately, or intuitively” in the Third Dialogue passage is concerned with forming a notion of a mind as that which perceives and causes ideas, it would seem to be consistent with the passage from the Principles.