Sebastian Sanhueza (UCL)

"An Obviously Absurd Doctrine: Russell on Berkeley's Idealism"

 Abstract: In The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell provides a clear and concise exposition of what is today a common-place reading of George Berkeley’s Idealism. According to this reading, Berkeley attempted to develop a metaphysical system based on two kinds of items, minds and ideas: Berkelian Idealism, Russell tells us, is ‘the doctrine that whatever exists, or at any rate whatever can be known to exist, must be in some sense mental – according to the idealist, ‘nothing can ever be known except what is in some mind’; or again, ‘by being known, things are shown to be mental.’ Russell is not the one to blame for the development of this reading, but it would not be exaggerate to think that his brief and elegant introduction to philosophy helped to crystallize it.

The goal of this presentation is to argue that it is not compulsory to read Berkeley’s ‘esse is percipi’-slogan along the lines proposed by Russell. This point is made explicit through an examination of the position that Berkeley actually antagonizes. According to Russell, the idealist account aims to undermine our common-sense view of the perceived world – that is, the view according to which there are temporally continuous and mind-independent tables, chairs, and dogs. A rejection of this view would naturally amount to a counterintuitive philosophical system. However, this presentation suggests that Berkeley’s target might be a far from ‘common-sensical’ line of thought, namely, the idea that an account of how worldly objects exist ‘in’ the mind has to refer to two notions of existence – existence-in-the-world and existence-in-the-mind. One advocate of this general doctrine is John Locke: by means of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, he tried to set apart the objects-in-the-world – that is, the realm of mind-independent items described by mechanistic and corpuscularian theory – from the objects existing in the mind – that is, the order of items possessing the familiar qualities of colour, texture, and so on. If this is the kind of view rejected by Berkeley, his idealism would not commit him to the view that the ordinary external world is purely mental, but to the more plausible view that our perceptual awareness of the external world does not involve a notion of existence specifically different from the one we already grasp when confronted with sensible objects.

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