Bishop Berkeley and America


THE MUSE, disgusted at an age and clime
  Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
  Producing subjects worthy fame.
In happy climes, where from the genial sun
  And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
The force of art by nature seems outdone,
  And fancied beauties by the true;
In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
  Where nature guides and virtue rules,
Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
  The pedantry of courts and schools:
There shall be sung another golden age,
  The rise of empire and of arts,
The good and great inspiring epic rage,
  The wisest heads and noblest hearts.
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
  Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
  By future poets shall be sung.
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
  The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
  Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

These lines were on the minds of the early regents of the University of California when they selected the site for their new campus, and it was in honor of their author that they named the place Berkeley. It’s interesting that Bishop Berkeley holds such a revered place in the intellectual life of Anglo-America. In Europe, and especially in Britain, Berkeley has been viewed as an irrelevant distraction from the ineluctable march of materialism and the growth of the physical sciences. His writings were either ignored or ridiculed. In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson we have the famous “I refute it thus” scene where Johnson kicks a stone and jokingly claims that his stinging foot disproves Berkeley’s theory that the universe is immaterial and purely ideal instead.

Berkeley has received far better treatment in America. This may be due to his own interest in the New World. He lived in Rhode Island for several years and tried to establish an school in Barbados. As “On the Prospect of Planting Arts…” shows, Berkeley plainly saw great promise in the Americas. But more than this circumstantial affinity, I think there is quite a lot in Berkeley’s philosophy that corresponds to American thought. I see elements of Berkeleian metaphysics in American Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and the American spirit of exploration.

In addition to the excellent Youtube video above, my favorite explanation of Berkeleian metaphysics appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

“[Berkeley’s principle] may be expressed in the proposition that no existence is conceivable—and therefore possible—which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas (i.e. objects) of which such spirit is conscious…. Matter, as an abstract, unperceived substance or cause, is shown to be impossible, an unreal conception; true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality are held to be merely arbitrary, though constant, relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, objectively in the Universal Mind. In ultimate analysis, then, nature is conscious experience, and forms the sign or symbol of a divine, universal intelligence and will.”

The article is split between two different contributors, R. Ad. and J. M. M. The first, who seems to have written the original article, does a passable job of summarizing Berkeley’s works and his biography, but makes no attempt to hide his prejudice against his subject’s ideas. The second author offers a kind of addendum to the main article in which he weighs Berkeley’s contribution to early inquiries into empiricism and contextualizes him within the Western philosophical tradition. He restates Berkeley’s position in a more measured and altogether more elegant manner:

“External things are produced by the will of the divine intelligence; they are caused, and caused in a regular order; there exists in the divine mind archetypes, of which sense experience may be said to be the realization in our finite minds. Our belief in the permanence of something which corresponds to the association in our minds of actual and possible sensations means belief in the orderliness of nature; and that is merely assurance that the universe is pervaded and regulated by mind. Physical science is occupied in endeavouring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret the divine language of which natural things are the words and letters, and in striving to bring human conceptions into harmony with the divine thoughts. Instead, therefore, of fate or necessity, or matter, or the unknown, a living, active mind is looked upon as the centre and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.”

This idea of trying to decipher the “divine mind” through experience I think is central to American thinking and the method by which American thinkers have sought to understand the world. When Emerson describes how nature provides symbol and meaning to our thought, what is this but a recognition of nature’s archetypes and their relationships with one another? When Thoreau insists that Nature has most to teach us when it is wild and undisturbed what he is advocating is unmediated access to the divine mind as expressed through being and causality. When Natty Bumpo in the Leather Stocking Tales observes that there is no better cathedral than the woods, he is not denigrating churches and organized religion as some have interpreted, but rather he is extolling the natural world as an expression of the divine that is no less significant or sacred than scripture. Charles Sanders Peirce saw little to no meaning in existence if it could not be proven through experience, thus his Pragmatic Maxim bears a good deal of resemblance to Berekeley’s New Theory of Vision: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

If you look at a list of State mottos, except for those that pertain to armed rebellion, every one invokes the necessity of providence. The motto of my own state, Colorado, is Nil sine numine, which translates to “Nothing without God.” If you read this as an ontological proposition, it essentially corroborates Bishop’s idea of a the divine mind and enshrines the concept in the state’s very identity. But my favorite state motto, and the one I think that gets closest to what Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy really means to Americans, is California’s Eureka. “I have found it.” Supposedly uttered by the 49ers upon having struck gold, I think Eureka captures the elation and astonishment with which we are met in our encounters with this miraculous world. It implies discovery and startling revelation. It is an expression appreciation over faith rewarded. Faith that that which we do not perceive is still nonetheless existent and waiting for us to uncover it. The utterance of Eureka accompanies the ecstatic communion with the divine will, when we are permitted a glimpse into the universe’s true identity and made familiar with yet another of God’s infinite secrets.


Yes and No

Positive and negative expression seems like an elementary component of language but it is actually an enormously difficult concept to convey mechanically and semantically. No two languages express the ideas of yes and no isomorphically. The yes/no polarity in English is actually a degradation of a previous, more complex system for affirmation and negation which made use of 4 different expressions: yae, nay, yes, and no. If a question were framed in the affirmative, like “Dost thou wish to visit the country on this fair morn?” one would answer yea to consent or nay to decline. If, on the other hand, the question were posed in the negative: “Wouldst thou not look kindly upon a pleasant stroll over the country lane?” the respondent would reply yes or no. It was apparently confusing distinction to maintain even back then since we see writers in Renaissance England correcting each other on usage and ultimately discarding yea and nay altogether in by the 18th century. Why speakers preferred the answer to the negative question over the affirmative is not clear. One assumes assent questions must have taken the frame of the negative more often when the shift occurred.

Other Germanic tongues made use of similar systems and then also underwent semantic contraction to binary expressions of positive and negative. Most often they would have two different words for yes and then a single no term. Languages that pre-date the barbarian invasion of Europe such as Finnish, Irish and Welsh have no words for yes and no response. In these languages, the respondent either assents by repeating the sentence or declines by negating the sentence. So, if asked, “Do you want to play ball?” you would respond by saying either “I do want to play ball” or “I do not want to play ball”. This is what is called “echo response.” It is actually the most common way of communicating positive and negative response throughout the world. All of the East Asian languages apparently employ echo response to convey agreement. To my mind, echo response is less ambiguous and more expressive than single word yes/no reply. A respondent can communicate a great deal of feeling and attitude in the way he or she repeats the question’s phrasing. I find it more logical as well. What you are essentially doing when you say yes is consenting to the view of the world that the questioner is putting forward. Repeating the proposition creates an accord. It is performative and more immediate. When you respond with the word yes, you are actually labeling the question with a positive identifier and thus placing an intermediary sign between you and the proposition to complete the concurrence.

None of the ancient languages have a word for yes. Greek, Latin, Hebrew employ either echo response or intensifying adverbs to indicate consensus. In place of the positive expression, the Roman would have simply said sic: “It is thus.” Meaning, what you say is true, and I see it that way too. In the classical mind, affirmation was more about conferring truth value onto a proposition rather than displaying agreement.


A couple years ago I was asked to look after small child who was at a stage in his mental development where he would repetitively ask “why?” to any answer he was given. He was probably three—young enough that he was unable to use a toilet, yet old enough and in possession of enough self-awareness to be embarrassed about having to let a stranger change his diaper. The way he produced his why was very robotic. He wouldn’t even wait for me to finish my answer to his previous question before asking it again, which makes sense given that whatever my answer, it merely represents a point in a long causal sequence and probably shouldn’t be any more satisfactory than the previous answer I provided or the one I am about to give. Responding to this recursive questioning is an exercise of comprehension and kind of fun. One drives ever deeper into one’s own knowledge of the world, until finally reaching a point of not-knowing. It’s fascinating to watch entire regions of knowledge pass by in the course of the journey.

First we begin with the pragmatic:

  • child: What are you doing?
  • me: I’m ordering us a pizza.
  • child: Why?
  • me: So that we can have dinner.
  • child: Why?
  • me: Because we’re hungry and we need to eat.
  • child: Why?

Now we pass into the scientific:

  • me: Because the body needs calories and nutrients to function
  • child: Why?
  • me: Because in order for an animate system to function there has to be energy
  • child: Why?
  • me: Because energy introduces heat and movement into the system,
  • child: Why?
  • me: I guess because of electro-magnetic force that’s caused by atoms exchanging electrons, or gravity which seems to be exerted by mass, or the energy that’s given off as atoms decay…
  • child: Why?

Finally, we reach the metaphysical. I can no longer answer with any accuracy. Why is gravity associated to mass? Why are electrons imbued with a positive charge of some kind that compels them to leap between the orbits of different atoms? I could go in to some nonsense about the Big Bang or dark matter, but at this point I would only be sharing speculations with the child. I could say, “Because God made it that way.” That’s where most of these discussions end up.

The why game—and it is a game—has a tendency to crack open the edifice of human understanding very quickly and expose it all as a gauze-thin pretext floating atop the vast, unknowable abyss. It at always results in an infinite regress of causal factors extending out into eternity. No stable proof can be made from it since there is no original cause to be found. All that is available to us is comprehension of a segment within the series. Hunger must be justification enough to order the pizza. Ordering a pizza is the solution to the condition of hunger. It is a logical course of action. And so the precession of events continues, because this is how existence is ordered. Let us be thankful that the pizza assuages our hunger and that fate then leads us to bed each night at the end to the day. Whether or not the series is cyclical, it is not “viciously” so. More on that next time.