Blake Winter: Berkeley’s Arguments on Realism and Idealism

Bertrand Russell credited Berkeley with being the first philosopher to show that the position of idealism may be held without contradiction (Russell, 1997). However, in addition to this, Berkeley also attempted to show that realism was absurd, because it required concepts which could not in fact be conceptualized (1977). From this, Berkeley concluded that idealism was not merely possible but necessary, or at least necessarily the only theory we could understand.

We will commence by defining a number of terms which will be necessary or convenient for our exposition. We will proceed to give a succinct logical version of Berkeley’s argument, in order to illustrate the precise set of assumptions which are required. We will then show that using a parallel argument the same assumptions also prove that idealism as Berkeley conceived it is also not well defined.

Definitions

Let us first define realism and idealism. We will take realism to mean the ontological position that there are things which exist that are neither minds nor ideas in minds. We will take idealism to mean the ontological position that everything that exists is either a mind or an idea in a mind. We may also define solipsism to be the position that everything that exists is either me or my ideas.

A concept will be said to be concrete if it may be defined ostensibly: that is, if all its conditions may be defined by direct (positive) comparisons with collections of particulars. In other words, a concept is concrete if we may determine whether an object meets its criteria by comparing it with the minimum collection of properties held in common among some collection of ostensible particulars, but we may not use the negation of these properties, unless the negation of the property in question is something for which we also have an exemplar particular (this is what is meant by the positivity of the comparison), and nor may we use only a part of the properties which are common to these particulars. We will say that a concept which is not concrete is abstract. Note that a property may be observed, but not concrete, if all particulars have that property together with some other property so that it cannot be isolated as the minimal commonality among any collection of ostensible particulars. Let us define a concept to be thinkable if it is possible to conceptualize that concept in a meaningful fashion. A concept is unthinkable, then, if it is not thinkable.

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