Berkeley (George)

From The Libertarian Labyrinth
Jump to: navigation, search
Resources Relating to

Pierre Leroux

Main Page
Biographical Resources
Chronological Bibliography
Alphabetical Bibliography

From the Encyclopedie Nouvelle, ou Dictionnaire Philosophique, Scientifique, Litteraire, et Industrielle, written by Pierre Leroux, translated by Orestes Brownson.

Berkeley (George):

George Berkeley, a celebrated English metaphysician, author of a psychological doctrine, commonly denominated Berkeley’s Idealism.

We have several times, in this Dictionary, used the word Idealism, and shall have frequent occasion to use it again. We have gone so far as to say, Christian Idealism, and to speak of the idealist doctrine, which, according to us, has been the foundation of Christianity; we have reproached Protestantism, in general, with its want of idealism; -we have characterized the decline of metaphysics in the eighteenth century, as an anti-idealist epoch: in fine, we have advanced the opinion, that Idealism is about to be reborn; that all the labors of our epoch tend to its rebirth, and that on this rebirth depend the future destinies and well-being of society. In thus expressing ourselves, we assuredly have not had in view, the several theories commonly termed Idealism; we have by no means intended to speak either of the doctrine of Berkeley, or that of Malebranche, either of the system of Kant, or that of Fichte, or even that of Schelling. A word of explanation, before proceeding to consider Berkeley’s theory, is, therefore, necessary; for we should only darken and confuse the minds of our readers, were we to use the same word to express doctrines so radically different.

For us Idealism comes from ideal, not from idea, (idée,) and is the doctrine of the Ideal; while, in its ordinary acceptation, it is a mere theory of ideas. But what do we understand by the doctrine of the Ideal? An aesthetic doctrine? Have we in view some of those vague notions, of which such a display is sometimes made, when treating of the fine arts and their principles! No. It is not of this detail we would speak; but of a philosophy, which, if true, absorbs by good right all philosophy. We mean rather by idealism, what is ordinarily termed spiritualism; though this word, spiritualism, seems to us a little inexact, and not sufficiently expressive. Words are like those guide-posts, which point out the paths in a forest. The inscription is useful, only in case it is turned towards one of the forest paths. If the post lies on the ground, the traveller may, indeed, read the inscription, but his uncertainty remains. Such is the word Spiritualism. It throws no clear light; it indicates no direction.

But it is the word in use, we shall be told. True, and it is precisely because it is the word exclusively used, and because it is made not more expressive, that philosophy advances so little. What, in fact, does this word tell us? Simply, that they, who use it, distinguish two substances, spirit and matter. What light does this give us, if we stop here? This distinction is not the most fundamental of all; so far from it, certain of the Fathers of the Church, and among the most eminent too, have not made it, and yet they have been none the less idealists and Christians. Spiritualism is a recent word, coined in these last centuries, and has been in good use for only about a hundred years. According to us, it is a word which marks a decline, and was invented only after the sense of the deep things of philosophy had already been lost, and forgotten. When Christianity reigned, they, who believed in the Christian ontology, were not called Spiritualists, but Christians. In the beautiful times of Greek philosophy, there are Platonists, Pythagoreans, &.c., but do we find that they ever dream of calling themselves Spiritualists? Nor do the Egyptians and Indians appear to have ever thought of obtaining from this distinction of spirit and matter, a name for their beliefs. What, then, is the bond, which, for those at all instructed, connects the school of Plato, that of Pythagoras, and certain beliefs of ancient Egypt and India, with Christianity?

Christians, certainly, have no better claim to be spiritualists than had the Pagans. Tertullian, who asserts positively, that there is no soul, or spirit, without bodily appearance, is he more of a spiritualist, than Cicero, who decides nothing concerning the nature of the soul? Not here, then, is the differential shade, that separates Christianity from Paganism; nor here the similitude, which compels us to regard the several schools just named, as mutually related, and as having, within given limits, one and the same philosophy.

Is there, then, in the history of philosophy, a philosophy of the Ideal? People will one day be astonished, that this question could ever have been asked; but we must propose the question, for this doctrine has no longer a name, at least, a name that expresses it truly; and because every day professors and philosophical writers use the term idealism to express quite a different thing, and appear to know no other idealism, than that of Berkeley, or that of Kant. It appears to us so important to recognize a doctrine of the Ideal, to have a philosophy of the Ideal, that we would willingly say, that Idealism, in this sense, is the very name of philosophy, or religion, itself. Philosophy, or religion, is the science of life; and we know no other explanation of life, that is to say, of ontology, than the Doctrine of the Spirit incarnating itself, of the Word becoming flesh; or, in other words, the Ideal actualizing itself.

When we come to treat of this subject, in its place, in this Dictionary, we shall easily prove, we think, that all reflections lead to this ontological theory; and that we may thus come directly, without needing to pass through history, or to be referred as learners to what our fathers have believed, to this ancient solution, which was that of the East, of Pythagoras, of Plato, and of Christianity. The simplest attention, I repeat, will of itself enable us to find again the profound mysteries of the ancient religions. But, if we are able to seize the essence of the doctrine of the Ideal by an a priori, how much more deeply shall we be struck with its importance, when we contemplate it in the light of history!

The doctrine of the Ideal is the unbroken chain of Tradition. There are epochs in which it has been so vividly comprehended, so unanimously accepted, that it has taken the authority of religion, has, in fact, become religion. Transported from the feast and Egypt into Greece, it has formed the philosophy of Pythagoras, and the philosophy of Plato. What, in fact, is the culminating point of the Platonic philosophy, but those archetypal ideas, which every artist, which the Great Artist, God, has objectively before him, yet subjectively in him, and by means of which he performs his work? More lately, invading the world from many sources at once, sovereign in Egypt, sovereign in Greek philosophy, this doctrine has appeared to the wise to unite all traditions; and with their consent it has formed Christianity. It is this doctrine which is concealed in all its mysteries: or rather, in our view, all the mysteries of Christianity are revelations of it. Concentrated in the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity, it is explained, and applied, in Baptism and the Eucharist. It is the very centre, the focus, the soul, of Christianity.

It is this doctrine, again, which the greatest geniuses of the Middle Ages sought, with a steady eye, in the midst of the darkness of their epoch. All the great theologians, in these so despised centuries, preserve, in various degrees, the sense of this doctrine, which had inspired the Fathers of the Church, who had collected its elements, some from Plato, some from the schools of Egypt, others from Judaism, to unite and fuse them into a new formula under the name of Christianity. After the Middle Ages theology declined. The Church preferred to impose upon the mind the mere shell, so to speak, of her mysteries, rather than to instil the substance into the understanding. Then faith was commanded instead of being produced; and reason, proscribed, turned away from religion, from ontology.

Here we have philosophy separated from theology; the priests on one side, the philosophers on the other; the one teaching to believe without comprehending, the others abandoning the peculiar province of faith, and pursuing their researches elsewhere. The doctrine of Idealism is obscured and effaced. Philosophers confine themselves to the investigation of phenomena, without concerning themselves with the generation, the succession, the genesis of these phenomena, and end in contemplating, not life, but death.

When Locke came, when Berkeley came, the philosophical problem was proposed in this form, namely; What is the origin of our knowledge, and what is its certainty? Locke, whatever may have been his actual intention, or whatever the conclusions which have been drawn from him, answered this problem, by sensation, by body, by Matter; Berkeley answered, by Mind, by idea, and maintained that we have no other direct and certain notion of reality exterior to the Me, than idea; but which idea is all the knowledge we need. How shall this answer of Berkeley’s be called? It was called Idealism. There was already, it is true, the word Spiritualism, opposed to Materialism, which might have been taken, but it was a general term, which presupposed both spirit and matter, two substances, and, therefore, not the proper term to express a doctrine, which excluded all notion of matter. So they created the term Idealism. This word, since applied to the theories of Kant, Fichte, &c., is not properly formed. To have been regular, it should have been, not Idealism, but Ideism. The question, however, then turning only on the origin and certainty of our knowledge, nobody was shocked at expressing a purely psychological theory, relating solely to the source and validity of our ideas, by a term which seems derived, not from Idea, but from Ideal, or ‘ideality.

I repeat, that we should say Ideism, as we say Deism, Pantheism, &c. In saying Idealism, the root of which is, evidently, Ideal, we lead those, who are not well versed in the history of philosophy, into error; give them a confused notion, derived at once from what they know of the doctrines of Berkeley, Kant, and certain other psychologues, and from the induction, which they cannot avoid making, by virtue of the very laws of language, from the resemblance of this name to that which would be logically formed from Ideal, or Ideality.

But the evil would not be great, if it stopped here. But, unhappily, we have a much graver reproach to make to this word, employed in this sense. It usurps a place that does not belong to it; so that, if we continue to employ it in this sense, we have no word to express the most important of onto- logical theories, or, to speak more accurately, the great and only ontological theory. Does it comport with the progress of philosophy, to have no term by which to express the sublimest of all philosophies, that which, transmitted from age to age, from the Oriental world even to us, has appeared to be philosophy itself, the greatest and almost the only philosophy, to the finest geniuses of the world, to Pythagoras, to Plato, and to the Fathers of the Church?

All who have studied the history of the progress, and the aberration, of the human mind, know the importance which words have sometimes had; and we do not hesitate to say, that the vicious use of this term, Idealism, constitutes one of the most serious obstacles to the progress of philosophy; for this false acceptation tends to divert attention from the doctrine of the Ideal, and to confound it with a theory which has no relation with it; and prevents, therefore, the student from perceiving the luminous summit to which philosophy aspires, in order to rejoin religion, and unite all traditions in one alone.

We feel how very obscure what we have just advanced must appear to our readers. Unhappily, we can only vaguely indicate here our thoughts on a subject, which it will be the object of all our metaphysical articles to demonstrate, and make clear. Yet it was necessary to trace a line of demarcation between the two senses of the word Idealism. We have done it. We come now to Berkeley, and his system, which we must be permitted to call ideism or immaterialism, so as to escape the confusion of which we have complained.

Towards the year 1680, William Molineux, author of a treatise on Dioptrics, and founder of the Society of Dublin, proposed an interesting psychological problem: ‘ Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere; suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see; query, whether by his sight before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell, which is the globe, which the cube.’ Molineaux answers, ‘Not. For though he has obtained experience of how a globe, how a cube, affects his touch, yet he has not yet attained the experience, that that which affects his touch so and so, must affect his sight so and so; or that the protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube.’

Locke published this problem of Molineux in his Essay an the Human Understanding, (B. II. c. ix.), and gave it the same answer. ‘I agree,’ he says, ‘with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion, that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say, which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them.’ This answer, adopted by Locke, moreover, conformed, perfectly, to his general principle of sensation and experience. The soul, in the beginning, as he held, being a mere tabula rasa, void of all character and without any ideas whatever, to suppose it possessed of a natural power to refer to the spherical figure the tactile sensations of the sphere, and to the cubic figure those of the cube, would have been to return to those innate ideas, to those marvellous instincts, or those essential faculties of the soul, which he had combated throughout his book, by striving to substitute for them the mere combination of sensations.

Berkeley, born in 1684, was instructed in Locke’s Essay, which had a very great influence on him; and afterwards, on bringing out his own views, so far was he from rejecting its principles, which he regarded as sound, he honestly believed, that he was merely following, correcting, and developing them. But, endowed with a very religious disposition, he deduced from them consequences very different from the sensualist metaphysics which others deduced from them about the same time, both in England and in France. The problem of Molineux above all engaged his attention, and became the source of all his ulterior intellectual labor. He adopted the solution of Molineux and Locke; but he returned to it so often, and studied it so profoundly, that it suggested to him, still in his youth, a system for explaining, in a new manner, the phenomena of vision. As we shall soon see, this explication reduces all the cognitions, which sight gives us of the external world, to a certain number of colored sensations, having only a conventional value. Sure of having Locke to back him, he abandoned himself with confidence to this view; generalized it for the other senses, and made it the foundation of the whole edifice which Locke had constructed, and presented as the model of the human understanding; and he came, thus, very rapidly, and with full confidence, to the theory which bears his name, and whose peculiarity, as every body knows, is the denial of the reality of matter and of the external world. The origin of the system is evident; it is the doctrine of Locke pushed to its last consequences. Locke had reduced intelligence to sensation. But how can sensations, added, combined, multiplied, produce understanding, — give, I say, not man merely, but animal? What are sensations, collected, as in a reservoir, in a being deprived of every kind of intellectual power, and having, therefore, no other faculty than that of receiving them, and, to a certain degree, of retaining them? We roust go farther than Locke; we must explain how something results from these sensations which pass over the sensitive being, as the breath of air over the surface of the waters. If the mystery of this being, which we call man, or animal, is not at all in himself, if there is in him only the single faculty of feeling, we must look elsewhere for this mystery. It is, then, in God. The veritable being, then, is God, and only God. What we take to be beings are only mirrors, which reflect at each instant, and all passively, the Divine emanations. By annihilating the being in man, or animal, we are forced to refer all causes to God; and man, or animal, being in no sense a cause, God is the only cause. Man, or animal, being only a purely sensitive being, what, I demand, are all the sensations perceived by this being? I see in him, indeed, different senses, — sight, touch, taste, smelling, hearing; but how pass from one order of sensations to another? What relation, for example, between a tactile sensation, and a sensation of sight? How pass from the world, which touch reveals, to the world which sight discovers? Is there in man and animal a mysterious harmony, which joins together these two worlds, and creates, naturally, a relation and connexion between the sensations of the one, and the sensations of the other? No, says Locke; there are only sensations. Then, says Berkeley, all these orders of sensations are only conventional signs, and the words of a language which God at each moment speaks to us.

Berkeley had had Locke for his master; he had Hume for his disciple. Struck with the solidity of his argumentation, Hume received in some sort, from his hand and that of Locke, the seminal principle of that radical and universal skepticism which he professed in his writings; so that since then, the psychologues have had a hard time of it, carried away as they have been, on the one side, by Berkeley into a sort of mysticism very similar to the doctrine of Maya among the Hindoos, according to which, the external world not existing, our life is only a long sleep, and all our thoughts are dreams which depend immediately on the Divine action; or, on the other side, by Hume into the abyss of general and absolute doubt, which embraces at once the Divinity, our own intelligence, moral truth, the physical world, — all, in one word, save our actual sensations and momentary ideas. To tell how our psychologues have sought to escape from the consequences which Berkeley and Hume obtained from Locke’s doctrine, — how, for instance, the Scottish school, with Reid at its head, has made its efforts to stop the leaks in Locke’s vessel submerged by his own disciples, and how the German school, with Kant for leader, has only responded to the provocation of Berkeley and Hume, by attempting to save something, were it only some notions of time and space, from the universal shipwreck of human knowledge, — would be to make the history of what is called modern philosophy, although, in our judgment, the modest name of psychology would be the much more appropriate name for its researches. We undertake not to trace this history in the present article; it will find, naturally, its place elsewhere in our Dictionary; we restrict ourselves here to the exposition, in their sequence, of the views of Berkeley.

The Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, Berkeley’s first [second] published work, appeared in 1708 [1709?], twenty-eight [twenty-four?] years after the work of Locke. The author was only twenty-four [twenty-five?] years of age. What is the value of this Theory of Vision? Is it solid; or is it only an absurd romance? The question is yet to be decided. Aristotle had said in relation to sight and hearing, (Ethique a Nicomaque, liv. 11, c. 1.) ‘ It is not by virtue of seeing or of hearing, that we acquire these senses; instead of acquiring them by use, we use them because we have them.’ The opinion of Berkeley is exactly the reverse of this. According to the disciple of Locke, not merely all the ideas we acquire by sight are the result of a real education and of a series of experiments, but we owe them all directly to another sense, — to the sense of touch. We perceive distances, magnitudes, and situations, only because we have hands to touch, and feet by which we move, and not because nature has given us eyes. If we had not the sense of touch, we should be incapable of seeing. Resuming the example proposed by Molineux, Berkeley stoutly maintains, that if a man born blind should come to receive his sight, he would not be able by that to form any notion of distances, but objects the most remote would appear to him as if placed on his eye.’ Figures would escape him not less than distances. Place before him a cube and a sphere, which he has learned to know by touch, far from being able to distinguish immediately which is the cube, which the sphere, he could not comprehend what relation his new sensations would have with those previously experienced. Moreover, these objects would not appear to him distinct one from the other; for, according to Berkeley, the sight is, by itself, utterly incapable of suggesting to us any idea of extension. The man born blind, suddenly made able to see, having thus by sight no notion of extension, would not isolate, by his mind, the cube from the sphere; for the same reason he would not even distinguish them from the table, or from the room in which he should be placed. All would be limited for him to a sensation of colors, a general sensation, and without distinction of parts, which would come to cover his soul, so to speak, as a garment immediately applied to the sensitive surface. It would be, in this regard, another touch, but of a nature wholly different from ordinary touch, and so essentially different, that, between the objects of the sense of touch and those of sight, no secret harmony could advertise the patient, that there is any connexion or relation.

How, then, is a relation established between the sensations furnished by sight, and those furnished by touch? In other words, how does sight enable us to know and distinguish objects? Berkeley, in his Treatise, refers all notions of extension, and consequently of figure, distance, and, in general, distinction of objects, to the sense of touch. It is in touching with our hands, and in moving, either our whole body, or its different parts, that we form to ourselves ideas of extension; afterwards, we refer to these ideas the sensations of color which we receive from sight. But this relation is purely arbitrary, inasmuch as no necessary connexion exists, for us, between these colors and those ideas of extension. Sight, once again, suggesting to us by itself no notion of figure, magnitude, or distance, all the colored appearances we receive are only concomitant signs with the ideas which touch gives us. Touch, then, according to Berkeley, is not merely, as has since been said, the educator of sight, and in general the monitor of the other senses, but the only source of all our perceptions of external things. Touch has a special privilege, which neither sight nor hearing shares, in any manner, with it. Sight and hearing have a different purpose; these two senses send us only a species of signs incapable of furnishing us, by themselves, with any other idea than the sensations of color and of sound; but, these sensations being different according to the nature and position of objects, we refer them by habit, that is, by experience, to our sensations, and to our ideas of touch.

This manner of conceiving the uses of sight and hearing, evidently, makes of the results of these two senses only a sort of conventional language; since between the figures which these senses give us, and the nature of the perceptions which we can have, of the form, the magnitude, and the situation of things of the external world, there is no relation, no real and necessary connexion, at least, none which we feel to be necessary. Here is the conclusion of Berkeley, his favorite idea, that which continually recurs under his pen, in this Treatise of his youth, as in all his other works, that which we find has inspired his whole system on the non-reality of the exterior world.

It is impossible to carry farther, or develope more rigidly, the idea of the fragmentation of being, which Locke had introduced. Here, indeed, is the severest and most logical analysis which can be made, in starting from Locke’s inspiration and following his principles. If, in fact, the being we call animal is nothing but a subject of different sensations, if there are in this being no secret chords which establish, between the different orders of his sensations, mysterious, but hitherto unfathomed, and perhaps unfathomable, relations, then the sensations of sight, of hearing, of touch, of taste, of smell, must be examined apart, and as things as entirely distinct as if they pertained to different beings. An axiom of this sort, borrowed from the method of Locke, is Berkeley’s point of departure. Now, in considering sight thus apart, it was natural to make much of a discovery, which had made a great noise in the seventeenth century, namely, the representation of external objects at the bottom, or retina, of the eye. It was imagined, and still is, that we see by a plane surface, precisely as we perceive the sensations of touch on the rigid parts of our bodies. This granted, how can it be imagined, that a colored and plane sensation can give us ideas of extension? Such a sensation must always want, at least, depth; and, moreover, wanting also mobility to run over and measure the plane picture represented on the retina, it follows, necessarily, that sight must appear to be unable to suggest to us any idea of extension. The being, thus affected in a manner purely passive by a representation painted on his retina, would resemble a picture, incapable of measuring itself as to its surface, and, for a still stronger reason, of divining, that, under its surface, there are horizons of many leagues in depth. In assuming Locke’s method and the pretended vision on the retina, as our point of departure, we must necessarily arrive where Berkeley has arrived, and deny sight, in order, so to speak, the better to explain seeing.

But Berkeley, in his explanation, remained, at least, faithful to his own analytic method; he showed himself a good logician, and pushed his reasoning to its last consequences. This reasoning leads him to believe, that we have by sight no idea of the magnitude, distance, or situation of objects, but merely a sort of colored apparition, as a painted canvass, without there being suggested to the mind any idea of the distinction between the parts of this canvass, or rather between its different colors. He concludes, and very justly, that, if, as is unquestionably the fact, we form ideas on the occasion of sight, it is because that to the most intimate notions we have formed of body by touch, we adapt the concomitant colors which we receive by sight, precisely as we give to objects names which have no necessary or exact relation with them. All this is logical and reasonable. But what say the metaphysicians who have come since, and adopted Berkeley’s ideas, while mutilating them in the absurdest manner? Here, among others, is a curious example of the confusion, which, after him, has been introduced on this subject. Vision on the retina is subject to one mighty difficulty. Objects, as is known, are painted on the bottom of the eye inverted, the upper part of a given object being painted on the lower part of the eye, and the lower part of the object on the upper part of the eye, and so also as to right and left. This being so, whence is it, that we see objects in their natural position? Before Berkeley, they explained this, by conceiving a blind man holding in his hands two sticks that cross each other, and with them touching the extremities of an object. The lower hand of this man would feel the upper part of the object, and the upper hand the lower part. This explication of the erect appearance of the image, is wholly incompatible with Berkeley’s reasonings. He, therefore, carefully refutes it. He shows, evidently, that we have no cognition of the intersection of the radius pencils, nor of the impulse of these pencils in right lines. He cannot conceive, he says, how the soul should judge of the situation of an object by things which it does not perceive, or how it can perceive them without knowing it. ‘Add to this,’ he continues, ‘ that the explaining the manner of vision by the example of cross sticks, and hunting for the object along the axes of the radius pencils, doth suppose the proper objects of sight to be perceived at a distance from us, contrary to what hath been demonstrated.’ The argument is solid and irrefragable. It is absolutely necessary to reject altogether Berkeley’s hypothesis, or to renounce the cross sticks.

There remains, then, if we accept this hypothesis, the difficulty of the erect appearance of objects. This, however, is not a difficulty for him, who, I repeat it, does not admit that sight can of itself give us any idea of extension. Naturally, then, according to him, we see objects neither erect nor inverted; we see merely colors, without their suggesting to us any notion of situation, size, or distance. But what follows? The school of Locke, the sensualist school in France and England, while admitting Berkeley’s analysis, was unable to resolve to admit the obvious induction from the inversion of objects on the retina. It did not comprehend the subtilty of Berkeley’s metaphysics; it tended to materialism; it would see sensation everywhere, and could not resolve not to find in sensation all that it sought: it wished to be able to point to all things with the finger, and to stereotype, so to speak, the sublimest intelligence in a piece of matter. It saw objects inverted on the retina; then it concluded, that we naturally see objects inverted. In this respect it did not comprehend the subtile Berkeley, who ceases never to repeat, that we do not see objects at all, that we have only a general sensation of color. But Berkeley adding, afterwards, that we form all our ideas of extension by touch, the materialist school hastened to adopt this part of his argument. It united, therefore, things fundamentally contradictory and irreconcilable. It believed, that, primitively, we see objects inverted, and yet that sight is incapable of giving us any idea of extension, — two propositions logically contradictory. Then it proceeded to explain the erect appearance of images by the hypothesis of Berkeley. It is thus that is formed, by a monstrous amalgam, the absurdest opinion of which science has ever afforded an example. It was believed, repeated, taught, as a truth proved, and beyond question, that naturally we are incapable of seeing; that, if we see, it is by favor of the sense of touch and of locomotion; that, primitively, we see bodies as if they were placed on our retina; that we see them inverted, the top at the bottom, the bottom at the top, the right at the left, and the left at the right; that we habituate ourselves, afterwards, to give to bodies their erect appearance; and that in this work the touch is our guide and our educator. Then was proclaimed louder than ever, sensation and experience. This was all as it should be. The sensation, which of all our sensations appears the most material, that of touch, had it not just obtained a brilliant triumph? So was understood, and still is understood, Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision!

Here is a strange paradox, which the eighteenth century accepts with so much favor, and which appears to complete so happily the doctrine of Locke, that it becomes its indispensable crown. Condillac, at first, repulsed this hypothesis. He maintained, in his Essai sur I’Origine des Connaissances humaines, that the eye appreciates, naturally, figures, magnitudes, situations, and distances. But he retracted afterwards, in his Traité des Sensations, and adopted the hypothesis of the education of the eye by the touch. He so fully adopts it, that he even attempts to appropriate it to himself; for this celebrated Treatise on Sensations is, at bottom, only an impudent plagiarism from the work of Berkeley, whose name, I believe, is not even once cited. As to Voltaire, the curious and eager importer of the discoveries of our neighbours, he was among the first to admit these singular novelties; and in his Philosophic de Newton, he asserts the truth of the English theory, with the same zeal he had displayed for Attraction. ‘It is absolutely necessary to conclude,’ says he in this work (Chapter VII.), ‘that distance, magnitude, situations, are not, strictly speaking, visible things; that is, they are not proper and immediate objects of sight. The proper and immediate object of sight is nothing but colored light; all else we perceive only in the long run, and by experience. We learn to see, precisely as we learn to read; the difference is merely that the art of seeing is the easier to learn, and that nature is equally in all men the teacher. The sudden judgments, very nearly uniform, which all minds, at a certain age, form respecting distances, magnitudes, situations, lead us to suppose that we have only to open our eyes, in order to see precisely as we do see. But this is a mistake. The aid of other senses is necessary. If we had only the sense of sight, we should have no means of knowing extension in length, breadth, or depth; and a pure spirit could never know them, unless God revealed them to him.’

It must be confessed, that this eighteenth century, so admirable in many respects, has shown on this point, as on several others, a singular simplicity in the midst of its incredulity. Here is a man who adopts an opinion the most opposed to the common and universal sentiment of mankind, with a faith which may, under other relations, well recall to mind epochs the most credulous.

But what! has not the theory you reject been demonstrated by a celebrated and undeniable experiment? Do you forget the blind boy of Cheselden? Has not that experiment, in 1729, established, point by point, all the predictions of Berkeley, twenty years after the publication of his Essay? Is not this one of the best known, most striking, and oftenest cited facts in the history of science and philosophy?

We shall speak elsewhere (in the article on Vision) of this celebrated experiment; it will suffice us to say here, that the account given of it has been almost always altered to make it quadrate with the demands of the theory; that the original narration in the Philosophical Transactions is very little conclusive, and full of absurdities and contradictions; and that, when carefully examined, it makes rather against Berkeley, than in his favor. The boy operated on for a cataract did by no means see objects inverted. Moreover, he distinguished them so well, says the account, one from another, that he preferred those of a uniform and regular figure. All that the account proves is, merely that vision in the diseased person was very difficult to be established, as was to be supposed in pathological cases of this kind. Has it not often been remarked in persons who have a long time been deprived of the sight of one eye, that the nerve corresponding to that eye is affected with atrophy? What completes the demonstration of the little reliance to be placed on the inductions from this experiment, is the manner in which it terminated. The blind boy had been operated upon, at first, only in the case of one eye; at the end of a year, the cataract was taken from the other eye. During this year he had educated sight by touch; that is, according to the hypothesis, he had been able to apply the notions of extension, suggested by touch, to the colored sensations which were given him by the eye which had been operated on. He should then have immediately seen, in the full sense of the term, with his second eye, as soon as it was uncovered. But, however, it was not so, and he was obliged, they say, to recommence a new education, as in the case of the first: that is, in our view, the pathological state demanded in the case of this eye, as in that of the first, a certain time for its cure.

It is on such an experiment, which no other operation for the cataract, among innumerable cases, has confirmed, and which, on the contrary, other accounts of similar operations constantly belie, that is still to-day affirmed, and taught, Berkeley’s Theory of Vision, grossly perverted by the other disciples of Locke! But, instead of the blind boy of Cheselden, have we not around us all this multitude of beings which come each day to the light, and can we not experiment on them, with some little assurance, whether, in point of fact, sight is a natural faculty, or whether it is merely the result of touch and experience? The examination of the smallest animal might, one would suppose, suffice to prevent us from being betrayed into this wild aberration, into which science has deviated with so much assurance for more than this hundred years.

My friend, the late Dr. Bertrand, in a thesis directed against the doctrine still taught in the schools, has shown how all nature protests, by all that she offers to our view, against this strange assertion, that sight is, as to notions of extension, only a blind sense, and that it is touch which teaches us to see. Do we see young animals rushing at hazard against obstacles? Is it experience, that teaches the chicken to make the movement necessary to pick up with its beak the grain that must feed it, and which its eye sees without previous education? The young quail, just hatched, and still encumbered with the remains of its shell, pursues the insect which it must make its prey. The child sees, at a period when it has as yet touched nothing; it has no need to run its fingers over all the parts of the face of its nurse to recognize her and smile. Birds are of all animals those which appear to enjoy the most perfect vision; and yet they are precisely those least fitted to learn to see, for they cannot be said, properly speaking, to have an organ of touch. Is it locomotion, that gives them the ideas of figure, distance, and situation? But do we not see that young birds, when for the first time they come out of their nests, go and alight, without hesitation, on the branches of the neighbouring trees, which they do not take for colors? If their flight is infirm, it is not because their sight is at fault, but because their wings are weak. Their eyes serve very well to direct their first motions; but how could they have learned to see, while remaining, without moving, in the narrow space of their nests?

We have lingered long on this question of sight, because it is in itself a subject of the greatest importance, and because it is sad to see a false theory taught in scientific treatises, and in our schools; and furthermore, because nothing can better make us perceive the genesis of Berkeley’s metaphysical system, or of what is called his Idealism. This idealism, which he opposes, as a preservative, to the materialism proceeding from the school of Locke, and which he presents as a shield to religion against atheists, skeptics, and wits, is itself merely a deduction from Locke’s doctrine on sensation. What, in point of fact, according to Locke, is intelligence? A collection or assemblage of sensations; nothing else. Now what can we concede to sensation in regard to the reality of the external world?

We know the external world only by sensation. Sensation is merely a mode of the mind’s own existence, a modification of ourselves, a passion of our soul. It does not exist by itself; it exists only in us; or rather, it is we alone who exist and who are affected. Philosophers have never doubted the non-reality of what they call the secondary qualities of bodies. They admit without difficulty, that heat or cold, hardness or softness, sweetness or bitterness, red or blue, &c., exist only in the mind; but they generally regard, as really existing, extension, figure, solidity, weight, motion, rest, what they call the primary qualities of bodies. The ideas of Berkeley on sight, formed after Locke, must needs carry him much farther. In fact, if you comprehend the exposition which we have just made of the Theory of Vision, you will see that sight reveals to us only colors, that is, merely sensible qualities, which exist only in us. Moreover, properly speaking, we see not the same objects that we feel by touch. There is no relation between our sensations of touch and our sensations of sight, any more than there is between objects and the conventional names we give them.

If Berkeley thought this of sight, for a still stronger reason, he must have thought it of hearing, taste, and smell. Touch itself, charged with sustaining the whole edifice of the notions abstracted from the other senses, must in time undergo the same fate that they have undergone, and Berkeley c6uld not escape from despoiling it, by the very artifice which he had used in disinheriting the others, of all certainly. A given body, then, appears to him nothing but an assemblage or congeries of sensible impressions, or ideas collected by our different senses; ideas which our mind unites in one and the same body, that is to say, to which it gives a name, for it has observed that they accompany one another. But a body did not appear to him to be a being distinct from these sensations.

After having broken the subject into fragments, the doctrine of Locke must needs end in doing the same to the object. After having destroyed the unity of being in the me, it must needs destroy the external world. This is what Berkeley has done, with a profound sagacity, and a resoluteness truly wonderful. His terrible analysis of sight finishes the work of taking away all certainty in relation to the primary qualities of body, which philosophers had distinguished from mere sensation. Evidently then, primary qualities must go with the secondary qualities. All, in passing under the level of sensation, must share the condition of sensation, that is to say, be reduced to a modification of the mind, to a mere appearance.

What a strange spectacle in the history of philosophy! Descartes taking spiritualism for his point of departure, tries with all his might to demonstrate the existence of the material world; and Berkeley, a disciple of Locke, and assuredly the ablest of the metaphysicians of sensation, does all in his power to save the spiritual world, and to annihilate the idea of matter! It is thus that Berkeley meets Malebranche in the system of Vision in God, that we see all things in God. The one starts from Descartes, with cogito, ergo sum, the other from Locke with sensation; both end in an analogous doctrine.

But we must say that this doctrine is much more studied, much profounder in Malebranche, than in Berkeley. Malebranche is the great interpreter of the text of St. Paul, understood in this sense: In Deo vivimus, et movemur, et sumus. As to Berkeley, what is properly his, what establishes his place and his rank in the history of modern philosophy, is, above all, his having conducted the doctrine of sensation to this terrible abyss. The system itself of immaterialism, or of pure spiritualism, negation made up of all substances destitute of thought, is very little developed in his works. He is rather occupied in overthrowing matter and materialism, than in building up spiritualism.

But having come after Locke, and so evidently from his school that it could not have been developed without him, Berkeley has had a twofold influence, very remarkable. On the one hand, his sagacity has furnished materialism with its most boasted discoveries. It is from him, in his analysis of vision, that Condillac, a spirit void of invention, has drawn his books; it is he who has inspired the famous axiom of Helvetius, that without our hands we should be yet browsing in the forest; and it is from him, in fine, that Hume professes to have borrowed all the arguments of his skepticism. But more lately, it is he, also, who has made the partisans of Locke beat a retreat. The offspring of Berkeley and Hume, what is called the Scottish school, is startled at the obscure labyrinth into which these two powerful reasoners had carried it away; it loses somewhat of its faith in sensation; it asks if Locke has not been too hasty, if he has not forgotten something; it seeks with nicest eye through what broken stitches has entered the deluge of doubt which invades every thing. Then comes Reid, and, in his train, that little flock of reasoners, who compose the school, from him down to Dugald Stewart, — minds for the most part so feeble, and with so little penetration, that one is really embarrassed to call them philosophers. They attempt by a thousand little means, by all sorts of shifts and artifices, to escape skepticism; they live by contradictions; they are of the school of Locke, and are not of it; they hold his doctrine to be the master-piece of philosophy; he is for them the father of veritable logic and metaphysics, and yet they make against him a reaction, which they strive to render fundamental. But, while they toil and struggle without much effect, Kant, solitary and alone, resumes the problem of philosophy where Berkeley and Hume had left it. Philosophy changes its soil, and returns to visit the country of Leibnitz. By the side of the original effort of Kant, the attempts of the Scottish school appear but the quaking of pigmies. It is, then, to Berkeley, that we must refer, in a great measure, the efforts the psychologues have been obliged to make, even down to our own times, to ascertain what is necessary to be held in regard to the origin and certainty of human knowledge.


  • Pierre Leroux and Orestes A. Brownson (translator), “Berkeley and Idealism,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review 1, no. 1 (January 1844): 29-56.