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Unformatted text preview: rything that we see, hear, and feel may be only
phantom and empty chimera, and not at all agree with the real things existing in the
All this scepticism follows from supposing a difference between things and ideas, and that
the former exist outside the mind, or unperceived. It would be easy to expand upon this
topic and show how the arguments advanced by sceptics in all ages depend on the
supposition of external objects.
88. So long as we credit unthinking things with having a real existence distinct from their
being perceived, we can’t possibly know for sure what the nature is of any real unthinking
being, or even that it exists. And so we see philosophers distrust their senses, and doubt
the existence of heaven and earth, of everything they see or feel, even of their own bodies.
And after all their labour and struggle of thought, they are forced to admit that we cannot
get any self-evident or conclusively proved knowledge of the existence of perceptible
things. But all this doubtfulness, which so bewilders and confuses the mind and makes
philosophy ridiculous in the eyes of the world, vanishes if we give our words meanings,
and do not distract ourselves with the terms ‘absolute’, ‘external’, ‘exist’, and such like, 36
signifying we know not what. I can as well doubt my own existence as the existence of
things that I actually perceive by sense. For it is a manifest contradiction to suppose that
any perceptible object should be immediately perceived by sight or touch and at the same
time have no existence in nature, because the very existence of an unthinking being
consists in being perceived.
89. If we are to erect a firm system of sound and real knowledge that can withstand the
assaults of scepticism, nothing is more important, it seems, than to provide it with a
beginning in a distinct account of what is meant by ‘thing’, ‘reality’, ‘existence’: for it will
be pointless to dispute concerning the real existence of things, or claim to have any
knowledge of it, when we haven’t fixed the meaning of those words. ‘Thing’ or ‘being’ is
the most general name of all; it applies to two entirely distinct and unalike kinds of item,
which have nothing in common but the name; they are spirits and ideas. The former are
active, indivisible substances: the latter are inert, fleeting, dependent beings, which do not
exist by themselves, but are supported by - or exist in - minds or spiritual substances. We
comprehend our own existence by inward feeling or reflection, and that of other spirits by
reason. We may be said to have some knowledge or notion of our own minds, of spirits
and active beings, although we do not in a strict sense have ideas of them. Similarly we
know and have a notion of Ÿrelations between things or ideas, which relations are distinct
from the Ÿideas or things related, because the Ÿideas may be perceived by us without our
perceiving the relations. To me it seems that we can know about and talk about ideas,
spirits, and relations, and that it would be improper to extend the term ‘idea’ to signify
everything we know or have any notion of.
90. Ideas imprinted on the senses are real things, or do really exist. I do not deny that; but
I deny that they can exist outside the minds that perceive them, and that they resemble
anything existing outside the mind - since the very being of a sensation or idea consists in
being perceived, and the only thing an idea can resemble is an idea. The things perceived
by sense can be called ‘external’ with regard to their origin, because they are not
generated from within by the mind itself, but imprinted ·from outside· by a spirit other than
the one that perceives them. Perceptible objects can also be said to be ‘outside the mind’
in another sense, namely, when they exist in some other mind. Thus when I shut my eyes,
the things I saw may still exist, but it must be in another mind.
91. It would be a mistake to think that what I am saying here detracts in the least from the
reality of things. It is acknowledged on the received principles [= materialism] that all
perceptible qualities - extension, motion, and the rest - need a support because they cannot
exist by themselves. But the objects perceived by sense are admitted to be nothing but
combinations of those qualities, and so they cannot exist by themselves. Up to this point
we all agree. So that when I deny that the things perceived by sense exist independently of
a substance or support in which they may exist, I take nothing away from the received
opinion of their reality, and am not guilty of any new doctrine in that respect. The only
difference ·between myself and other philosophers· is that according to me the unthinking
beings perceived by sense have no existence distinct from being perceived, and cannot
therefore exist in any substance other than those unextended, indivisible substances, or
spirits, which act and think and perceive them; whereas the common run of philosophers
hold that the perceptible qualities exist in an...
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This note was uploaded on 03/12/2013 for the course PHIL 105 taught by Professor Mendetta during the Spring '13 term at SUNY Stony Brook.
- Spring '13