Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

For the same reason the spontaneous motion must not

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Unformatted text preview: e skin, so that all 4 those differences must be left out of the abstract idea of animal. For the same reason, the spontaneous motion must not be walking, flying or creeping; but it is a motion all the same. What kind of motion it can be is not easy to conceive. 10 intro. Whether others have this amazing ability to form abstract ideas, they will know better than I. Speaking for myself: I find that I do indeed have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself the ideas of particular things that I have perceived, and of splitting those ideas up and re-assembling them in various ways. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper parts of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Similarly, any idea that I form of a man must be of a specific kind of man: he must be white or black or brown, straight or crooked, tall or short or middling. Try as I may, I can’t get into my mind the abstract idea of man that is described in the preceding section. And I find it equally impossible to form an abstract idea of motion that leaves out the thing that moves and is neither swift nor slow, curved nor straight. The same holds for absolutely all abstract ideas. I freely admit that I can perform ‘abstraction’ in a certain sense, namely: when several parts or qualities are united in an object, I can have the thought of one of them separated from the others if it could really exist apart from them. But I deny that I can perform ‘abstraction’ in the standard meaning of that word, which covers two kinds of mental performance: (i) conceiving abstractly and in isolation a quality that could not exist in isolation ·as we are said to do with colour and motion·; and (ii) forming a general notion by abstracting from particulars in the way I have described ·as we are said to do with man and animal·. There is reason to think that most people are like me in this respect. The majority of people, who are simple and illiterate, never claim to have abstract notions. Such notions are described ·by those who believe in them· as difficult to form; it takes hard work, we are told, to make an abstract idea. So we can reasonably conclude that if there are any abstract ideas they are all in the minds of learned people. 11 intro. Let us see what can be said in defence of this theory of abstract ideas. What attracts philosophers to a view that seems to be so remote from common sense? A rightly admired philosopher who died not long ago certainly helped to make the doctrine popular when he suggested that the biggest intellectual difference between man and beast is that men can form abstract ideas while beasts cannot. [Berkeley’s Principles was published in 1710; Locke had died in 1704. In their time ‘brute’ and ‘beast’ were standard terms for non-human animals.] He wrote What perfectly distinguishes men from brutes is that men have general ideas, this being something that the faculties of brutes are not capable of. Clearly, we see in them not the faintest trace of the use of general signs to stand for universal ideas; so we can reasonably suppose that they lack the ability to abstract, i.e. to make general ideas, since they have no use of words or any other general signs. (Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding II.xi.10) A little later he wrote: So we are entitled to conclude that this is what marks off the species of brutes from men. It creates a clear gap between them, which eventually broadens out to a great width. If the brutes have any ideas at all rather than being mere machines (as 5 some people think they are), we can’t deny that they have a certain degree of reason. That some of them sometimes reason seems to me as obvious as that they sense things; but when they reason, it is only with particular ideas, just as they receive them from their senses. Even the highest of the brutes are confined within those narrow limits, I believe, and have no capacity to widen their intellectual range through any kind of abstraction. (11) I readily agree with this learned author that brutes have no capacity for abstraction. But if that is to be our criterion for whether something is a brute, I am afraid that many who are accepted as men should be counted among the brutes! We have no evidence that brutes have abstract general ideas, the author said, because we do not observe them using words or other general signs. He was assuming that one cannot use words unless one has general ideas; from which it follows that men who use language are able to abstract or make their ideas general. That the author was thinking along these lines can be seen in how he answered his own question: ‘Since all things that exist are only particulars, how do we come by general terms?’ His answer was, ‘Words become general by being made the signs of general ideas’ (III.iii.6). But ·I maintain, on the contrary, that· it seems that a wor...
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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.

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