Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

I need especially to attend to a doctrine that seems

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Unformatted text preview: language and how it can be misused. I need especially to attend to a doctrine that seems to have played a large part in making people’s theories complex and confusing, and to have caused endless errors and difficulties most branches of knowledge. I am referring to the theory that the mind has a power of forming abstract ideas or notions of things. Anyone who knows anything about the writings and disputes of philosophers must realize that a great part of them is spent on abstract ideas, which are thought to be especially the object of the sciences of logic and metaphysics, and of all learning of the supposedly most abstracted and elevated kind. In all of these studies, almost every discussion assumes that there are abstract ideas in the mind, and that it is quite familiar with them. 7 intro. Everyone agrees that the qualities of things never really exist in isolation from one another; rather, they are mixed and blended together, several in the same object. But, we are told ·by the supporters of ‘abstract ideas’·, the mind can consider each quality on its own, abstracted from the others with which it is united in the object, and in that way the 3 mind forms abstract ideas. For example, your eyesight presents you with an object that is extended, coloured, and moving; and your mind resolves this mixed or compound idea into its simple, constituent parts, and views each in isolation from the rest; which is how it forms the abstract ideas of extension, of colour, and of motion. It is not possible for colour or motion to exist without extension: but ·according to these ‘abstract idea’ theorists· the mind can by abstraction form the idea of colour without extension, and of motion without either colour or extension. 8 intro. [This section continues to expound the theory of abstract ideas, in preparation for an attack on it.] Again, the mind observes that the extended things that we perceive by sense, although they vary in size, shape and so on, also all have something in common; and it singles out and isolates the common element, thereby forming a highly abstract idea of extension. This is neither line, surface, nor solid, and it has no particular shape or size; it is an idea entirely separated out from all these ·features that distinguish extended things from one another·. Similarly the mind can leave out all the differences amongst the colours that are seen, retaining only what is common to them all; and in this way it makes an idea of colour, which is not red, blue, white or any other specific colour. Again, by considering motion on its own - separated out not only from the body that moves but also from how it moves, in what direction and how fast - the mind forms an abstract idea of motion, which is equally applicable to all particular movements that we can perceive through our senses ·the movement of a beckoning finger and the movement of Venus around the sun·. 9 intro. [The exposition of the theory of abstract ideas continues, becoming increasingly ironical in tone.] The kind of mental separation through which the mind forms abstract ideas of qualities taken singly also enables it to achieve abstract ideas of more complex items each of which includes a number of qualities that exist together ·in a single object·. For example, having observed that Peter, James, and John have certain features of shape etc. in common, the mind forms a complex idea that leaves out whatever differentiates these men from one another or from other men, and retains only what is common to all; and in this way it makes an abstract idea that applies equally to all men, excluding any details that might tie it down to any one man in particular. This (they say) is how we come to have the abstract idea of man (or of humanity or human nature, if you like). This idea includes colour, because every man has some colour; but then it can be neither white, nor black, nor any particular colour, because there is no one colour that all men have. The idea also includes height ·because every man has some height or other·, but it is neither tall nor short nor middling, but something abstracted from all these ·because there is no one height that all men have·. Similarly for all the rest. Furthermore, many sorts of creatures correspond in some ways but not all to the complex idea of man; and the mind, leaving out the features that are special to men and retaining only the ones that are shared by all the living creatures, forms the idea of animal. This abstracts not only from all particular men, but also all birds, beasts, fishes, and insects. The constituent parts of the abstract idea of animal are body, life, sense, and spontaneous motion [= ‘the ability to move without being pushed or pulled’]. By ‘body’ is meant body without any particular shape or size, because no one shape or size is common to all animals. The idea does not include any specific kind of covering - hair or feathers or scales, etc. - but nor does it specify bare skin; for various animals differ in respect of whether they have hair, feathers, scales, or bar...
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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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