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Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

It would have been better if the bad effects of that

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Unformatted text preview: s to have led them into. What bickerings and controversies have arisen about those matters, and [Berkeley adds sarcastically] what great good they have brought to mankind, are well enough known these days, and I need not go on about them. It would have been better if the bad effects of that doctrine ·of abstract natures and notions· had been confined to the people who most openly adhered to it. ·But the bad effects have spread further·. When men consider that the advancement of knowledge has been pursued with great care, hard work, and high abilities, and yet most branches of knowledge remain full of darkness and uncertainty, and of disputes that seem likely never to end; and that even propositions thought to be supported by the most clear and compelling demonstrations contain paradoxes that are utterly at variance with the understandings of men; and that only a small portion of them brings any real benefit to mankind except as an innocent diversion and amusement; the consideration of all this is apt to throw men into despondency, and give them a complete contempt for all study. Perhaps this will cease when we have a view of the false principles that have obtained in the world, of which I think the one that has had the widest influence over the thoughts of enquiring and theory-building men is the doctrine of abstract general ideas. 18 intro. This prevailing view about abstract ideas seems to me to have its roots in language. There is some evidence for this in what is openly said by the ablest supporters of abstract ideas, who acknowledge that they are made for the purpose of naming; from which it clearly follows that if there had been no such thing as speech or universal signs, abstraction would never have been thought of. (See Essay III.vi.39 and elsewhere.) So let us examine how words have helped to give rise to the mistake·n view that there are abstract ideas. They have contributed to it through two mistakes about language, which I shall now discuss·. (i) People assume that every name does or should have just one precise and settled signification. This encourages them to believe in abstract, determinate ideas, each serving as the true and only immediate signification of some general name, and to think further that a general name comes to signify any particular thing through the mediation of these abstract ideas. [Here, as in Locke’s writings, a ‘general name’ is just a general word, such as ‘pebble’, ‘daffodil’ and ‘triangle’. ‘Signification’ could often be replaced by ‘meaning’, but not always.] Whereas really no general name has a single precise and definite signification; each general name can equally well signify a great number of particular ideas. All of this clearly follows from what I have already said; reflect on it a little and you will agree. Here is a possible objection: When a name has a definition, that ties it down to one determinate signification. For example, ‘triangle’ is defined as ‘plane surface bounded by three straight lines’; and that definition confines the word ‘triangle’ to standing for one certain idea and no other. To this I reply that definition of ‘triangle’ does not say whether the surface is large or small, black or white, nor whether the sides are long or short, equal or unequal, nor what angles they form. Each of these can vary greatly; so there is no one settled idea to which 9 the signification of the word ‘triangle’ is confined. It is one thing to make a name always obey the same definition, and another to make it always stand for the same idea: one is necessary, the other useless and impracticable. 19 intro. (ii) Words helped in another way to produce the doctrine of abstract ideas, namely through the widespread opinion that language is for the communicating of our ideas and for nothing else, and that every significant name stands for an idea. People who think this, and who can see the obvious fact that some names that are regarded as significant do not have particular specific ideas corresponding to them, conclude that such names must stand for abstract notions. Now, nobody will deny that many names that are in use amongst thoughtful people do not always put determinate particular ideas into the minds of listeners. And even when a name does stand for ideas, it doesn’t have to arouse them in the listener’s mind every time it is used, even in the strictest reasonings. That is because in reading and conversation names are mostly used as letters are in algebra: each letter stands for a particular number, but you can conduct a proof accurately without at each step having each letter bring to mind the particular number it is meant to stand for. 20 intro. Besides, the communicating of ideas through words is not the chief and only end of language, as people commonly think. Speech has other purposes as well: raising emotions, influencing behaviour, changing mental attitudes. The communication of ideas is often subservient to these other purposes, and sometimes it does not take place at all because the purposes can be achieved w...
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