Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

One idea or object of thought therefore cannot

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Unformatted text preview: an understand what is meant by ‘the absolute existence of perceptible objects outside the mind. To me it is clear that those words mark out either a direct contradiction or else nothing at all. To convince you of this, I know no easier or fairer way than to urge you to attend calmly to your own thoughts: if that attention reveals to you the emptiness or inconsistency of those words, that is surely all you need to be convinced. So that is what I insist on: the phrase ‘the absolute existence of unthinking things’ has either no meaning or a self-contradictory one. This is what I repeat and teach, and urge you to think about carefully. 25. All our ideas - sensations, things we perceive, call them what you will - are visibly inactive; there is no power or agency in them. One idea or object of thought, therefore, cannot produce or affect another. To be convinced of this we need only to attend to our ideas. They are wholly contained within the mind, so whatever is in them must be perceived. Now, if you attend to your ideas, whether of sense or reflection, you will not perceive any power or activity in them; so there is no power or activity in them. Think about it a little and you will realize that passiveness and inertness are of the essence of an idea, so that an idea cannot do anything or be the cause (strictly speaking) of anything; nor can it resemble anything that is active, as is evident from section 8. From this it clearly follows that extension, shape and motion cannot be the cause of our sensations. So it must be false to say our sensations result from powers that things have because of the arrangement, number, motion, and size of corpuscles in them. 18 26. We perceive a continual stream of ideas: new ones appear, others are changed or totally disappear. These ideas must have a cause - something they depend on, something that produces and changes them. It is clear from section 25 that this cause cannot be any quality or idea or combination of ideas, ·because that section argues that ideas are inactive, i.e. have no causal powers; and thus qualities have no powers either, because qualities are ideas·. So the cause must be a substance· because reality consists of nothing but substances and their qualities·. It cannot be a corporeal or material substance, because I have shown that there is no such thing. We must therefore conclude that the cause of ideas is an incorporeal active substance - a spirit. 27. A spirit is an active being. It is simple, in the sense that it does not have parts. When thought of as something that Ÿperceives ideas, it is called ‘the understanding’, and when thought of as Ÿproducing ideas or doing things with them, it is called ‘the will’. ·But understanding and will are different powers that a spirit has; they are not parts of it·. It follows that no-one can form an idea of a soul or spirit. We have seen in section 25 that all ideas are passive and inert, and therefore no idea can represent an active thing, ·which is what a spirit is·, because no idea can resemble an active thing. If you think about it a little, you will see clearly that it is absolutely impossible to have an idea that is like an active cause of the change of ideas. The nature of spirit (i.e. that which acts) is such that it cannot itself be perceived; all we can do is to perceive the effects it produces. ·To perceive a spirit would be to have an idea of it, that is, an idea that resembles it; and I have shown that no idea can resemble a spirit because ideas are passive and spirits active·. If you think I may be wrong about this, you should look in on yourself and try to form the idea of a power or of an active being, ·that is, a thing that has power·. To do this, you need to have ideas of two principal powers called ‘will’ and ‘understanding’, these ideas being distinct from each other and from a third idea of substance or being in general, which is called ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’; and you must also have a relative notion of spirit’s supporting or being the subject of those two powers. Some people say that they have all that; but it seems to me that the words ‘will’ and ‘spirit’ do not stand for distinct ideas, or indeed for any idea at all, but for something very different from ideas. Because this ‘something’ is an agent, it cannot resemble or be represented by any idea whatsoever. Though it must be admitted that we have some notion of soul, spirit, and operations of the mind such as willing, loving and hating, in that we understand the meanings of those words. 28. I find I can arouse ideas in my mind at will, and vary and shift the mental scene whenever I want to. I need only to will, and straight away this or that idea arises in my mind; and by willing again I can obliterate it and bring on another. It is because the mind makes and unmakes ideas in this way that it can properly be called active. It certainly is active; we know this from experience. But anyone who talks of ‘unthinking agents’ or of ‘arousing ideas without the use of volition’ is merely letting himself be led astray by words. 29. Whatever power I may have over my...
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