Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

The doctrine that there are only spirits and ideas

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Unformatted text preview: abilities and tenacious minds should turn their thoughts away from those distractions and employ them in studying things that lie nearer to the concerns of life, or have a more direct influence on how we live. 132. It may be said that several undoubtedly true theorems have been discovered by methods in which infinitesimals were used, which couldn’t have happened if the existence of infinitesimals included a contradiction in it. I answer that when you look into this thoroughly you will not find in any instance that you need to use or conceive infinitesimal parts of finite lines, or even quantities smaller than the smallest you can perceive. Indeed, you will find that this is never done, because it is impossible. ·This brings to an end my discussion of infinite divisibility·. 133. What I have said makes it clear that very numerous and important errors have arisen from the false principles that I have criticized in the earlier parts of this work. And the opposites of those erroneous tenets seem to be very fruitful principles that have innumerable consequences that are highly advantageous to true philosophy as well as to religion. I have shown in detail that matter, or the absolute existence of corporeal objects, has always been the chief source of the strength and confidence of the most openly declared and pernicious enemies of all knowledge, human and divine. And, surely, if Ÿby distinguishing the real existence of unthinking things from their being perceived, and allowing them a substance of their own out of the minds of spirits, no one thing is explained in nature, but on the contrary many inexplicable difficulties arise; if Ÿthe supposition of matter is shaky at best, because there is not so much as one single reason to support it; if Ÿits consequences cannot survive the light of examination and free enquiry, but screen themselves under the dark and general pretence that infinites cannot be understood; if furthermore Ÿthe removal of this matter doesn’t bring the slightest bad consequence, if it is not even missed in the world, but everything is conceived just as well - indeed better - without it; if, lastly, Ÿboth sceptics and atheists are forever silenced by the doctrine that there are only spirits and ideas, and this philosophy is perfectly agreeable both to reason and religion; we might expect that it - ·my philosophy· - would be admitted and firmly embraced, even if it were offered only as an hypothesis, and the existence of matter were allowed as possible, which I have clearly shown that it is not. 134. It is true that my principles reject as useless various disputes and speculations that are widely thought to be important parts of learning. But however great a prejudice against my notions this may give to those who have already been deeply engaged ·in such speculations· and made large advances in studies of that nature, I hope that others will not hold it against my principles and tenets that they shorten the labour of study, and make human sciences more clear, wide-ranging, and manageable than they were before. 135. Having completed what I planned to say about the knowledge of ideas, my next topic is spirits. We have more knowledge of these than we are commonly thought to have. We do not know the nature of spirits, people think, because we have no ideas of spirits. But I have shown in section 27 that it is plainly impossible for there to be an idea of a spirit; so 50 surely it ought not to be regarded as a defect in our understanding that it does not have any such idea. To the arguments of section 27 I shall add one more. I have shown that a spirit is the only substance or support in which ideas can exist; and it is obviously absurd to suppose that this support of ideas should itself be an idea, or be like an idea. 136. It may be said - and some have said - that we lack a sense that would enable us to know substances, and that if we had such a sense we would know our own soul as we do a triangle. ·Our inability to perceive substances, on this view, is like the blind person’s inability to see things·. To this I answer that if we did have a new sense, all it could present us with would be some new sensations or ideas of sense, ·just as happens when someone is cured of blindness·. But nobody, I think, will say that what he means by ‘soul’ and ‘substance’ is only some particular sort of idea or sensation! So when you think it through you can see that regarding our faculties as defective because they give us no idea of spirit or active thinking substance is as unreasonable as criticizing them because they don’t enable us to comprehend a round square. 137. The opinion that spirits are to be known in the way that ideas and sensations are known has given rise to many absurd doctrines and much scepticism about the nature of the soul. It has probably led some people to doubt whether they had a soul, as distinct from their body, since they couldn’t find that they had an idea of it. In fact, the mere meanings of the words are enough to refute the proposition that an idea (meaning: something inactive, whose exist...
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