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Does Physics Lead to Berkeley?

  • John O. Nelson (a1)

Russell said that physics drove him to a position not unlike that of Berkeley —by which he meant subjectivism or solipsism. ‘As regards metaphysics’, he tells us in his Autobiography, ‘when, under the influence of Moore, I first threw off the belief in German idealism, I experienced the delight of believing that the sensible world is real. Bit by bit, chiefly under the influence of physics, this delight has faded, and I have been driven to a position not unlike that of Berkeley, without his God and his Anglican complacency’.

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1 B. Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, II (Boston: Little Brown, 1967), 233.

2 B. Russell, Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1956), 151-152.

3 See, for instance, Justus Hartnack, Language and Philosophy (Mouton, 1972), 63-65. This would also seem to be the import of John Cook's analysis of the Absolute Space debate between Leibniz and the Newtonians in ‘A Reappraisal of Leibniz's Views on Space, Time, and Motion’, Philosophical Investigations (Spring 1979), 22ff.

4 B. Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (New York: Norton, 1940), 15.

5 I use the term ‘perceptual realism’ rather than ‘naive realism’ because the latter has become almost inextricably associated with the validating doctrine that every perception consists of an act of perceiving and an object independent of it, the object perceived, with the attendant difficulties of illusions and dreams whose esse is not percipi. By ‘perceptual realism’ I intend to maintain no more than that numerically identical objects can be, and sometimes are, sensibly perceived by two or more persons.

6 See Russell , An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 15.

7 As a case in point see R. Henson, ‘Ordinary Language, Common Sense, and the Time-Lag Argument’, Mind (January 1967), 21-33.

8 One is tempted to cite Wittgenstein in Part Two of the Philosophical Investigations, sections xii and xiv, as perhaps sanctioning this conclusion. In section xii he says, for example, ‘Our interest certainly includes the correspondence between concepts and very general facts of nature’. And in xiv he criticizes psychology for containing ‘conceptual confusion’. I do not believe, however, that Wittgenstein is saying what we are, some appearance to the contrary notwithstanding. For instance, he allows philosophy to criticize logic and psychology where there exists ‘conceptual confusion’; but this presumably means—where bad philosophizing has set in and vitiated theorizing. But we are not saying that T is a case of conceptual confusion or that T issues from bad philosophizing. Our position is that, although in a sense different in kind (philosophical controversies not being resolvable; scientific ones, being resolvable), this difference in kind is not intrinsic (witness the conversion of cosmological propositions from philosophical ones to scientific ones) and that science and philosophy operate upon each other and legitimately do so.

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  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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