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The semantics of sense perception in Berkeley


George Berkeley's linguistic account of sense perception is one of the most central tenets of his philosophy. It is intended as a solution to a wide range of critical issues in both metaphysics and theology. However, it is not clear from Berkeley's writings just how this ‘universal language of the Author of Nature’ is to be interpreted. This paper discusses the nature of the theory of sense perception as language, together with its metaphysical and theological motivations, then proceeds to develop an account of the semantics of the perceptual language, using Berkeley's theory of reference for human language as a guide.

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1 The phrase ‘Author of Nature’ is an addition found only in the third edition; the first and second editions read ‘universal language of Nature.’

2 Colin Murray Turbayne ‘Berkeley's metaphysical grammar’, in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge with Critical Essays (New York NY: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970), 3–36. Turbayne cites the passages mentioned on 13. Turbayne's analysis is also accepted by Creery Walter E. in his ‘Berkeley's argument for a divine visual language’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 3 (1972), 217218.

3 Arbitrariness is, on Berkeley's view, an essential characteristic of language. See, e.g. Alciphron, 4.7ff. Locke is the source of this view. See An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 3.2.1.

4 But see the caveat at the end of the preceding section.

5 Of course, Berkeley is not in danger of true solipsism, as the mere existence of perceptions, independent of their nature, proves the existence of some sort of ‘Author of Nature’; the concern here is for the existence of other finite minds.

6 Curiously enough, scholars have often missed this point. For instance, Kenneth P. Winkler mentions in passing ‘Berkeley's claim that ideas of sense never signify vertically, or in a way that involves descent to a level of things different in kind from the ideas themselves’; Berkeley: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 21, emphasis original. Walter Creery also remarks that ‘ordinary discourse has a referential function but the phenomenal language does not have such (and indeed in terms of the attack on matter and substance, the phenomenal language cannot have such)’; ‘Berkeley's argument’, 219. This is despite his ultimate recognition that if ‘in Berkeley's theory of meaning there is no descriptive function at all’, then ‘metaphysical solipsism lurks in the background and … it is by means of the descriptive function that a case can be made out for the defeat of solipsism’; ibid., 222. As will be discussed in depth below, Winkler and Creery are right that if all perceptions had direct referents, Berkeley's attack on materialism would fail, but if no perceptions have direct referents then Berkeley's theory fails to accomplish one of its key metaphysical purposes: rescuing the immaterialist from solipsism.

7 The third edition shortens this to just ‘In opposition to Sceptics and Atheists’.

8 On this argument, see A. David Kline ‘Berkeley's divine language argument’, in E. Sosa (ed.) Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987).

9 Acts 17.26–28a. Quotation from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982). Henceforth NKJV.

10 See also Alciphron, 4.15.

11 Romans 11.34, NKJV.

12 The importance to Berkeley of avoiding ‘enthusiasm’ was pointed out to me by an anonymous referee for Religious Studies. The view Berkeley wishes to avoid is referred to as ‘the enthusiasm of Malebranche’ at Dialogues 214.

13 On the concept of knowing God in a way not reducible to knowledge of facts about God in the New Testament, see, e.g. John 10.14–15, 15.1–15, 17.3, Galatians 4.6–9, and Hebrews 10.19–22. In later Christian tradition, see, e.g. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1, 12.10 or any of the other classic texts of Christian mysticism.

14 Stromata, 7.7.

15 See Matthew, 6.5–8.

16 See n. 6, above.

17 All section numbers in Alciphron, 7 are from the third edition of 1752.

18 Anthony Flew ‘Was Berkeley a precursor of Wittgenstein?’, in W. B. Todd (ed.) Hume and the Enlightenment: Essays Presented to Ernest Campbell Mossner (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974).

19 ‘But it seems that a word becomes general by being made the sign … of several particular ideas, any one of which it indifferently suggests to the mind’; Principles, Introduction, 11.

20 My usage of ‘abstract’ here as simply the antonym to ‘concrete’ is in line with contemporary popular usage rather than early modern technical usage. Berkeley, of course, rejects Lockean abstraction as an impossibility.

21 Proper names of persons are, of course, not ‘concrete’ terms, since we have only a notion of a person, and not a distinct idea.

22 On Berkeley's rejection of Locke's simple ideas, see Winkler Berkeley, ch. 3.

23 I thank an anonymous referee for Religious Studies for this extremely important objection, which I initially missed and which led to the development of the ideas in this paragraph.

24 ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork’; Psalm 19.1, NKJV.

25 This is slightly problematic since our intuitions about artificial intelligences do not here agree with our intuitions about animals, although communications between artificial intelligences might have the same form and be perceived in the same way as communications between animals.

26 The centurion of Matthew 8 and the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15.

27 Danaher James P.Is Berkeley's world a divine language?’, Modern Theology, 18 (2002), 371.

28 The author would like to thank Karen Detlefsen for many helpful discussions throughout the process of producing this paper.

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Religious Studies
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