Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Summer book blogging

I figured this would be a good way to keep each other informed of the books we've been reading. I have given myself a formidable list this summer, but I am so uncommitted to doing anything around here and I work so little that I just might get it all done. Ah, the wo/man of letters--surely s/he has always been unaccustomed to changing bedsheets, mowing yards, and generally making some use of herself (she finally decided on that sex change).

Anyhoo, I have decided to start out by subjecting myself to a strict Rigorosum of classics of Western philosophy that had somehow escaped my notice. I'd been reading so much political theory that the epistemology and metaphysics (which normally bore me) of Bishop Berkeley's Principles of Human Understanding came as a nice surprise. I feel like Berkeley, whenever I have heard him spoken of, is usually rather lazily lumped together with Hume as a "British empiricist." Now, empiricism brings to mind facts, observations, perhaps a more materialist view of the universe as opposed to some of the spacier theories of the rationalists. But I found that Berkeley offers one of the most ridiculous, though highly original, theories of reality and understanding that has surely ever dripped from the pen of a pointy-headed philosopher. Basically, Berkeley begins by denying the reality of what he calls "abstract universal ideas," employed extensively, so he says, by John Locke. Whereas Locke says that our reason can help us to formulate the absolute idea of a triangle, one that while being neither scalene nor isoceles is nonetheless a "pure" triangle (kind of like a Platonic Form), Berkeley says this is nonsense, because every thought we have must conform to some aspect of what we've experienced. This seems right (and empirical) enough, and thus we move from a more abstracted essentialism to a realistic nominalism.

But then things get all weird, and Berkeley wants to say also that because all we have are sensations, those are the only things we can prove and we can go no further in conferring "reality" status on an object than whatever we experience in our own mind. Thus what we tend to think of as the "real" world is nothing but images imprinted on our mind by a Will greater than our own, which must be God. All we are is a continual stream of images. How this theory can account for other minds and get anywhere with regard to ethics and the general treatment of others without slipping into solipsism is a little sketchy to me.

I apologize to anyone who's read and thoroughly thought Berkeley through, because that was a very crude description. But I will add, that I was highly amused during my reading because I got the sense that Berkeley's overall practical message, his "praxis" apart from his theory, was roughly this: "These weighty matters I'm discussing and the petty arguments I'm having with Locke don't really change anything, they're just the rational end of our common sense anyway, and no one of the 'vulgar' will be changed by it one way or the other, but hey, doesn't God end up looking great in my system? Take that, you atheists and skeptics! God's awesome; he's my employer, after all. Thanks, God. Thank you for the sweet, sweet pheasant my fat ass will be scarfing down tonight. QED." Lest we forget, we also have Berkeley to thank for his last work, Siris, an essay concerning the positive medical effects of tar-water!

Next week, I take a crack at the awesomeness that is David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. But for now, discuss the good Bishop of Cloyne and talk up your own summer reading.


Blogger Robot said...

I have awfully little to say about Berkeley other than that he is rather far down on my summer book reading list. I've been reading my one Kundera-book per year ("The Joke") as well as a collection of essays by Sydney Hook, some of which are incredible, others of which are rather self-involved. What Berlin have you been diving into?

12:18 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Ah, the Joke. I loved that book, it's a lot more existentialist than some of his later stuff, which as you know gets kind of metaphysical or "magical realist" or whatever. Some real nasty bits about women, though, but perhaps it is the main character talking and not Kundera himself (sounds like he put a lot of himself into that role though). But why dwell on the anti-chauvanist bit when there's so much great material there. As always there's Kundera's love-hate relationship with Communism (more on the hate side).

The Berlin is the Four Essays on Liberty, which is really two essays on liberty and two about other topics. I've read the first two now, on "Ideas in the 20th Century" and "Historical Inevitability," plus I'd already read "Two Conceptions of Liberty" before. I thought the first essay was great, although Berlin sometimes comes across as one of those Karl Popper, mid-century progressive liberal types--level-headed, skeptical, and a good critic of everything other than his own vague, slightly underformulated position. What's interesting is that the essay ends with an exhortation to formulate a conception of the public good outside of the mere "elimination of evil" liberal quest to get rid of hunger and disease. Isn't that positive liberty though, Isie ol' pal? He's also much more lenient towards Marx than Popper is.

The second essay is where my grievances come in. A footnote says it was the keynote speech at some "Auguste Comte Commemorary Philosophical Lecture" or something, and I would have *hated* to have been in the audience that day, despite the good message of the speech. It's basically a critique of teleology or any sort of notion of "historical inevitability," be it Comte, Condorcet, Russell (the "scientistic" circle) or Hegel, Marx, Spengler (the metaphysical/materialist teleological contingent). To say that Berlin belabors the point would be too gracious. It's 80 pages of very much the same stuff over and over again--don't try to formulate laws about history, history is not science, don't say that we can't pass judgment on actions or people because they're "inevitable." It's just really tiring, and Berlin also has a nasty habit of building clause upon clause with lots of strings of synonymous adjectives and nouns. But, yeah, the message is good.

My biggest problem is that at times Berlin seems to group together general enlightenment thinking with historicist, teleological thinking. So all the sudden positions like "if people are educated, liberal-minded, and non-violent they will have a better grasp of their interests, so let's make an effort as individuals and as groups to educate them" gets lumped with "History and Science will inevitably lead people to be educated, no matter what anyone does." Just a quibble though.

1:05 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I will also add that if you enjoyed Williams' Truth and Truthfulness, you should seek out the second essay, "Historical Inevitability," as it touches on much of the same subject matter, since it calls into questions the facts of history, subjectivity/objectivity, the usefulness of historical formulae like historical materialism, etc. Berlin and Williams would have gotten along well on this front, methinks. Berlin even brings up the question of what "factuality" meant to Thucydides!

5:41 PM  

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