Berkeley on Perception

George Berkeley (1685-1753) is most famous for his provocative claim that material objects don’t really exist. Positively, he claimed that “to be is to be perceived”. Berkeley took as a starting point the view of Descartes and Locke that perceptions are “ideas” in the mind, but took issue with the further assumption of Descartes and Locke that ideas nonetheless also “represent” things that exist independent of the mind. It seems to me that the implicit concept of mind in this kind of usage assumes way too much, but for now I won’t dwell on that.

Berkeley has been the subject of superficial ridicule as a poster child for extreme subjectivism, but that is a caricature. Famously, he is supposed to have maintained, e.g., that a tree falling in the woods and heard by no one makes no sound. As 20th century analytic philosophers have noted, however, even if his positions are ultimately untenable, the quality of his arguments is actually quite high. Apart from the abstract “metaphysical” question of the actual existence of external objects, he also generally wanted to vindicate common sense.

Far from denying the existence of any objective reality, what he really wanted to do was articulate an alternate account of objectivity, based on something other than the independent existence of discrete objects. He had two different kinds of responses on the falling tree. One invokes counterfactual conditions; all that is of practical relevance to us are the conditions under which a perception would occur. The other invokes God as a universal witness.

From within the tradition of British empiricism, Berkeley partially anticipates the non-representationalist accounts of objectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, using the resources of a kind of Christian Platonism. Unlike Kant and Hegel, he flatly asserts that what really exists are what he calls spirits, which combine Christian-Platonic attributes with those of minds in a broadly Cartesian-Lockean sense.

A bit like the monads of Leibniz but without the infinite nesting and mutual inclusion Leibniz posited, Berkeley’s spirits are inherently active, and inherently endowed with perception. Spirits have experience that is expressed in purely immanent and immediate — but entirely passive and inert — contentful ideas.

Berkeley wrote an important early work on the theory of vision, arguing that what we really see is immediate phenomena of light and color, rather than inferred “things”. This was an important source for phenomenalism in early 20th century philosophy of science. Like the later phenomenalists, he tried to explain all cognitive error as bad inference from good immediate perception. From this point of view, “ideas” cannot be wrong, because they are purely immediate and purely inert; the possibility of error depends on the actions of finite spirits.

The common tradition of Cartesianism and British empiricism insists that there is a layer of immediate apprehension that is immune to error, and wants to ground knowledge and science by more authentically getting back to that immediate layer. I think Kant and Hegel convincingly showed that everything we experience as immediate actually has a prehistory, so that immediacy itself is only an appearance, and all immediacy that we experience is really what Hegel called mediated immediacy. Mediated immediacy has the same general kind of explanation as what is called “habit” in translations of Aristotle. We “just know” how to ride a bicycle once we have already learned. We don’t have to think about it; we just spontaneously do it. Similarly, I think “immediate” perception involves a complex unconscious application of categories that is affected by large bodies of previous experience.

Thus I want to say that there is no layer of human experience that is immune to error. On the other hand, through reflection and well-rounded judgment, we genuinely but fallibly participate in objectivity. Objectivity is not something that is simply “out there”; it is a real but always finite and relative achievement.

Identification as Valuation

It might seem as though the sort of categorial interpretation of experience and general application of concepts as practiced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason were a purely cognitive affair. Many older readings took it that way, and the passages I quoted from Longuenesse’s commentary don’t explicitly dispel such a notion. My very compressed comparison with Aristotle suggests a reconciliation of Aristotelian practical judgment or phronesis with Kantian judgment, but this relies on an implicit view of the unity of Kant’s thought, partially developed elsewhere. The thrust of it is to overlay the cognitive judgment of the first Critique with the teleological and aesthetic judgment of the Critique of Judgment, and then to read the ethical works in terms of that combined notion.

As a concrete example of how the kind of identification of objects dealt with in the first Critique takes on a valuational angle, Brandom cites the identification of a German by a French person as a “boche” or thick-head, a derogatory term from World War I. This immediately suggests many similar examples of prejudice about various alleged “kinds” of people. Brandom argues that even just by the criteria of logical analysis in Kant’s first Critique, the ethically objectionable “boche” and similar terms are not valid concepts at all. They are a kind of false conceptual “universals” that do not reflect any valid generalization, but are only possible with a sort of poor logical hygiene. This shows that such practices of identification are far from neutral. Identification is after all kind of recognition, and Fichte and especially Hegel developed the ethical consequences of this.

Even claims and classifications that are valuationally neutral in themselves can be made in bad faith for some ulterior motive, but the validity of logical operations applied to the real world implicitly presupposes the ethical criterion that we make our judgments in good faith.

Capacity to Judge

I’ve previously referred several times to Beatrice Longuenesse’s superb Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993; English ed. 1998). Here I’d like to offer a few quotations from the summary in her conclusion.

“The transcendental unity of apperception was first introduced in the [deduction of the categories in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, referred to by scholars as the] A Deduction, in the exposition of the ‘synthesis of recognition in the concept’. There Kant argued that we could not recognize singular representations under common concepts unless they were taken up in one and the same act of combination and comparison, and unless we were (however dimly) conscious of the numerical identity of this act of combining our representations. This consciousness is what confers ‘logical form’ upon our representations. And it ‘presupposes’ or ‘includes’ a synthesis of imagination. In the [second edition] B Deduction, Kant specified that the ‘logical form’ thus given to our representations is that of judgment. The synthesis of imagination it presupposes is figurative synthesis (synthesis speciosa) or ‘affection of inner sense’ by the understanding. I argued that this meant affection of inner sense not by categorial understanding (i.e., understanding already equipped with categories as full-fledged concepts), but by understanding as the mere capacity to form judgments, Vermögen zu urteilen. Thus, the ‘I think’, or ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, has no other meaning or status than that of being the unified activity of combination and reflection on the sensible given. There is no unity of self-consciousness or ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ apart from this effort, or conatus toward judgment, ceaselessly affirmed and ceaselessly threatened with dissolution in the ‘welter of appearances'” (p. 394).

“Kant’s view is rather that unity of consciousness is always both ‘my own’ and, insofar as it is ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’ whose form is that of judgment, so constituted that it is capable of transcending the point of view of ‘myself, in the present state of my perception’ to the point of view of ‘everybody, always’.”

“Kant further maintains that the conscious effort toward judgment, that is, transcendental unity of self-consciousness, is what makes possible consciousness of an objective temporal order. We have such consciousness only insofar as our perceptions are related to realities, to permanent or changing properties of singular things reciprocally determining each other’s location in space and time” (p. 395).

“The capacity to represent discursively (thought) and the capacity to locate things, ourselves included, in time are thus one and the same. The ‘unity of self-consciousness’ as the unity of the discursive conatus, and the unity of self-consciousness as the consciousness of an individuality located in time, are one and the same” (p. 396).

“For behind the deceptively rigid parallelism between logical forms of judgment and categories, what emerges is the cognitive effort of discursive beings confronting what is given to them in sensibility. This effort, conatus of the Vermögen zu urteilen, is according to Kant what essentially defines the kind of beings we are. It is also what generates the universal forms in which we think our world” (ibid).

“Kant argues that things (singular objects thought under concepts) are substitutional instances for ‘x’ in the logical form of categorical judgments only if they are also substitutional instances for ‘x’ in hypothetical judgments (whereby we are able to recognize their alterations)…. The ‘simple’ judgments (categorical judgments) by means of which we cognize things under concepts reflecting their essence, are thus possible only under the condition that we also generate ‘composite’ or ‘complex’ judgments (hypothetical or disjunctive judgments), by means of which we cognize a thing under its accidental marks, in universal correlation with all other things cognized in space and time” (p. 397).

“For Kant’s table of logical functions of judgment turns out to be, according to it author, an exposition of the minimal norms of discursive thinking necessary for us to be able to recognize and reidentify objects under concepts. And the infamous ‘transcendental synthesis of imagination’ turns out to be the complex web of perceptual combinations by means of which we take up sensible data into what we, in present times, have come to term ‘the space of reasons’” (p. 398).

Trust as a Principle

Trust as a principle does not mean blind trust. It means trust as a default attitude. Trust as a universal default is perfectly compatible with every kind of critical thinking.

When we trust someone, we grant them a kind of authority, but authority must always be balanced by symmetrical responsibility. To make any assertion at all is enter the space of reasons. To make an assertion is to make oneself responsible for it, along with its consequences and incompatibilities. No one has privileged access to what is right, which depends upon shareable criteria. Generalized trust does not mean naivete or credulity, just a kind of fairness. It could not mean an abdication of our responsibilities as rational beings. In the context of what Brandom would call deontic scorekeeping, generalized trust means a level playing field, not an absence of standards.

“Why” by Normative Pragmatics

Brandom’s normative pragmatics can be seen as providing a general framework for answering “why” questions. Pragmatics is initially about the practical use of language, and normative pragmatics is about good use, which for Brandom especially means good inferential use. Thus, normative pragmatics ends up being broadly concerned with good informal reasoning in life, i.e., with the quality of our ethical and other judgments.

In my view, this concern with the goodness of reasons and judgments also ends up emphasizing the ethical dimensions of judgment in general. There is really no such thing as “value free” judgment. Even what is called mathematical “intuition” is really an acquired practical skill having to do with judgment of what next step is contextually appropriate.

Classically, “why” asks for reasons, or about the goodness of reasons. Taken far enough, this leads to questions about ends.

Aristotle, too, typically framed inquiries in terms of what is well “said of” something. This is a kind of analysis of language use, with a normative or ethical intent, that ends up being inseparable from questions of what is right and what is true. This general approach is actually a form of what Brandom would call normative pragmatics. Brandom would tell us that semantics — or the investigation of meaning — depends on this sort of inquiry. My ascription of a fundamentally semantic orientation to Aristotle carries a similar implication.

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)


It seems to me that the main thing human reason does in real life is to interpret the significance of things. When we think of something, many implicit judgments about it are brought into scope. In a way, Kant already suggested this with his accounts of synthesis.

In real-world human reasoning, the actually operative identity of the things we reason about is not the trivial formal identity of their names or symbols, but rather a complex one constituted by the implications of all the judgments implicitly associated with the things in question. (See also Identity, Isomorphism; Aristotelian Identity.)

This is why people sometimes seem to talk past one another. The same words commonly imply different judgments for different people, so it is to be expected that this leads to different reasoning. That is why Plato recommended dialogue, and why Aristotle devoted so much attention to sorting out different ways in which things are “said”. (See also Aristotelian Semantics.)

I think human reason uses complex material inference (reasoning based on intermediate meaning content rather than syntax) to evaluate meanings and situations in an implicit way that usually ends up looking like simple summary judgment at a conscious level, but is actually far more involved. A great deal goes on, very rapidly and below the level of our awareness. Every surface-level judgment or assertion implicitly depends on many interpretations.

Ever since Aristotle took the first steps toward formalization of logic, people have tended to think of real-world human reasoning in terms modeled straightforwardly on formal or semi-formal logical operations, with meanings of terms either abstracted away or taken for granted. (Aristotle himself did not make this mistake, as noted above.) This fails to take into account the vast amount of implicit interpretive work that gets encapsulated into ordinary terms, by means of their classification into what are effectively types, capturing everything that implicitly may be relevantly said about the things in question in the context of our current unity of apperception.

A typed term for a thing works as shorthand for many judgments about the thing. Conversely, classification and consequent effective identity of the thing depend on those judgments.

As a result of active deliberation, we often refine our preconscious interpretations of things, and sometimes replace them altogether. Deliberation and dialectic are the testing ground of interpretations.

In general, interpretation is an open-ended task. It seems to me that it also involves something like what Kant called free play. (See also Hermeneutics; Theory and Practice; Philosophy; Ethical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Foundations?; Aristotelian Demonstration; Brandom on Truth.)