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.

Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)


Having just mentioned Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) again, I owe him a dedicated note. Along with Karl Reinhold (1757 – 1823), Fichte played a major role in promoting the philosophy of Kant, and helped shape the further development of German idealism, but Kant studiously avoided endorsing his interpretation. Recent scholarship has greatly enriched the historical picture of Fichte’s development.

In the early works for which he is best known, Fichte strove to simplify and systematize the Critical philosophy. In so doing, he made a number of important changes that have affected the reception of Kant ever since. For one thing, influenced by Reinhold, he wanted to derive everything from a single, simple principle. For Fichte, this was a transcendental Subject or “I” endowed with very strong unity and infinite freedom. Contrary to Kant, he suggested there could be a limited kind of intellectual intuition, applying only to the Subject. Meanwhile, he denied the reality of the “thing in itself” that Kant always insisted on. He also presented himself as a sort of polar opposite of Spinoza.

These moves gave him a reputation for extreme subjectivism, but recent scholarship has shown that Fichte at least worked very hard to avoid this sort of consequence. His “I” was supposed to be universal and to incorporate all sorts of epistemological scruples, and in spite of rejecting a thing-in-itself, he also wrote extensively about a “not-I” that the “I” was supposed to recognize. He partly anticipated Hegel’s later notion of mutual recognition, but Hegel also famously criticized any simple opposition of “I” and “not-I”.

Assuming that Fichte successfully avoided crude subjectivism, he still stands as an archetype of a subject-centered philosopher, very far from the vision pursued here of doing full justice to subjectivity without postulating a foundational Subject.