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The Impact of ‘Philosophical Prejudice’ (feat. Berkeley and Reid)

Date:07 December 2018
Author:Peter West
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It’s worth noting from the outset that in what follows I am interested in philosophical prejudice – i.e. a commitment or set of commitments which is either unargued-for or unacknowledged (or both) – rather than any other kind of prejudice. In the context of philosophical argument such ‘prejudices’ can have a significant impact on what kinds of opposing views a philosopher is willing to listen to or on the scope of possibilities open to them when it comes to the development of their own views. When philosophers implicitly accept inconsistent ‘prejudices’ it is likely, or perhaps inevitable, that if they engage with one another they will end up talking past each other (or just talking at each other). It’s hard to say whether such ‘prejudices’ are pre-theoretical – in the sense of having been there prior to engagement in philosophy (are ‘the folk’ philosophically prejudiced?) – or whether they are more like syllogistic premises that have slipped through the cracks or been hidden in the shadows.* It might, then, be constructive to have one’s own philosophical prejudices pointed out.** But, of course, this is not the only option. More options are likely to be at work: a philosopher might very well be aware of her “prejudices” and yet take them to be obvious, or perhaps necessary for a given ethical program. Of course, they could also be strategically hidden. Recently, I have been considering the impact of philosophical ‘prejudice’ on certain Early Modern debates.

I am currently interested in tracing a lineage of thinkers who are critical ofwhat is often called (in secondary literature) ‘representationalism’ (for characterisations of ‘representationalism’ see here, here or here). I take ‘representationalism’ to be an epistemological view whereby we gain knowledge of things in the world via intermediaries. In many cases, ‘representationalists’ accept (or are seen to accept) an indirect theory of perception. According to this kind of theory, if I take a walk in the woods all I immediately perceive are ideas in my mind (ideas of trees) which are caused by the real trees out there in the world. I gain knowledge of real trees because they give rise to ideas of trees in my mind which represent them. We might think of Descartes, Malebranche, or Locke as paradigm representationalists.*** The thinkers that I am currently interested in, then, can be characterised as ‘anti-representationalists’. I take the list of anti-representationalists (for the time being and rather tentatively) to include Antoine Arnauld, John Sergeant, Henry Lee, George Berkeley, and Thomas Reid.

That certain of these thinkers are grouped together might appear quite surprising because some of them (canonically) appear on opposite sides of important Early Modern debates. In what follows, I will concentrate on the case of Berkeley and Reid. In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), Reid is highly critical of Berkeley’s immaterialist system (in which all that exists are minds and the ideas that perceive them; a thing’s esse, for Berkeley, is either its percipi or its percipere). Though Reid acknowledges that Berkeley made some helpful contributions (notably his New Theory of Vision (1709)), all in all he concludes:

Of all the opinions that have ever been advanced by philosophers, this of Bishop Berkeley, that there is no material world, seems the strangest, and the most apt to bring philosophy into ridicule with plain men who are guided by the dictates of nature and common sense.

(Ouch.) This criticism would particularly hurt, for Berkeley, since he took himself to be providing a philosophical system that defended common sense against the dangerous abstract thought of ‘the philosophers’.**** Despite Berkeley’s protestations to the contrary, Reid identifies Berkeley as part of an especially pernicious philosophical tradition he calls ‘the Way of Ideas’ which began when Descartes separated the mental from the physical (‘ideas’ from things) and was propagated by Locke who claimed that all knowledge is of ideas alone. Reid argues that ideas are 'a shadowy kind of being' introduced for the sake of philosophical explanation and not on the basis of everyday experience. Hence, ‘the Way of Ideas’ is no good for philosophy (Reid advocated ‘common sense philosophy’ – but not everyone agreed with him on that).

Both Berkeley and Reid take themselves to be defending common sense in the face of troubling conclusions coming out of Cartesian and Lockean philosophy. What’s more, both reject ‘representationalist’ epistemology on the grounds that it inevitably leads to scepticism (if all we ever know are intermediaries, how do we know they represent the things in the world we take them to represent?). Having identified these very similar starting points, how do we explain the radically divergent positions that each arrives at – and Reid’s critique of Berkeley on the basis of common sense?

The answer, I suggest, takes us back to the notion of ‘philosophical prejudice’. Reid argues that Berkeley leaves a crucial premise in his argument for immaterialism unargued-for: ‘the things we immediately perceive are ideas which exist only in the mind’. Reid finds no justification for accepting this premise in Berkeley’s philosophy. In Reid’s eyes, Berkeley thus reveals himself to be as ‘prejudiced’ as his predecessors. What is most interesting for our current purposes (and perhaps a little ironic) is that, were Berkeley able to respond to Reid’s criticisms, he would most likely accuse his critic of being similarly prejudiced.In Berkeleian terms, Reid is a ‘materialist’ (for Berkeley, one is a materialist simply in virtue of accepting that there are any mind-independent things). To be a Berkeleian immaterialist is not, as Reid tends to suggest, to believe that everything exists in my mind or your mind. Thanks to the omni-perceiving God, there remains an objective*****/subjective distinction in Berkeley’s system; as he puts it ‘the distinction between realities and chimeras retains its full force.’ Reid, however, refuses to budge on his commitment to the view that ‘real existence is existence independent of any mind’ – claiming it as one of the dictates of common sense. Reid’s refusal to consider Berkeley’s push for a re-evaluation of what it means for a thing to exist (Berkeley would argue) reveals that his own theorising is bogged down by the prejudice of ‘materialism’. Like the infamous Samuel Johnson, who kicked a stone and (of Berkeley’s philosophy) exclaimed 'I refute it thus!', Reid is unwilling to give up his materialist starting-point.

In Berkeley and Reid, we have a clear example of two philosophers who are (despite their shared concerns about scepticism) largely talking at each other. Berkeley wants to push for a re-evaluation of ‘real existence’ on the basis that what we immediately perceive are ideas, while Reid rejects any theory that includes ideas. The case is especially striking in light of both thinkers’ commitment to reconciling philosophy with common sense. Both seek to clear a way for knowledge that is grounded solely on everyday experience and observation and yet neither is entirely successful, since neither Berkeley nor Reid is able to engage in philosophy entirely free from ‘philosophical prejudice’.


* The best way to characterise ‘philosophical prejudice’ perhaps depends on whether we should conceive of philosophy as an inherently argumentative practice.

** The question might then arise as to whether being aware of a certain implicit commitment means it is no longer (strictly) a ‘prejudice’.

*** Whether or not these thinkers took themselves to subscribe to the kinds of views described above, their critics certainly did. 

**** Locke, Descartes, Malebranche, and Hobbes are all, to varying degrees, targets of Berkeley’s attack on ‘the philosophers’.

***** Objective existence, for Berkeley, is to be distinguished from absolute existence. The former is dependent on the perception of God, the latter is impossible.

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