Commentary on Berkeley's Dialogues

“The reality of things cannot be maintained without supposing the existence of matter....”

George Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

Having proclaimed his commitment to avoiding scepticism and empty abstraction, Berkeley's primary task in the Three Dialogues is the reconciliation of his idealism with that desire. In doing so, Berkeley has considered himself justified in taking logical shortcuts, and employing various literary techniques of persuasion alongside the strict analytic ones. While The Second Dialogue may be an overall impressive work, many of the conclusions reached are far from justified, leaving serious weaknesses in the claims made.

Although the dialogue form of the argument is a time-honoured method of presenting structured logic as a series of hypothesis tried with hostile reasoning, for Berkeley it offers many opportunities for a much more informal methods of persuasion. Even though the accessibility Berkeley strives for in The Dialogues may justify that tendency, I am reluctant to accept such subjective methods in what should otherwise represent formal logic.

In particular, throughout Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley strives to demonstrate the practical, rather than intellectual, appeal of his philosophy. He thus proclaims his dislike of scepticism and empty abstractions at the very beginning of the work (“Hylas: I was considering the odd fate of those men who have in all ages, through an affectation of being distinguished from the vulgar, or some unaccountable turn of thought, pretended either to believe nothing at all, or to believe the most extravagant things in the world.” in The First Dialogue), and is expected to defend this view through the remainder of the work. A careless reader is led into accepting the numerous effective arguments made throughout The Dialogues as evidence for the initial hypothesis, while indeed they merely argue secondary issues (even though these are often more fundamental), leaving the status of the primary hypothesis inconclusive.

As the metaphysical realism seems to be the common-sense model of the world, Hylas's utterance at the opening of the title quotation is an important objection to Berkeley's philosophy represented by Philonous. However, instead of providing a satisfactory answer to Hylas's statement, Philonous fails to support his exclamation (“The reality of things!”), moving instead directly to the more fragile issue of the “reality of matter”. It may be argued that Berkeley abuses the dialogue form by deviating from the hypothesis-attack structure by failing to attack the subject of the sentence. The glove argument with which Philonous answers Hylas may or may not demonstrate the meaningfulness of the concept of matter, but it certainly makes no claims as to the subject of its reality. At the minimum, Berkeley fails to establish the existence of an objective reality, thus making his earlier proof of the existence of God logically inconclusive. Further, he fails to establish a connection between the common-sense realism and his idealism. As mentioned above, a careless reader is led into a fallacy of applying the rejecting conclusion of the argument to the original claim made by Hylas.

A further example of an abuse of the dialogue form may be found in the following passage discussing the “common signification of words”. Clearly, the attack by Philonous is not justified, for Hylas has not made any claims comparable to redefining “water” as “fire”. By aggressive exaggeration, Philonous avoids the problem that otherwise he would be forced to face, namely that, having just narrowed the common-sense definition of matter (a fact that he himself unwillingly acknowledges in “But is it not the only proper genuine received sense?”), it is him who enjoys a word-play. Obviously, the actual issue of redefinitions and the narrowing of meaning is not a serious problem, as it is almost always necceciated by the rigorous framework of a formal logic which must not rely on the subjective nature of a language.

While attacking Berkeley's methods, I must admit that his position is not undefensible. In particular, if we accept Philonous's argument as to our alleged inability to resolve the metaphysical status of the cause of sensory data, we may be led into a variant of Berkeley's idealism. Having accept the uncertainity of the sensory inputs, we cannot resolve the epistemological value of our perceptions, which may be argued to be the only source of information avaliable to us. Because, despite this limitation, we seem to posess a consistent (partial) understanding of our world W which at least approximates some objective reality (this is the understanding which Berkeley refers to as the common sense), and this understanding describes the only world avaliable to us, there must exist a possible world W', identical to our material world W except for the fact that the matter of W' posesses no metaphysical status outside of the mind. Further, because we have already established our inability to distinguish W and W' (in The First Dialogue, which is not questioned for the purposes of this discussion), we may, without loss of generality, identify the two worlds as one.

This reasoning, sought after by Philonous, establishes the irrelevance of matter, but falls short of proving its impossibility. Philonous's concluding passage (“You are not therefore to expect I should prove a repugnancy between ideas where there are no ideas”) is hardly satisfactory, as it employs two different meanings of the key word -- first the technical sense of “idea” as defined by Berkeley, followed by the more oridinary meaning implying understanding or meaningfulness. The discrepency between the domains of these two senses is enough to account for the unwarranted effectiveness of the claim.

The Dialogues in general, and the concluding passage of The Second Dialogue in particular, provide an effective although incomplete account of Berkeley's philosophy. While a useful tool for a critical analysis of his idealism, the work must be treated as a sketch rather than a finished statement. A reader of The Dialogues must constantly remind herself of the work's original purpose as an epilogue to Principles of Human Knowledge. Once the limitations of the form and Berkeley's use of it have been noted, the issues raised by the Dialogues, and the attached argumentation, may be effectively employed as the basis of a valid and interesting philosophical enquiry. Even though the work fails to identify the advocated idealism with the common sense, it certainly demonstrates the view's reasonability.

Patryk Zadarnowski, Sydney 1998