Episode 89: Berkeley: Only Ideas Exist!

On Bishop George Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713).

While only a goon would deny the real existence of things like tables and chairs, does "real" existence have to mean existence as matter, i.e. as something that could exist in the absence of any mind to think about it? Berkeley says no! Tables and chairs are ideas! But not just my ideas, or yours, as they obviously don't disappear when we leave the room, and certainly trees and the like were around before people. So they're God's ideas! And hey, this chain of reasoning actually provides a proof for God's existence! Sweet!

Wes tries to convince Mark and Dylan that this is actually compelling, well argued, and motivated by deep philosophical concerns that were historically central and still relevant today. By all means, listen to Wes's lengthy and excellent summary before tackling this discussion, and you can also read more about the topic and get the text.

End song: "I Am the Cosmos," a new recording by Mark Lint of a 1970s song by Chris Bell.

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  1. Cannon says

    I’ll take this chance to request that, when/if you do Rorty, please consider covering something like “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” instead of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”. Maybe I’m just biased towards your discussions on ethics and the self as opposed to the language episodes.

    Anyway, love the site! You guys helped me not go totally insane (not exaggeration) while I was working as an insurance broker in South Florida before I quit in order to never be cubicle-bound again. You guys are significantly impacting people’s lives in a positive way.

    • dmf says

      as I’m sure you know those aren’t separate topics/subjects for Rorty and not really much philosophy in CIS so it would probably be better for one of the not-school groups than a whole episode.

      • Cannon says

        I suppose my point is that I don’t know what Rorty says in “Mirror” that they didn’t already cover in the Wittgenstein and pragmatism episodes. And I’m curious to hear the discussion as to the social fallout of the language issues Rorty is focusing on instead of rehashing talk of language games.

        I’m curious what you mean when you say there isn’t much philosophy in CIS? Not sure if this applies to you, but my uneducated assumption is that you’re referring to the political/social content and saying it’s less philosophical than discussions about things-in-themselves or grounding math in logic. If so, I would disagree, but then again I have never fully understood the preoccupation with metaphysics over political philosophy and more praxis-oriented philosophical discussions. Once the usefulness and predictive ability of math and science are established, I lose interest fairly quickly when it comes to discussions about their access to “reality”. I’ll take the “Society and it’s Discontents” or “Federalist Papers” episodes over Kant and Spinoza every time.

        It’s probably clear from that paragraph why I like Rorty.

        • dmf says

          well actually there is a lot there that they haven’t covered and probably worth noting that the Wittgensteinians and the pragmatists were/are not Rorty fans by and large.
          Not an analytic philosopher myself if that’s what yer asking and have no use really for metaphysics.
          CIS was Rorty’s move away from philosophy and is a charming performative mashup mostly of bit and pieces of other fields/disciplines, one of my favorite books actually, tho he was sadly wrong to confuse the response-abilities that we use to engage with books with the skills we use to get around the off the page world of people and all.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

      Just got my copy of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, mainly to focus on the concept of irony, so a Not For School Group may be in order here. There are many who think more of the performative arts for demonstrating philosophy than philosophy itself, apparently the position of Rorty here.

      • dmf says

        I think folks would really like that book in such a context, Rorty wasn’t really interested in demonstrating philosophy at that point as much as leaving it behind, he felt (wrongly in my opinion) that the kinds of things that mattered to him like reducing suffering and enhancing human potential/living-conditions, were best served by studying literature and the like, tho he was closer by way his all too limited inclusion of fields that study actual practices like anthropology.
        Might be worth checking out Stanley Fish’s diagnosis of anitfoundationalist-theory-hope where he convincingly lays out why one can’t really gain ironic distance from what one holds dear, but I think Rorty’s case in CIS doesn’t so much rest on irony as the sort of post-freudian sublimation process of reworking “blind” impresses and other habits that he sketches out, hope you enjoy the work.

  2. Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

    I have noticed the increasing frequency of canibus references in the episodes. Are you guys trying to just draw in a different crowd or does that reflect your demeanor towards the use of this particular substance. Might I suggest an episode on the philosophy of ethno-pharmacology as discussed by Terrance Mckenna in Food of the Gods. It might stretch what some of the listeners understand as philosophy but it would be very interesting.

    • dmf says

      other than offering evidence/data along the lines of some very visceral experiences of how much of our consciousness/experience is tied in with bio-chemistry what would be the philosophical contribution of such a podcast?

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      I think it’s just a cheap joke, is all, as in “that sounds crazy. Are you high?” I’m not enough up on my philosophy of language to say what kind of non-referring reference that makes such a joke, or if there is a word for it at all.

  3. says

    Thanks, guys, interesting as always. In a sense, Berkeley is right; nothing in the real world is but representations in the mind, and I quite liked (but strongly disagree with) the idea that since all of the personal world is in the mind, all of the objective world is in a gods mind. There’s a cool idea there for a novel.

    He sounds like a guy that would be a fantastic thinker if not so constrained by religious bias. Shame you didn’t tackle his proof for God :)

        • dmf says

          just asking about the supposed human mind where (and how) would I find it and the representations that you are placing there (whatever they might be) ?

          • says

            Well, it’s Berkeleys’ argument, so to him it presumably means souls / spirit, which is distinct and removed from the brain. I would place those directly in the chemistry of the brain, of course, which is why I ultimately would disagree with his God-brain theory. Representation is the same as abstraction in my view.

            I agree 100% with Berkeley the notion that only ideas exists, but I disagree 100% with his notion of spirits / souls. There’s perceptions of the world happening in the brain, they form into abstractions and we think of the ideas of them, but that’s it in terms of both epistemology and metaphysics. Reality as we know it, even though the instruments of science, is false, only a model. I’m not denying the existence of reality, only that we’ll never get to it past what the brain is able to help us abstract from it.

          • says

            Where in the brain you’ll find representations? Is that … a serious question? How do you want that question answered? By pointing? :)

          • says

            You’re defining a lot here that you need to be more specific about. What does your question mean when you’re asking for “where in the brain” something is? Why is this a dead-end? You don’t feel very engaged to me?


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