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Berkeley's Common Sense and Science


Marek Tomecek

The topic of George Berkeley and common sense is challenging: Berkeley claims that matter does not exist and at the same time he writes a whole book ( Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous) on how his system agrees with common sense. However, once we understand why he felt so confident that his immaterialism is not an affront to the plain man, we will get a better insight into the metaphysical system itself. The solution involves a more prominent role for science in immaterialism, which justifies the more revisionist aspects of the overall metaphysics, together with a new role of common sense in philosophy.
Berkeley was a successful scientist in his own right; his Theory of Vision defined the topic of psychology of vision for the next two centuries. His metaphysics grows naturally out of his science, the crucial term «idea” being a psychological entity anchored in his theory of vision. At the same time, immaterialism is friendlier to the plain man in not redefining key words of his vocabulary, such as «know», «real», and «certain», unlike the then-reigning representative realism harboring skeptical tendencies. Traditionally, common sense has been taken to include the belief that external objects exist. Once we get rid of this philosophical travesty of the plain man's beliefs identifying dualistic metaphysics with common sense, we will be able to appreciate the seminal importance of immaterialism and its twentieth-century analogies in the works of J. L. Austin, Wittgenstein, and others.
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Chapter 6. Epistemology in the Middle of the Twentieth Century


The proponents of the explicit common sense supposedly violate our linguistic intuitions in formulating their philosophical definitions, the crucial verb know being the primary victim. When analyzing the traditional epistemological quandary surrounding this verb, Vendler hits the nail on the head so well that it shatters the hammer: ‘[…] one can hardly state the problem so long as one refuses to talk incorrect English.’1 For those philosophers who do not have qualms about correct English, however, the traditional epistemological puzzles are not so easily dispatched. It is necessary to descend from the purely linguistic level of analysis to the nitty-gritty of philosophical theories of perception and knowledge.

Historians of philosophy and also professional philosophers like to divide the systems of individual authors into several basic categories with respect to epistemology: the pre-theoretical plain man is a naïve realist, he believes that there are independent things in the world around him that he is capable of perceiving and knowing; the philosopher with the same attitude towards the world, having lost his naivety due to instances of perceptual illusions, arrives through a series of philosophical arguments at the position of a realist. Those ← 65 | 66 → philosophers who believe we are directly acquainted with the independent things are called direct realists, those who believe our knowledge of the things is mediated by some third entity, be it an idea, sense datum, qualia or appearance, are called representative realists. The first group is considered still to be rather naïve by the...

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