Study Guide

George Berkeley Files

Did you know that Berkeley spent much of his free time in online chat rooms? It's okay—most people don't. But not only has Shmoop learned that this is the case, we have managed to download some of the evidence. He thought no one would ever know... because he used the screen name "BishopRulez."

"Philosophical Discussion" Chat Room

BishopRulez: Anyone out there today?

JohnLocke: I, for one. I thought I'd check out this room—for the experience.

BishopRulez: Exactly what I'd expect from a fellow empiricist. And a very sound approach, too—to my mind, at least. How's it going, John?

RenéDescartes: Hold on just a minute. The approach you refer to might be sound as far your mind is concerned, Bishop. Maybe to Locke's mind as well. But I believe that your or Locke's being in this chat room ultimately depends on your respective bodies. It may be our minds that are interacting here, but that is only possible because those minds cause our fingers to move—in particular to type certain letters on our keyboards. Didn't think of that now, did you?

BishopRulez: René, René, René—you must be a little more careful in your use of language. When I said that Locke's approach is sound "to my mind," I was just using a common phrase meaning "in my opinion." I wasn't saying anything about the "mind" in a philosophical sense, let alone its connection to the body. The same word doesn't always stand for a single idea, you know. In fact, a word may not stand for an idea at all.

JohnLocke: Just a minute there, young man. I was with you until that last part. A word may not stand for an idea, you say? True, it may not—if it is totally meaningless. As I show quite clearly, words have meaning only to the extent that they stand for ideas. In general, we manage to communicate with one another when the words we use signify the same ideas in both of our minds. Nothing could be more certain.

BishopRulez: You know how I hate to disagree with you, John, given how indebted I am to you for developing the empiricist's standpoint. (It's true that, despite my indebtedness, I do somehow manage to disagree with you a lot, but just know that it is terribly painful for me. Terribly painful.) Your theory of language is all wrong. Words aren't meaningful by virtue of standing in for ideas.

JohnLocke: What? That's crazy!

BishopRulez: Think about it. You know how the Schoolmen are in their worship of Aristotle. If one of them asserts: "Aristotle says it," that doesn't call to mind an idea of the philosopher. No, it's just a way of saying: "You have to accept this as true!" Or to take another case: suppose I say to you: "You are going to regret having done that." You may feel afraid, but still you may not have any idea what I'm going to do to you. Sorry, John, language is far more complex than your simplistic "one word, one idea" model would suggest.

JohnLocke: Well, I've been called a lot of things before, but "simplistic" is not one of them. I'm Audi 5000, Bishop.

RenéDescartes: Locke may be gone, but I'm still here, George. And despite your best efforts to distract me with your mumbo-jumbo semantics, I still haven't forgotten my original point. You have no way of explaining how Locke's mind causes his fingers to move in order to communicate with us. Gotcha!

BishopRulez: How many times do I have to tell you that I wasn't trying to explain anything of the sort? But, whatevz, the fact is that you are the one who has trouble explaining the interaction between the immaterial mind and the material body.

RenéDescartes: Actually, I have explained the matter entirely to my satisfaction. It is the pineal gland that enables the mind and body to interact with one another, as I describe in my Meditations.

BishopRulez: The pineal gland? Don't make me LOL! That may solve the mind-body problem to your satisfaction, but it hasn't satisfied anyone else in the whole history of philosophy. Not one single person. Quite a proof you've offered there.

RenéDescartes: So I suppose you think you can do better?

BishopRulez: As a matter of fact, I do. I say there is no mind-body problem at all. The only reason you are faced with the "problem" of explaining how an unextended, thinking thing (a mind) interacts with an unextended, non-thinking thing (a body) is if you think that such bodies exist. I, however, show that they do not, since matter in general does not exist. See? Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The only things that exist are ideas and minds, and thus, there's no problem of interaction in the first place.

RenéDescartes: Yes, I have read your crazy books, George. "To be is to be perceived," and all that. Well, what happens when no one is thinking of an object—ever wonder about that? This pen, for example: does it just disappear when we forget about it?

RonaldKnox: Bishop, sir, if I may answer this question on your behalf. I have studied your work very closely, and I have come up with a clear, all-purpose answer to this very common objection. I hope you like it.

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

Reply:
"Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God." (source)

BishopRulez: Bravo, Ronald, very good! I think that pretty much says it all.

RenéDescartes: You have got to be kidding me. That's your answer? I'm Audi 5000 as well.

BishopRulez: Fine. Just walk away René. You won't see me follow you back home. Hey, I kind of like the sound of that.