7. Imagining Trees

This one is going to be slightly shorter than usual, but my hope is that it will help get me back in the habit.

If you are familiar with the question of whether a tree, falling in the forest, when no one is around, makes a sound, that question is frequently associated with George Berkeley, whose philosophy of idealism—meaning that everything is composed of ideas—is frequently presented in its least plausible and most absurd form. The least plausible and most absurd form of presenting Berkeley’s view begins with other people’s view on which there is a world in your mind, and a world “out there” and Berkeley wants to erase the world out there. It is not just that sounds and colors are merely products of your mind, but shapes, and all of the physical properties of things, and in fact, the whole tangible world. Basically everything is in your mind. This, Berkeley says, is just common sense! It’s the view that everyone has until philosophers come along and mess things up!

Framed this way, Berkeley seems like some sort of clown or fool, because, no one would think he could say this with a straight face.

As an aside, I did not anticipate writing about trees as much as I’ve wound up writing about trees.

In Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, which is an often maligned (see above), but exceptional, piece of philosophy (it has come to be one of my favorites after teaching it many times), Berkeley uses the characters of Philonous (essentially his own mouthpiece) and Hylas (standing in for various other views, and essentially trying to defend the existence of material substance) to popularize the arguments for his views. He tries to show that the arguments that led people to think color and sound were just in the mind will extend to other qualities, and that material substance is an incoherent postulate, and so on, and one can certainly come away with the picture described above. At one point Philonous says he is willing to rest his whole case on whether, essentially, Hylas can imagine a mind-independent tree. This is sometimes called Berkeley’s Master Argument.

When you teach and/or research historical figures’ views you often find yourself serving as their marketing and promotions department, even if you don’t believe the views in question. “Look,” you say to yourself (or your blog audience), “I spent all this time trying to make sense of it, so I may as well see if I can get someone else to see it in its most plausible light.” And that description from the outset? That is not its most plausible light.

This is a bonsai tree from the National Arboretum that I took a photo of many years ago. I have no other information about it.

If I were Berkeley’s PR department, here is how I would run his messaging: Berkeley believes that the world is comprehensible to us. This is the key idea. The world we occupy? It is not beyond our ken. So, go to a window and look at a tree. You are capable of comprehending that tree! But for this to be true, the world has to be made up of things (trees, chairs, tables) that are the sorts of things you can comprehend. And for that to be the case, they have to be thinkable. Like, when you know that tree is outside your window, you have to be able to think of that tree! What does that mean? Well, according to Berkeley, it either has to be the stuff of thought, or intrinsically similar to the stuff of thought. If the trees that are “out in the world” are unlike the trees we can see and imagine, then we are deeply divorced from “the real world”, and “the real world” cannot be known. But, see, that’s the view that would be silly, Berkeley says. Obviously we can know that there are trees and tables and chairs! How else are we able to sit down for dinner, and farm orchards and so on. So, if the only way we could know that there really are trees is for them to be like the trees “in our minds”, there you go: idealism!

So it’s not that he’s starting with that other picture and erasing a bunch of stuff. It’s that he’s saying, the world you know and love? If it is comprehensible, it must be something you can think about (that’s how “comprehensible” works! You can’t understand things unless they fall within the scope of your understanding.

(If you want a picture to replace “erase a bunch of stuff” maybe have the ideas go forth from your mind and help populate the rest of the world? It’s still just a picture, so it’s not like, the right way to assess whether the view is good or bad, but it’s at least an upgrade from the eraser picture)

Berkeley’s argument (especially the sketch I’ve presented here) for sure isn’t conclusive (someone let me know when we find where all the conclusive arguments are being kept in philosophy). But, it’s just not nearly as silly as a lot of people tend to think. Berkeley’s main view is that the world is not beyond our ken. And his main case for it, that he lays out, is that he doesn’t see how you can even seriously maintain that you believe in trees that aren’t the sorts of trees that you or anyone else is capable of thinking about (I’ll grant that this one still feels like it’s cheating, but at least, now, I think, it’s easier to see where he’s coming from):

PHIL. […]But (to pass by all that hath been hitherto said, and reckon it for nothing, if you will have it so) I am content to put the whole upon this issue. If you can conceive it possible for any mixture or combination of qualities, or any sensible object whatever, to exist without the mind, then I will grant it actually to be so.

HYL. If it comes to that the point will soon be decided. What more easy than to conceive a tree or house existing by itself, independent of, and unperceived by, any mind whatsoever? I do at this present time conceive them existing after that manner.

PHIL. How say you, Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?

HYL. No, that were a contradiction.

PHIL. Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of CONCEIVING a thing which is UNCONCEIVED?

HYL. It is.

PHIL. The tree or house therefore which you think of is conceived by you?

HYL. How should it be otherwise?

PHIL. And what is conceived is surely in the mind?

HYL. Without question, that which is conceived is in the mind.

PHIL. How then came you to say, you conceived a house or tree existing independent and out of all minds whatsoever?

HYL. That was I own an oversight; but stay, let me consider what led me into it.—It is a pleasant mistake enough. As I was thinking of a tree in a solitary place, where no one was present to see it, methought that was to conceive a tree as existing unperceived or unthought of; not considering that I myself conceived it all the while. But now I plainly see that all I can do is to frame ideas in my own mind. I may indeed conceive in my own thoughts the idea of a tree, or a house, or a mountain, but that is all. And this is far from proving that I can conceive them EXISTING OUT OF THE MINDS OF ALL SPIRITS.

Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous

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