Berkeley's Theory of Meaning

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Berkeley's Theory of Meaning

E. J. Furlong Mind, New Series, Vol. 73, No. 291. (Jul., 1964), pp. 437-438. Stable URL:

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Berkeley's Theory of Meaning E. J. Furlong Mind, New Series, Vol. 73, No. 291. (Jul., 1964), pp. 437-438. Stable URL: Mind is currently published by Oxford University Press.

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BERKELEY'S THEORY OF MEANING THEwriter of a recentvery stimulating book on theconcept of meaning states that ' Berkeley himself thought i t \\-as their ability to suggest appropriate mental imagery that made the sentences we utter informatively meaningful, though this theory condemns those congenitally incapable of such imagery to be ignorant of all meanings '.I And the writer refers to Berkeley's Principles, Introduction paras. 6-10, 19. Similar statements referring to Berkeley's view occur a t other places in the book (pp. 109, 279). And the author is not the first able miter to attribute to Berkeley the view stated. But the account can hardly be correct. We have only to remember that the term ' idea ' as used by Berkeley cannot be equated with ' mental image '. The equation may hold for Hume, but i t does not hold for Berkeley. Berkeley explicitly and repeatedly distinguishes between ' ideas of sense ' and ' ideas of the imagination ' (cf. Principles, paras. 30, 33, 36, 84). ' Ideas of sense ' are for him usually such things as colours, sounds or tastes ; i.e. ' idea of sense ' usually equals for him the modern term ' sense-datum ', though Berkeley does sometimes apply ' idea of sense ' to ' material things 'houses, mountains, rivers (Principles, para. 4)-thus recognising the Austinian point that the objects of our senses are a mixed bag, not just either sense-data or material things. The ' ideas of the imagination ', on the other hand, are ' inzages of things, ~vhichthey copy and represent ' (Principles, para. 33) ; i.e. an ' idea of the imagination ' is for Berkeley a ' mental image '. It f o l l o ~ that ~ s \\,hen Berkeley advises us (Principles, Introduction, paras. 24-25) that in order to escape error we should ' draw the curtain of ~vords' and consider our ' own naked, undisguised ideas ' there is no prima facie warrant for assuming that he is telling us to contemplate our mental imagery. He is telling us to consider our ideas, and these ideas can be either ideas of sense or ideas of the imagination. But, it might be said, although on the face of i t Berkeley's ' naked, undisguised ideas ' could be either ideas of sense or ideas of the imagination, he was in fact referring, in this particular passage, to ideas of the imagination, though he forgot to say so. This reply, however, will hardly do. For Berkeley has given an example, a few pages back, of how in his opinion, we do conduct our thinking, or one kind of thinking-the proving of a general proposition, e.g. the theorem that the three angles of a triangle are equal to t ~ v oright angles (para. 16). And the triangles we are here concerned 114th are clearly, in Berkeley's view, triangles on paper, not triangles in one's head. Cf. ' To ~vhichI answer, that tho' the idea I have in view whilst I make the demonstration. . . . ' Tis true, the diagram I have in view . . . ' (para. 16). Berkeley here equates ' idea ' and L. J. Cohen, The Diversity of ,Weaning, p. 52. (The ' congenitally ' here might have been omitted.)




' diagram '. The ' idea ' he is concerned with is not, as the author referred to above says (p. log), a ' representative image ' : i t is an ' idea of sense '. It might indeed be said that even if Berkeley does not equate meanings with ' ideas of the imagination ', thus making meanings private (and putting meanings beyond the ken of those incapable of mental imagery), his view is still objectionable ; for a t least he equates meanings with ' ideas of sense ' and these latter are, in his view, private. Such an interpretation of what Berkeley thought about ' ideas of sense ' may or may not be true. We have, I think, to distinguish here between what Berkeley did hold and what he ought to have held. But in any case the objection raised here is not relevant to the main point I wish to make, namely that Berkeley should not be attacked on the scoIe that he equated meanings with mental images : he did not. One further point : the main reason why Berkeley is misrepresented here is of course the ambiguity of the unfortunate ~ ~ o r d ' idea ', a word which Berkeley kne~vmight get him into trouble, but which he decided, for reasons that seemed sufficient to him, to persist in using (Principles, paras. 38-39). For Hume, indeed, ' idea ', a t least as defined by him, can be equated with ' mental image '. Hence Hume may well be open to the charge that his view would condemn those incapable of mental imagery to be ' ignorant of all meanings '. But i t is a mistake to equate Berkeley's use of ' idea ' with that of Hume. That the writer already referred to has not altogether avoided this error is shown by a further statement in his book : ' . . . we should reject his [Hume's] belief, which he shared with Locke and Berkeley . . . , that the meaning of a sentence about necessary connections, or about any other matter, is to be understood in terms of the " ideas " commonly associated with that sentence '. To lump Locke, Berkeley and Hume together in this context only produces a composite p i c t u ~ ethat can hardly do justice to any of them. E. J. FURLONG University of Dublin