Monday, March 26, 2007

Ideas Or Objects?

When we perceive, or experience the world, is our experience of ideas, or objects? This question may seem a little silly at first. Isn't the obvious answer that we are aware of objects? You may think so, at first blush, but a little further thinking can lead one to realise that things may not be as straightforward as they initially appear.

The reason for discussing this question is that it came up in one of my classes today. We have been studying John Locke's important work on the mind, his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This is an interesting work. In it Locke articulates a position with respect to the human mind that is pretty close to what we consider common sense today, in some respects, at least. Today however, we began to look at the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley who, in addition to being an enthusiastic advocate of the virtues of tar water, was also an important critic of Locke's philosophy.

Berkeley noted that when we know things, we do this with our minds. Locke had also made a similar observation in his Essay. Indeed, it is pretty obvious that it is our minds that are the primary place where we are able to entertain ideas. However, this observation is what gives rise to the question that began this post.

When we experience the world, we get ideas about it. I am aware that before me there is a computer screen and a keyboard (somehow, this seems much less poetic that Locke's similar observation about white paper). What do I mean though by saying that 'I am aware'? Where does this awareness take place? Well, if I think about this awareness, and the screen and keyboard, then this awareness would seem to be taking place in my mind -- it seems to be ideas of these things that I am aware of.

What about my senses though? Do not my ideas somehow come from my senses? Do I not get these ideas from seeing a screen and a keyboard? This forces us to reflect upon the relationship between the senses and our minds. We might want to tell a story something like this:

"Our senses somehow enable us to perceive the objects in the world, this process of perception then gives rise to the relevant ideas in our minds."

On the face of it, that sound sensible enough, doesn't it? There are still a few details that are a little unclear though. It is not controversial to claim that by the time things start happening in our minds, we are dealing with ideas. We have already covered this point. What is going on with the senses though? Do the senses deal in 'ideas' also? Here things seem less clear. What is it that our senses deliver in our story? Hmm.

When we were discussing this point in class, several students suggested that whatever was going on with the senses, the senses had to be aware of things, before they could deliver ideas to the mind. This is problematic though. Surely, 'awareness' is only the kind of thing that a mind can be? Senses just sense.

Berkeley wanted to maintain that we could only be aware of our minds and the ideas that populated them. It was only due to the Lockean inspired presumptions, that we want to make some further claims about objects influencing our senses. However, if we were to accept Berkeley's claim, then we would be forced to give up the idea that there were objects out there, that were the cause of these ideas. Maybe there are, maybe there are not. We could not know, for sure. As all we can have knowledge about are ideas and these are strictly speaking things that populate minds alone.

What this means is that when we perceive, or experience the world our experience is going to be either of ideas, or of objects. Common sense tells us that our experience is of objects. However, if we accept Berkeley's thesis, then this would be incorrect. So how we answer the question at the start of this post depends more upon the presuppositions that we make and the philosophical position that we are prepared to accept, than the actual evidence itself, as this is equivocal. Who would have thought?

The CP


Blogger Tim Lacy said...


You probably already know this, but Mortimer Adler discusses these problems of perception in his Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985). To him the "mistake" of not believing in the world around you (resulting also in Hume's skepticism), is one of the great philosophical problems of Western modernity.

The problem also arises, for many U.S. philosophers, in the 19th century and is discussed by Bruce Kuklick in A History of Philosophy in America.

- TL

10:08 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

You are indeed correct. Berkeley's destruction of Lockean representatial realism made Hume not even attempt to make the connection between ideas and the world, which in turn led to his scepticism. However, it is worth recalling also that, in some sense, Kant was able to mend the rift, to the extent that regularities, like causation, could be accounted for.

These are actually perenial problems. They keep showing up. As Seneca noted (if I recall correctly), "There is no thought so strange that it has not been thought by some philosopher at some time". Philosophers also 'recycle'. Perhaps the thing that makes these issues particularly interesting today is the fact that, with the rise of cognitive science, we are now gaining new, empirically based insights into these matters.

The CP

7:38 PM  

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