Berkeley’s Presence






            Although a certain mature historicism in contemporary philosophy takes dialogue with past writers to be the "ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood,"[1] the problem of truth must persist for it, if only in the form of the question concerning the validity (and purpose) of interpretation. If there is no progress in philosophy toward a more precise and established body of true propositions, still there must be some sort of movement to conversation and some reference point by means of which the movement can be gauged. The reference point for traditional metaphysics is presence and presentation (intuition, givenness, etc.)[2] — both as method and as subject matter. But our goal now is simply to understand the special philosophical senses of truth and presence in their historical reality.[3]

         With this end in mind I suggest that we view the whole phenomenon of philosophical dialogue as a movement occasioned by the tension between the apparent independence of metaphysical intuition (the personal experience of presence) and the dependence of thinking on its cultural context (the meaning which a characterization of presence might have). For it is the self-contained, "absolute" character of the metaphysical experience which fascinates us even in our self-consciously historical perspective, while it is creative struggle with common sense and the passion of personal adjustment to an historical situation which inform even the most contemplative or phenomenological thinking. The problem of truth, previously understood as a quest for principles or definitions, exists for philosophy which has passed through the dialectic of historical rela­tivism; but it exists only in the changed form of an effort not to distort the ways in which presence and absence, experience and meaning, freedom and obli­gation, definition and context reciprocally condition each other. We observe this conditioning both in the movement our own thought undergoes in the attempt to converse with past thinking, as well as in the movement between that thinking and the historical elements which conditioned it. The tensed movement in each case provides the criterion of validity.

            In this paper I shall try to clarify the nature of such creative movement and tension through a critical discussion of a famous thinker of presence, Berkeley. My aim is to partake of the movement in question, not merely to say what Berkeley meant or should have said, but to see, in and through his philosophical activity, the organic character of something that confronts us still.

            Let me begin by suggesting some provisional marks of dialogical tension, which will be filled in by way of example in the main body of the discussion.

Having referred initially to the "independence of metaphysical intuition" as one pole of the tension, I want now to fix this independence in a neutral way

through the concept of grammatical autonomy.[4] By this I mean the unrestricted character of novel concepts employed in a distinctive context or "logical

space": what distinguishes such a context is not merely the new way of talking in the sense of the words and phrases themselves, but the new interpretations

they embody — the new way of seeing things. To see things in a new way on a global level must look like madness from the old perspective, as Plato reminds

us. But to be afflicted with such madness is to be drawn in a certain direction, toward a certain ideal of social/historical realization in which one finds place

and purpose. This way of being drawn is most clearly expressed in the concept of destiny — provided that this concept helps us focus on an eminently human

(not supernatural) characteristic.

            From these elements — autonomy, interpretation, madness, and destiny — Berkeley's thinking, considered as a lifelong process, is woven. Let us start with the notion of autonomy — the independence of philosophical language (freedom to invent "definitions") — which is based in practice on a deeper inde­pendence pertaining to "intuition" or presence and to the experience of human freedom in general. As presence is conditioned by absence and experience by meaning, our attempt to capture Berkeley's novel understanding of presence will draw us into the interpretive struggle which philosophical "definitions" of that concept focus and contain. As definition is conditioned by context and freedom by obligation, we must try to measure the social/historical aspect of radical interpretation as "madness," as a deformation of the sense of proportion or appropriateness which attaches to philosophical expression. In considering how such "madness" really leaves open the question of an appropriate critical response, we shall see how a person's sense of propriety, and consequently of an "ultimate context" or historical purpose (destiny), is determined through it.


1. Autonomy as Apprehension of Divine Presence


            What case can be made for Berkeley's being primarily interested in any such "autonomy"? One needs only to understand the significance of his conception of matter in order to appreciate the sense of liberation that accompanies its annihilation (i.e.. its being exposed as a mere abstraction). This is the matter winch is opposed to spirit; it represents the extended prison of the soul. And it is, most importantly, that notion the belief in which blinds us to the very presence of God.


And ... when men of better principles observe the enemies of religion put so great a stress on unthinking matter, and all of them use so much industry and artifice to reduce everything to it, methinks they should rejoice to see them deprived of their grand support.[5]


From what hath been said, it will be manifest to any considering person, that it is merely for want of attention and comprehensiveness of mind that there are any favorers of atheism or the Manichean heresy to be found.[6]


The word "attention" could be taken very loosely here, but I think it should not be: it denotes a certain basic religious experience which Berkeley's writing is meant to inculcate. In case anyone should think that the religious experience of Berkeley's idealism were a mere corollary to the logical project set up in the Introduction to the Principles (where the plan is to overturn the Doctrine of Abstract Ideas by removing a linguistic confusion), he makes his central thought explicit toward the end of the book:


... as it was the main drift and design of my labors, so shall I esteem them altogether useless and ineffectual if, by what I have said, I cannot inspire my readers with a pious sense of the Presence of God.[7]


Through a dialectical inversion typical in metaphysics, Berkeley sees an absolute and immediate dependence on God, that is, on a sense of religious presence, as being responsible for the most radical liberation. What the dependence consists in is seen through understanding the "notion" (as he calls it) of Spirit: for we grasp this notion in its purity only when we have understood its implications of absolute unity, simplicity, and incorruptibility. Thus simultaneously understanding the substantial nature of both ourselves and of God, we are to understand our own divinity — our true relation to the divine — which for Berkeley is as simple and beyond corruption as is the relation of the things of our experience to the mere fact of their presence and meaning.[8]

            Our autonomy, in the sense of freedom from matter, depends on under­standing our necessary condition of finitude and spirituality, which means interpreting or looking at the presence of things ("ideas") in a special way. Once we see what is meant by "spirit," our experience of things in their presence is supposed to take on a spiritual character, which is liberating. Since this is so, we must connect this existential or psychological sense of autonomy with the linguistic sense I mentioned earlier, i.e., with the reform of language that takes place in the religious reinterpretation of experience. This new language of “idea” and “immediate perception” is meant to bring out a certain sense of “spirit” and spirituality: the language is pervaded by a "pious sense of the Presence of God." But to say that language is pervaded by a certain sense or presence is less to the point than saying that presence or experience is here pervaded by "language," that is, by a new way of apprehending the "linguistic" or intelligible quality of presence. In other words, Berkeley's interpretation of presence has a special quality of spiritu­ality precisely in virtue of the way in which the structure of presence allows for the free play of this interpretive apprehending. To see how this occurs, we must consider just how presence appears to him.



2. Presence and Transcendence in the Early Work


            If one understands that the ontologico-religious knowledge of Berkeley's idealism is precisely the addressing of presence as such, one will see that

the "pious sense of Presence" may as well be "of God," since it is our participation in the reality which transcends all present and absent things

and space and time themselves. Piety and transcendence belong together in that reflection on things which self-consciously forms the basis for all meaningfulness and responsibility: the insight that my life is not wholly determined by my physical situation, by things, but ultimately by a context, a sense of proportion, and an ability to pick out what is most significant in my current situation, making it present for me. This will to take responsibility for understanding my world appropriately is metaphysically expressed in the thought: I am not a mere thing but am Spirit; I am that wherein all things have meaning, life, and being. Berkeley's early philosophy is a project of evoking this interpretive transcendence through a creative interpretation of presence as such.

         In his first publication, the New Theory of Vision, Berkeley tried to initiate this interpretive transcendence in a spatial sense. He argued that distance is only inferred from vision, not seen immediately;[9] that objects of sight are not to be confused with objects of touch;[10] and that the relation of visual images to things is wholly inferential or interpretive. We are not to feel ourselves "out there," but are to "see through" our visual perceptions by regarding them as signs. Throughout the essay the paradigm is that of language:


Upon the whole, I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of Vision constitute the Universal Language of Nature .... And the manner wherein they signify and mark out unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment.[11]


The essence of Berkeley's earliest insights is that perceptions are signs and that life is not something objective or of a kind with the material content of perception, but belongs rather to the creative activity of interpretation, of speaking and listening. What is needed above all for a vivid appreciation of this insight is the experience of "seeing through" space as an objective reality and assigning it to the form of interpretive perception. Life, the interpretive activity, must be grasped as its own basis and the basis of phenomena, never as dependent on the "abstractions" of extension and cor­poreality.

            With this in mind one can plainly see the inadequacy of the common opinion about Berkeley, according to which he brings in God as an ad hoc postulate to save the existence of things at a spatiotemporal distance from the subject. Space for Berkeley, even as for Kant, is nothing real in itself, but only a formal relation among "ideas." Rational spirits are not "in space", and if, as he puts it, we were to speak strictly, we would not even say, "There's George standing on the other side of the street," since all we see is a "mark" of that other soul who transcends our experience as surely as does God. "We may even assert," he says in the Principles (citing as premises those examples and conclusions of the New Theory given above) that "the existence of God is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men."'[12] Following Berkeley in thought, we find ourselves reduced to a substantial principle which is utterly different from all phenomena:


Spirits and ideas are things so wholly different, that when we say "they exist," "they are known," or the like, these words must not be thought to signify anything common to both natures.[13]


This substantial principle, "spirit," is the source of all activity, all unity, and of perception as such (since unity is always realized in terms of the ordering of the perceived, and activity is nothing but the production or modification of the perceived). Being, in other words, is in the first place something entirely spiritual ("God" = "the Spirit in whom we live, and move, and have our being"), although the things that most evidently are (in the predicative sense, as modifications of the subject/substance) are merely the objects of subjectivity. That is, they are opposed to spirit. So Berkeley implies that the act of perceiving, aware of itself as such, is precisely that which has already transcended the phenomenal (thingly) world. The mere presence of what appears to us is the medium of our liberation from "matter, i.e., from the uninterpreted aspects of things. One wants to ask, What is this "mere presence of what appears to us, this "act of perceiving" which, on the one hand, seems to underlie all beings and, on the other, is said to function truly only when its object is divine?

            From a contemporary perspective, characterizations of presence like "divine" and "transcendent" are less satisfying than an elucidation of the act of reflection in which these characterizations take hold and begin to make a difference. Only in reflection do we grasp our own mode of being as the "foundation" of existence; and so we might well hold that this discovery of a foundation is itself the "founding." From a contemporary point of view it may be clear that to address oneself to phenomena as ideas is to create a context in which the experience of abstraction from "what is" is itself gathered into verbal description, as if this abstraction too ("spirit") were something that exists. Of course, we may say, spirit (in this most rarefied metaphysical sense) nowhere and never is (an object). But suppose we realize that with Berkeley the language of reflection reflects itself (reflects the act of speaking/

writing/thinking) in the notion of Spirit. We can acknowledge that "spirit" has a symbolic meaning; but we must also acknowledge, then, that language, as representation, naturally tends to point us toward objects (static "ideas" or the self-identical meanings of symbols), rather than holding our focus back within the horizon of saying/thinking, i.e., the activity of religiously

reinterpreting our experience.

         When one "investigates" the nature of reflection and the dual structure it exhibits, one treats the being of presence as something altogether different from the being of present things, and yet one posits its being-present in the reflection (the representations) of the thinker, who uses "spirit" as a common noun. Berkeley tries to gloss over the problem with his talk about the "notion" (not the idea) of spirit; in so doing he invites commentary on the lack of any definition of "notion" (at least in the early work). But what presents itself at first as a logical defect in "what is said" may yet prove a virtue when one listens closely enough to appropriate the spirit of the saying. The transcendence elicited by the thought of presence only plays itself out in an interpretive movement which focuses our spiritual attention.


3. The Interpretive Struggle


            Reflection must be seen to be both the subject matter and method of Berkeley's philosophy (just as it is explicitly for Hegel). Berkeley is naive with regard to the "seeing" which belongs to self-conscious reflection, hoping for us to see that what he says is true, but again exhorting us to see the presence of God by placing ourselves properly over against phenomena. When he gives his proof[14] that the soul is immortal, this ontological "knowledge" is equated with the act of "opening the eye of the mind”[15] through which the soul is


pierced and enlightened, grasping immediately the way in which the eyes of the Lord are in every place beholding the evil and the good … that He is present to our innermost thoughts; and that we have a most absolute and immediate dependence on Him.[16]


The activity that is presupposed is again that of interpreting what we see — regarding phenomena as signs and taking meaning to be more fundamental than sensation. Holding fast to the primacy of meaning, one feels opened up toward the source of meaning apart from phenomena and toward the ground of the possibility of language. Berkeley, of course, calls this "God," who "maintains that intercourse between spirits whereby they are able to perceive the existence of each other." (Primarily this means: He lets us talk to one another.) "And yet," he continues — since the access to this source of meaning is just a certain kind of attentive thinking attained only by the most subtle thinkers, through the greatest effort of interpretation and reflection —"this pure and clear light which enlightens everyone is itself invisible."[17]

            The invisibility of the light, or again the self-hiding of God,[18] is what we really need to consider, for it reflects the distance between the fact of personal liberation which Berkeley experienced in thought and the resistance which this thought had to encounter when put in the form of a teaching. On the one hand. Berkeley expresses his own certainty of enlightenment as one who has been lifted out of the familiar world that "everybody" knows:


That the discovery of this great truth, which lies so near and obvious to the mind, should be attained to by the reason of so very few, is a sad instance of the stupidity and inattention of men, who, though they are surrounded with such clear manifestations of the Deity, are yet so little affected by them that they seem, as it were, blinded with excess of light.[19]


On the other hand, his announced project is, as I said, merely to return the "several sects of philosophy" — burdened as they are with skepticism and the belief in abstract ideas — to the condition of "the illiterate bulk of mankind that walk the highroad of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed."[20] Overexposed to the light of truth, most people take no special notice of it; and yet they are closer to it than those who reflect on it in a nonidealistic way! What, then, if we tell them that they are "fed and clothed with those things winch we immediately perceive by our senses"?[21] Friendly illiterates might agree out of good humor, but if they really cared about what was being said, they would find themselves faced with appropriating a linguistic tradition in which the expression "immediately perceive" arose; furthermore, they would have to begin using the word "mind” in such a way as  to allow for the dialectic of "inside" and "outside." No wonder most people will not respond with sufficient "comprehensiveness of mind”. It’s really those atheists and skeptics who make Berkeley's thinking possible.        

         At the end of the third Dialogue Philonous characterizes his purpose as combining the two half-truths of common sense and philosophy, each of which rectifies the other. The light of truth requires a darkness of linguistic "confusion" in which to shine; i.e., the attention to presence with which Berkeley is concerned is, as I said, an interpretive consciousness that is related to speculative language, and the cause of the darkness lies in a misunderstanding of the representational character of language (as he often implies). The iterative power of words is not appreciated in its openness, because of the hypnotic inclusiveness of the symbol (word, name). "Matter” is the theoretical term that reflects this sense of something merely designated, without significance, but it corresponds to the lack of interpretation in our everyday thinking. All language ("ordinary" and philosophic) tends to represent entities—and that goes as well for the language of "spirit ", as we have seen. One must now ask, however, whether the radiance of presence can be addressed without being represented, and where Berkeley's teaching really lies between representation and exhortation.



4. Philosophical "Strictness" as a Distortion of Dialectical Struggle


            Berkeley uses a word like "substance" in various ways. In the first place he criticizes the "learned" concept of substance as unthinking matter; but he himself presents a spiritual concept of substance whereby the visible world may be seen as a double effect standing between us and God. The ordinary concept of substance is admitted to be a third concept, which only means "thing" or Berkeley's "idea." These three concepts may be taken as representations of three types of experience, three ways of being presented with phenomena that are intended by the word "substance" in each case. The first concept would be an empty representation, the third an incomplete or unclear (i.e., uninterpreted) idea, and the second a true evocation of presence. And yet Berkeley cannot account for the unclarity of the third (“ordinary") except by referring to the abstractness of the first ("learned") concept. He evades this problem of the manifold meaning of the word “substance”,   however, by stressing the pragmatic character of language:


In the ordinary affairs of life, any phrases may be retained, so long as

they excite in us proper sentiments, or dispositions to act in such a manner as is necessary for our well-being, how false soever they may be if taken in a strict and speculative sense.[22]


If we were to accept this way of dispensing with the context of philosophy, we would proceed to focus simply on the truth to which the “strict” philosophical language points. It would seem then that Berkeley had made a new factual discovery, and indeed he compares the discrepancy between ordinary language and his strict speculative sense to that between "the sun rises” and "the earth rotates." The factual discovery would be grounded in relation to ordinary life and ordinary language.

         But these grounds, i.e., the arguments we can draw out of Berkeley's book, are extremely weak. A modern, linguistically sophisticated reader is not convinced of the truth or strictness of Berkeley's language as opposed to the ordinary language upon which it is parasitic; and as a matter of fact neither were his contemporaries convinced. He himself agrees that it is the very weakness of philosophical arguments — the drawing of inferences based only on abstract meanings — that makes the common person closer to truth than the speculative thinker, wherefore Berkeley's method is to do away with words as much as possible and abide in the particularity or "concreteness" of life.[23] We are to appreciate how the truth shines out with its own evident clarity.

         "Truth" is being used here not only in imitation of Berkeley's usage, but to underscore the claim that it is the particularity of Berkeley's experience as a whole, i.e., his story, which may still prove illuminating. And that includes his novel language and struggle to change our way of seeing. So "truth" here signifies an event of disclosure connected with the apprehension of such novel language and not with someone's actually "doing away with words." My contention is that Berkeley's "rhetorical" talk about the self-showing or shining of truth signifies just the opening up of a field of creative dialogical encounter, the encounter between the "strict speculative sense" and conventional meaning.

         The elimination of the conceptual veil of "matter" presupposes the self-revealing of presence, the occurrence of what I have been calling the independent, autonomous, or "transcendent" moment in the philosophic play. As an event which befalls thinkers, and which lets them experience the world as filled with meaning and purpose, yet also with the demand that this meaning be pursued, presencing has that special character of destiny mentioned above: truth as a self-showing. As transcendence, philo­sophical reflection distinguishes itself above all as a standing out into the horizon of appearance. And while those educated in hermeneutics may understand this standing out temporally, in terms of the projective structure of interpretation, for Berkeley the self-showing connotes a primarily spatial sense of immediate disclosure: the passage from general words to "ideas" close at hand awakening from deep reflection to most engaging presence.

         It’s easy to see why attention to presence as such would he "blinding," sending us into the shadow world of established needs, presumptions, and projects, for who can long persevere in interpreting their origin and destiny from out of the urgent constraints of what is "immediately perceived"? If "immediate perception," in the sense of a momentary grasping of a determi­nate sense content, is taken to a logical extreme, it leads to an experience in which language, with its contextual reserves and anticipatory hollows, must break up. This would be the exaggerated consequence of Berkeley's "discovery."

         The fact is, though, that the reasoning in which we follow Berkeley is not supposed to focus each new moment for us, only to disrupt the veil of abstraction momentarily. It is up to each of us to continue to exercise interpretive judgment:


. . . but those who are masters of any justness and extent of thought, and are withal used to reflect, can never sufficiently admire the divine traces of wisdom and goodness that shine throughout the economy of nature.[24]


Never sufficiently admire the divine traces of wisdom? What criterion of sufficiency could there be but presence itself, the ever unique appearing of the particular? But presence itself can never be adequately represented, so this inadequacy of perception is most plausibly the inadequacy of language (or of the world regarded as language, as signs). Or should we say: it is the impossibility of totally freeing oneself from language? "Since therefore words are so apt to impose on the understanding, whatever ideas I consider, I shall endeavour to take them bare and naked into my view."[25] His method involves this continual treatment of the dis-ease of abstraction from presence. He tells us of this truth of presence as if he were apprising us of a general fact of experience; but this "fact" of idealism has its ground only in the dialectical struggle of reflection — of experience undertaken as an interpretive quest for (rather than a momentary taking account of) pure presence. Although he speaks of spiritual substance. Berkeley's attraction to the particular is only intermittently infected with the British empiricist emphasis on a presently "given" datum; his fundamental attention to meaning entails that he instead pursue the ("divine") traces of spirit (meaning) in the unfolding of phenomena. We must struggle verbally with his "method" of pursuing the "particular" (the immediate, the urgent, the autonomous meaning) if we wish to illuminate the interpretive struggle which follows the "self-hiding" (nonobjectifiable) light of spiritual presence.



5. Philosophical Development Motivated by the Social Aspects of the Struggle (the initial impression of "madness")


               In focusing on what might be called the practical semiotic consequences of Berkeley's language, we seem to be in danger of losing sight of what Berkeley actually "meant." But this notion of meaning is unclear. Berkeley's place in the history of ideas has been fixed according to the doctrines of immaterialism and phenomenalism which are stated in his early works as factual principles. So taken, the conflict of his thought with common sense is a mere difference and violation of language, and he can be laid aside. The contradictions within his own work, e.g., the realizations of the primacy of meaning and the abstractness of the self, which come out in the third Dialogue, only help to nail the lid on his coffin.

                        But if we throw off the fixation with the "meaning" intended by Berkeley at some given time, and look instead at his activity as a response to a meaning (destiny) which withdrew itself in drawing him on (or again, as the "madness" or social disjuncture with which he struggled to come to terms), then those contradictions cease to appear as the result of some unsure vacillation and incoherence; rather, they point to the direction in which his thought was steadily moving in its philosophic openness. To understand the attractive/repulsive tension of this movement, we must now glance at the actual situation in which it took place.

                        The initial reaction to Berkeley's work certainly justifies our taking him as an example of philosophic craziness and isolation. Most people thought him crazy or an extreme case of the delusions resulting from excessive reflection.[26] The published reviews displayed a pathetic lack of understand­ing, containing more mockery than argument. The fact that Berkeley was an outgoing and charming person, that he organized philosophical societies, and that in 1713 he took intellectual London by storm, making friends of all the leading men of letters — none of this detracts from the fact of his philosophical isolation. On the contrary, it makes us consider how keen must have been his disappointment at being a mere curiosity, intellectually speaking, for all the literary "wits." The friends who defended him did not understand him much better than the rest, and we find sympathetic remarks even years after the initial publications which can do no better than to defend his "religious sincerity" (e.g., by referring to the good will evidenced in his Bermuda project).[27] For the denial of matter seemed to them to contradict not only common sense but Holy Writ (since God's creation of the material world during the first days seems meaningless from Berkeley's point of view). Berkeley seemed to he off in his own world, a fantasy, rather than in God's creation.

             Thus, the ultimate charge against his philosophy was that it reduced to what we now call solipsism (the term then was "egoism"). This charge expresses the tension of his existential/semiotic position as much as it might represent the epistemological consequences of his doctrine. For the absolute freedom of pure self-presence posited as a substance is something in which no one else can participate: life with others requires leaving the center of pure reflection, even as it necessitates using the "practical" language which is "strictly" false. Berkeley "thus breaks all bonds of men with their fellows and their God, thereby shattering all ties of moral obligation.”[28]

            Berkeley's purported agreement with the "illiterate bulk of mankind" was thus soon shown to be a mistake, inasmuch as the common sense even of the literate was aroused to an immediate antipathy. Already in 1733 Andrew Baxter pointed out many of the grammatical violations in Berkeley's argu­ments, showing that this antipathy was logically, as well as existentially, well-founded. John Wild sums it up this way:


It cannot, therefore, be denied that the tendency of Berkeley's early works to attribute philosophic disagreement and obscurity to the "veil of language" was, as he himself came to perceive (in the Siris), somewhat naive, since to tear aside one veil is inevitably to substitute another.[29]


The significant point here is that Berkeley did become aware of the essential tension of philosophic language. His recasting of the Principles in dialogue form is not a very masterful presentation of dialogue as such, but a symbolic movement is at work in it. The statement at the end of the third Dialogue referred to above (where he thinks to combine the half-truths of philosophy and common sense) is by no means a simple restatement of the original plan; rather it exhibits the conjunction of ordinary language with the language of "in the mind," and it implies the transition from one to the other. In fact, this whole dialogue has concentrated above all on Hylas' unshakable feeling that what Philonous says is contrary to common speech and too radically novel ("New notions should always be discountenanced"). When Philonous falls back on the authority of the philosophical tradition, he allays the second worry (about novelty), but never satisfies the demand for an acknowledgment of commonality. And one feels that Berkeley was conscious of this in placing the problem of creation, which stands for the finitude and dependence of the individual, in its climactic position in the Dialogues.

         The problem about God's creation of matter is important for several reasons. For one thing, Berkeley's discussion of it is a response to one of the few intelligent criticisms he had received. It was first brought up by the

wife of his friend Percival;[30] thus it represents a rare point where his thinking really proceeded dialogically. The argument also indicates the seriousness with which he took the common faith: religion, he says in the third Dialogue should be protected from innovation (unlike philosophy). Thus we see him becoming aware of his responsibility toward this common faith  in spite of his own clarity concerning the representation of God in his doctrine  At the same time the discussion has the significance of admitting archetypes — not “ideas" as something present in perception — in the eternal Mind, and this brings the realization of the primacy of meaning into the center of his thinking. Effectively gone is the vulgar empiricism: he is on the road which will end with the Platonism of the Siris. Due to the admission of archetypes, says Wild. Berkeley can no longer


legitimately claim or constantly seek that squaring of his notions with those of "the good Hylas" which mars not only the Principles but. at many points, the Dialogues themselves, and even stand in the way of the true meaning of what he is saying.[31]


In other words. Berkeley gradually came to understand that seeing the world as a system of signs in need of interpretation is an activity presupposing a literate traditional context. The autonomy of this activity, which is what we are interested in, refers, in spite of itself, to the authority of the tradition. It is this changing sense of tradition and of what constitutes authority that will culminate in his mysterious final work.



6. Later Work: Compromise in Form as Well as Content


            Given that Berkeley's philosophic freedom, gained through a certain overcoming of language, has made this transition to a self-consciousness in which the instrumental aspect of language itself comes into question (since tradition becomes important on its own), we may consider Wild's evaluation of the Dialogues not too great an exaggeration: "There is no result save tension, a movement, carrying our thought always beyond itself, an destroying every fixed 'result' that comes its way."[32] It was indeed at this point in Berkeley's life that he gave up the academic life: in succeeding years his writings were more polemical and unsystematic, and he turned more and more to "practical" affairs. We cannot discuss all this, but must ask only about the growth of his essential freedom.

         And what we discover is that the same paradox, wherein dependence on God means persona] freedom, continues to manifest itself on a larger scale: the continual frustrations of social existence force Berkeley's language and thought deeper into the idiom of religion, where his isolation can be translated into devotion and service (which are themselves liberating). Essays from this middle period — when he was wrestling with the inner emptiness of rationalism ("freethinking") and that sphere of modern culture where it was being nurtured and prepared for domination — show how he came to abandon the academic view of philosophy. We could also say that he began to focus less on critical argument, in which the experience of presence is (re)presented as metaphysical fact, and moved toward the direct expression of a human need, i.e., of the directedness which interpretive consciousness takes on in the wake of liberating reflection. In particular, he gives up the analogical proof of God from his own self-reflection of "spirit" and substitutes this sort of expression:


Thou and only Thou, O Lord, appearest in everything. When I consider Thee I am swallowed up and lost in contemplation of Thee. Everything besides Thee, even my own existence, vanishes and disappears in the contemplation of Thee. I am lost to myself and fall into nothing when I think on Thee. The man who does not taste Thee has a relish of nothing. His being is vain, and his life but a dream.[33]


Here we have a further example of the liberating movement of interpretive transcendence, of the "pious sense of Presence" whereby the meaning (the sign character) of lived experience takes priority over all the "material con­ditions" of life which are posited by common sense and science. The expres­sion may be taken as an indication of the autonomy of reflection; for it is language in which the speaker is overwhelmed and removed from her or his own volitional sphere. Yet the conflict with common sense has produced a formal change: the speaker no longer maintains a "position" and speaks only for God.

            However poorly Berkeley may have understood the grammatical character of philosophizing (as we shall see in a moment), he was increasingly aware of its self-transcending character; he was increasingly aware of the preten­tiousness of telling people the "facts" about presence as subjectivity, yet in­creasingly driven to share his interpretive autonomy through faith in tradition, through participation in its language and spirit. And so, as we pass on toward the last period of his life, we find him scorning "barren speculation" (that "strict speculative truth" is now a mere product of imagination) and speaking instead of a "holy practical knowledge" which is realized in "universal obedience."[34] To know and to be saved are one.

            This might make us think that Berkeley had simply given up "innovative” philosophy for the security of religion; in fact, just the opposite has happened in that his concepts of both have changed. Religion is now something dynamic and not merely professed — it is our concern insofar as we become aware of how we are “smitten with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.”[35] As for philosophy, the further Berkeley’s study of the tradition progressed, the more he understood it not as a human invention at all, but rather as “a Divine tradition, from the author of all things.”[36] He is at last inclined to think “that the first spark of philosophy was derived from heaven; and that it was (as a heathen writer expresseth it) theoparadotos philosophia."[37]

            Personally, I would hate to be so literal-minded as to disagree with this statement. The Iinguistic phenomena which we call the philosophic tradition are inspired and "divinely" so, which is as much as to say that the autonomous language game of “the highest," "the self-sufficient," etc. – the play that presence makes with us through "language" (or the sign character of everything present) – cannot be reduced to any other phenomenon or human   activity.   Awareness   of  the   phenomenological  reality  of this autonomous practice, i.e., attention to presence as such, comes only after the interest in correct representations has been lived through and outgrown.
            Seeing how broad a range of experience it takes to outgrow the fascination with naming, describing, and "demonstrating" presence (as the basis of reflection), Berkeley concludes his work with the exhortation:


He that would make a real progress in knowledge must dedicate his age as well as youth, the later growth as well as first fruits, at the altar of Truth.[38]


When the practice is undertaken as such, the vision which has outgrown the icons of philosophical theories can focus on the spirit that moved them, no longer thinking to assert any images of its own.


7. Freedom Through Bondage: The Riddle of the Chain


            In Berkeley's case, the freedom from assertion which he finally achieved is apparent to anyone who can read the last seventy-five sections of the Siris — read them, that is, with an ear for their open equanimity and their free movement from one dialectical moment to another in the same tone of stately, ever-blossoming wonder. This is genuine philosophizing with no axe to grind. Yet the Siris does have an axe to grind — not so much a metaphysical bill of goods, but chiefly a physical one: tar water, the panacea for Christian civilization.
            Has anything more audacious ever been conceived by a philosopher?
Could any joke be more perfect than the sight of the annihilator of Matter
selling a gross physical substance (tar!) under the label of Heraclitus’ everliving fire”? We may go from one end of the book to the other again and again trying to find the trick mirrors in this show, trying to get hold of the
presuppositions that allowed him to pass from “valid” philosophical reasoning down through myth, superstition and primitive science to his “discovery”; but it is a seamless web: in spite of numerous ambiguities and slips from one language game to another on the way from photosynthesis to the One, you cannot point to any one aspect of the show as being a mere pose. The more appropriate procedure would be to avoid the intentional fallacy and regard the whole phenomenon as a great joke. Whether the author of the joke be Berkeley, God or the History of Being, we need not try to say. What is important is that we grasp the error in metaphysics from the point of view of its complete interpenetration with philosophic freedom, i.e. in its necessity. Berkeley provides an example of this interpenetration in its purest, its most tragic manifestation.

         To complete the joke we must mention two other points: first, the Bishop of Cloyne did sell his snake oil to the educated and liberal people of Britain, whereas he had never been able to sell them the spiritual medicine to which he had devoted most of his life; second, if the "modern practical reader” addressed in the beginning of the book has the mental power to follow the whole "chain" of reflections, this reader is rewarded by being made into an object of benign philosophical contempt. Such readers are called "low" and "sensual" and in need of some physical lure to approach the truth. One can easily imagine warped thinkers plotting such a humiliation of their fellows before history, but everything indicates Berkeley's complete sincerity in the medical work. The joke is that a philosopher really was free through a graceful subordination of his practice to common sense, even giving a rep­resentation of this subordination in reverse: "Siris" means chain.


There runs a Chain throughout the whole system of beings. In this Chain one link drags another. The meanest things are connected with the highest. The calamity therefore is neither strange nor much to be complained of, if a low sensual reader (i.e., someone only interested in a cure for his body] shall, from mere love of the animal life, find himself drawn on, surprised and betrayed, into some curiosity concerning the intellectual.[39]


Nor is it surprising, in view of his linguistic bond with the "low sensual reader," if our high spiritual writer should find himself drawn on, conspiring against himself, to forge a link between his thinking and the most obstinate, literal-minded perceptions of everyday life. The Chain is the perfect image for metaphysics, which gives a single framework supposed to govern all meaning, and so relates all spheres of meaning and being back to a central principle of order ("spirit," "idea," nous, Logos, etc.). The chain may be taken as a representation of Berkeley's ultimate bond with "the good Hylas,” with convention and common sense. His teaching takes the form demanded by this communal bond, even as his life as cleric took such a form - but at the end of the teaching there is the practical reality of freedom, which only "drags" the other "links" by the exemplary character of its own purity, like Aristotle's God moving the universe by being loved.

            Love, of course, transfigures the whole world of a lover; it does not attract the lover as he or she was, but only as this one might become, if he or she can adopt the lover's role. Berkeley loved God, and God, it seems, suffered Berkeley to approach Him most intimately in the form of a crackpot, a crank! Through "Divine Tradition" God had put on the clothing of Church and Priest­hood; Berkeley flattered the appearance and he himself became a preacher. The more he became aware that God was covering Himself up — in the Siris we no longer behold God's clear and evident presence; rather "our light is dim, and our situation bad" — the more enamored he became of the covering:


And, in our present state, the operations of the mind so far depend on the right tone or good condition of its instrument, that anything which greatly contributes to preserve or recover the health of the Body is well worth the attention of the Mind. These considerations have moved me to communi­cate to the public the salutary virtues of Tar-water; to which I thought myself indispensably obliged by the duty every man owes to mankind.[40]


The dependency of mind on the body and of the philosopher on humanity is strictly analogous. Berkeley had found out how much his early doctrine was an abstract result which nevertheless had to start from common views (in par­ticular the rationalism of the late seventeenth century). Now he takes account of the necessary relation of philosophic meaning to what is common, but, through an insufficient understanding of grammatical autonomy, he believes that the path from the lowest to the highest lies in the phenomena themselves.

            We, of course, would have to say that the only chain is the linguistic chain that Berkeley forged. There is no path from objectivity to pure subjectivity, since the latter is really only pure presence, which is never present and with­draws itself in its giving. Or, if there is a "path," it does not stretch from a here-now to a there-later, since its "time" and "place" are logically independent of all objectivity (its grammar, we may say, is not determined in relation to objec­tive descriptions). The eye does not come to see itself by first turning around and then looking where it used to be. But the supposed objectivity of the path is what seems to certify or empower the guide, the priest, the teacher. The freedom and compassion of a thinker thus conspire, with the logic of love, to infer the objectivity of the path from the evident reality of the goal.

            Berkeley's expression is tragic because he represents himself as a salesman:


 . . .effects are linked with their causes, my thoughts on this low but useful theme led to farther inquiries, and those on to others; remote perhaps and speculative, but I hope not altogether useless or unentertaining.[41]


Berkeley knew perfectly well that neither utility nor entertainment should be asked of philosophy; discussing the Phaedrus near the end of the book, he remarks that it "is of a strain not to be relished or comprehended by vulgar minds .... He (Plato) might very justly conceive that such a description must seem ridiculous to sensual men."[42] The idea of the chain linking wisdom to the useful is indeed an entertainment: a drama that Berkeley lived. |n the drama he appears as a crank. Nothing we have been able to see so far indicates that any more noble role was open to Berkeley, however; and everything indi­cates that he attended to the real needs of others where they arose without regard to social propriety, but when it came to opportunities for sharing in the highest, he found people unwilling to think outside the economic structures of communication established by the Church and the University. Berkeley's teaching could only be compared by them with present knowledge for factual correctness or else taken as a sign of an insight or condition (like "state of grace") which might befall them in the future, whereas the "teaching" really is only an invitation or suggestion, a gesture which puts the whole of knowledge in question.

         If people can only relate to knowledge as an instrument of will, Berkeley does not try to subvert their will (indeed, he has represented "spirit" for him­self most frequently with reference to "volition"); rather he accepts all the real­ity of custom and practices his free philosophizing absurdly within it, as ritual. The "content" of the teaching thereby undergoes a bizarre transformation. The New Theory, the individual teaching of idealism which is sold by the Berkeley of our tradition (the middle hypostasis of Locke/Berkeley/Hume) was at last reduced to a label on the bottle of a wonder drug, but for anyone who could think independently, this label might have occasioned an entrance onto a path of increasing purpose and wonder.


8. Interpretation of the Metaphysical Mistake as a Way Into the Disclosure of Presence


            Berkeley re-presents the self-disclosure of presence, i.e., the freedom of re­flection, as an objective matter grounding all ancient and modern ontology, theology, medicine, physics, etc. On the critical level, we read this as a mis­take: the creative (metaphorical) links between language games in the Siris are misrepresented by being framed, in the language of hypothesis, as ever-present conditions or ontological grounds. As such grounds they can ulti­mately be dismissed. More than criticism is needed for us to bring his thinking activity into the context of liberating reflection that may be available to us.

            The power of Berkeley's writing, in which spiritual self-sufficiency is passionately pushed to its human limits, demands a level of interpretation wherein we gratefully admit to the madness Berkeley displays and invokes, and are thereby admitted to its realm. It is a semiotic realm I speak of: that interpretive vantage point within one's life from which all gathering into meaning and stepping out into purpose is accomplished. When a person's sense of identity and freedom comes so strongly into conflict with common views that this indi­vidual is moved to invent a "strict speculative sense" in which common sense is inverted, it is not surprising that we should find situations in such a life where the person appears fanatical or crazed. The question is, What do we make of such appearances? We cannot regard them as mere accidents; we can­not pass beyond the linguistic "expression" to some pure experiential reality. We can appreciate the whole drama of thinking only through the experience of being moved by it ourselves—moved, of course, to think.

         An obstacle to reacting in an appreciative way is the difficulty in seeing how Berkeley could have achieved the freedom of philosophical autonomy, given that the whole method of his presentation depended on positing neces­sary rather than creative semantic connections. In contrast to the explicitly hermeneutical activity discussed by philosophers today, Berkeley continually thinks in terms of a discussion of "the facts." I think, however, that a little reflection on the above interpretation will show the distinct senses in which his thinking does and does not violate the principle of grammatical indepen­dence, does and does not understand its own position as fixed in a chain of meaning, as opposed to taking responsibility for articulating its own destiny. What we need to do is to distinguish in the text between that which calls for an interpretation of it as an account of repeatedly present conditions and language independent facts from that which calls for an open, creative interpretation.


         In the one case we understand teaching according to the usual model: knowledge, initially present in the teacher and absent in the student, comes to be present in the student (as if the teacher were "inserting vision into blind eyes").[43] The linear progression of knowledge, as well as science itself, is relative to a determinate ground of objective (or transcendental) truth; the presence of truth to the mind thus takes place repeatedly in a linear, temporal sequence ordered with reference to the objective ground (including the thinker's "given" relation to the objective through embodiment, and so forth).

         In the other case, however, the presence which is to come and that which has been are held in a reciprocal tension (due to the open structure of dialogue), so that the current absence of philosophic "knowledge" reveals another dimension of free play: the circling of the "given" and the "concealed” around a dialogical axis. There is a circling of revealed and concealed when conversation relaxes into a certain familiarity or appropriateness — when first principles and values become active, precisely by being implicitly assumed and lived out rather than stated — and when in due course the implicit is drawn out discursively to provide the image for a new autonomy, a new context, a new implicit destiny. Contemplative language thus follows a "self-hiding light" which illumines and integrates even as it objectifies and thus distracts.

            Considering how the grasping of a metaphysical fact belies the very dependence on continual interpretation which makes attention to presence so liberating,  I am forced to the peculiar, if not novel, view that thephilosophic appropriateness does not occur at a particular moment; its occurrence" is only extended through the reciprocal movement of presence and absence as such, not through a replacement of absence by presence or presence by absence. The "occurrence" of reflection or "transcendence" has no reality in a sequence of presences. And so what I mean by "relaxing into appropriateness" is only a shift in my sense of continuity; most profoundly it is the perpetual questionability of my continuity, my self-identity as such. The "goal" of thinking from this interpretive standpoint, in other words, does not stand in a not-yet-present future, but is extended through questioning, through conversational awaiting as the sense of its own driving spirit and character.

         My discussion of Berkeley has gone through both moments or modes of interpretation, since both govern his thinking. First I considered the content of idealism as a present meaning, that is, as a doctrine of the sign-character of phenomena, coupled with the exhortation to experience the ultimate "referent" of all signs: God. The doctrine in the end depends on that which the exhortation intends more than the exhortation depends on the arguments of the doctrine. The argumentative coupling of ordinary and speculative language breaks down when we see how the being of Spirit cannot be conceived apart from traditional philosophical language, and that interpretation is required not just in order to read God's meaning in the signs (phenomena), but to see them as signs at all.

         By pursuing this breakdown of the "immediate" (perception) through dialectical mediation, I necessarily passed over into the second mode of interpretation. Here I noted that, just as the basic experience of existential autonomy only shows itself ontologically as a kind of extreme dependence (on God, presence, being), so too the articulation of that which is in each case the most urgent significance of the present situation depends on the opacity of common sense and a certain exaggerated patience expressed in the projection of a “path”. With the necessity of seizing upon the contingent forms of available public sentiment and concern comes the necessity of a certain fundamental “erring”[44] – or should I say acting (theatricality) – which retains its understanding of spirit only as a certain crazy slant on the world of common sense. But this crazy slant, with its linguistic excesses, shows a beautiful proportion or ratio when it appears in its dramatic wholeness; for the wholeness of being (or act of existing – esse ), understood dramatically, is a temporal wholeness, not the wholeness of synchronous sense perception, not merely physical affectation (percipi), but the deeper con­tinuity visible only in noble purpose.

         How is Berkeley present for us today? Not as the dogmatic pronouncer of "esse est percipi," but only, if at all, as someone whose sense of "presence" — and of present purpose — animates our way of perceiving and of being. If it does so, it is through thinking, which means that presence concerns us as some­thing worth thinking about and as something that lets our lives be animated by thinking. Berkeley's presence concerns me because I too seem to "see through" my spatiality by means of an interpretive experience which reminds me that the sense of the things I encounter is the sense of my own life. When I gain a critical insight into the groundlessness of this sense (the impossibility of making it "strict and speculative"), I want to find a way of describing pres­ence so clearly that only the openness of interpretive experience will be con­veyed, without any theoretical distractions. But this thought in turn exhibits an inevitable appearance of naivete, idiosyncrasy, and pretentiousness. That "phenomena as such" have a "sign character" is an assertion which by itself has a sophomoric aspect in our present state of language, when a sign in the National Park admonishes us to "learn to hear what the forest is saying to us," or a popular song speaks mockingly of someone who hears "all of nature speaking . . . if he could only figure out what it's trying to tell him." When I feel the unavoidable responsibility of speaking, with its demand for "clarity" or a felt connection between speaker and listener, I too revert to tradition (e.g. , to the metaphysics of presence in one of its forms), and find my freedom in what tradition as such hides: the openness of its own interpretive creation and sustenance.

         Since openness is not a matter of being creative or "spontaneous," but much more basically is the condition for our being able to listen to each other, piety (in the sense of transcending presence) can animate thinking with a truthfulness that is no more the simple loyalty of religiousness than it is the directionless description of science. Rather piety names the thinking in which the joy of purposeful transcendence is affirmed. The quasi-spatial metaphor of transcendence must be understood as a surpassing in meaning, above all. The highest purpose only becomes historically explicit in a concealed way (because, after all, human intercourse is not capable of abolishing all alienation, which is its own precondition). And this entails that in remaining true to our essential humanity through philosophic encounter, in making presence questionable for each other we can transcend or "see through time as well as space, we may read events too as signs, especially those events in which we are participating. As Berkeley may be present for us, so may we be for each other; adhering to the concreteness of living meaning (spirit) as the only “substance" of experience, we may play out in wonder the sense of our historical path.


[1] Richard Rorty, "Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind," in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 389.

What I mean by "mature historicism" is the understanding which, having passed through the problems of relativism and subjectivism, no longer requires an exaggerated epistemological foundation in order to do justice to the nonarbitrary character of human practice and the standards by which it is guided.


[2] This point can be admitted and the conclusions drawn can be as diverse as those of Heidegger on the one hand and Dewey on the other. Many agree that there is a mistake in the basic emphasis on the paradigm of vision and the exclusive priority granted to presence over full temporally. The question is whether it is merely a mistake.


[3] By "historical reality" I mean not just "what really was," but Gadamer's Wirkungsgeschichte—what is real as the effecting, active background of the present situation.

[4] Rorty's concept of "incommensurability" is close to what I mean here.


[5] George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge (Dublin, 1710), sec. 93.

[6] ibid., sec. 154.

[7] 'Ibid. sec. 156.

[8] "Fact" here means neither objectivity (propositional truth) nor subjectivity (consciousness) but the evidence of being which precedes both. That a relation should be incorruptible sounds odd until we can see the relation of subjectivity and objectivity as more concrete than the relata.


[9] George Berkeley, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (London, 1709). sec. 2.

[10] ibid., sec. 127.


[11] ibid. sec.147

[12] Principles, sec. 147. He is here mentioning a thesis that he will argue at length a quarter century later in the Alciphron: Or the Minute Philosopher (Dublin and London. 1732).

[13] ibid. sec.142

[14] ibid. sec. 141

[15] ibid. sec. 154

[16] ibid. sec.155

[17] ibid. sec.147

[18] cf. ibid. sec.151

[19] ibid. sec.149

[20] ibid. sec. 1

[21] ibid. sec.38

[22] ibid. sec.52

[23] cf. ibid. sec.23-25

[24] ibid. sec.154

[25] ibid. Introduction sec.21

[26] For example, a letter from his friend Percival in 1710 reports: "A physician of my acquaintance undertook to describe your person, and argued you must needs be mad, and that you ought to take remedies. A Bishop pitied you that a desire and vanity of starting something new should put you on such an undertaking," quoted in John Wild, George Berkeley and Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1936)

For a survey of published criticism, see Harry M. Bracken, The Early Reception of Berkeley’s Immaterialism 1710-1733 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff). 1965.


[27] cf. the remarks of Percival, Saint-Hyacinthe and Desfontaines cited in Bracken p.2-3

[28] ibid. p.28

[29] Wild, op.cit. p.88

[30] ibid. p.169

[31] ibid. p.184

[32] ibid. p.193

[33] George Berkeley, “Essays in The Guardian," in Works vol  4, ed  A  C. Fraser (Oxford, 1901) p.169

[34] ibid. p.397

[35] ibid. p.408

[36] George Berkeley, Siris (London 1744) sec. 360

[37] ibid. sec.301

[38] ibid. sec.368

[39] ibid. sec.303

[40] ibid. Introduction

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid. sec.366

[43] Plato, Republic 518c

[44] cf. Das Irre as the necessary counterconcept to freedom in Martin Heidegger, “On the Essence of Truth”, Existence and Being, ed. Werner Brock (Harper & Row, NY).