Saturday, November 26, 2011

On Bishop Berkeley

With all the theism, and all the nods to Locke, on our little site,  readers might wonder,  why I never cite Berkeley.
A philosopher, and not an atheist, nor a materialist of any sort :  yet he is not an ally.

In the general popular literature of the history of mathematics, he is celebrated for his witty characterization of Newton’s fluxions (later infinitessimals; and the analogous items apud Leibniz), as “ghosts of departed quantitites”; together with his sally

He who can digest a second or third fluxion … need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in Divinity.

which certainly holds an honorable place in the tradition of port-fueled after-dinner jests.  Since, indeed, as history showed, that aspect of the calculus was, from a logical standpoint, not particularly well-founded, this has retrospectively given Berkeley the reputation -- I believe, largely undeserved -- of having “been right” as against the great Newton and the great Leibniz.  But the general implication of his “Idealism” (it does not deserve so high-sounding a title:  I propose to re-dub it, “Epistemological Onanism”)  is that he scoffs at all science.

Anyone who scoffs at everything, will scoff at some things that deserve scoffing at.  (Likewise on the positive side, a game that has been played with the ancients:  You unearth some fool who said that beans are evil and geese are born from trees and the planets are gods AND…. the world is made up of leeeetle tiny bits…  O my gosh!  An anticipation of atomism!)  On the evidence of his puerile physical, arithmetical, and geometrical reasoning in the Principles, we must doubt that he had any very clear insight into what was lacking in the formulations of his…mathematical betters.  Certainly nothing he said remotely pointed the way to the eventual solution in terms of carefully regimented limits, by Cauchy et al. And since the whole thrust of his attitude in that contemptible work, is to preclude serious mathemathics and science (and, incidentally and specifically, linguistics) entirely, we may confidently surmise that, had the Lord so erred, as to grant an extra thousand years of life to that tub of sodden skepticism dressed up as theism, he would never in all his days made the slightest progress toward that or toward anything else.

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