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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Ideal Philosophy in Brief

By George Berkeley (1685–1753)

[From Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. 1732.]


ALC.—What am I to think then. Do we see anything at all, or is it altogether fancy and illusion?

EUPH.—Upon the whole, it seems the proper objects of sight are light and colors, with their several shades and degrees; all which, being infinitely diversified and combined, form a language wonderfully adapted to suggest and exhibit to us the distances, figures, situations, dimensions, and various qualities of tangible objects: not by similitude, nor yet by inference of necessary connection, but by the arbitrary imposition of Providence: just as words suggest the things signified by them.

ALC.—How! Do we not, strictly speaking, perceive by sight such things as trees, houses, men, rivers, and the like?

EUPH.—We do, indeed, perceive or apprehend those things by the faculty of sight. But will it follow from thence that they are the proper and immediate objects of sight, any more than that all those things are the proper and immediate objects of hearing, which are signified by the help of words or sounds?

ALC.—You would have us think then, that light, shades, and colors, variously combined, answer to the several articulations of sound in language; and that, by means thereof, all sorts of objects are suggested to the mind through the eye, in the same manner as they are suggested, by words or sounds, through the ear: that is, neither from necessary deduction to the judgment, nor from similitude to the fancy, but purely and solely from experience, custom, and habit.

EUPH.—I would not have you think any thing, more than the nature of things obligeth you to think, nor submit in the least to my judgment, but only to the force of truth; which is an imposition that I suppose the freest thinkers will not pretend to be exempt from.

ALC.—You have led me, it seems, step by step, till I am got I know not where. But I shall try to get out again, if not by the way I came, yet by some other of my own finding. Here Alciphron, having made a short pause, proceeded as follows:

Answer me, Euphranor, should it not follow, from these principles, that a man, born blind, and made to see, would at first sight not only not perceive their distance, but also not so much as know the very things themselves which he saw, for instance, men or trees? which surely to support must be absurd.

EUPH.—I grant, in consequence of those principles which both you and I have admitted, that such a one would never think of men, trees, or any other objects that he had been accustomed to perceive by touch, upon having his mind filled with new sensations of light and colors, whose various combinations he doth not yet understand, or know the meaning of; no more than a Chinese, upon first hearing the words man and tree, would think of the things signified by them. In both cases, there must be time and experience, by repeated acts, to acquire a habit of knowing the connection between the signs and things signified; that is to say, of understanding the language, whether of the eyes or of the ears. And I conceive no absurdity in this.

ALC.—I see, therefore, in strict philosophical truth, that rock only in the same sense that I may be said to hear it, when the word rock is pronounced.

EUPH.—In the very same.

ALC.—How comes it to pass then, that every one shall say he sees, for instance, a rock, or a house, when those things are before his eyes; but nobody will say, he hears a rock, or a house, but only the words or sounds themselves, by which those things are said to be signified or suggested but not heard? Besides, if vision be only a language, speaking to the eyes, it may be asked, when did men learn this language? To acquire the knowledge of so many signs, as go to the making up a language, is a work of some difficulty. But will any man say, he hath spent time, or been at pains, to learn this language of vision?

EUPH.—No wonder, we cannot assign a time beyond our remotest memory. If we have been all practising this language, ever since our first entrance into the world; if the Author of nature constantly speaks to the eyes of all mankind, even in their earliest infancy, whenever the eyes are open in the light, whether alone or in company; it doth not seem to me at all strange, that men should not be aware they had ever learned a language, begun so early, and practiced so constantly, as this of vision. And, if we also consider that it is the same throughout the whole world, and not, like other languages, differing in different places; it will not seem unaccountable, that men should mistake the connection between the proper objects of sight, and the things signified by them, to be founded in necessary relation or likeness: or, that they should even take them for the same things. Hence it seems easy to conceive why men, who do not think, should confound, in this language of vision, the signs with the things signified, otherwise than they are wont to do in the various particular languages formed by the several nations of men.

It may be also worth while to observe, that signs being little considered in themselves, or for their own sake, but only in their relative capacity, and for the sake of those things whereof they are signs, it comes to pass that the mind often overlooks them, so as to carry its attention immediately on to the things signified. Thus, for example, in reading, we run over the characters with the slightest regard, and pass on to the meaning. Hence it is frequent for men to say they see words, and notions, and things, in reading a book: whereas, in strictness, they see only the characters which suggest words, notions, and things. And, by parity of reason, may we not suppose that men, not resting in but overlooking the immediate and proper objects of sight, as in their own nature of small moment, carry their attention onward to the very thing signified, and talk as if they saw the secondary objects? which, in truth and strictness, are not seen, but only suggested and apprehended by means of the proper objects of sight, which alone are seen.

ALC.—To speak my mind freely, this dissertation grows tedious, and runs into points too dry and minute for a gentleman’s attention.

I thought, said Crito, we had been told, the minute philosophers loved to consider things closely and minutely.

ALC.—That is true, but in so polite an age who would be a mere philosopher? There is a certain scholastic accuracy, which ill suits the freedom and ease of a well-bred man. But, to cut short this chicane, I propound it fairly to your own conscience, whether you really think that God himself speaks every day, and in every place, to the eyes of all men?

EUPH.—That is really, and in truth, my opinion: and it should be yours too, if you are consistent with yourself and abide by your own definition of language. Since you cannot deny that the great mover and author of nature constantly explaineth himself to the eyes of men, by the sensible intervention of arbitrary signs, which have no similitude or connection with the things signified; so as by compounding and disposing them, to suggest and exhibit an endless variety of objects, differing in nature, time, and place, thereby informing and directing men how to act with respect to things distant and future, as well as near and present. In consequence, I say, of your own sentiments and concessions, you have as much reason to think the Universal Agent, or God, speaks to your eyes, as you can have for thinking any particular person speaks to your ears.

ALC.—I cannot help thinking that some fallacy runs throughout this whole ratiocination, though perhaps I may not readily point it out. It seems to me, that every other sense may as well be deemed a language as that of vision. Smells and taste, for instance, are signs that inform us of other qualities, to which they have neither likeness nor necessary connection.

EUPH.—That they are signs is certain, as also that language and all other signs agree in the general nature of sign, or so far forth as signs. But it is as certain that all signs are not language; not even all significant sounds, such as the natural cries of animals, or the inarticulate sounds and interjections of men. It is the articulation, combination, variety, copiousness, extensive and general use, and easy application of signs (all which are commonly found in vision) that constitute the true nature of language. Other senses may indeed furnish signs; and yet those signs have no more right than inarticulate sounds to be thought a language.

ALC.—Hold! let me see! In language, the signs are arbitrary, are they not?

EUPH.—They are.

ALC.—And, consequently, they do not always suggest real matters of fact. Whereas, this natural language, as you call it, or these visible signs, do always suggest things in the same uniform way, and have the same constant regular connection with matters of fact: whence it should seem, the connection was necessary, and therefore, according to the definition premised, it can be no language. How do you solve this objection?

EUPH.—You may solve it yourself, by the help of a picture or looking-glass.

ALC.—You are in the right. I see there is nothing in it. I know not what else to say to this opinion, more than that it is so odd and contrary to my way of thinking, that I shall never assent to it.