Berkeley And The Language Problem


Berkeley considers the belief in Abstract Ideas to be one of the most detrimental of all the wide-spread false faiths held by Man, a great fallacy which has had “more wide and extended sway over the thoughts of speculative men” then any other of “the false principles that have obtained in the world.”

The fallacy of the Abstact Idea leads directly into the Language Problem…

The Language Problem

Berkeley speaks at length about matters “concerning the nature and abuse of Language.” He believes that the (false) concept of Abstract Ideas arises from the quirks of Language, and without Language, we would not have invented the chimera of the Abstract Idea.

If there had been no such thing as speech or universal signs,” he declares, “there never had been any thought of abstraction.”

Berkeley asserts that the Language Problem starts with the fact that, over time, the same word becomes associated with several different individual bodies. For example, “box” or “man” or “tree”– all these come to represent categories not just individual bodies. These category-descriptors typically contain several particular ideas common to the group, any one of which is “indifferently” suggested to the mind by the name given.

“In truth, there is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to any general name,” writes Berkeley, and this seems commonsensical enough.

How Every Word Is Like The Letter “x” In Algebra

But then Berkeley takes this commonsensical fact and uses it to make an astounding analogy… Words, he says, are used in a similar way to how letters are used in Algebra…

A word, like an algebraic symbol, is a stand-in for the real thing. Both a word and an algebraic symbol can have many different exact meanings– even an infinite number (think of the word “leaf” for instant– it can stand for anything of that category past, present, or future).

A word, like an algebraic symbol, is also chosen and consciously placed due to its relationship to the other signs and symbols being used in the communication or description being presented.

And I would add to Berkeley’s analogy-elucidation that a word, like an algebraic symbol, “works” as long as it does not throw-off the intended meaning of the communication (sentence or equation). When we use a word, we are not– as we may think sometimes– using an exact or one-valued symbol, but are placing in the communication an infinite train of meanings– all valid as long as they do not throw into disorder the intended meaning of the communication. For just one example, I may use my own name in the sentence, “Hammering Shield needs to leave his desk more often.”… But even the apparently specific reference of “Hammering Shield” refers to a person in a constant state of flux, never waking up exactly the same person twice.

How Using Inherited Language Is Like Playing A Game With Loaded Dice

Berkeley complains (and I believe this my own metaphor, and not Berkeley’s) that the game of Language has come down to us with the dice loaded. Language has organically grown over the Ages to suit the ideas of the past. And these ideas, warns Berkeley, are “not always the truest.”

“Language is suited to the received opinions,” states Berkeley. […] “Hence it is impossible, even in the most rigid, philosophic reasonings, so far to alter the bent and genius of the tongue we speak.” It would be nice if could obtain “an entire deliverance from the deception of words,” he says, but alas, this would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to accomplish. The best we can do is to maintain a vigilant wariness concerning words, never letting down our guard, always being ready to realize that a situation which, passing through the prism of Language, may appear to present an inconsistency or impossibility could be in actuality merely a quirk or failure of the Language.

“Names do not always stand for Ideas,” writes Berkeley. “There are many names in use amongst speculative men which do not always suggest to others determinate, particular Ideas, or in truth anything at all.” But if a man stays aware of this fact, he can “spare himself the labor of looking for Ideas where there are none to be had.”

“Most parts of knowledge,” Berkeley laments, “have been strangely perplexed and darkened by the abuse of words.” Our philosophy has been too often caught in the “fine and subtle net of Abstract Ideas” which “has so miserably perplexed and entangled the minds of men.”

The Delusion Of Words

Writes Berkeley… “It were an endless as well as an useless thing to trace the Schoolmen, those great masters of abstraction, through all the manifold inextricable labyrinths of error and dispute their doctrine of abstract natures and notions seems to have led them into. What bickerings and controversies, and what a learned dust have been raised about those matters.” […] “Unless we take care to clear the first principles of knowledge from the embarrassment and delusion of words, we may make infinite reasonings upon them to no purpose: we may draw consequences from consequences, and be never the wiser. The farther we go, we shall only lose ourselves the more irrecoverably, and be the deeper entangled in difficulties and mistakes.” [..] “It is therefore to be wished that everyone would use his utmost endeavors to obtain a clear view of the Ideas he would consider, separating from them all that dress and encumbrance of WORDS which so much contribute to blind the judgment and divide the attention.”

We can trust our thoughts best, says Berkeley, when we think in “Ideas divested of words.”


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