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George Berkeley and the power of words

According to a picture of language that has enjoyed wide popularity throughout the history of Western philosophy, language is a tool for making our thoughts known to others: the speaker translates private thoughts into public words, and the hearer translates the words back into thoughts. It follows from such a picture that before we can use words properly we must have thoughts corresponding to them. In 17th and 18th century European philosophy, the thoughts that correspond to most words were called ideas. Thus most philosophers from this period—including, for instance, John Locke (1632–1704)—held that if I am using a word like ‘apple’ properly, I have an idea of an apple when I say it and my saying it results in the hearer having an idea of an apple.

This account may seem rather bland and commonsensical, but at the end of the 17th century it resulted in the burning of a book and the endangering of its author’s life. The book was Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). The author was the Irish philosopher John Toland (1670–1722).

Locke had argued that all of our ideas must be somehow derived from experience. According to Toland, traditional Christian theology contains numerous words that do not correspond to ideas derived from experience. Toland specifically argues that the positions of the various Christian churches on the Trinity and the Eucharist cannot be formulated without such words. Since meaningful words must correspond to ideas, it follows (according to Toland) that these religious ‘mysteries’ are literally nonsense. Toland therefore advocates an ‘unmysterious’ form of Christianity shorn of these traditional doctrines.

In the ensuing uproar, Toland fled the country. His book was burned by the public hangman in Dublin. Historians often treat this as the beginning of the Deist controversy in Britan and Ireland.

Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), generally regarded as Ireland’s greatest philosopher, was only eleven years old when these events took place, but a growing body of scholarship suggests that they had a profound impact on his thought. Berkeley believed that Toland was correct that we have no ideas corresponding to words like ‘substance’ and ‘Trinity’. In fact, Berkeley went further than Toland: Berkeley argued that we do not even have ideas corresponding to far less abstruse religious words like ‘God’ and ‘grace’. Yet, curiously enough, the use of these words makes a profound difference in the life of the believer.

Further, according to Berkeley, it is not only religious words that somehow make a practical difference without standing for ideas. Newtonian physics, for instance, is all about forces, like gravity, but what kind of experience could give us an idea of force? We experience the motion of falling bodies, but force is not the same thing as motion. We experience a certain sensation of effort when we support a heavy body, but force is not a sensation. Force is not, in fact, any of the things we experience. Hence, if all ideas derive from experience, there is no idea corresponding to the word ‘force’. Yet the employment of the word ‘force’ in Newtonian physics makes a profound difference. We simply couldn’t do without it.

Image credit: John Smybert, Portrait of George Berkeley, 1727. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Still, as the title character of Berkeley’s 1732 work Alciphron puts it, “this is the opinion of all thinking men who are agreed, the only use of words is to suggest ideas. And indeed what other use can we assign them?” (§7.7, 1st edition). Berkeley is convinced that words must have some other use, for we do not have any grasp of what ‘grace’ or ‘Trinity’ or ‘force’ might be before we use the names, and yet it matters how we use (or don’t use) these words.

These reflections ultimately lead Berkeley to a radical conclusion:

The true end of speech, reason, science, faith, assent, in all its different degrees, is not merely, or principally, or always, the imparting or acquiring of ideas, but rather something of an active operative nature, tending to a conceived good (Alciphron, §7.17).

Berkeley’s fundamental philosophical insight is that we do not simply use words to represent the world and our thoughts about it, we use words to shape our world and our thoughts. In this way, religious and scientific language are just alike: both aim to assist us in the practical work of making the world a better place for ourselves and those around us. In fact, in the quotation above, Berkeley affirms without restriction or qualification that all speech, thought, and belief is like this. Thus Toland has not identified a problem for religious language, nor even a peculiarity about religious language. Religious language, like all language, has primarily practical significance and must be judged on the basis of the effects it produces, not the ideas it stands for.

Featured image credit: print by Marco Dente, ca. 1500. Public domain. Via The Rijksmuseum.

Recent Comments

  1. Evark the Polite

    Why is everyone so obsessed with words? Everything we’ve experienced has been already experienced ten billion times over before the existence of writing or orality. All suffering, joy, epiphany, ah ha, good/bad day at work, love, wonder, God etc., for the majority of human experience to date 70 million years had nothing to do with words. Can’t we just consider reality without the horrific confusion of words? Please?

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