Monthly Archives: July 2015

Berkeley on freedom of volition and freedom of imagination

Like Descartes, Berkeley is a metaphysical dualist. But unlike Descartes, Berkeley did not subscribe to a dualism of mind and body but instead developed a unique and robust metaphysical distinction between the realm of ideas, on the one hand, and the realm of spirits, on the other. Rather than follow Descartes in separating the world into that which is material and that which is mental, Berkeley cashes out his distinction in terms of passivity and activity. Ideas, he says, are purely passive entities, while spirits, such as our own mind and God’s, are purely active. Commentators are broadly in agreement on these fundamentals of Berkeley’s ontology. Where there is lively disagreement, however, concerns how we are to interpret Berkeley’s theory of the causal relationship between these two ontologically distinct realms.

In his paper, “Berkeley on the Activity of Spirits”, Sukjae Lee defends an interpretation that attributes to Berkeley the view that human beings enjoy a “dual power” to causally produce two types of distinct output. When we are engaged in willing, we produce volitions which are purely spiritual. When we are engaged in imagining, on the other hand, we are responsible not only for the production of volitions but also for the production of ideas, namely ideas of imagination, which are the effects of prior volitions. Thus, on Lee’s reading, although all of our causal activity originates in the spiritual realm and has, as we might say, spiritual ‘input’, the ontological status of the output of our activity may be either spiritual or ideal, depending on whether it is a volition or an imagining. As Lee puts it,

[W]e have the power to produce volitions, and this power comprises the inner core of our activity in such a way that, even if we were to possess just these powers, we would be genuinely active in virtue of them. But, as it turns out, we are directly aware that, in the case of ideas of imagination, our volitions result in the actual production of the ideas, such that we can claim this power to produce ideas of imagination as well. (p.27)

Lee positions his dual power reading in opposition to Pitcher’s more restrictive ‘single power’ assessment of Berkeley’s theory of human causality[1]. Although Pitcher does not dispute that Berkeley himself thought that the human mind was causally responsible for the production of volitions and the ideas of the imagination, Pitcher tries to make the case that Berkeley “should drop this additional claim that ‘image-volitions’ are the true active causes of their intended effects [I.e. ideas of imagination]” (p.26) because according to Berkeley’s own metaphysics the spirit does not enjoy the ability to directly perceive its own powers. Since the mind has no means of perceiving itself, it has no image of its powers and so no means of knowing whether it is responsible for the images that appear to follow from or accompany its volitions. The problem with this line of argument, Lee suggests, is, for one, that it flies in the face of many passages where Berkley carefully spells out that although the mind has no imagistic knowledge of itself (it being by nature active) it still can “know [itself] by a certain internal consciousness” and through an “inner feeling” or simply through “reflexion” (p.26). Furthermore, it seems that this argument would also have to render the mind’s capacity to know that it has the power produce volitions equally obscure and so equally problematic (p.27). But this is not a move that Pitcher wants to make since he still wants to preserve the single power story.

Someone more sympathetic to Pitcher’s analysis may want to uphold the single power reading by grounding it in an alternative factor that does not rely on Pitcher’s ‘obscurity argument’. The factor I have in mind is the input-output distinction between willing and imagining mentioned above. Simply put, it is because imagining is a two-step process involving input from one ontological realm and output from another that it should not be treated on the same terms as willing, which is a one step-process. Witness that when I will, there is no clear distinction between the act and its product; the volition is the willing. But conversely, when I imagine something, I must first will to do so and then have my volition confirmed or ‘registered’ in the mind’s eye as an idea.

It seems that this is enough to establish the right kind of distinction between acts of will and acts of imagination that Pitcher needs in order to lend the single power story he favours more credence. For while there is no room for an external causal source, e.g. God, to get a wedge in, so to speak, between my volition-as-act and my volition-as-product, it seems that there is ample room for God to have so structured the world that my volitions are succeeded by opposing images, random images or indeed no images at all. Thus, a defender of Pitcher might reason, Berkeley should not have attributed the kind of dual power causality to human beings that Lee’s paper endorses.

[1] ‘Single power’ is not Pitcher’s term.


Berkeley on Ideas and “I”

In Part I of the Principles, Berkeley discusses two ways by which we may come to know an object. The first way (or “head” as he calls it) is through sensory perception, an entirely passive faculty which Berkeley refers to as the way of “ideas” [1](Berkeley, p.56). The second “head” Berkeley calls the way of “spirits” by which he means an active faculty, apprehending its object either through inference or through immediate (non-sensory) acquaintance[2].

As far as the first head goes, the story is familiar empiricism but with an idealist twist: the ideas we have in the mind are sensory impressions or “images” copied from things outside the human mind. The twist is twofold: rather than understanding these things external to the human mind to be material bodies, Berkeley understands them to be simply more ideas, but with (i) a higher degree of reality than the images of sense impression or the “chimeras” of imagination and (ii) existence in the mind of God. Since Berkeley refers to all of these things (sensations, human-mind independent objects, and human-mind dependent imaginings) as ideas it will be helpful to map out some distinctions.

Ideas (real) exist in the mind of God and are the originals of which our ideas (images) are mere copies. Ideas (chimeras) are like images but they do not represent (directly) anything real outside the human mind.[1] This distinction in the taxonomy of ideas seems to be relying on the following principle or criterion of “reality”:

An idea has a higher degree of reality the more it satisfies the following conditions

  • The idea manifests itself with efficacy, order and distinctness
  • The idea must not depend for its existence on a human will (p.36)
  • The idea must not depend for its existence on a human mind.

Assuming this reconstruction is accurate, it is interesting to match each type of idea against these criteria. For example, ideas (real) satisfy 1,2 and 3 as they are “affecting, orderly and distinct” (ibid) and do not rely on the human will nor need to be perceived by a human being in order to exist. However, ideas (images) satisfy 1 and 2 but not 3 while ideas (chimeras) seem to satisfy none.

Is there room, I wonder, for a kind of idea that Berkeley has missed? Namely, an idea that is “affecting, orderly and distinct” (1) but that does depend on the human will and must exist in the human mind? For instance, the notion of the “I” seems to fit the bill but for the fact that Berkeley calls it “absurd” that an active substance which “supports or perceives ideas should itself be an idea or like an ideas” (p.78). Perhaps this is an unhappy use of the word “idea” for Berkeley but it would be a convenient way to justify why we might be committed to ascribing a high degree of reality to the concept of the “I” whilst refraining from associating it with the mode of knowledge Berkeley calls the “way of ideas” which he opposes to the “way of spirits”.

[1] The distinction between ideas (images) and ideas (chimeras) may merely be verbal since in places, Berkeley seems to lump both categories together (e.g. §33 “The ideas imprinted on the senses by the Author of Nature are called real things; and those excited in the imagination being less regular, vivid and constant, are more properly termed ideas, or images of things, which they copy and represent.” (p.35)) Nevertheless, I think there is room for the conceptual distinction since chimeras clearly depend on the human will to a much higher degree than do our sense impressions.

[1] All in-text paginations refer to Berkeley, George, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, edited by Kenneth P. Winkler, Hackett Publishing, Cambridge

[2] I hesitate to use the word “acquaintance” here to talk about the way Berkeley thinks we know, for example, our own mind or God’s. All we need keep in mind is that this word in no way connotes a receptive relationship to the object thus known.


Sukjae Lee on Malebranche’s local arguments for Occasionalism: No representations and mind-body causation

After discussing the “Representation Principle” (RP) of Malebranche’s No Representations (NR) argument[1] as it relates locally[2] to mind-body[3] causation, Sukjae Lee raises a concern about how we should understand the RP condition as it relates to mind-mind causation or volitional action.  The RP principle states that

If a thinking substance A is the cause of bodily [or mental] event B, then A intends B by representing B and is aware of this representation. (Lee, p.83)[4]

In the case of mind-body interaction, RP appears to foreclose on the possibility of the mental being a genuine cause of the physical since it is implausible to claim that we are capable of representing at a sufficiently “high level of detail” the entire causal process that transpires between the initiation of an action in, say, a decision to raise one’s arm, and the termination of that action in the rising of the arm (p.84). As far as mind-body interaction goes, the discrepancy between the complexity of the causal process and the paucity of detail contained in our representations of that process seems to be Malebranche’s principle reason for denying the mind true causality.

Setting aside whether or not NR is persuasive in the mind-body case, Lee considers how the Representation Principle might relate to volitional actions, these being quintessential examples of mind-mind causation that do not involve any transference of causal or “motor force” to a body, even when the body in question is our own. Noting that there are many passages in which Malebranche “appears to endorse some sort of real causality within souls” (p.86)  Lee asks “[h]ow does something like the NR argument relate to our volitional actions, which…seem to consist [merely] in the consent or suspension of consent to a particular good” (p.87).

Specifically at issue is whether or not we have to satisfy RP in order to qualify as genuine causes of our own volitions and if not why there would be an exception to the rule in this case. For one thing, the RP condition seems to pose much less of a problem than it does in the mind-body case; gone is the worry that my representation of the intended event will be lacking in sufficient detail. If the RP condition does apply to the exercise of volition, perhaps Malebranche believes we can meet it.

Despite its plausibility, Lee raises the interesting  possibility that this conclusion might conflict with another commitment of Malebranche’s, namely, that we do not have clear and distinct knowledge of the soul, including, presumably, its essential properties and causal powers (p.87-8)[5].  Lee’s thought seems to be that laying claim to a degree of mental transparency sufficient to satisfy the RP condition might be seen to be in tension with the belief, held with no less conviction, that our knowledge of the soul is severely limited. What further complicates things is that Malebranche appears in places to ground the volitional capacity itself in the very fact that the nature of the mind is inscrutable and differs in inexplicable ways from the nature of body (Ibid).  If we don’t have a clear idea of the soul, in other words, then we can’t know that God hasn’t orchestrated things such that we are able to exercise our wills freely. And this negative belief is enough, according to Malebranche on this interpretation, to warrant the positive belief in freedom of the will[6]. Such a conclusion, Lee speculates , “seems to go against the very idea that we have knowledge of a key principle governing our volitional actions like RP” (p.87). Lee ends his discussion on this point with an attempted resolution.

Briefly, Lee’s solution is to suggest that we can uphold the inscrutability of the mind without giving up on RP.

Malebranche could well agree that for the moral powers to be there, one does have to represent the particular outcome towards which the soul is to be directed, despite the fact that these powers themselves are mysterious and inexplicable. (p.88)

As attractive as it is, this solution may frustrate Malebranche’s desire to hold fast to NR when it comes to mind-body causation. For why couldn’t I use the same reasoning to claim that I am the true cause of my arm’s going up given that I can (a) represent (in lossless detail) the outcome of my intention to lift my arm and (b) affirm that the power that I exercise in doing so is “mysterious and inexplicable”? (Ibid).

Lee could respond by pointing out that even if we were to refute NR in the case of mind-body interaction we would still be blocked by the Passive Natures (PN[7]) argument since no amount of representation could add a motor force to a body which is in itself entirely inert.  Furthermore, even if we granted that the mind could somehow impart a force to a body, this would still do nothing to explain how that force could be transferred from one body to the next without the direct intervention of God. And since it is plausible to think that there are numerous body-body links along the causal chain uniting my volition to the intended outcome, we would still be very far from establishing any kind of necessary connection between the two.

To be sure, it is clear that one would need to do a lot more work to destabilize Malebranche’s core occasionalist commitments, including his global arguments which we have not touched on here. Nevertheless, it would not be inconsequential to have built a case using a commitment immanent to Malebranche’s philosophy itself — namely, the inexplicable mystery of the soul — that shows that at least one of the local arguments for occasionalism does not go through. If volitional liberty can be harbored in the mystery of the mind then why not allow cases of mind-body causation to be explained (or not explained) by the same mystery?

[1] The argument is Malebranche’s but the designation “No Representations Argument” is Lee’s.

[2] Although the causality in question involves two substances, viz. mind and body, the argument is “local” insofar as it is designed to show that the mind cannot be the true cause or source of interaction between mind and body. Hence it meant to establish only that the mind is causally impotent when it comes such actions.

[3] Like Lee, I mean by “mind-body causation” cases in which the causal agent is the mind and the patient the body. The opposite relationship would, of course, be notated as “body-mind causation” which is not under discussion in Lee’s paper.

[4] All paginations refer to Lee, Sukjae, “Passive Natures and No Representations: Malebranche’s Two “Local” Arguments for Occassionalism”

[5] Lee credits Tad Schmaltz with this analysis.

[6] Although this is hardly the place to go into it, I detect a slight affinity between this argument and Kant’s deriving a pro tanto justification for practical belief in freedom from the proof that we can have no theoretical insight into such a faculty given our cognitive finitude.

[7] This is Lee’s name for Malebranche’s second local argument for occasionalism. It refers to the idea that the notion of body when perceived clearly and distinctly can be known to be passive and incapable of generating movement from itself.