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Seth Bordner’s Article “Berkeley’s ‘Defense’ of ‘Commonsense’ Essay

As Seth Bordner states “Berkeley is either foolishly optimistic or knowingly dissembling, but (nearly) everyone agrees his is no defense of commonsense”. (Bordner, “Berkeley’s ‘Defense’ of ‘Commonsense’.”) An appropriate starting point for Bordner’s article “Berkeley’s ‘Defense’ of ‘Commonsense’,” Bordner is an Assistant Professor who specializes in the history of modern philosophy, especially the British Empiricists. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and has based a large portion of his work on Berkeley theories. What Bordnar so valiantly attempts, is to give the reader a better understanding Berkeley. To help one comprehend exactly what his stance was, or what he was trying to accomplish with his defense of commonsense and also he goes about defending it. At the end of the article one might have a little bit more clarity into the highly criticized and complex theories of Berkeley. Bordner also gives us the criteria as to which we will better understand Berkeley’s theories. Thus clearing up any misinterpretation or misunderstanding of Berkeley’s work.

He later goes on to explain the validity or lack thereof of his critics. Berkeley’s theory definitely has many critics, and Bordner gives us a look into all of them. John Locke, who believed in Materialism and was an opponent of Berkeley’s Idealism, Jonathon Bennet, who would refer to Berkeley’s work towards commonsense objects as, disrespectful. Bordner dwells into George Pappas’s Propositional account, as well as John Russel Roberts Religious Image, and their explanation of how far off Berkeley is with his defense of commonsense. Berkeley’s opponents were labeled as atheists, skeptics, and of the “learned” component in society. The sort of, for lack of a better term, free thinker types who would galvanize the world which Berkeley worked so tirelessly to protect.

Bordner goes deep into the opposition which Locke provided against Berkeley’s theories. Locke was supporter of Materialism. He believed that we naturally recognize the qualities of bodies that materialize to our senses with the real qualities of the bodies themselves that appear. We attribute to these real qualities the same existence we attribute to the bodies themselves. An existence different from the external to and independent of the existence of our opinion of them, an existence that shall continue even when no perceptions of them exist. Contrary to this, Berkeley was a strong proponent of Idealism. He was of the stance that one should trust their senses, that things we feel and see are real and that what we perceive to exist really does exist. Locke represents the “Learned” part of society which Berkeley openly detests. As Bordner states “Materialist philosophers are, as it were, vectors of a dangerous intellectual disease.” (Bordner, “Berkeley’s ‘Defense’ of ‘Commonsense’.”).

It was these types that would discount commonsense as merely an afterthought to the established views of philosophical principles. It was Berkeley’s fear that if the Materialistic ideas of Locke became widely accepted, that the “Vulgar” or majority would become jeopardized. That the common folk, those who do not have the wherewithal to question the legitimacy of Locke’s theories and that they would widely accept it as the truth. Berkeley fears were that eventually if the vulgar would become skeptics, which would lead to the questioning of religious beliefs, or worse atheism amongst the masses. So as an educated man, Berkeley’s response when met with a stance of which he could not agree with, he would flat out reject it. “I agree with you. Material substance was no more than a hypothesis and a false groundless one too. I will no longer spend my breath in defense of it.” (Berkeley). Berkeley continuously favors the Vulgar throughout his defense.

They represented the know nothing type, who rarely if ever thought outside the box. The common man who lives in a world less complicated. They are less of a threat, the uneducated, and the ones who would not doubt his theories or become unstable. According to Berkeley, he would have us believe that it was the vulgar were privileged group in society. He consistently sides with the vulgar throughout his defense, paints them as immature fools who are at an advantage when compared to the learned. The sort of people who could not see beyond what is right in front of them, without having the competence to seek a deeper truth. They lived in a simpler world, a world in which Berkeley’s commonsense argument was able to thrive if widely acknowledged as truth amongst the masses. Berkeley also believed that the language used by the common man was simpler. That it was developed “by and for the use of the vulgar.” (Berkeley).

He frequently makes reference to the vulgar as naive to the real world, that they have no capability of being of sound mind nor do they possess the skill set to question what the learned portion of society might. They show lack of interest in speculation, because as he says “to them nothing that’s familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend. They complain not of any want of evidence in their senses, and are out of all danger of becoming skeptics.” (Berkeley, Introduction to the Principles, Works 2:25.) When applied to a modern day situation, Locke and Berkeley would represent the powers that be. This could be in the form of political party alliances, corporate interests, or perhaps religious ties. What Berkeley saw in the Vulgar was a chance to control the majority, or the masses. It’s his goal to grab our attention and make us believe in what he is selling, campaigning on, believes in and so forth.

As consumers, lost souls, or right/left wing types we will follow in accordance to what we can attach ourselves to. That we are too simple to make just and strong decisions based on our own aptitude. So by gaining our allegiance Berkeley could control us with fear and unwillingness to question his unmatched intelligence. This is what Locke represents to him. Locke brought unrest to his world. The idea of chaos amid the masses did not sit well with Berkeley. Locke did not deem the theory that “the vulgar naturally and unreflectively believe that the perceived world is the real world.” (Bordner) to be absolute. Berkeley’s theories could be characterized as monotheist. Sure, at the time of his writing his defense of commonsense there would have been a few detractors with regards to this. But when applied to a modern world, that would not be the case. The multitude of religions and belief systems would conjure up a different sort of debate.

Roberts’s critique, although flawed by Bordner’s accounts, does bring into account the basis of religion. He acknowledges that those in agreement with Berkeley would knowingly acknowledge a presence of higher spirit, and/or God. When one becomes more familiar reading about Berkeley, you would become more aware of his agenda and reasoning for writing his defense. Berkeley would have a much more difficult time engaging the modern world, a world which is free of religious constraint and open to a more globalized view of religion. Berkeley was of the thought that God was needed to cause our sensations. That without him, one could not embark truly into the idea of commonsense. Berkeley himself was commonly known at the time as Bishop Berkeley. He wished to always include God in his discussions and one would also have to be of the same mindset to wholeheartedly accept his argument of commonsense. Obviously, thus lending to the idea of why Berkeley was in such opposition of scientific views and reasoning. The learned part of society was of sound mind and in a position to undermine such thoughtlessness as the commonsense theory.

It’s as though he was working as a missionary, approaching the common man with his crude suggestions of commonsense and that the belief in God will guide one to enlightenment. Berkeley seems to be ignorant to the world around him. With a Eurocentric Holistic perspective he sought out those who opposed him or questioned God. And as a member of the clergy it is undoubtedly safe to say that his view of the world was swayed in the interest of the church. Thus not reflective of someone the philosophical community would openly accept as representing truisms nor worthy of non-speculative minds. By attacking the learned or educated in his world he was openly inviting skepticism from the established minds within the world of philosophy. His out of nowhere thinking and drastic change in theoretical analogy was bound to have enemies.

Berkeley would go on to openly contradict himself in further writings, in letters to Percival and his dialogues that would later surface, creating even more questions about his thought process when writing his defense. He himself creates doubt about his true intent and how strongly he believes in his own defense. In closing it might be said that Bordner did a commendable job in his attempt to help the reader understand and grasp the concepts of Berkeley’s Defense of Commonsense.

But what he did not do and what many still fail to do is have a true understanding of intent. Berkeley was obviously an intelligent man, but ones whose interests were swayed by both religion and obvious personal gratitude. One may never know truly if he was a believer in his own theories or if they were mere propaganda, established to control the masses and to settle unrest. Nonetheless his theories and work were groundbreaking, well thought out, and persuasive. And to this day create intriguing discussions amongst both the educated and the vulgar alike.

Works Cited
Berkeley. (n.d.): Dialogues 2:182.
—. “Dialogues 2:229.” (n.d.).
—. “Introduction to the Principles, Works 2:25.” (n.d.).
Bordner. (n.d.): 322.
—. “”Berkeley’s ‘Defense’ of ‘Commonsense’.”.” Journal of the History of Philosophy (2011): 321.


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