Mary Shepard's Criticism of Berkeley

Primary Texts:

Ed. Atherton, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Hackett 1994. ISBN: 0872202593 (p. 147-159)

Suggested Courses:

History of Modern Philosophy


Shepherd argues against Berkeley that our ideas of sensible things are “algebraic signs” giving evidence to their causes (matter).

Discussion Questions (with answers):

1. Shepherd claims that Berkeley’s definition of sensible things (like an apple) is missing a component (150). What is that component?

An idea (resulting from reason) of “an outward object” that causes the ideas; or “a continually existing outward and independent set of as various and appropriate causes”; in short, the mind-independent thing that causes the sensible qualities (ideas)

2. Berkeley gives the following argument:

1. Objects are the things we perceive by sense.

2. We perceive only ideas.

3. Therefore, objects are only ideas.

Shepherd accuses him of equivocation (using ‘perception’ in two different ways). What are the two different meanings of ‘perception’ according to her? (151-153)

First sense: the perception of ideas, or “the notice the mind takes of the presence of certain qualities”, might be understood as having sense-data, having ideas, “the mental consciousness of those qualities”; a kind of direct perception

Second sense: the perception of objects (by reason), the consciousness of the “outward objects” which must have acted upon the sense organs (since we have the consciousness of the fact that the sense organs were used); the perception of the cause of the sense-data; a kind of indirect perception

Third (possible) sense: the perception of objects by the sense organs (a mechanical process). I don’t think she counts this as perception, since it’s not done by a mind.

3. She also accuses him of begging the question in premise 1 (153). How does B define ‘object’? How does S?

He’s begging the question because of the way he defines object. He’s ruling out by using the word object and defining it as he does the possibility of a mind-independent thing.

B defines object as a collection of sensible qualities.

S defines object as the collection of sensible qualities, plus a set of qualities exterior to the mind which continue to exist unperceived, or “a continually existing outward and independent set of as various and appropriate causes” (150) (a compound idea of the cause and the effect)

4. How, according to Shepherd, do we come to know about external objects? (150-151, 154-155)

We reason that there is must be an external cause for some of our ideas. Basically, we infer that there must be a cause which excites our ideas that are given to us when we use our senses (we have consciousness of using our senses). Reason also perceives that the external objects are “in one respect like the ideas they create, i.e., in the same proportions and bearings to each other, outwardly as they are inwardly” (154). We know them as the cause of known effects (156).

5. One of the arguments Berkeley gives against matter is that we have no idea of it (take all the sensible qualities away from an object, and you’re left with nothing). But Shepherd counters on p. 155 that we can have something like a “notion” of matter--similar to the way we can come to know about other minds, we can come to know about matter. How might Berkeley reply? Who do you think “wins” this argument”?

Berkeley would surely reply with his “master argument”: what differs between our notion of other minds and God and the supposed notion of matter is that the first ideas are coherent, the second not.

6. Objection: Shepherd just shows that we know our sensations must be caused by something other than us. According to B, this must be a spirit, and not matter. How does Shepherd reply? (157-159)

First, she argues that we can’t know about spirits according to B, since we can only know about ideas. (155, 158)

Second, she argues that we can’t know of spirit any more than matter (158).

She also appeals to the mind-body problem (that matter can’t act on mind and vice-versa) as positive reason to think that it must be matter that acts on the (material) senses.

Author Information:

Liz Goodnick (Metropolitan State University of Denver)