The Master Argument


Berkeley’s New Model of Self-Consciousness.


A standard view in Berkeley’s time: All thought is conscious thought (i.e., in order to think, one must be conscious that one is thinking). This type of “reflexivity” was distinguished from the more explicit reflection involved in making mental activity an object of thought. In the first kind (Arnauld calls it ‘virtual’) one can think of anything at all (a horse, one’s mind, the number two); but insofar as one is conscious that one is thinking about a horse, etc. one is engaged in a kind of virtual reflection. In the second kind (Arnauld calls it ‘express’), one actually turns one’s attention to one’s mental activities and thinks about them in particular.


Now in the older model of self-consciousness (involved in virtual reflection), one is aware both of one’s thoughts (which are viewed as modes of thought, properties, mental states, mental acts) and oneself (one’s own being or existence) as the particular thing to which those thoughts belong. Thus self-consciousness has both a variable and a constant element.


According to me, however, Berkeley rejects the view that variable elements of consciousness are mental acts, states, or properties. Instead they are objects taken as distinct from oneself (i.e. “non-proprietary”). The result is an entirely new model of self-consciousness.


Example: In the older model, a sensation (say, of blue) is viewed as a mental act which belongs to oneself. For Berkeley, this sensation of blue is no longer viewed as an act which belongs to oneself. Instead, it is viewed as an object “distinct from oneself.” Because of this, consciousness of the blue itself does not augment one’s self-knowledge (i.e. one does not discover a mental act which belongs to oneself). Rather, one perceives an object which is distinct from oneself.


The difference is important because in the older model, perception of external objects involves the mediation of a mental state. Thus, when the objects I perceive change, there will be a corresponding change in mental state. In Berkeley’s view, by contrast, perception of “external” objects does NOT involve intrinsic changes in the mind perceiving. Rather, all changes are relational. While spirits perceive different objects, they themselves undergo no change. This is because the variable elements of consciousness (hitherto viewed as mental properties) are now viewed as objects in their own right.


These contrasting models of self-consciousness help to explain why Berkeley denies that spirits can be perceived. (Note: Aquinas, Descartes, and Locke all agree that one perceives one’s existence). Because awareness of these sensations (objects distinct from oneself) does not pertain to the self, one cannot say that one perceives oneself (or one’s being) in perceiving these other items.


In the older model, consciousness that one is thinking is entirely a form of self-consciousness. This is because one is conscious of one’s own being and also one’s various properties. In Berkeley’s model, by contrast, there are now two modes of awareness. First, one is aware of one’s own being (self-consciousness). Second, one is aware of variable items distinct from oneself (awareness of ‘external objects’). Thus the older Cartesian or Cogito Consciousness is split into two modes of awareness (one’s ideas, oneself).  


In the old view, to perceive blue is to be placed in a particular mental state (a state that is available to conscious awareness): The state of perceiving blue. In Berkeley's view, by contrast, to perceive blue is to be conscious of oneself and blue as distinct from oneself. In other words, he thinks that the immediate perception of objects (such as the immediate perception of blue) is nothing but consciousness itself. In other words, immediate perception is a form of consciousness where the objects of consciousness cannot exist "outside the mind."  



The Master Argument (Section 22-23).


Claim: You cannot conceive it possible for a sound, etc. to exist unperceived.


Case: I am imagine trees at a park and no one there to perceive them.


Response: But you are perceiving them all the while. It is necessary that you conceive them unconceived or unthought of.


Philonous then argues against Hylas.


(1)   One cannot see a thing which is unseen (true, in seeing a thing that thing ipso facto becomes seen).

(2)   So, too, one cannot conceive something which is unconceived (true, in conceiving of a thing that thing ipso facto becomes seen0..


Objection: The issue is not whether something is conceived when I conceive it. The issue is whether I must conceive it as conceived (existing in the mind) in order to conceive it at all.  While it is true that when I think of something, that something exists in my mind, it is not obvious why it should follow that this something must be conceived of AS existing in my mind.


In my view, the problem can be solved if we recognize that for Berkeley, perception is connected to consciousness. To immediately perceive (to be conscious of) anything at all, is to be conscious of oneself and the variable elements. In this way, the variable objects of consciousness can never be disconnected from the “I” (as revealed in consciousness). For in being conscious of one, one must be conscious of the other.


This means that whenever one conceives something, one must conceive that something as conceived: Any idea that one forms will always be accompanied by the "I". Thus, any idea will always be represented as perceived. Berkeley's challenge, then, is for us to form an idea which is not accompanied by an "I". This, according to Berkeley is impossible.


Objection: This seems to run in the face of the entire argument, which suggests that one CAN attend to the object without attending to oneself  ("the mind takes no notice of itself," Berkeley says). But if one can attend to one without the other, then it would it not be intelligible to say that one exists without the other?


Solution: Berkeley is talking about discursive selective attention (see the handout on Abstraction). The mind only thinks about the tree (i.e. only deploys words about the tree). The mind does not think about itself (i.e. does not employ words about itself). This does not mean, however, that the tree can be mentally conceived without a spirit.