Freschi on the principle of charity

Posted on ..

I came across this lovely quote re-reading a piece by Elisa Freschi on Mimamsa philosophy:

"The probability that a theory is preposterous and naive is lower than the probability that we do not fully understand it."

Words to live by.

Elio Fois on 21 June 2019

I don't really agree with the

I don't really agree with the quote. I think it's very likely that I fully understand Berkeley's theories and that they are absolute rubbish. The quote may be right when a text is obscure, but otherwise one may be confident in one's own judgement.
By the way, do you know that today is giraffe's day?

In reply to by Elio Fois

Peter Adamson on 21 June 2019

Yes, happy World Giraffe Day!

Yes, happy World Giraffe Day!

I think you are right that one needs to reserve the right to criticize and disagree with any philosopher or text, provided of course that one has fully understood it. But I think your example is a well chosen one: I am not an idealist either so I disagree with Berkeley, but I wouldn't ever dream of saying that his ideas are "absolute rubbish" because they are well thought through, appeal to genuine intuitions and principles that at least had some purchase at the time and arguably still do, and also are just remarkable for marking out a position against which to measure others (like, once you have Berkeley, you can say "that sort of argument would lead to a position like Berkeley's," which is a useful insight whether or not you think that heading in that direction would be a good idea). So in short we need to distinguish between dismissing philosophical views as an  absurd, silly waste of time - which is what Freschi is cautioning against - and rejecting them on good grounds of our own.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Elio Fois on 22 June 2019

Actually I said that it's

Actually I said that it's very likely that Berkeley's ideas are absolute rubbish, but in practice I am pretty sure that they are, and I think that he shouldn't have a place in the history of philosophy, because for me philosophical ideas should be 1) almost certainly true, 2) useful, or 3) at least stimulating, and Berkeley's ideas are not so. For a start, they fail the test of Ockham's razor, since they postulate an absurdly complicated system in which God instills all ideas into man's mind, instead of simply accepting the existence of an external world. Besides I don't think they are "well thought through", but rather Berkeley seems to have chosen carefully his arguments and counter-arguments to support his convictions. For instance, when arguing against the reality of hot and cold he only considers our perception of temperature, and ignores the effects of temperature on external reality irrespective of our senses - a thermometer will always read 0° C when water freezes and 100° C when it boils, no matter how we feel the temperature. As regards his "appealing to genuine intuitions", I don't know what exactly you allude to; if you are referring to the consideration that ultimately all we know about the world is inside our mind, because we obviously can't experience the world "from inside", but only perceive it as external to us, that is reasonable and justified; however, Berkeley thinks that the world is actually only in our minds, a position which is highly unlikely, unprovable, and generally preposterous.

In reply to by Elio Fois

Peter Adamson on 23 June 2019

Well sadly I am not much of a

Well sadly I am not much of a Berkeley scholar so I am probably not the right person to defend him. But I guess a defense would go like this: as an empiricist he holds that our access to reality is through the senses alone (this is one of the plausible intutions I have him referring to). Also (another plausible intuition) we do in fact have access to reality: if it was an open question whether our sensation even gets hold of things the way they are, then pervasive skepticism is looming. Thus, to be is to be perceived. I fear your thermometer objection would give him no trouble at all: you have to perceive the thermometer too, of course, so it is just one more thing we perceive as interacting with the rest of the perceptible world, i.e. the only world there is.

If this is roughly the line of thought you can see that Berkeley is throwing down a fundamental challenge: either give up on empiricism, embrace skepticism, or be an idealist like him. I agree the last option looks unappealing but so do the first two. You could even argue that this line of thought is among the most central in the history of modern philosophy, since Berkeley has put his finger exactly on the problem with Humean empiricism and allows us to understand why, for instance, Kant would have thought it made sense to go for transcendental idealism. Hence it is one of the best examples of your third category ("stimulating") since like, evs.

Incidentally we can I think take a lesson from this, which is that often (maybe even usually) the interest of a given philosopher or text is not actually in the conclusions that are reached. Conclusions might strike you as plausible, silly, whatever, but fundamentally that is not where the philosophy is happening. The interesting part is in seeing how the conclusion was reached, what avenues were ruled out or overlooked, what intuitions were used to motivate the argument, etc.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Elio Fois on 24 June 2019

I agree that "the interesting

I agree that "the interesting part is in seeing how the conclusion was reached", and that is why, though being an atheist, I can still read Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, although I'll probably give up when I reach the part where he describes the qualities of angels and demons. I find it stimulating and instructive to follow the way his sharp mind argues to reach his conclusions, which of course are confined within the limits of Christian dogma. But I think his mind was more comprehensive and subtle than Berkeley's. If Berkeley responded to the thermometer objection as you said, he would confirm even more that his system of thought falls within the scope of the "unfalsifiable theories" that Popper has identified, i.e. those in which an initial assumption is treated as if it was already proven and so any objection is explained away as falling under that initial assumption, with the result that no fact or argument can refute the theory. Whereas the goal of a thinker should be to go "from the known to the unknown".

In reply to by Elio Fois

Peter Adamson on 25 June 2019

Like I said I am no big

Like I said I am no big Berkeley exegete and I am not about to try to persuade you he was as good a philosopher as Aquinas. But I think that the unfalsifiability objection is also not right. If you look again at my reconstruction of his argument, it's clear that it is open to refutation, for instance by showing that there are more options than the three Berkeley allows (this is precisely Kant's answer), by showing that his argument makes false inferences, makes unwarranted assumptions, etc. But of course it can't be refuted by begging the question against him, which is effectively what your thermometer objection did - because you were smuggling in the assumption that there are perception independent phenomena, which is precisely what he denies. This is just like Johnson famously kicking the stone and saying "I refute him thus," which is no refutation at all of course, because to disagree is not to refute. If you want to beat him you have to show where his argument went wrong, not just say that the conclusion strikes you as absurd.

All of this is not to say that you have, like, a responsibility to devote your hours to figuring out exactly what Berkeley was up to, since life is short and you might well want to read and think about philosophers whose views you find more useful or plausible. I'm just saying that when you do read a given philosopher, the principle of charity we started with is almost always (actually, I'd say always) a good guide. Throwing up your hands and saying "this dude is just talking nonsense" is never the right reaction. (Plus, it is such a boring reaction! The conversation we've just had is so much more interesting.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Elio Fois on 26 June 2019

Is there any problem in the

Is there any problem in the website? I've been trying to post a reply several times and it doesn't seem to work.

In reply to by Elio Fois

Peter Adamson on 27 June 2019

Well, this worked anyway! I

Well, this worked anyway! I have to "approve" comments before they appear publicly because we get a lot of spam ones, but I haven't seen anything of yours since my last reply. Please do try again!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Elio Fois on 27 June 2019

I tried again, but I guess it

I tried again, but I guess it didn't work, because the "preview" function didn't work. Possibly it's because I wrote the reply in an external editor and then pasted the text. Since I don't want to type it all over again, could I send you the reply by email?

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.