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Idealism o

Idealism o

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Philosophical Review
Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley MissedAuthor(s): M. F. BurnyeatSource:
The Philosophical Review,
Vol. 91, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 3-40Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical ReviewStable URL:
Accessed: 29/10/2009 19:38
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The PhilosophicalReview,XCI, No.1January 1982)
IDEALISMAND GREEKPHILOSOPHY:WHAT DESCARTESSAW ANDBERKELEY MISSED*M. F. Burnyeat
It
sastandingtemptationforphilosopherstofindanticipationsoftheirownviews in thegreatthinkers of the past,but fewhavebeen so boldinthe searchfor precursors,and soutterly mis-taken, as BerkeleywhenheclaimedPlatoand Aristotle as alliesto his immaterialist idealism.In
Sirns:
AChainofPhilosophicalReflexionsndInquiriesConcerninghe VirtuesfTar-Water,whichBerkeleypublishedin his old agein 1744,he reviewsthe leadingphilosophies of antiquityandfindsthemonthe whole a gooddealmoresympathetictohisownideasthanthe "modernatheism,"as he calls it, of Hobbesand Spinoza (? 354)ortheobjectionableprinciplesof"the mechanic and geometricalphilosophers"suchasNewton(?? 250,271).But hisstrongestand,Ithink,his mostinterestingclaimis that neitherPlatonor Aristotleadmitted"anabsolute actual existence ofsensible orcorporeal things"
(?
311).
This claim is interestingnotbecause thereis anytruthinit,butpreciselybecauseit isso faroffthemark thatthequestionarises what madeitpossibleforBerkeleytoreadPlatoandAris-totlethroughthedistortinglens of his ownphilosophy.ThatBerkeley misreadcertaintexts is plain enough. ButinexplainingthisIshallbeaimingatlargerquestionsabout thewholeclimateofthoughtwhichencouragedor allowedtheanachronisticmis-reading.For it wasnot duetoalack of scholarship orknowledge.Berkeleywas extremelywell versedinGreekphilosophy,-andSinsdisplaysan enviable commandofa widerangeof theoriginaltexts.Ishall argue, however,that none ofthose textsdisplaystheleaningstowards idealismwhichBerkeley thoughthesawinthem.Idealism,whetherwemeanbythatBerkeley'sown doc-trine that esseestpercipiora more vaguelyconceivedthesis totheeffect thateverythingisinsome substantialsense mentalorspiritual,is one of theveryfew major philosophicalpositions
*
Thispaper(minus thebulk of SectionIV) was deliveredas a lectureto theRoyalInstitute of Philosophyin 1978,to be publishedin Idealism:Past andPresent,Vol. 13of RoyalInstitute ofPhilosophy Lectures,ed. G.Vesey.
 
M.F.BURNYEAT
which did notreceive its firstformulationinantiquity.' Thishistorical factitself is interesting, if I canestablish it, and onemay suspect thatthehistory of thenonexistence of idealism inantiquitywill beconnected with the history ofwhat happenedlater to helpBerkeley get it so wrong. There isthus a double taleto tell: itshouldteach us something aboutidealism and, moregenerally, aboutthe relations between ancientand modern phi-losophy.Ibegin,then,with the text that Berkeleyhad most especiallyinmind whenmaking his claim that neitherPlato nor Aristotleadmitted "anabsoluteactual existence ofsensible or corporealthings":In theTheaetetuse are told that if anyonesaith a thing is, or ismade,hemustwithal say,forwhat, or of what,orinrespect of what,itis,orismade; for,thatanything should exist initself or absolutelyis absurd.Agreeably towhichdoctrine it is also farther affirmed byPlato that itis impossible a thing should besweet and sweet tonobody.
[Siris
? 311]Therefollow somequalms and qualifications aboutattributingthesameview toAristotle,butwhenall issaidand doneAristotleemergeswithmuchthe sameposition asBerkeleyascribestoPlato onthestrengthoftheTheaetetus.Solet uspauseto seewhatthatpositionissupposedtobe."It isimpossibleathing shouldbesweet and sweet tonobody":thatpropositioniscertainlytobefoundinthe Theaetetus(160b,quoted below),alongwithmuchelsethatwould becongenialtoBerkeley'staste.In thefirstpartofthedialogueatheoryiselaboratedaccordingtowhichnothingexists outsidethepartic-ularperceptualencounterin whichitappearstosense.Ifsome-thing is sweet,notonlymustit be sweet for someonetowhomit
1
Iowethisobservation,andseveralpointspertinentto it,toBernardWil-liams'brilliantsurvey,"TheLegacyof GreekPhilosophy,"inTheLegacyofGreece:New Appraisal,ed.M. I.Finley(Oxford:Clarendon Press,1981).
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