- The Other Bishop Berkeley: An Exercise in Reenchantment
This new book on Berkeley attempts to add a new perspective on Berkeley's continuing importance. In this review, I will comment only on the author's main intention "to do justice to the historical truth, as far as this is possible, by pointing to the existence of another Berkeley, one in general unaccounted for by the mainstream analytic scholarship" (3). The author does not deny that scholars are aware of many of the historical elements contributing to Berkeley's philosophy. But they tend to emphasize things which support our present-day readings of Berkeley. The author, by contrast, aims to locate the rich panoply of historical sources which, he believes, lie behind Berkeley's thought, and which influence his thinking in ways not always appreciated.
Much of the book focuses on Berkeley's use of the metaphor of the divine language with which God communicates to us. This is a notoriously difficult concept, as the author himself admits: "In order for a sign to signify it has to make use of something that is not a sign itself: which is problematic when, as in Berkeley's philosophy, everything is a sign. It is true that, by saying that the world is God's speech, Berkeley reduces to a minimum the need for a material support of the sign" (85). (In connection with signs, the author cites David Berman, George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996], though debate over the problem of the status of signs is already discussed by the Stoics and the Skeptics, for which see Benson Mates, Stoic Logic [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961].)
The author pays close attention to Siris because it is generally given short shrift by contemporary philosophers. "Alchemy was not about 'making gold' anymore, but about making people feel 'saved,' or at least spiritually elevated" (99), and certainly Berkeley's quest in Siris for a universal medical panacea (tarwater) seems to fit that picture.
Not surprisingly, the author writes with care about Bermuda. He emphasizes the importance of its being an island, but ignores the fact that commentators have often also noted that Ireland is an island, and all the mysteries associated with islands are said to pertain to it.
The author devotes much energy to exploring the ancient Gnostics and the medieval Cathars. His point is to look at Berkeley's immaterialism from the standpoint of the Cathars. The classical and ancient dualism of spirit and matter finds echoes in Berkeley's concern with matter as evil: "The acceptance of matter is for Berkeley at the root of all evil. For example, the ultimate sources of idolatry are to be found in the fact that we take the visible things for material, which is thus not only an error in theoretical terms, but also a serious religious offence" (188).
There is, the author writes, "something definitely new about my book. Its novelty comes, I suggest, from its program to consider the whole of Berkeley's philosophy in relation to the past; from its plan to look at George Berkeley systematically from the perspective of his various intellectual ancestors" (4).
The author pulls together a wide range of historical material seldom cited in modern Berkeley studies. Admittedly, scholars have generally explored Siris and its range of somewhat esoteric sources, but it is not clear to me how the author delimits his range of historical sources. There are a number of philosophers and topics mentioned in Berkeley's Philosophical Commentaries, as well as in his other writings, that are not discussed, so there are many more "ancestors" than those the author cites. On the other hand, in all fairness, he makes no claim to completeness, but wishes only to underscore the fact that we should look backwards and not just forwards if we hope to ever come to grips with Berkeley.
In short, this book is rich in ideas on how to interpret Berkeley in a non-analytic fashion. It will be of use...