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K. M. Wheeler BERKELEY'S IRONIC METHOD IN THE THREE DIALOGUES The technique of irony in philosophical texts has rarely been recognized as a critical element for understanding the work or the philosophical position of an author, yet it remains certain that it is often present. Plato's dialogues provide the most obvious example where the use of irony and metaphor is inextricably bound up with the surface sense. Considering Plato's position at the head of a long tradition of philosophizing, it does not seem improper to wonder whether composition by means of radically ironic gestures, along with the use of metaphor as the paradigmatic expression of knowledge, might not crop up again and again throughout philosophy, and particularly in a philosopher such as Berkeley, who shows a strong Platonic influence. It will be argued here that the Three Dialogues are an instance of an ironic method which demonstrates the limits of two extreme and solipsistic positions and obliquely suggests that philosophy and reason are forever overstepping their legitimate bounds, entangling themselves in disputes "better left to the theologian" or to faith. Within the dialogues, there is a subtle, ironic level of meaning operating simultaneously with the more conventional literal level. As a first step in adopting a more consciously ironic posture toward the Dialogues, the reader should abandon the notion that Philonous is the mouthpiece of Berkeley's philosophy. Instead, the dialogue as awhole must be seen as representative of Berkeley's thought. In allowing for this broader interpretation, the reader allows for the possibility that Berkeley was exposing the weaknesses of two extreme positions and suggesting his own posture to be a transcendent third, implied by the inadequacies in the two opposing schemes of materialism and subjective idealism. Strictly speaking, there are only two major alternatives to these two positions: dualism, which is not a real alternative since it only denies the possibility of explaining the interaction of two apparently qualitatively distinct aspects of experience, and tran18 K. M. Wheeler19 scendental idealism (whether Kantian or Platonic is in this context not important). There is no genuine question as to which Berkeley would have represented, unless we want to believe, as Humejokingly suggested, that he was a sceptic. Moreover, if the following case for interpreting Berkeley as detached from both Philonous and Hylas is coherent, we will be able to understand how Berkeley influenced Kant more profoundly than is generally thought. I Berkeley adopts a deeply Socratic method. He approaches the reader as Socrates approached the young men of Athens: rather than imposing a transcendental idealism upon them which they could not fully understand in their initial state of inexperience and ignorance, he engages his readers in a genuinely productive dialogue and gives them a genuinely dramatic role. A reader must dispute actively with both Hylas and Philonous; he may not merely read passively, expecting Philonous to "supply" him with the truth. Nor should Hylas be seen as an artificial sounding board set up to establish some dogmatic and static position. Berkeley's own position is the outcome of a three-way dialogue in which the reader is called upon to expose for himself the extremes of both dogmas. The reader can only then discover Berkeley's higher level of consciousness in an act of dialectical thought. There is no "short cut" to active intellectual self-experiencing, such as being told directly the results of the author's labor. All essentially valid communication of ideas and of relations is necessarily indirect if knowledge is understood to be active relational apprehension. Hence Berkeley may superficially appear to adopt one extreme, but does so only in order to construct an ironic situation. The moment the reader discovers the irony of Berkeley's apparent espousal of Philonous's position and the "pseudo" nature of Philonous as the "author-ity," the reader achieves a new perspective upon both the philosophy of the actual author, Berkeley, and his commitment to a method of indirect communication of knowledge. Thus we see Berkeley embracing the two-fold nature of a synthetic philosophy of empiricism and Platonism which unites knowledge as experience with the mind as essentially active and creative, not passive, in the construction of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 18-32
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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