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THE LITERAL INTENT OF BERKELEY'S DIALOGUES by Richard T. Lambert Km. wheeler's "Berkeley's Ironic Method in the Three Dialogues" is a pro- . vocative assault on the traditional understanding of George Berkeley and his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. x Wheeler argues that this work was an ironic rejection of metaphysics and diat Berkeley actually maintained a proto-Kantian "transcendental idealism" which satisfied itself with phenomena alone. Rather than expressing a preconceived doctrine, the Dialogues invited the reader to engage actively in the conversation and to regard Philonous himself not as Berkeley's mouthpiece but as a fallible and inconsistent participant, an interlocutor whose gross logical errors and unfair attitude a sympathetic reader would hardly wish to share or to impute to Berkeley himself. According to Wheeler, the objectionable practices in the Dialogues are threefold: (1) Philonous keeps a double standard; he uses arguments in the Second and Third Dialogues which he correctly criticises Hylas for using but defends in his own case. (2) There are constant examples of reason overstepping its proper bounds in both Hylas's and Philonous's arguments and thus engaging in the metaphysical flights to which Kant objected. (3) Hylas and Philonous both exhibit a constant failure to clarify and define the terms used at crucial points in the arguments (pp. 20-21). Wheeler claims that Berkeley intentionally designed these mistakes into the Dialogues in order to illustrate the futility of extreme positions, including both Hylas's materialism and Philonous's immaterialism . Wheeler's hypothesis is not in blatant contradiction with the text of the Dialogues; the work's architectonic and any particular claim in it may be read ironically. Despite this, however, and despite her interesting insights into suspicious practices, Wheeler must be judged wrong. Her interpolation of Kantian intentions into the Berkeleian texts and her ascription of any mistakes to a conscious strategy beg die question. Historical and literary context prove Philosophy and Literature Vol. 6 Nos. 1 and 2 Pp. 165-171 0190-0031/82/0061-0165 © 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 166PHILOSOPHY AND LITERATURE that the work's immaterialism must be read literally. In addition, most of Wheeler's specific accusations against Philonous's integrity and consistency can be answered. 1.Wheeler's interpretation would be a very serious challenge to the traditional understanding of Berkeley if independent and substantive evidence were offered for her reading. Unfortunately, her study presents none. Any evidence which is genuinely independent of the thesis to be proved is quite incidental and may easily be explained on odier grounds; and evidence which appears substantive actually counts as evidence only if one argues circularly by accepting the claim in question. Among the supposed independent evidence are the points that (a) Berkeley was influenced by Plato, a master ironist (p. 18); (b) Berkeley employed irony in the Sm (p. 32); (c) the names of the Dialogues's two antagonists identify them as holding competing metaphysical dieories (p. 21); and (d) die First Dialogue proposes the Kantian position that no ultimate material cause of experience is to be sought (p. 31). Points (a) and (b), however, need not imply an ironic purpose or architectonic in the Dialogues; their irony could be only a limited rhetorical device within a predominantly serious program. The names "Philonous" and "Hylas" do, as stated in (c), categorize the two principals as fundamentally opposed; but they could be opposed as holding right and wrong metaphysical positions. Point (d) finds one similarity between Berkeley and Kant, but diis hardly establishes a pattern of attitudes shared by them. When Wheeler tries to link Berkeley and Kant more closely, she quite obviously begs the question. The Dialogues may have contained "metaphysical flights to which Kant objected" (p. 20), but to presume that diese "flights" also repelled Berkeley is to beg the entire question of die relationship between the two philosophers. Furthermore, Wheeler's identification of Berkeley as an "active" idealist and her presumption that all idealists must subscribe to the mind's "active role in the construction of experience" (p. 20) are, at best, controversial; she provides no textual evidence for the activity of ideas in Berkeley and can respond to the considerable...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 165-171
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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