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Berkeley on Abstraction DANIEL E. FLAGE ALTHOUGH A SIGNIFICANT amount of literature has been devoted to Berkeley's critique of abstraction, ~there are three aspects of his discussion that have not received the attention they deserve. First, it is not generally recognized that Berkeley developed three distinct lines of criticism of the doctrine of abstract ideas in Sections lO through x3 of the Principles of Human Knowledge. Secondly , many commentators have failed to acknowledge that the most plausible construals of Berkeley's criticisms do not require that abstract ideas be construed as mental images? Finally, in at least two of his three criticisms of the doctrine of abstraction, Berkeley's arguments show that, given their own philosophical principles, the several proponents of the doctrine of abstract ideas could not consistently claim that it is possible to form abstract ideas. ' See George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction , Section 6, in The Works of GeorgeBerkeley, Bishop ofCloyne, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E.Jessop, 9 vols. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1948--1957), 2: 27" Further references to Berkeley's writings will be made parenthetically within the text of this paper in accordance with the following set of abbreviations: Intro., x = Introduction to the Principles, Section x. PHK, x = Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I, Section x. DHP, X,y = Three Dialogues betweenHylas and Philonous, Dialogue X, page y in volume 2 of the Works. NTV, x = An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, Section x. A, X,y = Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher, dialogue X, page y in volume 3 of the Works. Works, x:y = The Works of GeorgeBerkeley, Volume x, page y P.C., x = Philosophical Commentaries, entry x. S, x = Siris, Section x. 9 Many commentators have suggested that Berkeley's criticisms of abstract ideas rest upon the presumption that abstract ideas are mental images. See Frederick Copleston, A Histo~ of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image Books, 1946--1974), vol. 5, pt. 9, U3;Jo . Urmson, Berheley, Past Masters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), ,8; J. L. Mackie, Problems from Locke, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), a15; J. F. Thomson, "Berkeley," in A Cr/~a/ History of Western Philosophy, ed. D.J. O'Connor (New York: Free Press, 1964), 251; G. D. Hicks, Berkebry(New York: Russell and Russell, 1968), 89-90; George Pitcher, Berkebry,The Arguments of the Philosophers (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), 70; and E.J. Craig, "Berkeley on Abstract Ideas," Ph//osoph/ca/Rev/ew 77 0968): 4~5-37- [483] 484 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~4:4 OCTOBER 1986 The paper will be divided into five parts. Assuming that Berkeley's objective was to provide a general critique of theories of abstraction, 3 in the first part I shall show that the principles "agreed on all hands" that Berkeley sets forth in Section 7 of the Introduction were accepted by abstractionists of diverse traditions. In the second part, I shall show show that one of the arguments Berkeley advances in Section lo of the Introduction demonstrates that, on their own principles, the abstractionists were committed to the proposition that abstraction, i.e., the conceiving of unexemplified qualities or sets of qualities, is impossible. In the third part, I shall show that in Sections l I and 12 Berkeley argued that the positing ol~abstract ideas to provide the meanings of general words violates the principle of parsimony. In part four I shall show that insofar as abstract ideas are compounded of inconsistent qualifies, they cannot claim so much as "existence in the mind" (cf. Intro., 6). Finally, in part five I shall show that Berkeley's criticisms of the doctrine of abstraction is independent of a construal of abstract ideas as mental images. If my account is correct, Berkeley's criticisms of abstraction are not limited to Locke's account of abstraction and are more sophisticated than many commentators have recognized. l, Berkeley begins his discussion of abstraction by outlining the claims of the abstractionists. In Section 7 of the Introduction, he lists the principles that were "agreed on all hands," and we shall see that these principles play a...


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