Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > 'Drawing the Curtain of Words': A Strict Interpretation of Berkeley's Philosophy of Language and Its Consequences

Berkeley is commonly interpreted as having thought that sensible objects have a continuous existence when unperceived by finite minds; that this continuity is constituted by God's constant perception; that sensible objects are collections of ideas perceived at many different times by many different minds; and that, despite all appearances, this is all consonant with what commonsense says. I argue that all of these interpretive claims are false, and that we have not yet come to grips with the bulk of Berkeley's actual metaphysical views. The key to uncovering Berkeley's actual views is to understand his account of language. I defend a novel interpretation of Berkeley's philosophy of language and then apply this account to dissolve some familiar problems related to his metaphysics. Berkeley has a pluralistic view about the ends of language, but he also thinks that significant philosophical statements must express coherent ideas. That is, Berkeley holds a hybrid ideational theory of language. In part, this means that Berkeley's epistemology is fundamental. For the ideas one's words stand for are Berkeleian ideas; particular, determinate (i.e., not abstract), private, mind-dependent, sensory ideas. This has implications for how we understand a number of Berkeleian views: that we immediately perceive sensible objects; that sensible objects are collections of ideas; that sensible objects, though mind-dependent, exist continuously even when no finite mind perceives them. I argue that Berkeley held a radically nominalist account of sensible objects; Berkeleian sensible objects are just the particular ideas picked out by a name-token. The principal roadblock to a nominalist interpretation of Berkeley's philosophy is the worry that it conflicts with claims that his system is consistent with, and even more, a defense of commonsense. I show that Berkeley's defense of commonsense is misunderstood; he is not defending commonly believed propositions, but fending off what he sees as the dangerous philosophy of materialism which he considers a threat to the normal credulity and faithfulness of the vulgar, for whom the perceived world is the real world. Berkeley's radical nominalism is therefore integral to this project since it eliminates any gap between what is and what is perceived.