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Against Abstraction: The Radical Empiricism of Berkeley and Hume
One of the defining forces in our culture and philosophy for the last 300 years has been the empiricist idea that the standard and worth of ideas lies in how they “face the tribunal of experience.” Especially in the English speaking world, nearly every philosophy has evolved in reaction to this suggestion, which is usually attributed to Francis Bacon and John Locke. Yet by the mid 18th Century, not so far after Locke’s death, empiricism as a philosophical faith was achieving a radicalism of spirit corresponding to the rapidly splintering radicalism of English Protestantism. In the two figures of Hume and Berkeley, a new principle was developing out of the Lockean philosophy and at the same time was being driven to its logical extreme. This principle became, in the form of either a challenge or an inspiration, one of the dominant themes of all subsequent philosophy. What is this Principle? It is very well articulated by Hume, when he says that all abstract and general ideas are “copies” of sensory experiences. Therefore every idea, must be carefully examined in order to trace the experiences which it copies and then the idea is completely understood and clarified. If you list the experiences behind the idea, then you have all the content that the idea has, all of its “meaning”. Often in this process of examining the experiential content, the idea will be stripped of various “metaphysical” components and brought down to earth. We will thereby be enlightened about how we were misled by the metaphysical trappings of our language. It is hard to overstate the influence of this idea. When Charles Peirce coined pragmatism as the doctrine that the meaning of any idea is its conceivable effects on conduct, he was largely putting a new turn on the copy picture. When the positivists said the meaning of an idea is it’s verification, they were putting their own, perhaps more scientifically oriented spin on it. And when the analytic philosophy arose out of a feeling that most philosophical problems can be resolved through examination of language, it was largely a mixture of a post kantian and a materialist spin upon this same idea. In short, there has been very little english speaking philosophy of the last 300 years that hasn’t been haunted by this picture. At first this principle, despite it’s controversial qualities, appealed to common sense, and seemed a powerful weapon against prejudice and pretension. But in the hands of Berkeley and Hume, it seems to undermine the most basic notions that we have about ourselves. In Hume’s hands the principle is used in such a fashion that the ideas of causality, personal identity, and even perhaps learning from experience itself are called into question, and found peculiar and unstable, if not rejected. To the remarkable mind of Berkeley, an empiricist analysis of the concept of a world of physical objects shows that this guiding light of the scientific age is actually an entirely incoherent abstraction. Having driven empiricism to it's most radical use, Hume and Berkeley left a puzzle and a challenge for all future philosophers concerned with the role of experience in knowledge. For this meetup I propose we get together to discuss this radical empiricism of Berkeley and Hume, it’s sources,motivations and its legacy. We will be particularly concerned with their shared belief that general and abstract ideas are at most copies of sensory experiences, and the way that they use this notion to discredit many abstract ideas as lacking a clear meaning. We will be examining some key excerpts from Hume’s Inquiry into Human Understanding and Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge. We will deal, primarily with Hume’s examination of causality and personal identity and Berkeley’s criticism of abstract ideas themselves, (with special reference to their application to physical objects) Links to the readings can be found here https://sites.google.com/site/philosophymeetuptexts/empiricism-meetup

Good Karma Cafe

928 Pine St · Philadelphia

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What we're about

This is a group for people who create and consume philosophy. Members will have the opportunity to read and discuss each others' work, as well as texts from pre-established philosophers. Each meeting will be partially structured, with chosen topics/texts from a rotating member; and partially un-structured, with free-form discussion.

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