Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Idealism and Phenomenalism - The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed
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1.: Idealism and Phenomenalism - H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed 
The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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Idealism and Phenomenalism
“‘Naïve realism,’” writes Lenin, is “the instinctive, unconscious materialist standpoint adopted by humanity, which regards the external world as existing independently of our minds.”1 He also says: “The ‘naïve realism’ of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum, or a pupil of the idealist philosophers, consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self, and of man in general. . . . Materialism deliberately makes the ‘naïve’ belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge.”2 From these sentences it is clear that Lenin believed it was important to say that a physical world exists independently of any single mind, and independently of all human minds.
To say these things, however, is to say what everyone (apart from a few Christian Scientists and perhaps some visionary philosophers) regards as obvious. Is it not quite certain that mountains, seas, and nebulae exist whether anyone is observing them or not? It is true, of course, that there are some material things, such as bridges and spoons, which owe many of their features to the men who made them. But surely they, no less than things which men have had no part in shaping, exist, once they are made, independently of their being perceived? Indeed, once this question is raised, the simple answer seems to be that what distinguishes perception from imagination or hallucination just is that what we perceive is something independent of our perceiving, whereas what we imagine or are deceived about somehow depends on some activity or defect within ourselves. We are thus inclined to say that unless the object perceived is something that exists independently of our perception, we are not really perceiving at all. Perceiving (which includes seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, or a combination of these) just is becoming aware of something independent of the perception.
This is taken for granted by the vast majority of people, but by Marxists and by other philosophers who hold a realist theory of perception it is proclaimed as an important truth. It is almost as though someone were to make a parade of enunciating some such platitude as that fishes live in water. It would only be worth while asserting this if someone had denied it, and the reason for asserting the realist platitude is that in modern times some men of obvious ability and seriousness have denied it, or have appeared to do so. The non-Marxist realists are mainly concerned to show that the denial of this platitude is an error. Marxists endeavor to show that its denial is not only mistaken as a matter of theory but is practically harmful too.
The circumstances in which the realist platitude came to be denied may be briefly described as follows. In the seventeenth century a number of writers, of whom Thomas Hobbes was the ablest and best known, inspired, in part, by the growth of mathematical physics, revived in a modified form the materialism which had been advocated in the ancient world by Democritus and the Epicureans. These ancient materialists had held that the physical things that to sight and touch appear solid and undivided are really composed of large numbers of ultimate, indivisible particles. In the heavier bodies the particles, which were called atoms, were closely packed together; in the lighter ones there was more empty space between them. They also held that souls were composed of similar but smaller atoms capable of slipping in between the larger atoms that composed living bodies. At death, both the atoms that formed the body and those that formed the soul became disarranged and at last dispersed, forming new bodies and new souls. These philosophers combined with their materialism a moral and psychological theory known as hedonism, according to which all living beings necessarily sought pleasure and avoided pain, the moral terms “good” and “bad” being therefore names for the pleasant and painful respectively. Thus, on their view morality consisted in the intelligent pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Materialists of the seventeenth century thought that this system of ideas, which in ancient times had been mainly a brilliant speculation, was supported by the mathematical physics of their own day. They believed that the behavior of things like rivers and billiard balls depended upon the nature and arrangement of the minute physical parts that composed them, so that an understanding of the larger scale things depended upon a knowledge of these material elements. As views such as these spread from scholars to the wider educated public, there were some who came to talk as though the sole realities were atoms and the space in which they moved, and everything else mere appearance or illusion. Heat was really a certain sort of agitation of particles, sound was really a movement of the air, and there was good authority for maintaining that even light was corpuscular in nature. Some of “the wits” of the time associated with this view about nature a cynical version of the morality of pleasure quite foreign to anything that Epicurus had taught, but nevertheless based on his views. Free-thinkers, atheists, and men of the world thus found a philosophy on which could be supported their denials of the existence of God, of the immortality of the soul, and of the freedom of the will.
It was in refutation of views of this sort, as well as in refutation of the skepticism that prepared the way for them, that Berkeley constructed his “idealist” philosophy. This may be seen in his Philosophical Commentaries, the notes and arguments he recorded in preparation for his first books. Entry number 824, for example, reads: “My Doctrine rightly understood all that Philosophy of Epicurus, Hobbs, Spinoza etc. wch has been a declared enemy of Religion Comes to ye Ground.” The sub-title of his Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge runs: “Wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the Sciences, with the grounds of Scepticism, Atheism and Irreligion, are inquired into.” That of the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous begins: “The design of which is plainly to demonstrate the reality and perfection of human knowledge, the incorporeal nature of the soul, and the immediate providence of a Deity.” His Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher, written later in life, enlarged the scope of the argument to take in the hedonism and egoism of Mandeville, the cynical author of the Fable of the Bees. Throughout Berkeley’s life it was “the modern free-thinkers” he had in mind, “the very same with those Cicero called minute philosophers;3 which name admirably suits them, they being a sort of sect which diminish all the most valuable things, the thoughts, views and hopes of men; all the knowledge, notions, and theories of the mind they reduce to sense; human nature they contract and degrade to the narrow low standard of animal life, and assign us only a small pittance of time instead of immortality. . . .”4 The master strokes in Berkeley’s idealist arguments were his denial of “material substance” and his assertion that the existence of the objects of sense experience was not distinct from their being perceived. The significance of this assertion may be seen from entry number 799 of the Philosophical Commentaries, which reads: “Opinion that existence was distinct from perception of Horrible Consequence it is the foundation of Hobb’s doctrine etc.” The arguments by which he hoped to establish idealism are complex and subtle, but for the purposes of our discussion of Marxism it must suffice to enumerate the following main contentions.
(i) It may well be, Berkeley argues, that whenever we feel something hot there is normally a rapid movement of material particles in the hot thing. If, however, we attend to our experience of heat it will be seen that it is quite a different sort of thing from the movement of invisible particles. In order to attach any meaning to the view that heat is a movement of invisible particles we must first have had experience both of visible things in motion and of sensible heat, i.e., of the heat we feel when we touch something hot. So also with the movements of air which come to be called physical sound, and the movements of corpuscles which Newton held to be the basis of our experience of colors. Berkeley thus distinguished between the temperatures, sounds, and colors which we directly experience, and any entities, such as invisible particles, not directly experienced that may be regarded as their basis. The former he called “sensible qualities” (today they are generally called “sense data”), and the alleged unexperienced basis of them—not the atoms or particles themselves, but the entities supposed to have the size, shape, and motion of the particles—he called “corporeal substance.” His first contention is that, so far from the former being illusory or doubtful by comparison with the latter, any knowledge we may have of the latter can only be by means of the former.
(ii) From what has been said it is clear that sense experiences cannot be dismissed as mere illusions whose reality is to be found in a hidden world of ultimate material substances. Having established that the existence of sense data is certain, Berkeley’s next task is to determine what sort of thing they are. On his view they depend on minds and are incapable of existing apart from them. His use of the word “idea” marks this dependence, although others before him had used the word in this way. His arguments for the view that ideas, i.e., sensible qualities or sense data, cannot exist, as he put it, “without the mind,” are difficult to summarize, but considerations such as the following weighed with him. Things existing independently of perceivers would have characteristics that did not vary with the position and condition of the perceiver. At any given time a liquid would have to have some definite temperature, a building some definite size and shape. In fact, however, a liquid may feel warm if the hand we plunge into it is cold, and cold if the hand we plunge into it is warm. Again, when, as we say, we look at a tall round tower on a distant hill, what we directly see is something small and flat. The same liquid cannot simultaneously be hot and cold, neither can the same tower be simultaneously big and small, round and flat. Berkeley showed, by a detailed analysis of each of our senses, that the nature of our sense experience varies with changes in ourselves. Perspectival distortions, mirror images, microscopes and telescopes, drugs and intoxicants, were all adduced by him to support the view that there is something in the very nature of sensible qualities that unfits them for existing apart from minds. (In recent years this interpretation of Berkeley’s meaning has been denied by eminent scholars, but there is no need for me to discuss this, since the interpretation I have given is that of most of Berkeley’s readers, and is that of his realist and materialist critics.)
(iii) It might be suggested, however, that sense data are mental existences caused in us by independently existing physical objects. If this were so, sense data, as the mental effects of physical causes, would be incapable of existing outside minds and so could be rightly called “ideas,” but would nevertheless presuppose non-mental existences that were not sense data. Berkeley considered that such a supposition was meaningless. He challenged his readers to make clear what such non-sensible things “without the mind” could be, and thus set them the task of describing something that had no color, hardness, shape, size, speed, etc., that is, he set them the task of describing the indescribable. A “corporeal substance” that had no sensible temperature, taste, color, hardness, or shape, could be neither large nor small, rapid nor slow. Any definite characteristics attributed to it could only be described in terms of one or more of the senses, and so in terms of something that cannot exist “without the mind.” In order to avoid such attributions recourse must be had to indefinite characteristics, and it then becomes necessary to talk of something or other that has no color, no shape, no size. This, Berkeley held, was to talk to no purpose. To attribute wholly indefinite characteristics to matter was to imply that matter was nothing at all. To say that matter has characteristics that belong to sense data is to say that matter has characteristics that cannot exist “without the mind,” and this is to deny that there is any matter at all.
(iv) Berkeley also argued that the notion of something existing independently of mind was a contradictory notion. For, in order to conceive of something existing independently of mind, we must conceive of it, and this, he considered, was the same thing as to conceive of something that is not conceived of, and that is contradictory.
(v) The four preceding contentions make up what is sometimes referred to as Berkeley’s “immaterialism,” i.e., his denial of the existence of matter. But although Berkeley denied the existence of matter, he was not so foolish as to deny that such concrete things existed as stars, stones, animals, and fruit. These, he held, were not inaccessible nothings behind the scenes, but were the very things we saw, touched, smelled, and tasted. A cherry, for example, was not some recondite whirl of featureless atoms, but something round and red that is seen and tasted. It is not, of course, revealed in any single view, or touch, or taste; we are only entitled to say there is a cherry when we know there is a whole series of such sense data to be expected. To say there is a cherry on the tree in the garden is to say that someone who goes into the garden will see certain colored shapes and will be able to enjoy certain tastes and smells. The cherry just is the whole group (Berkeley called it a “congeries”) of sense data that we say belong to it. And in general terms the view is that material things are certain classes or series of sense data.
(vi) We have so far considered Berkeley’s theory of “ideas,” but minds we have only mentioned as those things on which “ideas” depend, as those things that “ideas” must be in, since they cannot exist “without” them. It was his view that each of us has direct knowledge of mind in the experience he has of himself. Such experience is quite different from the experience we have of “ideas,” in that “ideas” are passive objects whereas mind is experienced as active subject. Apart from minds and their “ideas” there is nothing else, according to Berkeley, that we can conceive of.
(vii) Nevertheless we cannot possibly deny that a world exists independent of human minds, and that parts of it continue to exist when no human minds are conscious of it. There are, for example, things buried in the earth or carried in the stars which no human being has ever been aware of. Berkeley believed that once it has been established that nothing can conceivably exist except minds and “ideas,” it follows that the parts of nature that are not “ideas” in the minds of human beings or of other finite creatures must be “ideas” in the mind of an Infinite Being. In this way, he held, the existence of God could be proved in a way not hitherto thought of. He held further that, since the only conception we have of activity is the conception we have of a mind’s acts of will, and since there can be no cause without activity, “ideas,” not being minds but merely depending on them, cannot be causes at all. What is not caused by the acts of will of finite minds can, therefore, only be caused by God’s activity. Hence, the regularities of nature are the regularities of God’s acts of will, so that as we extend our knowledge of nature we gain an indirect knowledge of the Divine decrees. According to Berkeley, therefore, just as we gain a knowledge of other men’s minds from what we see of their behavior, so we gain a knowledge of God from our exploration of the natural world. Hence the experimental sciences do not undermine religion, but continually vindicate and enrich it.
We may now summarize this summary as follows. According to Berkeley, (i) there is a class of directly perceived passive entities which we may call sense data. (ii) Sense data would not exist unless minds existed, but (iii) cannot depend for their existence on non-sensible beings independent of minds since no conception of such “corporeal substances” can possibly be formed. (iv) The conception of “corporeal substance,” indeed, is self-contradictory. (v) Nevertheless, such things as stars, stones, and cherries do exist, but are not “corporeal substances,” but groups of sense data. (vi) Minds are known to exist by the direct knowledge we have of our own. (vii) The system of nature distinct from human minds is a system of “ideas” willed by God.
Now Berkeley developed these views in criticism of men who, priding themselves on accepting nothing as true which experience did not guarantee, regarded matter as the sole reality and mind and sense experience as somehow illusory. Berkeley agreed that the appeal should be to experience, but thought he could show that whereas the views of materialists went beyond what experience could justify, a resolute refusal to go beyond it leads to the conclusion that matter does not exist, and that minds, both human and divine, do. For matter, as distinct from what is seen, felt, heard, etc., is a meaningless conception, whereas we know our own minds directly, and gain a knowledge of God by analogy. Thus Berkeley held that a resolute attachment to experience leads, not to materialism and atheism, but to immaterialism and theism. He has thus been regarded as a founder of the philosophical movement known as idealism.
Many subsequent philosophers, however, have distinguished between Berkeley’s policy of refusing to go beyond what experience can justify, and the idealistic and theistic conclusions he thought resulted from it. They have distinguished, that is, between his attempted justification of Christian theism, and his careful analysis of experience. The latter, they have said, was the cleverest attempt hitherto made to show precisely what we refer to in experience when we talk about “things,” “perception of things,” “illusions,” “mere imaginations,” “causes,” “general ideas,” and the like. The former, however, they think does not fit in very well with the latter, if indeed it is compatible with it at all. Thus they distinguish between the empiricism in Berkeley’s philosophy, that is, the aspect of it that is an attempt to base all knowledge on experience, and the theism in it, and this latter they ignore or reject.
The essence of his empiricism is that no conceptions or principles of explanation are to be admitted which refer beyond experience to something that could not be experienced. In so far as matter is something distinct from any sense datum or group of sense data, and distinct also from the minds on which they depend, it is something that could not be experienced, and therefore, according to Berkeley, nothing at all. Nevertheless, things such as stars, stones, and trees certainly exist, but they are not distinct from sense data but are rather groups of them. Any meaning that words such as “atom,” “force,” and “infinitesimal” may have must be in terms of the sense data we experience rather than in terms of matter lying beyond them. According to Berkeley, therefore, the knowledge gained in the natural sciences is a knowledge of how sense data or groups of sense data accompany one another or are signs of one another. This view of the nature of science according to which there is no matter beyond sense data, and according to which natural science is a knowledge of the regular associations and sequences of sense data, is today called phenomenalism. We may say that phenomenalism is the working out of the implications of propositions (i), (iii), and (v) above, although some phenomenalists may accept propositions (ii) and (iv) as well. Most phenomenalists would reject proposition (vi), since they would hold that, just as physical things are groups of sense data, so minds are another sort of group of sense data with which are connected feelings, feelings being a different sort of experience from sense data. All phenomenalists would reject proposition (vii), since they would hold that “God” does not stand for anything that could be experienced. If “matter” is meaningless if understood to stand for some unexperienced basis of experience, then, for the same reasons, “God” is meaningless if used to stand for some different unexperienced basis of experience. Phenomenalists have sometimes said that their view is consistent empiricism.
Perhaps the best known statement of phenomenalism is that contained in J. S. Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, where the existence of matter is not denied but where Berkeley’s view is upheld by defining matter as “a Permanent Possibility of Sensation.”5 On this view, to say that a physical object, say a chair, exists even when no one is observing it, is to say that in such and such circumstances, for example, by entering the room and turning on the light, it can be observed. So long as it remains possible to observe it, so long the physical thing may be said to exist. In effect, the phenomenalist defines matter as the “congeries of ideas” that Berkeley substituted for the materialists’ “material substance.” Phenomenalism is regarded as the necessary outcome of the intellectual policy of refusing to go beyond what experience guarantees. If phenomenalism is true, then the task of science is to explore the regularities of actual and possible experiences and feelings. We might say that when God and active mind are subtracted from Berkeley’s philosophy the result is phenomenalism.
[1. ]Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. English translation in V. I. Lenin: Selected Works, vol. 11, p. 127 (London, 1939).
[2. ]Ibid., pp. 135–36.
[3. ]Cicero uses minutus pejoratively to mean “petty,” and applies the epithet to philosophers who deny the immortality of the soul.
[4. ]Alciphron, First Dialogue. 10.
[5. ]Fifth edition (1878), p. 233.