Devin Henry  


It is clear from the Principles and the Dialogues that Berkeley’s use of the term "perceive" often runs perception and imagination (or thinking) together. 2   Yet, by running these two distinct operations of the mind together, Berkeley seems to be guilty of what I will call the ‘directional error’ of perception. When I hit something, the ‘direction’ flows from me to the target of my action. However, when something hits me, the direction flows to me from the source of that action; I am the target of its hitting. There is a clear difference between these two situations: in the first situation I am acting, but in the second I am acted upon. To make the directional error of perception, then, is to characterise perceiving in the first way as if it had a "target". The main area where we tend to make this error is in visual perception, an error which appears to stem from our casual ways of talking about seeing. For instance, the expression "staring at a picture" gives rise to the false impression that vision is active, that the picture is the "target" of the stare. However, it is the picture, not the perceiver, that is active here. The picture acts on the perceiver, and the perceiver is acted upon by the picture. 3  

The question this paper is intended to answer is, ‘Can the existence of ideas of sense be reconciled with the nature of God within the context of Berkeley’s philosophy?’ The way Berkeley characterises the immediate perception of ideas of sense (how we first come to be furnished with ideas) entails that the mind is passive: ideas of sense are those which are "actually imprinted on the senses" (PR 1). Thus, the question we need to address is, ‘In what sense is the mind passive?’ The main thesis of this paper holds that the existence of ideas of sense is incompatible with God’s nature within Berkeley’s philosophy, and it is based on the assumption that for Berkeley, perception is the passive reception of ideas of sense. However, because there are obvious textual discrepancies between the notebooks on the one hand, and the Principles and Dialogues on the other, we must allow for two possible interpretations of "passive": passive qua inactive and passive qua receptive. Pursuing the consequences of both these interpretations will take up the majority of this paper. However, I will begin by taking a brief look at an historical example of the ‘directional error’ before turning to Berkeley’s own theory of perception.

Aristotle on Poêtikon and Pathêtikon

According to Aristotle’s metaphysics, causality is a form of interaction between agents and patients. The fundamental principle driving this idea is that of reciprocal action and passion: causal events are not simply cases in which agents force their effects on inactive objects, but events in which one acts (poiein) and the other suffers that action (paschein). However, while some of Aristotle’s predecessors recognised an active capacity in the agent in virtue of which it produced certain effects, it was Aristotle who first insisted that the patient itself had a corresponding passive capacity that allowed it to be affected: "For one kind [of potentiality] is a potentiality for being acted on, i.e. the principle in the patient itself, which makes it capable of being changed and acted on by another thing or by itself qua other" (Metaphysics IX.1). For Aristotle, the power to act (poêtikon) and the power to suffer action (pathêtikon) are two distinct capacities. More importantly, the world of causality is not made up of agents forcibly imposing their effects on any object whatsoever. Causal exchanges between agents and patients require the reciprocal activation of corresponding powers. What this means is that (1) each participant activates the other’s power, so not only does the agent affect the patient but, in a very important sense, the patient affects the agent, and (2) the agent is only capable of bringing about changes in a suitable patient (e.g. fire can ignite gasoline but not rock because the former has, while the latter lacks, the suitable passive capacity—gasoline is flammable).

One of the areas where this new innovation became most useful was in perceptual theory. For Aristotle, perception is a causal event and thus a form of reciprocal action. Sensible objects were said to have an active capacity for effecting alterations in suitable (perceptual) patients. The innovation here was to argue that the effect a sensible object has on a percipient was simply to activate the patient’s senses. 4   However, for Aristotle, a "sense" is just a certain capacity to be affected, a passive power that gives an organ the ability to receive (dektikon) the form of an object without having to change its matter (DA 424a15-25). For example, the property of transparency gives the eye-jelly the capacity to become cherry-red without having to become a cherry in order to do so (a process which, at least in part, constitutes visual perception). What is crucial here is that a sense-organ’s passive reception of its proper object is not characterised by simple "passivity" (inaction). The patient (the eye) is truly doing something, it is actually taking on (lambanein) colour, and so in an important sense, the patient is in fact active (although it does not act on anything). Thus, for Aristotle, since every perceptual event is an episode of causality involving the mutual activation of suitable powers under conditions of reciprocal action and passion, this meant that sensible objects could not simply force themselves on just anything. It is in virtue of having the right passive capacities—"senses" or powers of receptivity—that animals alone are capable of perceiving the world.

Aristotle’s innovation is significant here for a number of reasons. First, he corrected the directional error of perception made by his predecessors by rejecting their naïve extromissionistic theories in which perceptual rays issued outward from the perceiver’s senses to meet their object somewhere outside the body. Perception, Aristotle said, must be understood intromissionistically, where the direction of perception flows to the perceiver from the thing perceived. Second, Aristotle was the first to recognise that because the direction of perception flowed from the perceived to the perceiver (that sensible objects act on perceivers, and not vice versa), the perceiver must be endowed with a suitable passive faculty which made it capable of receiving or suffering that action. Thus, Aristotle recognised that a sense must be a power or faculty of receptivity. Finally, Aristotle’s innovation is significant because it offers an effective example of a theory in which the words "perceive" and "senses" are not merely empty terms. For Aristotle, "perceive" is simply shorthand for the activity of "receiving the form of a sensible object without having to take on its matter" and a "sense" is just the power that enables an organ to do this (DA II.12; cf. Phys. 244b7-245a2).

Passive Perception in Berkeley Theory of Mind

My concern in this paper, however, is with Berkeley; specifically, I am concerned with the perception of ideas of sense—those "ideas actually imprinted on the senses" by God (PR 1). More specifically, I am concerned with the process behind Berkeley’s casually used expression "perceived by sense". The scope of my study is will focus primarily on the Principles (hereafter, PR), the Dialogues (hereafter, Dial.) and Berkeley’s notebooks, the Philosophical Commentaries (hereafter, PC). The starting point of my argument is the claim that the fact that we have ideas of sense entails that the mind is passive in the perception of them, i.e. insofar as it has ideas "actually imprinted" on it. Of course, there is nothing innovative about this claim in itself. Robert Muehlmann has recognised this fact:

In Berkeley’s ontology God exists as the cause of all our ideas of sense (all of the sensible qualities of all five sense modalities in which we perceive those qualities) while we finite minds are the cause of our much less vivid ideas of imagination. In themselves, the God-caused ideas are momentary, inefficacious sensible quality instances: fleeting particularized determinates of determinables. They are presented uniquely to our finite minds which are capable of at first passively and then actively, imaginatively, perceiving them (Muehlmann, R. 1992, 222; emphasis mine).

Tom Lennon also recognises that the mind is passive with respect to those ideas it perceives by sense: "the mind is passive with respect to [perceiving]. It is God who is active"; "the mind is active only in volition; in everything else, the mind is passive" (Lennon, T. forthcoming). We can divide Berkeley’s use of "perceiving" into two distinct operations: thinking or imagining on the one hand, and sensing on the other (the immediate perception of ideas of sense). 5   Now if imagining (or thinking) is the activity whereby the mind "produces or otherwise operates" on its ideas (PR 27), then what, exactly, does "passively perceiving" ideas of sense mean? Clearly it cannot refer to the production of those ideas, since the claim that we are not responsible for their production is critical to Berkeley’s argument for the existence of God (PR 29). Ideas of sense, unlike thoughts and ideas of imagination, are in no way the products of finite volitions. What I will attempt to show in the course of this paper is that unless "perceiving" an idea of sense means passively "receiving" it (in the way that the wax receives the imprint of the signet-ring) the term itself becomes empty. And if "perceive" is empty, then to say that the existence of ideas of sense consists in their "being perceived" will also be empty.

Berkeley uses the word "passive" in the Principles in connection with extramental entities. 6   For example, at PR 25 he says that "our ideas, sensations, or the things which we perceive… are visibly inactive" (PR 25). In this context Berkeley is clearly speaking of the passivity of ideas, saying that "there is nothing of power or agency included in them". Thus, extramental entities are passive in the sense that "one idea or object of thought cannot produce, or make any alteration in another" (PR 25; cf. PR 19). As such, when Berkeley says extramental entities are "passive" what he means is that they lack an active (productive) capacity. But what about the immediate perception of ideas of sense, in what sense is the mind passive in the perception of those ideas? In other words, what does it mean to say that for Berkeley, finite minds are capable of "passively perceiving" ideas of sense? Given the above distinction, there are two possible interpretations. On one interpretation, passively perceiving ideas refers to the mind’s passivity. 7  Thus, to say that the mind is passive while ideas are being imprinted on it is to say that the mind is inactive, that it simply does nothing. On the other interpretation, the one I am arguing for, being capable of passively perceiving ideas refers to the mind’s capacity to receive them. On this reading the mind is endowed with a second (passive) faculty that allows the various ideas of sense to be imprinted on it in the way that malleability allows the wax block to receive the seal of the signet-ring (a capacity that the concrete block lacks).

Now there is an obvious discrepancy between the Principles/Dialogues account of perception and the notebooks’ account which offers support for both interpretations of "passive". On the one hand, there is evidence in the former to suggest the "passivity" interpretation according to which the mind is inactive while sensing ideas. First, there is the simple fact that Berkeley’s analysis of spirits in the Principles does not mention any passive principle for receiving ideas. Second, the word "passive" appears in the Principles six times (PR 25, 27, 69, 70, 139, and 141), each of which exclusively refers to the lack of a productive faculty (what I will call the "doctrine of passivity" which is explicitly stated at PR 25). Third, Berkeley’s account of spirits at PR 27 (which is not atypical) explicitly states that the mind is "one simple, undivided, active being". Thus, if we take the analysis of spirits at PR 27 as Berkeley’s canonical account of minds, then the mind, being simple and undivided, has only an active faculty; it is "that which acts". When we turn to the Dialogues we find explicit evidence suggesting that Berkeley accepts the first interpretation of "passive" (i.e. that by "passive" Berkeley means "inactive"). In the first dialogue, Hylas draws the distinction between the act (the perceiving) and the object (the thing perceived) and argues that only the former is mind-dependent. Philonous blocks this move by asserting the passivity of the mind during perception, that perceiving sensible qualities is inactive in the sense that there is no volition involved outside of the drawing in of air through the nose or the opening of the eyes (196): "Since therefore you are in the very perception of light and colours altogether passive, what is become of that action you were speaking?" Here, then, Philonous (Berkeley) advances the passivity interpretation in order to prevent Hylas from making the act-object distinction. Thus, unlike the six reference to the passivity of perception in the Principles, it is the mind that is characterised as being inactive in the Dialogues.

On the other hand, we find two explicit entries in the Commentaries in favour of the second interpretation. At PC 301 Berkeley states:

Whatsoever has any of our ideas in it must perceive, it being that very having, that passive reception of ideas that denominates the mind perceiving. that being the very essence of perception, or wherein perception consists. (emphasis mine).

Berkeley repeats this same idea again PC 378, saying that "the bare passive reception or having of ideas is [properly] call’d perception". Thus, it appears that a young Berkeley was at least sensitive to the fact that the mind, when engaged in the immediate perception of ideas of sense, is receptive and not simply inactive.

The Dilemma

The major argument of this paper holds that the passive nature of perception draws Berkeley into an inescapable two-horn dilemma, that no matter which interpretation of "passive" is employed, the fact that we perceive ideas of sense at all leads to one of two consequences. On the first interpretation, to say that the mind is inactive while sensing ideas effectively undermines Berkeley’s argument against the possibility of ideational knowledge of the mind. 8   On the second interpretation, to say that the mind has a passive (receptive) faculty not only conflicts with Berkeley’s canonical doctrine of spirits at PR 27, but it entails a relationship of mutual dependence between God and finite minds that is incompatible with God’s nature. As we shall see, it is the second horn of this dilemma that proves fatal to Berkeley’s realism, for if the essi of an idea is percipi, then since God cannot have a passive faculty for receiving those ideas (He is impassive, Dial. 2/214), there can be no Deity-sustained ideas at all. 9   Thus, the mere fact that we have ideas of sense means that at best Berkeley loses his argument against ideational knowledge of the mind, and at worst he cannot secure the existence of an "objective" (Deity-sustained) world without compromising his idealism (and his immaterialism).

The First-Horn: Passive qua Inactive

The consequence of the first interpretation of "passive perception" is that it calls into question Berkeley’s argument at PR 27 that we cannot have an idea of our mind (emphasis mine): "for all ideas whatever, being passive and inert, vide Sect. 25, they cannot represent unto us, by way of image or likeness, that which acts". Muehlmann effectively summarises this argument by saying that for Berkeley, "our awareness of spirit is not ideational—that, being an agent, a spirit cannot be represented by something which is passive, such as an idea" (173). The problem for Berkeley is reconciling this conclusion with the mind’s role in the immediate perception of ideas of sense. If the mind is active when sensing ideas, if it plays the role of agent, then God cannot be said to participate in the process at all, since they cannot both be the agent. However, given the conclusion of Berkeley’s argument for the existence of God (that God is the agent), the mind must be the patient. Thus, the mind is sometimes passive (cf. PC 706, CBJ.IV.3).

On the first interpretation of "passive", finite spirits are inactive while perceiving (they do nothing). This, as we have seen, is exactly what Philonous contends in the first dialogue when Hylas tries to draw the act-object distinction. However, if the mind is "altogether inactive" while it perceives ideas of sense, then the premise that "being an agent, a spirit cannot be represented by something which is passive, such as an idea" does not entail the conclusion that we cannot have any idea of our mind whatsoever. For insofar as it is inactive while God imprints ideas on it, a finite mind could be represented by an idea. Thus, the consequence of accepting the first interpretation of "passive" is that while the mind cannot be represented by an idea in its active role (insofar as it is thinking or imagining ideas), the fact that it is passive during an episode of sensing effectively blocks Berkeley’s attempt to draw the conclusion that we cannot form any idea of a finite spirit whatsoever. The premise that something passive cannot represent something active does not warrant this move, for insofar as it perceives ideas of sense, the mind’s existence consists in being passive. If being "passive" means being "inactive", then as it stands Berkeley’s argument is invalid.

It is clear that in order to save his position on the epistemological status of minds, Berkeley must reject the first interpretation in favour of the second and argue that the passive participation of finite spirits in perception (their receptivity) is not the same as the passivity of its ideas. Thus, by insisting that the passive reception of ideas is an activity, Berkeley is able to save his argument against the possibility of having ideational knowledge of the mind. While the reception of the Divine imprint does not make the mind an agent, it is, in a very important sense, a form of activity (the passive form of what Aristotle called energeia). Here, the perceptual interaction between the Divine agent and the finite patient involves both parties actively participating in the exchange. Ideas of sense, then, can be seen as the joint product of an activity in which both the Divine agent and the finite patient do something. Thus, on the second interpretation, finite spirits are not reduced to inert beings; they actively participate in sensing insofar as they are exercising their receptive powers in conjunction with the agency of God’s infinite will. As such, the conclusion that an idea, which is "visibly inactive", cannot represent anything active (where being "active" is extended to the reception of ideas) is warranted.

The first-horn of the dilemma thus yields the following conclusion. Given that the mind is passive in its perception of ideas of sense, it appears that the only way for Berkeley to secure his position on the epistemological status of spirits is to accept the second interpretation of "passive". As such, we can take PC 301/378 as the canonical definition of "perception" insofar as the mind engages in what I have called "sensing" (the immediate perception of ideas of sense). When we combine the account of sensing from PC 301/378 with that of imagining from PR 27/28, it becomes clear that spirits cannot be "simple, undivided, active" beings. Rather, a spirit must be a mental substance that has both a passive as well as an active faculty (cf. CBJ.IV.3). While it is the "making and unmaking of ideas [that] doth very properly denominate the mind active" (PR 28, Dial. 3/233), it is the "bare reception" of them that denominates it passive (PC 301, 378). What this means is that if ‘to be’ is ‘to be perceived’, then the essi of ideas of sense must consists in their accipi (‘being received’). In the final section of this paper I will explore the second-horn of Berkeley’s dilemma. What we will see is that the second interpretation of "passive" leads to an even more damaging consequence than the one it was just used to avoid.

The Second-Horn: Passive qua Receptive

Berkeley’s idealism is the thesis that the existence of ideas consists in their being perceived, their essi is percipi. This thesis can be seen as consisting of two independent claims (PR 3): (1) "neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind"; and (2) "the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the senses, however blended or combined together (that is whatever objects they compose) cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them". From there Berkeley concludes that it is impossible that these ideas "should have any existence, out of the minds of thinking things which perceive them". The first claim (1) is easily justified by pointing to the passivity of ideas and material bodies, that "there is nothing of power or agency included in them" and thus they cannot produce ideas (PR 25; cf. PR 19). Thus, since only spirits or minds are thinking things, clearly the various items enumerated in (1) cannot exist in any unthinking thing. But Berkeley also says that (2) is "no less evident", since sensible qualities—those things we perceive by sense—cannot exist in any unperceiving thing. However, the justification for (2) cannot be the same as the justification for (1), for the lack of any power or agency to produce ideas does not prohibit things from having ideas imprinted on them.

My argument is this. In order to secure the second leg of his idealism (that ideas of sense cannot exist except in a mind perceiving them) Berkeley must accept what I will call "the doctrine of the receptivity of minds" (DRM) which can be seen as the counterpart to the doctrine of passivity introduced earlier. The doctrine of passivity, we have seen, is the thesis that extramental entities lack an active power to produce ideas (e.g. PR 19, 25). Alternatively, DRM would be the thesis that minds alone have a passive power to receive ideas. Stated negatively, DRM holds that ideas and material bodies also lack a suitable passive power that would allow them to have ideas imprinted on them. Thus, despite the desirability of surrendering his position on the epistemological status of spirits that follows from the first interpretation of "passive" (desirable in light of the consequences that await him if he accepts the second), it is clear that Berkeley must appeal to something like DRM in order to secure his idealism.

Berkeley needs to accept DRM because as he himself recognises, the possession of an active (productive) principle is not a necessary condition for perceiving ideas, and so the mere passivity of a thing does not eliminate the possibility that it might perceive. At PC 301 and 378 Berkeley allows that whatever has any ideas in it, "tho it be never so passive, tho it exert no manner of act about it", must be said to perceive. This is the criterion for (perceptual) inherence. Thus, unless DRM is an implicit premise in Berkeley’s idealism, since the lack of any active power to produce ideas is not sufficient grounds for labelling ideas and material bodies as "unperceiving things", the claim that "the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the senses… cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them" is unjustified. Since Berkeley is clear that it is the "bare reception" of ideas of sense that counts as perceiving, not the active production of them, it is equally possible that, while being an unthinking thing, some extramental entity should be a perceiving thing. And with that possibility Berkeley’s idealism is destroyed. In the remainder of this paper I will argue that the demand for a justification of (2) that would disqualify extramental entities from having ideas imprinted on them (i.e. from being able to perceive ideas) forces the second interpretation of "passive perception" on Berkeley.

We can begin by asking a simple question: If "[w]hatever has in it an idea" qualifies as a perceiving thing (PC 378; cf. 301), then how do ideas of sense get "in" something to begin with? The obvious answer seems to be, ‘By being perceived by the senses.’ Thus, for example, the colour of a tulip is supported by being perceived by the eye (by being seen), its smell by being perceived by the nose (by being smelled), and so forth. On the face of it, this innocent question does not seem threatening. But we can push the matter further and ask, ‘Why, then, can’t ideas of sense exist in extramental entities?’ ‘Why must they only exist in the mind?’ ‘What, in other words, qualifies something as a "perceiving thing"?’ The obvious answer is that perceiving requires senses. The problem, though, is with the signification of the word "senses". If the mind is volitional in nature, if it is "one, simple, undivided, active being" or "that which acts", then the term "senses" lacks any real signification within Berkeley’s explicit ontology. Thus, as it stands, the Berkeleyean Man of PR 27 has no senses! So, if sensing requires senses, and if the essi of those ideas perceived by sense is percipi (or rather, accipi), then idealism is confined to ideas of imagination, for the Berkeleyean Man cannot perceive "ideas that come from without".

To see the potential embarrassment of this consequence one need only consider the many places where Berkeley appeals to the so-called senses to justify his idealism. If the term "senses" is without signification (it being repugnant to suppose that the "senses" refer to any active principle, since it is inconceivable that anything could be "actually imprinted" on a volition), then at many critical junctures it appears as though Berkeley is guilty of specious reasoning. Let us look at one example from the Dialogues. In the third dialogue, Philonous contends that "I know what I mean, when I affirm that there is a spiritual substance or support of ideas, that is, that a spirit knows and perceives ideas" (3/234). It is reasonable to assume that minds "support" ideas of sense by perceiving them (cf. PR 49), and we know from PR 1 that these ideas are perceived by being "actually imprinted on the senses". But what that means is unclear. Still, Philonous continues, "I do not know what is meant, when it is said, that an unperceiving substance hath inherent in it and supports either ideas or the archetypes of ideas". In other words, Berkeley finds it inconceivable that an idea could exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, that is, otherwise than by being imprinted on the senses. My point is that while the "senses" seem to do all the ontological work in supporting Berkeley’s idealism (since it is not very difficult to show the mind-dependence of our ideas of imagination), their ontological status is questionable. Unless a sense is a passive power to receive ideas (DRM), Berkeley cannot simply point to a lack of senses as the reason for denying extramental entities the status of "perceiver".

To see this, consider the claim Philonous makes just before the passage cited above from the third dialogue:

How often I must repeat, that I know or am conscious of my own being; and that I myself am not my ideas, but somewhat else, a thinking active principle that perceives, knows, wills, and operates about ideas. I know that I, one and the same self, perceive both colours and sounds: that a colour cannot perceive a sound, nor a sound a colour: that I am therefore one individual principle, distinct from colour and sound (3/233). (emphasis mine).

The problem with this claim almost jumps right off the page: If to "perceive" means to "passively receive" (in accordance with PC 301/378, the only explicit description of perception Berkeley gives), then it is less than obvious why "a colour cannot perceive a sound, nor a sound a colour". Clearly it is not because colours, sounds, and other ideas of sense are passive (inactive), since "[w]hatever has an idea in it, tho it be never so passive, tho it exert no manner of act about it" must be said to perceive (PC 378).

Thus, Berkeley is forced to accept some version of DRM because an appeal to the passivity of extramental entities alone—the thesis that the "furniture of the world", whether taken as ideas or material bodies, lacks an active power to produce ideas—is not sufficient to eliminate the possibility that God could, if He so desired, imprint ideas on things other than finite minds. In other words, without appealing to a passive faculty distinct from the will by which minds alone are capable of having ideas imprinted on them (be it the senses or the understanding), it is equally possible that some extramental entity should have ideas "in" it—a possibility that would cripple Berkeley’s metaphysics. Consequently, unless DRM is an implicit premise in Berkeley idealism (specifically, unless it is the reason why "a colour cannot perceive a sound, nor a sound a colour"), there is no justification for the claim that "the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the senses, however blended or combined together (that is whatever objects they compose) cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them" (PR 3).

Yet, while Berkeley’s idealism demands that he accept DRM, the consequences of doing so are much more severe than simply conceding that perception is inactive. If the ability to perceive (receive) ideas of sense requires a passive faculty, if "the very essence of perception" is the "bare passive reception or having of ideas", then unless God has a passive faculty for receiving (perceiving) ideas as well, there can be no Deity-sustained sensible world. That God should be receptive of ideas, however, is incompatible with His nature since it would imply a form of susceptibility, an ability to suffer action. God is supposed to be an "impassive, indivisible, pure, active being" (Dial. 2/214), and what is impassivity except the inability to be acted upon. Yet, if God is impassive, if He has no passive (receptive) principle, then ideas of sense can only exist when finite minds perceive them—it is on them alone that sensible qualities are capable of being "actually imprinted". This strikes a fatal blow to Berkeley’s realism, for it undermines the thesis that the sensible world has an existence exterior to finite minds, that "during the interval of their being perceived by us", the furniture of the world exist in, i.e. is perceived by, God (Dial. 3/230; cf. 2/212). The thesis that the sensible world has a Deity-sustained existence that consists in its being perceived (i.e. passively received) by God is a manifest contradiction.

Consequently, it appears that our initial question—Can the existence of ideas of sense be reconciled with the nature of God within the context of Berkeley’s philosophy?—yields a negative answer, if by "perceive" Berkeley means the bare reception of ideas (PC 301/378). Berkeley needs ideas of sense to prove God’s existence, yet, these very ideas turn out to be ontologically dependent on the joint operation of God’s active faculty and a finite mind’s passive faculty: their existence not only depends on God’s will, but on finite minds as well. Thus, in this respect the relation between finite minds and God is one of mutual dependence, which is incompatible with His nature.

In sum, in order for ideas of sense to exist, they must be perceived (or be capable of being perceived), which, on interpretation two, means "received": their essi is accipi. While the doctrine of the passivity of ideas (PR 25) implies that the ability to produce ideas of imagination requires an active faculty, the doctrine of the receptivity of minds (which Berkeley must accept to secure his idealism) equally implies that the ability to receive ideas of sense requires a suitable passive faculty (DRM). Without DRM, extramental entities might equally be said to have ideas "in" them (if God so chose to imprint ideas on them) and Berkeley’s idealism would collapse. Yet, by insisting that ideas of sense can only exist in things that have a suitable receptive faculty which allows ideas to be imprinted on them (i.e. perceiving things must have "senses"), Berkeley commits himself to a philosophical system in which tables, chairs, trees, and in a word, the entire sensible world, could only exist when perceived (received) by finite minds. Therefore, since God is an "impassive, indivisible, pure, active being", He cannot be said to have any passive capacity in virtue of which He might suffer action (which entails that He can only imprint ideas on finite minds). Thus, since finite minds depend on God for their ideas of sense, and since the existence of those ideas depends on their being received by finite minds, the fact that we even have such ideas makes the relation between us and God one of mutual dependence—He can only produce them when we are around to receive them—which Berkeley’s theological commitments would never allow.

Summary Conclusions

The main purpose of this paper has been to examine whether or not the existence of ideas of sense could be reconciled with the existence of God within Berkeley’s metaphysics. The results of my analysis have yielded a negative answer. The overall thesis of this paper holds that, despite Berkeley’s insistence at PR 27 to the contrary, it is clear that the fact that we have ideas of sense and that God is the agent who imprints them on our (so-called) senses entails that the mind must be endowed with a passive faculty which is responsible for their reception (i.e. minds must be receptive of God’s divine imprinting). I began my argument by entertaining two possible interpretations of "passively perceiving" ideas: the "reception" of them (PC 301/378), and the "passivity" interpretation Berkeley assigns to extramental items (ideas and the materialists’ external bodies, PR 19, 25) and Philonous employs in the first dialogue (196) to prevent Hylas from drawing the act-object distinction. If Berkeley accepts the latter, if finite minds are inactive in the perception of ideas of sense, then his argument against ideational knowledge of minds is invalid and his position on their epistemological status is compromised. Ideas can represent passivity, and it is passivity that characterises the mind in its sensing role. Thus, while we can have no idea of the will, we could have an idea of the understanding, the mind’s passive identity. On the other hand, if "passively perceiving" is taken in the sense described at PC 307 and 378, then Berkeley’s realism is compromised: there can be no (Deity-sustained) objective world since God is utterly impassive (Dial. 2/214). On this interpretation, the existence of the sensible world entails a relationship of mutual dependence between God (agent) and finite minds (patient), a relationship that Berkeley’s theological vision could never permit.


1.  Although he would disagree with some of the ideas developed in this paper, I would like to thank Robert Muehlmann for the lively discussions we had about Berkeley and for his valuable comments on an earlier draft. I would also like to thank Tom Lennon for the conversation we had on this subject (who I am sure would agree with my characterisation of perception) and for the papers he gave me to read on Berkeley and Descartes.

2. Since thinking for Berkeley is imagistic (see Principles 28), thinking and imagining (or imaging) need not be distinguished here. Thus, for the purpose of this paper I will use the two terms interchangeably to refer to the production of ideas of imagination (as oppose to the perception of ideas of sense, cf. Principles 1).

3.  As an important preliminary note, I will use the verbal noun "perception" for the most part to refer to the process of perceiving (as "imagination" is to "imagining") and not the noun referring to the thing perceived. Thus, I am not drawing the act-object distinction here. For Berkeley, the so-called object of perception (the thing perceived) is God's imprinting activities, not the idea he imprints.

4. While this may sound like Lockean secondary powers, Aristotelian sensible qualities are most certainly not. Colours, for example, are not mere powers objects have to produce a subjective experience of colour in perceivers; colours have that power (and objects have colour, and so indirectly have that power). What I see is a coloured surface, and it is in virtue of being actually (objectively) coloured that the surface is capable of making my eye-jelly (which is potentially coloured) actually coloured. Thus, while Locke held that colour is a power to produce ideas in perceivers, Aristotle held that colour has that power. In a word, the colour I see is a Lockean subjective effect but an Aristotelian objective cause. See Gaston, T. 1997.

5. To avoid confusion, I will employ the term "sensing" in this paper to refer exclusively to that moment in the perception of ideas of sense when they are "actually imprinted on the senses" by God (how we first come to be furnished with ideas).

6. By "extramental entity" I mean a non-spirit (i.e. entities that are neither finite spirits nor God), which would include both ideas and the materialists' "external bodies".

7.  For the remainder of this paper, the term "passivity" will be used exclusively to imply passive qua inactive (in line with PR 25).

8. The term "ideational knowledge" is borrowed from Muehlmann (109). The claim Berkeley is making here is that we are not aware of our own minds through the direct awareness of an idea (as Locke proposed). As I discuss further below, Berkeley's reason is that ideas are passive qua inactive, and so they cannot represent anything active. Thus, since (supposedly) the mind is wholly active (it is "that which acts", PR 27), we cannot acquire knowledge of the mind through the direct awareness of an idea representing it.

9. Following Muehlmann, I will divide Berkeley's philosophy into three parts: his idealism (the positive thesis that the existence of ideas consists in their being perceived by some mind or other, that their essi is percipi); his immaterialism (the negative thesis there are no material substrata in which sensible qualities inhere), and his realism (the positive thesis that there is an "objective", mind-independent sensible world: ideas of sense do exist independently of finite minds; when they are not perceived by finite minds, sensible objects exist as bundles of "Deity-sustained" ideas, i.e. they are perceived by God).


Gaston, Todd Stuart. "What’s Wrong with the Aristotelian Theory of Sensible Qualities?" Phronesis. Vol. XLII/3 (1997).

Lennon, Tom. "Berkeley and the act-object distinction" (forthcoming in Dialogue).

Muehlmann, Robert. Berkeley’s Ontology. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

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Devin Henry is a doctoral candidate at King's College London in Ancient Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind.

Mail to: Devin Henry

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