A Guy Walks Into A Bar…
What Color Are His Eyes?
George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning The Principles Of Human Knowledge
IX. And as the Mind frames to it self abstract Ideas of Qualities or Modes, so does it, by the same precision or mental Separation, attain abstract Ideas of the more compounded Beings, which include several coexistent Qualities. For example, the Mind having observed that Peter, James, and John, resemble each other, in certain common Agreements of Shape and other Qualities, leaves out of the complex or compounded Idea it has of Peter, James, and any other particular Man, that which is peculiar to each, retaining only what is common to all; and so makes an abstract Idea wherein all the particulars equally partake, abstracting intirely from and cutting off all those Circumstances and Differences, which might determine it to any particular Existence. And after this manner it is said we come by the abstract Idea of Man or, if you please, Humanity, or Humane Nature; wherein it is true there is included Colour, because there is no Man but has some Colour, but then it can be neither White, nor Black, nor any particular Colour; because there is no one particular Colour wherein all Men partake. So likewise there is included Stature, but then it is neither Tall Stature nor Low Stature, nor yet Middle Stature, but something abstracted from all these. And so of the rest. Moreover, there being a great variety of other Creatures that partake in some Parts, but not all, of the complex Idea of Man, the Mind leaving out those Parts which are peculiar to Men, and retaining those only which are common to all the living Creatures, frameth the Idea of Animal, which abstracts not only from all particular Men, but also all Birds, Beasts, Fishes, and Insects. The constituent Parts of the abstract Idea of Animal are Body, Life, Sense, and Spontaneous Motion. By Body is meant, Body without any particular Shape or Figure, there being no one Shape or Figure common to all Animals, without Covering, either of Hair, or Feathers, or Scales, &c. nor yet Naked: Hair, Feathers, Scales, and Nakedness being the distinguishing Properties of particular Animals, and for that reason left out of the Abstract Idea. Upon the same account the spontaneous Motion must be neither Walking, nor Flying, nor Creeping, it is nevertheless a Motion, but what that Motion is, it is not easy to conceive.
X. Whether others have this wonderful Faculty of Abstracting their Ideas, they best can tell: For my self I find indeed I have a Faculty of imagining, or representing to myself the Ideas of those particular things I have perceived and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a Man with Two Heads or the upper parts of a Man joined to the Body of a Horse. I can consider the Hand, the Eye, the Nose, each by it self abstracted or separated from the rest of the Body. But then whatever Hand or Eye I imagine, it must have some particular Shape and Colour. Likewise the Idea of Man that I frame to my self, must be either of a White, or a Black, or a Tawny, a Straight, or a Crooked, a Tall, or a Low, or a Middle-sized Man. I cannot by any effort of Thought conceive the abstract Idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract Idea of Motion distinct from the Body moving, and which is neither Swift nor Slow, Curvilinear nor Rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general Ideas whatsoever. To be plain, I own my self able to abstract in one Sense, as when I consider some particular Parts or Qualities separated from others, with which though they are united in some Object, yet, it is possible they may really Exist without them. But I deny that I can abstract one from another, or conceive separately, those Qualities which it is impossible should Exist so separated; or that I can frame a General Notion by abstracting from Particulars in the manner aforesaid. Which two last are the proper Acceptations of Abstraction. And there are Grounds to think most Men will acknowledge themselves to be in my Case. The Generality of Men which are Simple and Illiterate never pretend to abstract Notions. It is said they are difficult and not to be attained without Pains and Study. We may therefore reasonably conclude that, if such there be, they are confined only to the Learned.
When I first read this few years back, I remember thinking that Berkeley surely got something wrong.
Of course I can imagine a man without imagining the particular color of his eyes! When someone tells me a story about a man (real or imaginary), I don’t imagine him to every little detail, nor I can do that. I thought – Surely it is not about putting lot of “effort of Thought” to conceive of the general idea, but actually not putting effort at all, because it is not thinking of those details, that my imaginary man will not be neither tall nor short, and his eyes won’t be neither blue nor brown eyes. Those issues just won’t appear.
But after writing the previous post I remembered those paragraphs, and now I’m thinking that Berkeley was pointing to what I wanted to point in the last post by saying that every universal contains particularity. Namely that “an apple is always a particular apple”. Or that one can’t imagine an apple without it being particular apple. Or when we think of the example of man, if I imagine a man, he will always be particular man, and while I don’t have to imagine his eyes, if I do imagine them, they will have to be this or that color, and even if someone asks me “Does that human has particular color of the eyes?”, I will need to say “Sure.”, even without imagining (or knowing) the particular color .