“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The origin of laissez faire in nature itself or Fortuna and the circulation of the blood.

As Jean-Louis Billoret has noted, the modern paradigm for wealth, in the 1690s, was captured by the old analogy between the body and the social body. He does not note – but I do – that the notion of circulation is connected, connotatively, with the wheel of the goddess of fortune. Which is in turn related to the paradigm of humors – in which we cycle from deficiency to excess. This system of denotation and connotation – this semiotic – is what is in question when, changing the way in which the anatomy of the body was understood from the point of view of Gabriel Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, we begin to understand what circulates in the state by anology. Hobbes, who always worked in the shifting space between the most modern paradigms, made the analogy between human and social bodies a way of explaining the whole function of money, bringing ‘nutrition’ to each part of the body.

“By concoction I understand the reducing of all commodities which are not presently consumed But reserved for nourishment in time to come to something of equal value and withal so portable as not to hinder the motion of men from place to place to the end a man may have in what place soever such nourishment as the place affordeth And this is nothing else but gold and silver and money For gold and silver being as it happens almost in all countries of the world highly valued is a commodious measure of the value of all things else between nations and money of what matter soever coined by the sovereign of a commonwealth is a sufficient measure of the value of all things else between the subjects of that commonwealth By the means of which measures all commodities moveable and immoveable are made to accompany a man to all places of his resort within and without the place of his ordinary residence and the same passeth from man to man within the commonwealth and goes round about nourishing as it passeth every part thereof in so much as this concoction is as it were the sanguification of the commonwealth for natural blood is in like manner made of the fruits of the earth and circulating nourisheth by the way every member of the body of man.”

As Billoret notices, Boisguilbert counters this popular image with one in which the circuit of wealth is divided up between the circuit of what functions as the representative of commodities – money – and the circuit of real goods and services. While still remaining within the parameters of the circulation paradigm, Boisguilbert avoids the worship of money – the according of a primary role to money in the economy – since he has firmly established, as Marx puts it, the double aspect of the commodity, as use value and exchange value. In this economy, consumption – use – is always the horizon defining the economy, while the economy is the image of the divine order. In a wonderful passage in the Factum de France, Boisguilbert goes back to Abel and Cain for his paradigmatic economic case of the origin of civil society, which is reenacted in every exchange. It is in this light that we should regard money:

“The two primary needs are food and clothing – thus, the growing of crops and the raising of herds. “In their example, those who followed were for a long time masters and valets, and the self constructors of their needs; sale was only barter or exchange, which was made from hand to hand, without any ministry of money, which was not known until a long time afterwards. But, since, corruption, violence and volupte being put into the affair, after the necessities, one wanted the pleasurable and the superfluous, which multiplied métiers, of the two that there were in the beginning, degree by degree, into the more than two hundred that there are today in France. Thus, this immediate exchange no longer subsists. The seller of a commodity hardly ever traffics with a subject who is the possessor of that which he has the design of procuring himself in discarding the things of his own, and cannot even recover them than after a long trajectory and an infinity of sales and resales, by the means of two hundred hands or professions which today compose the harmony of polished and magnificent states, there was needed a guarantee and a sort of procuration, so to speak, of that first purchaser, that the intention of the seller would be effectuated by the recovering of the commodity that he wished to have in dispossessing himself of his own. It is in this way that the ministry of money has become necessary, by a convention and a general consent of all men –that n whatever land one may be in, irrespective of whatever great distance, or of whatever violence that may disarrange things, he who carries money is assured to procure himself of as many commodities as he has a wish for relative to his sum of it, that he allows his possessions to be taken away, and certain that the object of his desire will be delivered to him with as much diligence and exactitude as if the exchange or the barter had been made immediately and from hand to hand, as at the beginning of the world.”

From which Boisguilbert concludes: “One should pay attention, from what we have said above, to the fact that money, in spite of the corruption which makes it an idol, cannot furnish any of the needs of life begin reduced to coin, but is only the guarantee that the seller of a commodity will not lose it, and that that of which he has need in bartering his own will be delivered to him, not being found with his buyer. It is necessary here to make a reflection, to wit, that this function is not uniquely that of money, whatever ideas reign to the contrary, that it does not even make up the tenth part or even the fiftieth in the times of opulence, which is nothing other than times of a great consumption, that is to say of great wealth. – The paper, parchement and even the word make up, again, more than fifty times more than money: thus one is gravely wrong, in occasions of misery, to put the cause of disorders on its account, and to allege piteously that the greater part of it has passed into foreign countries. Why don’t we say that paper and parchment have equally gone into them, and that it is the fault of matter that traffic has ceased, and that we no longer buy and sell?”

In this way, Boisguilbert disengages his model from that in which blood equals money – and in fact departs from the individualistic consequences that ensue from a metaphor that sees life interiorized in one body. Boisguilbert’s geneology goes back to two – to Cain and Abel – and not to one – some Adamic giant in whom we still partake. He, in other words, makes money purely functional – in effect, founding the classical view of money, which makes it a substitute for barter and, in itself, only a sort of factotum, a thing with no being of its own.

However, if money represents commodities, always viewed as the fruit of labor, it also incorporates, formally, equilibrium. Wealth has two aspects – use value and ‘proportion’ – that is, the harmony of exchange value: It is the proportions which make up all wealth, because it is by their sole means that the exchanges, and by consequence commerce, can be done.” (279 – my translations throughout)

What is this harmony? Boisguilbert explains this in a wonderful passage, positing, on the one hand, hierarchy as a violence, and, on the other hand, nature as a sort of guarantor state:

“Yet, by the horrible corruption of the heart, there I no individual, even though he can expect his happiness only by means of the maintenance of this harmony, who does not work from morning to evening in order to do everything he can to ruin it. There is no worker who doesn’t try, with all his force, to sell his merchandise for three times more than it is worth, and to have that of his neighbors for three times less than it costs to make it. It is only at the point of the sword that justice is maintained in these encounters and this is just what Providence and nature charges itself with. And, just as it has managed the dwellings and means of weak animals in order that they not all become the prey of those which, being born stronger, those born in some manner armed, live on carnage, in the same way, in the commerce of life, it has instilled such order that, if only one lets it have its way, there is no power so powerful, in buying the commodities of the poor man, that can prevent that sale from procuring the latter with his subsistence, which maintains opulence; to this one as well as the other owes the subsistence he has, proportioned to his estate. We have said, if only we let nature have its way, [pour vu que on laisse faire la nature] that is to say, give it its liberty, and no one meddles with this commerce than for extending protection to all, and impeding violence.”

It should be noted that this, perhaps the first use of laissez faire, takes as its subject nature – not commerce. Not the market. Nature works through the market. One can see, here, the lineaments of Smith’s notion, except that the values are reversed – it is not simply greed to accumulate that is in question, but rather, the desire to take one’s neighbor’s property – the fundamental corruption linking theft, adultery, and all forms of hatred - which is put in play, here. Nature cannot disallow corruption – we know how the story of Cain and Abel worked out – but it produces a tool to limit corruption – real bearers of swords. The warrior class of the state.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How unhappiness comes to serve happiness in the best of all possible worlds


When Nemesis perched on the city walls, the signs were evident, and the causes were clear. The monarch had offended the gods with his pride, the people had offended with their neglect of the sacrifices and usages. They had defied the rules concerning food, for instance. They had indulged in forbidden luxuries. The balance between the divine and the human had been broken, or somehow violated.

In Rouen, in the 1690s, Nemesis was evidently sitting on the city walls. One had merely to look to the countryside. One had merely to tally up the decline in trade with the Berbers, or the British. But this time, the prophet who descried the shadow of Nemesis had a different interpretation of the balances in question – an interpretation that eventually became the hermeneutic through which the scholars and officials both interpreted and implemented the Great Transformation. In this hermeneutic, the categories of sacrifice and of luxury were up-ended. Yes, the monarch offends the balance with his pride, but in the new dispensation, the monarch is – logically, sotto voce – reduced to a form, an enforcer of the order of contract, at best the commandatore’s statue. And the natural balance – or as it was called by the prophet of Rouen, the “equilibrium” – was inherent in the economy itself. The economy – like nature – naturally gravitated towards a self-regulating balance, and anything that got in the way of this natural process was to be condemned.
Nemesis was divested of her ancient attributes, and put on a strictly mathematical footing. L’esprit geometrique was let loose upon the face of the globe for real.
The prophet was a magistrate named Pierre Le Pesant de Boisguilbert. As LI pointed out in our series of posts on Fontenelle, the nest of gentlefolk in Rouen who, in the period between 1680-1730, figured on the modern side in the battle between the ancients and the moderns is extremely impressive – and especially considering their ties to one another. As it happens, a Le Pesant married a Corneille, and as the Corneille family was related to Fontenelle, so too was Boisguilbert. A descendent of that family was Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat.
In the Critique of the Political Economy, Marx attributed much to the founders of the English and French schools of classical economy – as he saw it – William Petty and Boisguilbert. Marx writes: The analysis of commodities as labor in a double form, of use value derived from real labor of purposeful productive activity, and of exchange value derived from labor time or equal to social labor, is the critical end product of more than a half a century’s classical political economic research that begins in England with William Petty and in France with Boisguilbert, and ends in England with Ricardo and in France with Sismondi.”
There is an anecdote about him, told in Sainte-Simon’s memoirs.
“He [Vauban] was well advanced when there appeared diverse small books by sieur de Boisguillebert, lieutenant general at the seat of Rouen, a man of much intellect, detail and industry, brother of a counselor to the parlement of Normandy who, after much preparation, touched with the same views as Vauban, worked on them for a long time. He had already made some progress before the chancellor left the financial office. He came expressly to find him, and, as his lively spirit had something singular in it, he demanded of him to listen with patience; and though, as he said, he would take him at first for a fool, afterwards, he would see that he merited attention, and that at the end, he would be happy with his system. Pontchartrain, disgusted by so many givers of advise who had passed through his hands, and who was all saltpeter, began to laugh, brusquely responded that he took him for the first thing, and turned his back on him. Boisguillebert, returned to Rouen, was not at all put off by the bad outcome of his trip. He only worked the more indefatigably on his project, which was pretty close to that of Vauban’s, without either knowing the other. From this labor was born a book, one that was wise and profound on the matter, of which the system went to an exact dividing up of aid to the people, with all the expenses that they supported and the many tarrifs, which were direct expropriations into the king’s purse, and consequently ruinous to the existence of tradesmen, to the power of intendants, to the sovereign domain of ministers of finance. Thus, he displeased all the former as much as he was applauded by all those who did not share the former’s interests. Chamillart, who had succeeded Pontchartrain, examined the book. He conceived a liking for it; he requested the presence of Boiguillebert two or three times at l’Etang, and worked there with him on many occasions, as a minister whose probity only tried to do good.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Berkeley's floating world

Berkeley was a pre-classical economist – not that he knew it. Our captions exist outside of our frames, scribbled in by who knows who, the hand that writes and having writ - continues mindlessly to write endlessly more. But of those of his commentors who have taken the trouble to reflect on Berkeley’s political economy, especially as it is presented – or undermined – in that oddest of Irish bulls, The Querist – it is certain that, as Patrick Kelly puts it in his essay for the Cambridge companion to Berkeley, “Given the absence of any conception of the achievement of equilibrium through hidden harmony or the design of nature, a pivotal responsibility was accorded to the state in bringing about the necessary conditions to promote what Berkeley asserted to be the public objective of full employment.” One might think that ‘equilibrium’ – that frame upon which economics has woven its mythology since it got its science pants on – was, alas, not articulated in Berkeley’s time – but this is not exactly true, as B. Tieben, in his exhaustive study of the history of equilibrium as an economic concept has shown: Sir Dudley North and Pierre de Boisguilbert had already employed the concept, ‘treating the economy as a relatively self-regulating system…”

Berkeley, in the Querist, violates several principles of that self-regulating model. He expresses the horrifying idea in a work published four years before the great famine of 1741 wiped out about 200-400 thousand Irishmen that perhaps Ireland’s unstinting export of foodstuffs like beef and mutton to England, in return for which a certain class of landowner received the means to by English luxury goods, was not such a good deal for Ireland. This kind of thinking pops up around famine time, and is always soundly trounced by economists, who deal with aggregates and have well and truly summed up, in their accounting books, the pleasures of these luxury goods against the piddling souls of the barely employed and are extremely satisfied that the self-regulating system is the best of all worlds.

“142. Whether it be not certain that from the single town of Cork were exported, in one year, no less than one hundred and seven thousand one hundred and sixty-one barrels of beef; seven
thousand three hundred and seventy-nine barrels of pork; thirteen thousand four hundred and sixty-one casks, and eighty-five thousand seven hundred and twenty-seven firkins of butter? And what hands were employed in this manufacture?
143 Whether a foreigner could imagine that one half of the people were starving, in a country which sent out such plenty of provisions?
144 Whether an Irish lady, set out with French silks and Flanders lace, may not be said to consume more beef and butter than a hundred of our labouring peasants?
145 Whether nine-tenths of our foreign trade be not carried on singly to support the article of vanity?”

And in fact, taking and transforming an image from Locke, Berkeley imagines the following:

“134. Whether, if there was a wall of brass a thousand cubits high round this kingdom, our natives might not nevertheless live cleanly and comfortably, till the land, and reap the fruits of
it?
135 What should hinder us from exerting ourselves, using our hands and brains, doing something or other, man, woman, and child, like the other inhabitants of God's earth?
136 Be the restraining our trade well or ill advised in our neighbours, with respect to their own interest, yet whether it be not plainly ours to accommodate ourselves to it?
137 Whether it be not vain to think of persuading other people to see their interest, while we continue blind to our own? “

Yet, for all this, Berkeley was not a mere throwback to a hard money autochthonous economics. Oddly, he mixed a doubt about the unmitigated benefits of foreign trade with another doubt that put him on the very lines of the avant garde for his time: his doubt that gold or silver has any intrinsic value. Indeed, the Querist quietly pursues a purpose quite different from that of Swift, in the Drapier Letters, who propounded a theory of money that was classically metallic. Berkeley views money quite as he views vision – as a great system of signs. Under the signs, one finds the tangible value – industry, or labor.

“5. Whether money be not only so far useful, as it stirreth up industry, enabling men mutually to participate the fruits of each other's labour?”

and: “23 Whether money is to be considered as having an intrinsic value, or as being a commodity, a standard, a measure, or a pledge, as is variously suggested by writers? And whether the true idea of money, as such, be not altogether that of a ticket or counter?”

In this sense, Berkeley’s proposals aren’t that far from John Law’s, especially as he suggests a national, government run bank to issue these ‘tickets’. It is the stirring up of industry that Berkeley has in mind – and his mind darts immediately to what one might call the paradox of disequilibrium – that the system of industry requires the production of want: “20 Whether the creating of wants be not the likeliest way to produce industry in a people? And whether, if our peasants were accustomed to eat beef and wear shoes, they would not be more industrious?
21 Whether other things being given, as climate, soil, etc., the wealth be not proportioned to the industry, and this to the circulation of credit, be the credit circulated or transferred by what marks or tokens soever?”

This part of Berkeley’s work has served as a point of controversy between those who, like T.W. Hutchinson, glommed onto such statements as evidence that Berkeley had a pre-Keynesian sense that the state should be in the business of managing aggregate demand, and those who, like Ian Ward, emphasized Berkeley’s concern with the categories of voluntary and involuntary employment – which led Berkeley, in some of his Queries, to endorse slavery or servitude for the voluntary beggar. Hutchinson, in responding to Ward, makes the invaluable point that the voluntary vs. involuntary employment categories make no sense in the early modern economy, where the continuity of employment was not the recognized and legally hedged around social process that it is in the twentieth century.

Constantine George Caffentzis has noted that Berkeley’s solution to economic problems is very much aligned with the surface skepticism of a philosophy that has its deepest roots in the tangible, the real wisdom and common sense of all mankind. In other words, Berkeley does not view the economy as a puzzle to be solved, but as a puzzle that continually generates puzzles – and this is reflected in the very form of his suggestions, which press upon us with the utmost passivity of the question form. Just as a thing is really the to be perceived, in the heart of the proposition is the to be asked.

“The Querist’s Bank was not a machine, it was not a self-regulatiing homeostatic device, nor was it a storehouse of values, consequently when the Querist came to the solution of his problematic – a new definition of money and the project of a National Bank – there was no declarative sentence. The Bank was a questionable as its money. In fact, it was the very recognition of its questionability that made it a reasonable institution.”

Man lives in a floating world, and his institutions must either notice this fact or be crushed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

carlo ginzburg

Yesterday, I saw a fascinating talk with Carlo Ginzburg. The format was that his translator, Martin Rueff, would ask him questions. Actually, Rueff read a small essay on his work, and occasionally intervened to let Ginzburg riff about what he wanted to.

Because this session was connected with the publication of a new book of Ginzburg’s essays, le fil et les traces, the discussion tended to sound some old controversies, including that between Ginzburg and the ‘postmodern’ skeptics, notably Hayden White. Which is how one of the ‘threads” in this conversation was about proofs and the truth. Another thread, though, was about Ginzburg’s relationship with the documents he used to trace his histories – notably, the records of Inquisitorial interrogation. And there Ginzburg brought up the anthropological distinction between etic and emic, which, he modestly said, has really only been utilized by one historian – himself.

These themes fascinated me, and I was tempted to try the temper of the salle with my French as I asked a question that seems obvious from this triangle of themes or obsessions.

I would have liked to ask a question something like this. The idea that there is a rigid separation between the etic view, that of the observer, and the emic view, that of the observed, seems to be to ignore the arrow of desire that brings those two together – in situations such as that of the Inquisition. But it is a good starting place.

But isn’t there a movement, here?
And isn’t the movement, as you have shown in the Night Battles, not towards truth, but towards an agreement as to what the truth should be?

Rhetorical questions – the type a bad questioner asks. So I didn’t ask. But the question of the movement that mobilizes the inquisition is, nevertheless, on my mind. I think that the idea of narrative induction, proposed by an ethnographer, Charlotte Linde, defined “as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…”

Linde’s field work was done in an insurance company, not a tribe. The idea that there is a process of taking on an existing set of stories seems to work in a number of institutional situations, although the variables of the process – its actual implementation – isn’t fixed in one mode or another. Still, a common mode is just the question and response format. One of the great liberal myths is that the question is always a power for liberation. But this is to elevate a romantic idea of questions over its pragmatics. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the Night Battles is the way that the Benedetti take on an existing story about themselves from the Inquisition. Their story begins, Ginzburg shows, with a story in which they are on the side of God, battling against witches. But this is not the story the Inquisition (an institution that is actually named – at least in popular history - for a grammatical feature of Western languages – as though there could be an institution called the Statement or the Exclamation) the Inquisition could accept. And so, through an intervention that depended on the question and response format, the Benedetti were gradually induced into identifying with another story – the story that they were actually on the side of the devil.

Linde, I think, was thinking of other forms of narrative induction – such as pep talks and inter-office communications that made insurance adjusters identify with a narrative we, that of the insurance company and its ‘point of view’. But a narrative induction does not have to be positive in that sense – it can also be the narrative that a given institutional power wants the people it regulates, or even outlaws, to identify with. I identify myself as mad or neurotic with the psychologist, or as delinquent with the police officer, etc. We are not the stories we tell ourselves – we are a compound of the stories we accept about ourselves.

And this, of course, is the source of the anxiety that gives rise to postmodernism. It is the anxiety proper to the post-colonial epoch. The imperial narrative, which succeeded for hundreds of years, was challenged. Challenged synchronically, it cast into doubt the diachronic narratives that helped establish the places assigned to, among others, the savage, the barbarian, the civilized.

Or at least that is a sympathetic reading of the moment – I find the word postmodern rather repulsive, and think of it as a sort of conceptual dust collector.

Monday, October 18, 2010

the tactile privilege

Riddle me this:

Berkeley returns to Great Britain from Italy in 1721, and publishes a pamphlet, An Essay towards preventing the ruin of Great Britain, which aims to moralize the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Berkeley is not simply distressed by the economic collapse of the speculation, one of those annexes to John Law’s system, but is incensed at what he takes to be the symptoms of irreligion and moral decay:

“Industry is the natural sure way to wealth. This is so true that it is impossible an industrious free people should want the necessaries and comforts of life, or an idle enjoy them under any form of government. Money is so far useful to the public as it promoteth industry, and credit
having the same effect is of the same value with money ; but money or credit circulating through a nation from hand to hand, without producing labour and industry in
the inhabitants, is direct gaming.

It is not impossible for cunning men to make such plausible schemes as may draw those who are less skilful into their own and the public ruin. But surely there is no man of sense and honesty but must see and own, whether he understands the game or not, that it is an
evident folly for any people, instead of prosecuting the old honest methods of industry and frugality, to sit down to a public gaming-table, and play off their money one
to another.

The more methods there are in a state for acquiring riches without industry or merit, the less there will be of either in that state…”

Yet here is the puzzle. In some ways, one would have thought, speculation , which frees money from some supposed natural value, corresponds to Berkeley’s own idealism. Just as the value of money is no longer the value of a metal, but a social value, so, too, matter is no longer outside of the mind, as its support, but inside the mind, as its ‘game’. Why, then, does Berkeley denouce speculation in these traditional moralistic terms?

However, a careful reading of the pamphlet shows Berkeley is not denouncing any Laws-ian system per se. Rather, it is the opportunity for unearned wealth, available to all, that is Berkeley’s target. Speculation as conditioned by a lack of socially useful industry – the foundation of wealth – and a tilt towards luxury – social splendor – is, for Berkeley, much like one of those language games that metaphysicians engage in to create fictional entities, like matter, than it is a true comparison of ideas.

Later, Berkeley considers money more seriously in one of his avant garde texts, the Querist. Which I will go to next – but I want to revisit an argument in my last post. As I’ve implied, Berkeley’s notion of the equivalence between reality and the to-be-perceived gives us, or can be conceived to give us, a deeply human world. If the perceivers are, supremely, human, and if we don’t think that there are perceivers swarming in the world – rather like monads – but that there are specific perceivers, who are human like, then the world is deeply human – we really are the species designated, in Genesis, as the guardians of the world.

But of course, we are ourselves, on the deepest level, perceived – and the whole of the system depends on one great perceiver, God. And this God, as Berkeley mentions in the Principles of Human Understanding (quoting his Theory of Vision), privileges touch. We should resist the automatic way we link up of perception and sight – sight being the Occidental sense of choice. This assumption leads us in the wrong direction not only with Berkeley, but with a whole line of Enlightenment philosophers who similarly assume that touch is the deepest sense. In an odd way, Berkeley participates in this materialism. It is touch, God’s touch, which we find everywhere in Berkeley’s vision of the world. Vision is on the side of the sign, and touch on the side of the real.

Of course, the tactile privilege that runs through 18th century sensualism and materialism is not just derived from Berkeley or Newton – although many of the vibrational ontologies of the time explicitly reference Newton. This is, as well, a folk metaphysic.

More on Berkeley and money later.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

what kind of idealism is this? Berkeley and modernity


Last night, after reading my post about Berkeley and the spider, A. asked me about the point I was trying to make. I had to respond that honestly, I’m not sure. In one sense, it simply fascinates me that three philosophers who each took a stance against l’esprit geometrique are found in Southern Italy in the early eighteenth century. Vico turns to the ingenium, and Shaftesbury to common sense, as the intellectual force that resists the mechanization of the spirit - Berkeley, by contrast, traces the path of the skeptic and radicalizes l’esprit geometrique, in a way heralded by Pascal and Bayle – who also applied skepticism in the service of faith – but that goes far beyond them in its ontological conclusions. Yet, Berkeley’s response to Locke’s milktoast metaphysics contains an ambiguity, a pull between the ancients and the moderns, a re-constitution of the terms in which l’esprit geometrique is understood, that can be read as according, in the absence of the divine DJ, everything to the moderns.

Or to start again: metaphysics – I think I am trying to say – is anchored in life. When , in the 1790s, Cuoco criticizes the revolutionaries of Naples for favoring abstraction over the concrete interests of the people, he is in a sense echoing a theme we find in Berkeley’s A treatise concerning Human Knowledge, which contrasts abstraction – that fantastic product of the schools – to the mental processes of the great mass of men:

“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.”

Plain speech, and plain people. This is the Berkeley who could share a dish of beans with a group of squatting peasants in a field. He is unafraid of popular contact – and that is one of the fundamental living impulses of democracy.

Berkeley’s preliminary work in countering the absurdities thrust upon us by abstraction – which is a process that never really occurs in any mind whatsoever, has no root in our biological life (ie is never found to occur among children who are acquiring language skills) is meant to prepare us for his self-evident truth:

“Some Truths there are so near and obvious to the Mind, that a Man need only open
his Eyes to see them. Such I take this Important one to be, to wit, that all the Choir of Heaven and Furniture of the Earth, in a word all those Bodies which compose the mighty Frame of the World, have not any Subsistence without a Mind, that their Being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my Mind or that of any other created Spirit, they must either have no Existence at all, or else subsist in the Mind of some eternal Spirit: It being perfectly unintelligible and involving all the Absurdity of Abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an Existence independent of a Spirit. To be convinced of which, the Reader need only reflect and try to separate in his own Thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.”

This is a tightly reasoned paragraph, and yet within it the innocent reader feels that somehow, what is happening here is a feint, or an out of bounds punch. A first reading – and one that became common in the 18th century – was that this was a plea for pure solipsism. Diderot, in the Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron, remarks: “The bishop of Cloyne said: if I ascend to the heights of the mountains, or descend into the valleys, it is never anything but me that I apperceive: thus, it is possible that these don’t exist without me. And Berkeley still awaits an answer.” Diderot is a shrewd reader, but we – who can ascend to the heights of Berkeley commentators, or perhaps descend into the valley of their obsessions – have learned to read this paragraph differently, with an emphasis not on the moi – an emphasis that Diderot takes, unconsciously, from the whole French moraliste position – but rather on the tricky passive construction, “that their Being is to be perceived or known,” which leads us not to the imperial subject but to a fact about the choir of heaven that can only be expressed in the passive tense in English: that their very being is not ever to be separated from their being knowable or perceivable. Far from being accidents to which sovereign being submits – as a sort of royal sacrifice – being is essentially knowable or perceivable – the sovereign power is essentially a matter of election and, ultimately, of pressure. Berkeley’s is a world of pressures ultimately emanating, literally, from the hand of God. The combination of pressure and passivity finds its political correlate, perhaps, in the passive obedience Berkeley promoted in an early political pamphlet.

Still, Berkeley goes a long way to divest reality of any magic. The tarantula, its bite, the belief in the tarantalla, the doubts of the country doctor, are all real. “I do not argue against the Existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by Sense or Reflexion. That the things I see with mine Eyes and touch with my Hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least Question. The only thing whose Existence we deny, is that which Philosophers call Matter or corporeal Substance. And in doing of this, there is no Damage done to the rest of Mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it.” Again, one wonders whether this is a feint or an argument – for, with the most beneficient of smiles, here Berkeley slips matter, so much metaphysical waste, into the trashcan. This is not something mankind will miss – it is not part of our common property.

What is the end result of this logic? “But, say you, it sounds very harsh to say we eat and drink Ideas, and are clothed with Ideas. I acknowledge it does so, the word Idea not being used in common Discourse to signify the several Combinations of sensible Qualities, which are called Things: and it is certain that any Expression which varies from the familiar Use of Language, will seem harsh and ridiculous. But this doth not concern the Truth of the Proposition, which in other Words is no more than to say, we are fed and clothed with those Things which we perceive immediately by our Senses. The Hardness or Softness, the Colour, Taste, Warmth, Figure, and such like Qualities, which combined together constitute the several sorts of Victuals and
Apparel, have been shewn to exist only in the Mind that perceives them; and this is all that is meant by calling them Ideas.”

In this way, Berkeley’s thought radically humanizes the world – which is the distinct twist of the emergence of Western, vs. Eastern, idealism. For ideas don’t lead us to illusions – illusions, rather, are easily comprehended within the schema of ideas. The world that Berkeley, at trifling expense (we hardly miss the old terms), reconstitutes is literally the one handed to us – in keeping with the privilege accorded to touch in his system. ”The Ideas of Sight and Touch make two Species, intirely distinct and heterogeneous. The former are Marks and Prognostics of the latter. That the proper Objects of Sight neither exist without the Mind, nor are the Images of external Things, was shewn even in that Treatise. Though throughout the same, the contrary be supposed true of tangible Objects: Not that to suppose that vulgar Error, was necessary for establishing the Notion therein laid down; but because it was beside my Purpose to examine and refute it in a Discourse concerning Vision. So that in strict Truth the Ideas of Sight, when we apprehend by them Distance and Things placed at a Distance, do not suggest or mark out to us Things actually existing
at a Distance, but only admonish us what Ideas of Touch will be imprinted in our Minds at such and such distances of Time, and in consequence of such or such Actions. It is, I say, evident from what has been said in the foregoing Parts of this Treatise, and in Sect. 147, and elsewhere of the Essay concerning Vision, that visible Ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit, on whom we depend, informs us what tangible Ideas he is about to imprint upon us, in case we excite this or that Motion in our own Bodies.”

It is this sense in which Berkeley’s idealism, which seems to move us to Diderot’s misrepresentation of it, actually situates us under the new dispensation of the moderns. It does so even while seeming to take the idealistic path of a wholly non-European tradition. Vico and Shaftesbury’s humanism, on the other hand, opens a front that challenges the totality of modernity – a totality that modernity, that epoch of universal-making, can’t do without.