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Does Berkeley argue for the mind-independence of the tactile?


In this essay I argue that, in fact, he does not. The presumption that he did is based on a misreading of his arguments in A Theory of Vision.

Berkeley must provide some justification for his claim: (a) that the senses are heterogeneous, and (b) that the tangible is more fundamental than the visual. In section 111, Berkeley appears to provide just such a justification: “…All visible things are equally in the mind, and take up no part of the external space; and consequently are equidistant from any tangible thing, which exists without the mind.”


On the face of it, this passage gives what looks to be a strikingly materialist justification for the heterogeneity of the senses. Berkeley appears to be claiming that the reason the visible and tangible is in “two distinct provinces” is that the former is always mind-dependent, and the other mind-independent. If this explanation is necessary for Berkeley to justify, then the Essay is actually in direct conflict with the Principles. A number of commentators have it that his assumption, of the mind-independence of tactile, is necessary to justify not only his doctrine of heterogeneity, but also account for it’s primacy over the visual.


The primacy of touch is not something Berkeley explicitly ever mentions explicitly in the Essay – it’s only suggested by his insistence on the language analogy. Luce (whom I take to be representative of those who think that the Essay is based upon materialism) believes that the tangible must be mind-independent if Berkeley’s view of vision as language is upheld. Luce argues the two modalities can’t be of the same ontological status (that is, they can’t both be ideal) because if they were, there would be no reason why they could not change roles. The tactile could become a sign of the visual rather than vice versa. “Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and a one-way relationship between senses so intimately blended is impossible.” Berkeley must create a significant disparity between the senses. “He does this”, Luce concludes, “by appealing to the mind-independence of the tangible”. Thus, a major portion of the Essay is inconsistent with the Principles; the visual language argument relies on materialism.

This does not seem right. On one hand, the visual language argument is used briefly in the Principles and is employed extensively in Alciphron – books which Berkeley claims to be fully immaterialist. In these two works Berkeley thinks that the two senses can be both ideal and mind-dependent, and that the visual is a sign of the tactile (but not the other way around).

Without any textual evidence – even to suggest that Berkeley noticed that there was need to assume the mind-independence of the tactile – there is no reason for us to think that he did. Its surely better to assume that the mistake he made in the Principles and the Alciphron was of introducing a faulty analogy, rather than relying on an argument basically at odds with immaterialism. This seems to answer the question. Berkeley did not assume heterogeneity and the mind-independence of the tactile.




Berkeley, G. (1776). Principles of Human Knowledge. London.


Luce A.A, Jessop T.E. (1948) The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Nelson and Sons.


Johnston, G. A. (1923). The Development of Berkeley’s Philosophy. London: Macmillan.


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