You are on page 1of 23

BERKELEY AND THE

ARGUMENT FROM
MICROSCOPES
BY

ROBERT W. FAABORG

Abstract: In the course of his discussion of the sensible quality of color in the
Dialogues Berkeley advances an argument that I shall refer to as the argument
from microscopes (AFM). I offer an account of the AFM that treats it as
part of Berkeleys extended Reductio of Hylas philosophical theory of metaphysical realism. I then criticize two representative interpretations of the AFM
which fail to appreciate its Reductio structure and, as a consequence, mistakenly attribute to Berkeley such problematic claims as that sensible objects are
not colored and that the microscopic view of objects reveals the real nature
of objects. If I am correct, properly construed, Berkeleys AFM escapes these
and other objections commonly raised against it.

1.

Introduction

In his Three Dialogues Berkeley advances an argument as part of his


overall strategy of attacking materialism and defending idealism that
I shall refer to as the argument from microscopes (AFM). Two recent
commentators have attacked Berkeleys AFM as inadequate and as
involving a number of mistaken assumptions or, at the very least, as being
inconsistent with other central aspects of his philosophy.
In section 2 below I shall offer an alternative account of the AFM
according to which Berkeleys argument survives many of the attacks that
have been advanced against it. On my interpretation, the AFM should
be seen as part of Berkeleys extended reductio ad absurdum of Hylas
philosophical theory of metaphysical realism. Specifically, I shall show
how the AFM forms part of Hylas attempt to draw a distinction between
real and apparent qualities in order to save his philosophy from the
contradictory consequences of the AFM and other arguments.
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 80 (1999) 301323
02790750/99/04000000
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Published by
Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

301

302

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

In sections 3 and 4 I examine the alternative interpretations of the AFM


offered by Bruce Silver and Margaret Wilson.1 I shall argue that their
interpretations, while distinct, both fail to appreciate the reductio structure of the argument and, as a consequence, mistakenly attribute to
Berkeley such problematic claims as that sensible objects are not colored
and that the microscopic view of objects best sets forth the real nature
of the thing or what it is in itself.
If I am correct, Berkeleys AFM can be correctly understood only in
the context of its role in the development of Berkeleys arguments against
materialism. Interpretative problems can result from the failure to place
the AFM correctly in the structure of Berkeleys overall argumentative
strategy or, worse, from the decision to treat the AFM as if Berkeley
believed it was in some sense a sound argument taken by itself.
Consequently, I shall first sketch the relevant introductory passages
propaedeutic to a proper understanding of Berkeleys use of the AFM.

2.
Let me begin by offering my own account of the structure of the AFM.
I shall argue that (1) the premises and conclusion of the AFM are not to
be interpreted as advancing Berkeleys own philosophical views; (2) instead,
the AFM is offered by Berkeley as a reductio against the philosophical
position advanced by Hylas; (3) Berkeley does not accept a central premise
of the AFM, namely, that the microscope reveals the true nature of objects;
and (4) Berkeley does not believe the AFM establishes that all color is
merely apparent nor that ordinary objects are not really colored.
Berkeley begins the First Dialogue by having Philonous announce that
he rejects the existence of what philosophers call Material Substance
(W-172, A-136).2 Philonous and Hylas further agree to accept that opinion as true, which upon examination shall appear most agreeable to
Common Sense, and remote from Skepticism (W-172, A-136). Philonous
will argue that the belief in the existence of material substance results in
Hylas being the greater skeptic (who must) maintain more paradoxes and repugnancies to Common Sense than one who denies its existence. Further, Philonous and Hylas agree that the greatest skeptic
is one who denies the reality of sensible things or professes the greatest
ignorance of them (W-173, A-137).
Most importantly, Philonous then defines sensible things as those things
that are immediately perceived by the senses, perceived without inference.
For the senses make no inferences. The deducing therefore of causes
or occasions from effects and appearances, which alone are perceived by
sense, entirely relates to reason (W-174, A-138). Philonous then proceeds
to list the sensible qualities by sense modality, insisting that if you take
away all sensible qualities, there remains nothing sensible (W-175, A-139).
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

303

Note that while these initial passages may seem merely to involve the
introduction of stipulative definitions of concepts essential to Berkeleys
argument, they are in fact deeply philosophical, controversial, and often
question-begging.3 Perhaps most controversial is Berkeleys concept of
immediate perception which has the effect of reifying all sensory appearances and restricting the objects of perception solely to sensible qualities. For Berkeley, it is a sufficient condition for the existence of a given
sensible quality that it be immediately sensed. Thus, according to
Berkeley, if I am outside of a house looking through a window and see
a white wall illuminated from the inside by a blue light, the color I immediately see is blue even though we would ordinarily describe this situation as my seeing a white wall which only appeared to be blue.
Notice that there need be no question of perceptual error or illusion
involved in this situation if one has knowledge of the perceptual conditions. Note also that Berkeley does not confuse the walls looking blue to
me with its being blue; he just insists that when I immediately perceive
the wall appearing blue (for example, because of the blue light cast on
it), the sensible quality blueness exists. He was very aware of the subtlety
of the ordinary distinctions made between the colors objects were claimed
to be versus the colors they merely appeared to be.4 In fact, he has Hylas
propose just such a distinction between apparent and real colors of objects
as I shall show in detail subsequently. Moreover, the blue color Berkeley
insists I sense can be observed by any normal human similarly situated.
It is not private. In fact, a color photograph taken of the scene would
display a blue surface in the area surrounded by the window which could
be exactly similar to the surface of a blue wall. It is just such sensory
experiences that Berkeley insists are the sensible qualities and sensible
things such as That purple sky the fragrant bloom upon the trees and
flowers 5 that form the world as we know it.
The last introductory point essential to understanding Berkeleys AFM
involves further specification of the kind of materialism Philonous is
attacking. Philonous asks: Doth the reality of sensible things consist in
being so perceived? or is it something distinct form their being perceived,
and that bears no relation to the mind? Hylas responds: I mean a real
absolute being, distinct from, and without any relation to, their being perceived (A-139, W-175; my emphases). Finally, when Hylas spells out his
materialism in the next few passages he insists that an external object
is a material substance with the sensible qualities inhering in it.
Thus, Hylas materialism consists in the following claim: Each and
every real sensible quality we perceive must inhere in an external material substance independently of any relation to perceivers or minds. Call
this thoroughly philosophical theory that Hylas adopts in the opening
passages of the Dialogues metaphysical realism. Philonous shall argue that,
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

304

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

unlike his own denial of material substance, Hylas metaphysical realism


forces him to accept conclusions repugnant to common sense and to deny
the reality of sensible things or at least confess the greater ignorance of
them. In effect, Philonous argument is a reductio ad absurdum of metaphysical realism. Its this philosophical theory of absolutely independent
external substances, not the varying appearances of objects under different circumstances, that Philonous argues results in inconsistencies and
leads us to distrust our senses:
What, therefore, if our ideas are variable; what if our senses are not in all circumstances
affected with the same appearances? It will not follow they are not to be trusted; or that
they are inconsistent either with themselves or anything else: except it be with your preconceived notion of (I know not what) one simple, unchanged, unperceivable, real Nature,
marked by each name. (W-245, A-208)

Its important to point out that Berkeley is not just creating a fictitious
philosophical Straw Man which he can easily discredit. What Ive called
Hylas metaphysical realism represents in part positions held by much of
the seventeenth-century scientific community which aimed to discover the
truly objective and essential properties of matter. Members of this community criticized Aristotelians and others for projecting mental properties such as colors on to material substance and demanded an investigation
into the genuinely essential properties of matter. Being essential, such
properties must be universal, existing in all parts of matter, and must be
intrinsic to matter, capable of existing absolutely independently of any
relation to mind or perceivers. Accordingly, conceptions of the nature or
essence of material objects which involved sensible qualities such as colors
were relegated to mere nominal essence. The goal of science was to discover the real essences of matter. Moreover, it was hoped by many that
the microscope might play a role in helping to reveal the true nature
of matter.6
The AFM takes place in the context of Philonous attempt to convince
Hylas that metaphysical realism cannot account for the reality of colors.
Its part of Berkeleys general reductio ad absurdum of the independent
external substances of metaphysical realism and his insistence that sensible qualities exist only relative to perceivers. Philonous first reminds the
reader of the philosophic assumptions Ive just explicated, specifically
Hylas belief in metaphysical realism:7
Hylas: the case of colours is very different. Can anything be plainer than that we see
them on the objects?
Philonous: The objects you speak of are, I suppose, corporeal Substances, existing without
the mind? And have true and real colours inhering in them?
Hylas: Each visible object hath that colour which we see in it.
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

305

After once again insisting upon their previous agreement that the only
qualities which we see are those sensible qualities immediately perceived,
Philonous asks,
whether the same colours which we see exist in external bodies, or some other.
Hylas: The very same.
Philonous: What! are then the beautiful red and purple we see on yonder clouds really in
them? Or do you imagine they have in themselves any other form than that of a dark mist
or vapor?

Note that Berkeley is not raising doubts about the existence of the
colors we see on clouds at a distance nor those we see upon approaching them. He cannot. For all such colors are immediately perceived and,
as such, must exist for Berkeley. Rather, Berkeley is implicitly raising the
same kind of difficulty for metaphysical realism that he had repeatedly
introduced earlier. The metaphysical realist interprets colors existing on
an object as inhering in an external material substance. If all of these sensible colors on a cloud inhere in the same external substance, then it
must exemplify contrary qualities; it must be both red and not red at the
same time.
Hylas responds to the suggested difficulty by introducing a criterion
of reality by which he believes the metaphysical realist can distinguish
between real and apparent colors and avoid the consequences of
Philonous reductio. Thus, Hylas proposes that only real colors inhere
in material substances independently of perceivers. The purpose of the
AFM is to extend Berkeleys reductio ad absurdum of metaphysical realism to any such attempt to distinguish real colors, defined as those colors
which inhere in external material substance without any relation to perceivers, from apparent colors which do not inhere in external substances.
Berkeleys explicit consideration of Hylas attempt to distinguish real
from apparent colors shows that one traditional objection to Berkeleys
use of the argument from perceptual relativity as applied to the sensible
quality of color is inadequate. It is insufficient to refute Berkeley to merely
point out that from such facts of perceptual relativity as that objects look
different colors at different distances, it does not follow that no object
truly is one of these colors. For Berkeley himself has Hylas propose just
such a distinction between apparent colors and an objects real color.
Thus, Berkeley does not confuse the way objects look with the way they
really are.8 And certainly Berkeley is not denying that ordinary objects
construed as collections of sensible qualities are colored. His argument
at this point in the Dialogues is only designed as a reductio to refute Hylas
metaphysical realism and add evidence in support of Berkeleys eventual
conclusion that all determinate sensible qualities are perceiver-dependent.
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

306

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

Hylas attempts to distinguish real from apparent colors as follows:


Hylas: I must own, Philonous, those colours are not really in the clouds as they seem to be
at this distance. They are only apparent colours.
Philonous: Apparent call you them? how shall we distinguish these apparent colours from real?
Hylas: Very easily. Those are to be thought apparent which, appearing only at a distance,
vanish upon a nearer approach.
Philonous: And those, I suppose, are to be thought real which are discovered by the most
near and exact survey?
Hylas: Right.

Note that Hylas attempts to distinguish real from apparent sensible


qualities here and elsewhere in the Three Dialogues show that Hylas is
not a naive realist as is often claimed.9 For a naive realist proposes that
there is no distinction between the way things appear to us and the way
things really are. Rather, Hylas position here and throughout the discussion of the sensible secondary qualities is metaphysical realism. I will
call Hylas criterion for distinguishing real from apparent colors the reality criterion of close examination.10 In effect, it states that while the colors
we see on objects at a distance may not be the real, inherent colors of
those objects, an objects real color can be ascertained by closely examining it. Thus, a close examination of the color of the clouds should reveal
their real color.
Berkeley now has Philonous state the AFM:
Philonous: Is the nearest and exactest survey made by the help of a microscope or by the
naked eye?
Hylas: By a microscope, doubtless.
Philonous: But a microscope often discovers colours in an object different from those
perceived by the unassisted sight. And in case we had microscopes magnifying to any
assigned degree, it is certain that no object whatever, viewed through them, would appear
in the same colour which it exhibits to the naked eye.
Hylas: And what will you conclude from all this? You cannot argue that there are really
and naturally no colours on objects; because by artificial managements they may be altered,
or made to vanish?
Philonous: I think it may evidently be concluded from your own concessions, that all the
colours we see with our naked eyes are only apparent as those on the clouds, since they
vanish upon a more close and accurate inspection which is afforded us by a microscope .
(W-184, A-148)

Thus, Philonous is arguing that given Hylas metaphysical realism, from


his own concessions, he cannot distinguish between real and apparent
colors on the basis of his assumption that real colors are those that are
seen from the nearest and most exact survey. For given the fact that
microscopes offer the nearest survey we are aware of, the reality criterion
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

307

of close examination leads to a consequence repugnant to common sense


that all the colours we see with our naked eyes are only apparent .
And both have agreed that the true opinion is that most agreeable to
Common Sense.
Note that it is not Berkeley who concludes that all colors are merely
apparent. Nor does Berkeley himself advance the reality criterion of close
examination. It is Hylas metaphysical realist who proposes this criterion
in a futile attempt to avoid the objectionable conclusions of the argument
from perceptual relativity.
Philonous continues the argument by pointing out that Hylas metaphysical realism for colors also leads him to skepticism about the real
colors of objects by offering what I shall call the argument from change
(AFC) which also appeals in part to the differing colors seen under
a microscope:
Philonous: in case colours were real properties or affections inherent in external bodies,
they could admit of no alteration, without some change wrought in the very bodies themselves:11 but is it not evident from what hath been said, that upon the use of microscopes,
upon a change happening in the humours of the eye, or a variation of distance, without
any manner of real alteration in the thing itself, the colours of any object are either changed,
or totally disappear? And now tell me whether you are still of the opinion that every
body hath its true real colour inhering in it: and if you think it hath, I would fain know
farther from you, what certain distance and position of the object, what peculiar texture
and formation of the eye, what degree or kind of light is necessary for ascertaining that
true colour, and distinguishing it from apparent ones.
Hylas: I own myself entirely satisfied, that they are all equally apparent (W-185f.,
A-149f.)

But then Berkeleys reductio is successful. By Hylas own admissions,


given the initial assumptions concerning immediate perception and sensible qualities, metaphysical realism leads to beliefs which are repugnant
to common sense and which force him to confess the greater ignorance
of sensible things. However, Berkeley is not merely raising skeptical conclusions in the passage cited above. He is not only questioning how Hylas
could choose the specific conditions involving such factors as distance
from the perceiver, observational perspective, lighting conditions, and so
on that are supposedly required for observing an objects one true color.
He is suggesting that any such choice would in fact just be an arbitrary
selection of one out of an indefinitely many complex observational conditions. Philonous implies that Hylas cannot offer an objective, perceiverindependent criterion of true color which is necessary for his defense of
metaphysical realism.
Finally, by calling attention to the various ways in which the determinate colors we immediately perceive change relative to the perceiver or perceptual conditions involving the perceiver (e.g. his distance from the object,
his perspective, the constitution and resolving power of his visual organs,
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

308

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

etc.), Berkeley is adding to his lengthy argument in the First Dialogue that
each and every determinate sensible quality exists only relative to perceivers. This dependence of the sensible qualities we immediately perceive
clashes with the assumed absolute independence of the metaphysical realists hypothesized intrinsic qualities inhering in external objects.
Note, again, that this argument from change reveals that the AFM is
not to be interpreted separately from the initial difficulty advanced by
Philonous concerning the variability of the colors of clouds seen at different distances. It is just one among many phenomena which manifest
the relativity of the sensible qualities such as colors we immediately perceive to the distance of the perceiver from the object seen, the perceivers
perspective, and so on. Hylas use of the criterion of close examination
for distinguishing real from apparent colors can be seen as a natural,
almost commonsensical extension of a typical procedure for determining
the color of an object seen at a distance get closer to an object or, failing that, use optical aids such as binoculars to simulate a closer observational perspective. Berkeleys AFM is merely drawing out the absurd
consequences of Hylas metaphysical realist adoption of any such closest survey criterion of real, inherent color.
And, again, it is essential to note that Berkeley himself is not denying
that sensible objects are colored. He is only insisting that the absolute
realist must either deny this or at least find himself a skeptic about such
ordinary beliefs.
It is likewise my opinion that colours and other sensible qualities are on the objects. I cannot
for my life help thinking the snow is white, and fire hot. You indeed, who by snow and fire
mean certain external, unperceived, unperceiving substances, are in the right to deny whiteness
or heat to be affections inherent in them. But I, who understand by those words the things
I see and feel, am obliged to think like other folks. And, as I am no skeptic with regard to
the nature of things, so neither am I as to their existence. (W-229f., A-192; my emphases)

Berkeley is not denying the existence of the purple sky which he refers
to in the fifth sentence of the First Dialogue nor the red and purple
clouds in the initial passages on color; all are sensible qualities immediately perceived. All offer us knowledge of sensible objects. After pointing out to Hylas that the object seen under a microscope is in fact different
from that seen with the naked eye, Philonous continues:
But, in both cases, my aim is only to know what ideas are connected together; and the more
a man knows of the connexion of ideas, the more he is said to know of the nature of things.
What, therefore, if our ideas are variable; what if our senses are not in all circumstances
affected with the same appearances? (W-245, A-207f.)

Berkeley is just insisting that, contrary to the claims of metaphysical


realism, all such sensible qualities exist; however, again contrary to
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

309

metaphysical realism, Berkeley believes they exist only relative to perceivers and do not inhere in external material substance.
At this point in the argument Hylas attempts to salvage metaphysical
realism by altering it significantly. He admits that there is no such
thing as colour really inhering in external bodies, but that it is altogether
in the light (W-186, A-150), admitting that Light and colours, as
immediately perceived by us, I grant cannot exist without the mind. But
in themselves they are only the motions and configurations of certain
insensible particles of matter (W-187, A-151). Philonous makes quick
work of Hylas attempt at scientific realism:
Philonous: Colours then, in the vulgar sense, or taken for the immediate objects of sight,
cannot agree to any but a perceiving substance.
Hylas: That is what I say.
Philonous: Well, then, since you give up the point as to those sensible qualities which are
alone thought colours by all mankind beside, you may hold what you please with regard
to those invisible ones of the philosophers. It is not my business to dispute about them; only
I would advise you to bethink yourself, whether, considering the inquiry we are upon, it be
prudent for you to affirm the red and blue which we see are not real colours, but certain
unknown motions and figures which no man ever did or can see are truly so. Are not these
shocking notions, and are not they subject to as many ridiculous inferences, as those you
were obliged to renounce before in the case of sounds? (W-187, A-151)

Thus, Berkeley again reminds Hylas of their initial agreement that sensible
qualities are those immediately perceived. He merely points out that Hylas
revised metaphysical realism which identifies the sensible quality of color
with unknown motions and configurations leads to the same inconsistencies and clashes with common sense and skepticism as earlier attempts to
identify sensible qualities with unsensed, scientific or theoretical entities.
I believe the above explication of Berkeleys discussion of color exhibits
the correct logical structure of the AFM. However, since recent commentators on this argument have offered radically different versions of
Berkeleys argument, I will now turn to consider and evaluate two prominent defenses of alternative interpretations.

3.
The first commentator to focus exclusively and extensively on Berkeleys
AFM was Bruce Silver.12 Silver charges that what Berkeley presupposes
about microscopic vision in offering the AFM in the First Dialogue is
inconsistent with what Berkeley does and must say about what is seen
through the microscope in the Third Dialogue. More specifically, Silver
claims that Berkeleys attempt to use the AFM and what Ive called the
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

310

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

argument from change to establish that colors cannot exist independently


of perceivers is inconsistent with his later attempt to maintain that there
is no incongruity between his own philosophy and common sense. In
Silvers words,
In order to build a case for his own idealism and also to defend his plea for common sense
against the charge that the use of microscopes calls into question the veracity of the
senses, Berkeley was compelled to embrace two different and, I believe, opposing views as
to what we find under a microscope.13

Silver concludes that Berkeleys statements about microscopes in the


Third Dialogue amount to a denial of what he says in the AFM in support of his attack on Hylas belief in the extra-mental status of colors.
I shall argue that Silver mistakenly claims (1) that Berkeley accepts the
reality criterion of close examination; (2) that in the AFM of the First
Dialogue Berkeley believes that microscopes reveal the nature of objects
better than normal vision; and (3) that Berkeley denies the reality of the
colors we perceive, instead concluding that they are all merely apparent.14
Finally, (4) I shall offer a possible diagnosis of Silvers interpretation of the
AFM emphasizing his failure to see its primary reductio structure.15
Note that I have little difficulty with Silvers reading of the relevant
passages from Berkeley in his Third Dialogue. Moreover, notwithstanding our differences concerning Berkeleys use of the microscope in the
First Dialogue, I believe Silver has raised interesting and pressing issues
for any idealist such as Berkeley concerning the status of microscopic
entities. Further, while I believe Silver has misinterpreted both the argument from microscopes and the argument from change, his misinterpretation is a consequence of two interconnected difficulties, both of which
involve rather subtle exegetical and structural matters.
First, Silver begins his exegesis of the First Dialogue dialectic concerning color by ignoring the essential initial agreements between Hylas
and Philonous that I sketched above, most importantly their acceptance
of Berkeleys conception of immediate perception of sensible qualities,
Hylas metaphysical realism, and their agreement that the true opinion
will be that which results in fewer inconsistencies with common sense and
results in the lesser skepticism concerning our knowledge of sensible
things. Again, the AFM and the AFC take place in the context of
Philonous attempt to convince Hylas that metaphysical realism cannot
account for the reality of colors. Most importantly, rather than just relying on his readers memory of the central initial agreements, Berkeley has
Philonous explicitly restate both essential aspects of Hylas metaphysical
realism and their agreement that the only qualities we see are those sensible qualities immediately perceived.16 It is only against this background
that Hylas is forced, in order to defend metaphysical realism, to try to state
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

311

a criterion for distinguishing qualities which really inhere in external substance from those which are merely apparent.
It is at this point that Silver offers his first quotation from the First
Dialogue concerning microscopic vision. In Silver words, Following
Philonous lead, Hylas responds that the real colors of external objects
are those revealed under the most careful scrutiny, viz., those we discern
through a microscope.
Philonous: Is it not plain from Dioptrics that microscopes make the sight more penetrating,
and represent objects as they would appear to the eye in case it were naturally endowed
with a most exquisite sharpness?
Hylas: It is.
Philonous: Consequently the microscopic representation is to be thought that which best
sets forth the real nature of the thing, or what it is in itself. The colours, therefore, by it
perceived are more genuine and real than those perceived otherwise.
Hylas: I confess there is something in what you say.17

Philonous second statement that the microscopic representation best


sets forth the real nature of the thing, or what it is in itself is totally contrary to Berkeleys empiricism and his rejection of metaphysical realism.
The entire structure of the argument of the First Dialogue is premised on
Berkeleys claim that the nature of sensible objects is entirely revealed
in terms of sensible qualities immediately perceived. There is no real,
hidden nature, over and above all of the sensible qualities we can perceive under all perceptual conditions including using such instruments as
the telescope and microscope. All immediately perceived sensible qualities no matter under what perceptual circumstances reveal the nature of
objects. [T]he more a man knows of the connexion of ideas, the more
he is said to know of the nature of things (W-245, A-208). In fact, contrary to Berkeley, it is only Hylas metaphysical realist who insists on discovering the real nature of matter as it is in itself, that is, without any
relation to other kinds of substances, especially mental substance.
Thus, the passage Silver cites indicates not Berkeleys view of what
is revealed by the microscope but the view Berkeley reasonably attributes
to his seventeenth-century scientific-philosophical opponents. Berkeley is
merely drawing out what he believes to be the logical consequences of Hylas
attempt to salvage metaphysical realism by distinguishing between real and
apparent sensible qualities using the reality criterion of close examination.
One subtlety with respect to interpreting these passages from the First
Dialogue concerns a possible ambiguity involving the distinction between
real and apparent qualities that reflects a difference between a commonsensical and philosophic interpretation of that distinction. Silver states
that the AFM is designed to conclude that all colors are apparent, but he
adds that apparent qualities are those which do not inhere in external
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

312

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

objects: The conclusion Berkeley must have is that all colors are apparent in that none of them inhere in external objects; and the appeal to
microscopic vision is to be understood as solid evidence that colors are
apparent in this sense.18 (My emphasis.)
If inherence in external objects is interpreted philosophically according to Hylas metaphysical realism, this passage from Silver would be unobjectionable. For on this interpretation the conclusion that all colors are
apparent is just part of Berkeleys reductio of metaphysical realism. But
apparent quality can also be interpreted more commonsensically to
mean merely apparent or even non-existent or illusory. On this commonsensical reading, Berkeley would be denying the reality of all nakedeye colors which would be tantamount to denying the existence of such
sensible qualities. Silvers next paragraph suggests that it is this commonsense reading that he imputes to Berkeley. After summarizing the facts of
perceptual variation that Berkeley draws forth in the passages on color,
Silver states: Taken together, Berkeley believes that such radical variation leads ineluctably to the conclusion that all color is merely apparent.19
This becomes even clearer when one considers Silvers next objection
to Berkeleys AFM:
Still, we may ask why examples intended to show that all color is apparent should force us
to conclude that color has no extra-mental existence. Why not simply admit that we cannot,
save through some arbitrary convention, determine the color of a particular body and yet
claim that each object has its own real color nonetheless? Even if we yield to Berkeleys
examples, must our inability to distinguish the actual from the apparent color be taken as
equivalent to the conclusion that the distinction between actual and apparent collapses?20

Clearly Berkeley does not wish to conclude that the distinction between
actual and apparent collapses if this entails denying the reality of all sensible colors including those we see without the aid of microscopes or telescopes. Rather, Berkeley would object to Silvers arbitrary convention
designed to save the metaphysical realists distinction between apparent
and real sensible colors because it cannot be made without any relation
to minds or perceivers. By definition, a convention, especially an arbitrary one, is dependent on human choice. It thus is unavailable to Hylas
metaphysical realist for whom real qualities inhere in external substances
without any relation to minds.21
This ambiguity between a philosophic and commonsense explication of
the distinction between real and apparent qualities may be connected with
Silvers claim that Hylas belief in external color is that of a naive realist, not a philosophical materialist.22 Its unclear whether Silver defines
a naive realist in the traditional manner as one who believes there is no
distinction between the way objects appear to be and the way they really
are. However, Silver apparently believes Berkeley himself was guilty of
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

313

blurring appearance and reality, for he notes with approval the criticisms
of Warnock, Armstrong and others. For example, Silver cites Armstrongs
criticism of Berkeley:
Berkeley has made a serious mistake here. If a book has the sensible quality of blueness,
then we can say The book is blue. But if the book presents me with blue senseimpressions we can say no more than The book looks blue to me.23

Silver adds that Berkeley did not give this kind of criticism serious consideration. He is content to hold that there are no legitimate grounds for
distinguishing between real and apparent colors 24 Silvers last sentence is revealing. For, of course, Berkeley obviously did consider such
ordinary cases as a books looking blue versus its being blue. He merely
wished to emphasize, first, that Hylas metaphysical realist cannot produce a legitimate ground for making such a distinction and, second, that
however one makes the distinction, all the colors we immediately perceive
exist and are relative to or dependent on a perceiving mind.
While I believe the criticisms I have just offered of Silvers account of
Berkeley on microscopes are correct, we have yet to examine why Silver
interprets Berkeleys First Dialogue position in a manner that Silver himself agrees is inconsistent with Berkeleys later statements in the Dialogues.
Behind Silvers interpretation of the First Dialogue which leads him incorrectly to charge Berkeley with accepting the criterion of close examination is his assessment of the logical status of the argument from change
(AFC). Crucially, Silver argues that Berkeleys AFC fails unless Berkeley
assumes that the object we see under the microscope is the same object
as the object we see with the naked eye.
If the same, unaltered object seen first with a microscope and then without one is not
assumed, the argument goes nowhere. There is, after all, no logical absurdity in supposing
that what we see with the microscope and what we see with the naked eye are in fact different
objects altogether.25

Silver later concludes,


Berkeleys defense of the congruity between his own philosophy and common sense in the
Third Dialogue is inseparably tied to his claim that we do not see the same object with a
microscope that we see without it. But this claim cannot follow from anything he says about
microscopes in the First Dialogue since there he maintains precisely the opposite position,
namely, that microscopes do give us a sharper view of the same macroscopic object.

And, of course, this difference between the First and Third Dialogue
accounts is just the conflicting microscopic worlds which Silver finds
objectionable in Berkeley.
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

314

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

Thus, Silvers interpretation of the First Dialogue passage on microscopes rests on his assessment of the AFC. Silver charges that this argument could be of no use to Berkeley unless he assumes that the object
seen under the microscope is the same as that seen with the unaided eye.
First, again, Silvers charge succeeds only if Berkeley is not offering the
AFC as a reductio of metaphysical realism, as I hope to have shown. In
offering the AFC Berkeley is not claiming that we see the same object
which (say) looks red to the naked eye but colorless under the microscope. Rather, there are two purposes behind Berkeleys use of the AFC
at this point in the Dialogues: to further challenge Hylas attempt to
defend metaphysical realism via the apparent/real color distinction (i.e.,
what certain distance and position of the object is necessary for ascertaining that true colour) and to call into question the metaphysical realists assumption that sensible qualities such as colors inhere in external
objects without any relation to perceivers.
Second, and more importantly, instead of seeing Berkeleys AFM and
AFC in the context of a reductio against metaphysical realism, Silver sees
it as an argument for the contention that color exists only as an idea
in the mind 26 and, later, as an argument offered In order to
build a case for his own idealism.27 Thus, his charge is that the AFC is
of no use to Berkeley as a proof of his idealism, i.e., the claim that
nothing exists except minds and ideas. I agree. The AFC would fail if this
were its purpose. But that it isnt is clearly revealed not only by my exegetical efforts above, but by the structure of what follows the AFC. First,
Berkeley explicitly restricts the AFC to sensible qualities. He was clearly
aware that he needed additional arguments to support his idealism.
Specifically, he knew the AFM and AFC could not reach the insensible
qualities and causes of the representative realist. Thus, when Hylas shifts
his position to claim that, rather than inhering in external objects, color
inheres in the light, Berkeley does not attempt to offer a modified AFC
against Hylas new position. Rather, he insists that Hylas has abandoned
what was at issue.
Philonous: Well then, since you give up the point as to those sensible qualities which are
alone thought colours by all mankind beside, you may hold what you please with regard
to those invisible ones of the philosophers. It is not my business to dispute about them.
(W-187, A-151)

And he reminds Hylas of the inconsistencies to common sense such a scientific account of insensible color entails.
I conclude that Berkeley does not intend the AFC to be a proof of idealism and that Silvers contrary belief helps explain his interpretation of
the First Dialogue. At best the AFC is designed to refute metaphysical
realism and suggest that sensible color exists only relative to perceivers.
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

315

Finally, I believe I have adequately established that Berkeley does not


accept the criterion of close examination and that Silvers charges of
inconsistency are not well founded.

4.
We have now laid the groundwork for an analysis of the more recent
interpretation of the structure of Berkeleys arguments concerning the
variability of sensible qualities offered in Margaret Wilsons Berkeley on
the Mind-dependence of Colors. Most importantly, Wilson is very aware
that Berkeley did not intend the AFM or the AFC to stand alone in his
attempt to disprove materialism and offer support for idealism. Contrary
to previous commentators such as Tipton and Pitcher, Wilson sees that
Berkeley offers several interconnected arguments in his discussion of
color. Thus, Berkeleys attempt to establish the mind-dependence of
color by reasoning from perceptual variability or relativity in fact comprehends at least three distinguishable arguments or argument stages.28
Again contrary to Pitcher, Wilson sees that Berkeleys AFM and AFC
are not intended by themselves to establish the non-existence of perceiverindependent color; however, for reasons that will become immediately
apparent, I doubt whether Wilson would accept my own analysis of the
reasons why Berkeley so limits these arguments. Specifically, I believe
Wilson would deny that these arguments concern only sensible qualities
and not insensible causes and that they are primarily intended as reductios of metaphysical realism and not intended as a positive proof of idealism. Finally, Wilson is, I believe quite appropriately, fairly sympathetic
to what she sees as Berkeleys attempt to prove that colors are minddependent though, again, I shall argue that her critique of his attempt
fails to appreciate the logical structure and the significant limitations he
places on the scope of his AFM and AFC.
Like Silver, Wilson believes Berkeley to be internally inconsistent concerning the status of color and other sensible qualities.29 However, Wilson
locates the inconsistency differently in Berkeleys supposed support of
both what she calls phenomenal realism and his idealism. According to
Wilson, Berkeleys phenomenal realism centers around the commonsensical claim that things are, by and large, just as we sensibly perceive them .30 Idealism, on the other hand, consists in the claim that
ordinary objects are only ideas in the mind, or that their existence
consists in being perceived, which Wilson insists is contrary to common
sense.31 While Wilson believes Berkeleys AFM and AFC do provide
serious considerations on behalf of the claim that the colors we normally
attribute to physical things are mind-dependent, she concludes that
Berkeleys defense of the mind-dependence of colors (among other sensible qualities) is itself inconsistent with his phenomenal realism.32
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

316

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

Wilson divides Berkeleys argument on the status of color in the First


Dialogue into three parts: the argument from close examination, the argument from species relativity, and the argument from perceptual relativity.
The argument from close examination concerns Wilsons interpretation
of what I have called the argument from microscopes. After correctly
chastising Pitcher, Tipton and others for accusing Berkeley of creating in
Hylas an easily refutable, naive opponent who blurs appearance and reality, Wilson points out that in the AFM Berkeley has Hylas make a fairly
sophisticated attempt at distinguishing between real and apparent color.
However, unfortunately Wilson interprets the AFM in much the same
manner as Silver. Both claim that Berkeley accepts what I have called the
reality criterion of close examination. Thus, Wilson: Philonous now leads
Hylas on to concede that the nearest and exactest survey of an object
is that made by a microscope, rather than by the naked eye.33 Further,
The presentation of this argument winds up with a defense of the claim that microscopes,
rather than altering the colors through artificial management, in fact provide a more
accurate view of an object, by making our sight more sharp and penetrating. (Microscopes,
Philonous says, represent objects as they would appear to the eye, in case it were naturally
endowed with a most exquisite sharpness. They thus can better discover than the naked
eye the real and natural state of an object; colors that are more genuine and real.)34

Even more compelling proof that Wilson interprets Berkeley as holding the criterion of close examination occurs in the final paragraph as she
states her conclusion that Berkeleys philosophy is incompatible with
common sense:
Most directly incompatible with common sense color ascriptions are the premises of the
argument from close examination: that the true colors of things are only revealed by microscopic examination, and are always different from those that appear to the naked eye (even
under favorable conditions).35

Thus, Wilson, like Silver, fails to see that the AFM is offered as a reductio of Hylas metaphysical realism. Again, Berkeley would never accept
the soundness of an argument which concluded that all naked-eye or
common-sense color ascriptions are merely apparent and not real unless
merely apparent and not real are interpreted not as incompatible
with common sense but only as inconsistent with Hylas metaphysical
realistic interpretation of the apparent/real distinction. The overall argumentative context in which the AFM occurs which is explicitly repeated
at the beginning of the argument involves the agreement that the true
opinion will be that which is closest to common-sense beliefs. Even more,
it would be totally counterstructural for Berkeley to accept the criterion
of close examination. Rather, he is attributing to Hylas a position
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

317

Berkeley believed to be widely accepted by seventeenth-century materialist scientists, that the microscope could more likely lead us to discover
the real, insensible nature of objects than the naked eye.
However, after stating her interpretation of the AFM, Wilsons paper
takes an interesting turn. For she attempts to defend Berkeleys argument
from Tiptons criticisms and suggests that the argument provides at
least a good prima facie case for the claim that all the colors we ordinarily ascribe to objects are perceiver-dependent appearances.36
Tipton claims that one can easily dispose of the AFM by noting that
the standard conditions for determining an objects real color dont
include microscopic inspection.37 Thus, a shopper may take a piece of
cloth outside into the daylight to ascertain its color but would never subject it to microscopic examination. Tipton suggests that the real color
of an object depends instead on standard or ideal viewing conditions for
that kind of object.
Wilson argues that Tiptons response is no more conclusive that
Berkeleys AFM (as they both interpret it). She offers the following consideration which is similar to an example previously discussed by David
Armstrong:38
Imagine you are standing on a terrace, a few yards from a pink wall. At least, the wall looks
pink from this fairly normal wall-viewing distance. Suppose, however, that you approach
the wall, till it is only a few inches from your nose [and] you see that the surface is
composed entirely of small bits of red tile and small bits of white tile mixed together. Would
not this second observation at least somewhat incline you to say that the pinkness you
previously perceived was an appearance arising from your perceptual perspective ? For
myself, I do find that any initial belief in a mind-independent pinkness in the wall would
be subverted in the circumstances described.39

Wilson concludes:
Thus I agree with Berkeleys basic line of thought on this issue, rather than Tiptons
Now if we agree with Philonous claims that, with respect to color, microscopes merely
provide a more close and accurate inspection, and that under powerful enough microscopes no object would look the same color as to the naked eye, then I think the reasoning
sketched provides at least a good prima facie case for the claim that all the colors we
ordinarily ascribe to objects are perceiver-dependent appearances, rather than qualities
really inherent in external things, independent of perception. (Of course this argument
cannot support the general conclusion that all colors are mind-dependent.)40

Again, Wilson interprets Philonous as himself proposing the criterion


of close examination. I believe I have established that Berkeley uses this
reality criterion only to support Hylas futile attempt to defend metaphysical realism from Berkeleys reductio. Finally, note that Wilsons final
parenthetical remark suggests that she is not aware of Berkeleys restriction of the AFM and AFC to sensible qualities.
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

318

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

Nonetheless, Wilson has nicely brought out the kind of consideration


which Berkeley clearly believed offered support for one leg of his idealism, the claim that all sensible color is perceiver-dependent. For most of
his examples given in the AFC involve changing color appearances
depending on changes in the perceiver, his position, perspective, or sensory organs. (Not all do since the lighting conditions neednt be perceiverdependent.) Moreover, structurally I believe Berkeley thought that by
showing that metaphysical realism was false he was offering some support for the claim that sensible qualities exist relative to perceivers. For
Hylas metaphysical realist insists that qualities inhere in external substances without any relation to perceivers or minds. Most of the perceptual examples Berkeley raises here involve cases in which the sensible
quality immediately perceived does appear to be perceiver-dependent.
I should point out that Wilson ends her discussion of the AFM in what
she describes as a rather inconclusive stage claiming only to have shown
that Tiptons effort to refute it is not successful, and that the position
sketched by Philonous has a reasonable intuitive basis.41
Wilson continues her analysis of Berkeleys discussion of color by
sketching and criticizing two additional arguments (or, better, argument
stages) which she finds there: the argument from species relativity and the
argument from perceptual relativity. Briefly, the argument from species
relativity involves the claim that animals with different types of eyes and
visual sensory systems see different colors than we do. Wilsons argument
from perceptual relativity is just her version of part of what Ive called
the argument from change. Unfortunately, Wilsons analyses of both
arguments suffer from the same difficulties which affect her interpretation of the AFM though, admittedly, this is more difficult to argue since
the AFM explicitly involves assuming the criterion of close examination
which Berkeley clearly rejects.
Nonetheless, the other two arguments can also be consistently interpreted primarily as reductios of metaphysical realism. All of these arguments occur within the context of Hylas defense of metaphysical realism.
Hylas tries to show that metaphysical realism does not entail conclusions
repugnant to common sense by attempting to draw a distinction between
apparent colors and those colors which really inhere in external objects
without any relation to minds. All of them conclude that on Hylas
assumptions he is unable to produce any successful criterion for picking
out the one true and real color.
In her evaluation of these latter two arguments, Wilson again correctly
criticizes previous commentators such as Tipton and Pitcher for accusing
Berkeley of the shallow blunder of blurring the distinction between the
real and apparent colors of things.42 She sees that Berkeley is guilty of
such a confusion only if one unjustifiably abstracts a portion of his overall argument concerning sensible color from its context. Nonetheless,
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

319

Wilson herself attacks the argument from perceptual relativity on similar grounds:
The really fundamental failure of Berkeleys concluding argument for the mind-dependence
of colors lies in the fact that the rhetorical question in which it culminates isnt enough to
establish Berkeleys point. Leaving aside strange and special considerations such as those
adduced in the arguments from close examination and species relativity, there seems to be
no great difficulty about specifying standard conditions for determining real colors: we
do it all the time.43

First, Berkeley would object, I believe correctly, to Wilsons characterization of the considerations involved in the AFC and species relativity arguments as strange and special. Nothing is particularly strange or special
about seeing the colors of clouds at a distance nor of Berkeleys attributing
to Hylas the assumption of many of his contemporaries that the microscope
reveals the true nature of things. Equally, while difficult to establish, considerations concerning the color vision of other animals seem particularly
suited to help us understand our own visual system. These matters aside,
my primary objection is to Wilsons appeal to standard conditions accounts
of real color. Such accounts roughly state the following:
X is (truly or really) red
if and only if
X looks red to a normal observer under standard conditions of observation.

If Berkeley were aware of such an analysis, which I find doubtful, it would


clearly be of no use to Hylas defense of metaphysical realism. For, again,
metaphysical realism insists that colors inhere in external objects without
any relation to perceivers. But upon the standard conditions analysis,
real colors are singled out in terms of the colors that are immediately
perceived by normal observers. Further, such accounts must specify normal
conditions of observation which include reference to the perspective, distance and other facts about observers. Berkeley would undoubtedly repeat
his suggestion that Hylas cannot offer a non-arbitrary specification of such
conditions (e.g. what distance is standard or what observational perspective?).44 But, more importantly, Berkeley would merely point out that
any such analysis of real, inherent colors in terms of standard conditions
is essentially subjective and relative, in this case to normal perceivers.
While I do not think Berkeley clearly offered his own analysis of real
versus apparent qualities, two things are suggested by the text. First,
Berkeley insisted that all sensible qualities immediately perceived exist.
While Berkeley could consistently accept the standard conditions analysis of real colors, he would reject any analysis of apparent colors which
questioned or denied their existence. Secondly, Berkeley most likely would
offer an instrumental analysis of real sensible qualities. Among all of
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

320

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

the existent sensible qualities we perceive, some may be more useful in


predicting the others. Thus, discovering the immediate perception of the
bent shape of a stick partially immersed in water is generally not as
useful as the knowledge gained from perceiving its shape out of water.
In the context of his arguments against metaphysical realism, all that
Berkeley insists upon is that he can make the distinction between real and
apparent qualities among sensible qualities immediately perceived, all of
which exist. Thus, Berkeley argues later in the text that using the same
sensible qualities which alone are available to everyone, he can make
whatever distinction between real and apparent qualities that can be made
by a representative realist.
What, therefore, if our ideas are variable; what if our senses are not in all circumstances
affected with the same appearances? It will not thence follow they are not to be trusted; or
that they are inconsistent either with themselves or anything else: except it be with your
preconceived notion of (I know not what) one single, unchanged, unperceivable, real Nature,
marked by each name. (W-245, A-208, my emphases)

In this passage, which concludes Berkeleys discussion of microscopes


in the Dialogues, he insists that the alleged inconsistencies in the sensible
qualities we immediately perceive are of no difficulty to his own position
but only to Hylas metaphysical realism. Again, in a passage in which he
rejects skepticism, Philonous claims:
Upon this supposition [that the reality of things consists in an external absolute existence],
indeed, the objections from the changes of colours in a pigeons neck, or the appearance of
the broken oar in the water, must be allowed to have weight. But these and the like objections
vanish, if we do not maintain the being of absolute external originals, but place the reality
of things in ideas, fleeting indeed, and changeable; however, not changed at random. For,
herein consists that constancy and truth of things which secures all the concerns of life, and
distinguishes that which is real from the irregular visions of the fancy. (W-258, A-221)

I conclude that while Wilson correctly sees that Berkeleys AFM escapes
many of the criticisms traditionally advanced against it, she, like Silver,
mistakenly believes that Berkeley accepts the criterion of close examination and fails to see that the scope of Berkeleys AFM is limited to sensible qualities. Most importantly, I believe I have shown that both Wilson
and Silver misinterpret the logical structure of the AFM. Properly construed, Berkeleys AFM is a reductio ad absurdum of Hylas metaphysical realism. I believe such a reductio interpretation of the AFM not only
fits the text of the Dialogues better than alternative interpretations, but
avoids many traditional objections to the AFM and frees Berkeley from
unnecessary charges of inconsistency.
Department of Philosophy
University of Cincinnati
1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES

321

NOTES
1
Bruce Silver, The Conflicting Microscopic Worlds of Berkeleys Three Dialogues, The
Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976), pp. 3439. Margaret Wilson, Berkeley on the
Mind-dependence of Colors, The Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 68 (1987), pp. 24964.
While nearly all commentators have criticized Berkeleys use of the AFM in the course of
their criticisms of Berkeleys overall dialectic in the Dialogues, only Silver and Wilson explicitly single out the AFM for special critique. Nonetheless, in so far as most commentators
do not appreciate the reductio structure of Berkeleys arguments concerning color, much of
what I argue below applies to the traditional treatment of Berkeleys AFM. For example,
Tipton, like Silver and Wilson, claims that Berkeley advances the AFM and what I shall call
the criterion of close examination as part of an argument that concludes that all we see are
appearances. Thus, Tipton states that it is Philonous who insists on using the criterion of
close examination to discover the real color of an object and who asserts that all colors are
only apparent. I.C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism (London: Methuen,
1974), p. 245. Similarly, Pitcher argues that the conclusion Berkeley draws from the AFM
is that all colors are equally apparent. George Pitcher, Berkeley (London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 104. I argue below that all such interpretations of the AFM are
inadequate and that the AFM does not commit Berkeley to such problematic claims.
2
Berkeley citations from the Dialogues will be first to A.A. Luce and T.E. Jessop (eds),
The Works of Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1949), abbreviated with a W followed by the appropriate page number, then to D.M. Armstrong (ed.),
Berkeleys Philosophical Writings (New York: MacMillan, 1965), abbreviated with an A
followed by the page number.
3
For extended and excellent analyses of the far reaching implications of Berkeleys concept of immediate perception to his philosophy of perception, see George Pitcher, Berkeley
(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977) and especially I.C. Tipton, Berkeley: The
Philosophy of Immaterialism (London: Methuen, 1974).
4
For a list of commentators who accuse Berkeley of making such a confusion between
real and apparent qualities, see footnote 8.
5
W-171, A-135. It is no accident that Berkeley in this the fifth sentence of the First
Dialogue describes the sensible world attributing the color, purple, to the sky, etc. Berkeley
nowhere doubts the existence of any immediately perceived sensible quality, whether it be
the colors of the sky or the fragrance of flowers.
6
It must be acknowledged that some such as John Locke expressed severe doubts about
the realization of this goal.
7
The central importance of these assumptions is made obvious by the fact that Berkeley
has Philonous constantly remind Hylas of them. The following passages occur in A-147ff.
and W-183ff. All emphases are mine.
8
Many commentators accuse Berkeley of such a confusion in large part because they do
not appreciate the reductio structure of Berkeleys arguments concerning color. For example, see G.F. Warnock, Berkeley (London: Penguin, 1969), pp. 152ff.; Don Locke, Perception
and Our Knowledge of the External World (New York: Humanities Press, 1967), p. 109; Phillip
Cummins, Perceptual Relativity and Ideas in the Mind, Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research 24 (1963), p. 205, and I.C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism
(London: Methuen, 1974) pp. 241ff. For an excellent alternative analysis of Berkeleys dialectic, see Robert Muehlmann, Berkeleys Ontology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992).
9
See Konrad Marc-Wogau, The Argument from Illusion and Berkeleys Idealism, in
Charles Burton Martin and D.M. Armstrong (eds), Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of
Essays (New York: Anchor, 1968), p. 342 and Silver, op. cit., note 3, p. 343 for examples
of the claim that Hylas is a naive realist.
10
This criterion was initially suggested by Margaret Wilson, op. cit., whose interpretation of the AFM will be discussed below.

1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

322

PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

11
For those who believe Berkeleys metaphysical realist is a straw man, consider the
following passage from Locke: First, such (qualities) as are utterly inseparable from the
body, in what state soever it be; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all
the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in
every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; John Locke, Essay
Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter viii, section 9, ed. A.C. Fraser (New
York: Dover, 1959).
12
Silver, op. cit., pp. 3439.
13
Ibid., p. 347.
14
Tipton also interprets Berkeley as accepting the first and third of these claims. See op.
cit., p. 245.
15
The differences between Silvers interpretation of Berkeleys appeal to the microscope
and the interpretation of Berkeleys AFM I sketched above are manifested clearly in the
following three passages (my emphases):

I have tried to show that his argument for (a) [secondary qualities cannot exist outside
a perceivers mind] depends on the assumption that a microscope really does provide us
a closer view of the same object we see only imprecisely without its help. Hence, in the First
Dialogue Philonous nowhere hints that microscopes reveal a different object altogether.
Instead, he asks rhetorically whether the real and natural state of an object is better
discovered by a very sharp and piercing sight or by one which is less sharp? And, as we
have seen, both Philonous and Hylas take it to be obvious that microscopes provide us that
sharp and penetrating view of an object that best sets forth the real nature of the thing, or
what it is in itself. This is not a claim which Berkeley modifies or withdraws anywhere in the
First Dialogue. (Silver, op. cit., pp. 347f.)
The naked eye reveals one collection of ideas and the microscope discloses another. It is
only when this distinction is forgotten as it was by Berkeley in the First Dialogue that
we believe microscopes reveal the nature of an object better than normal, unaided vision. (Silver,
op. cit., p. 348)
I have tried to indicate a serious discrepancy in Berkeleys remarks about microscopes in
the Three Dialogues. Berkeleys defense of the congruity between his own philosophy and
common sense in the Third Dialogue is inseparably tied to his claim that we do not see the
same object with a microscope that we see without it. But his claim cannot follow from
anything he says about microscopes in the First Dialogue since there he maintains precisely
the opposite position, namely, that microscopes do give us a sharper view of the same macroscopic object. (Silver, op. cit., pp. 348f.)
16

See the passages cited above at A-147ff. or W-183ff.


Ibid., p. 344 from W-184, A-148f.
18
Ibid., p. 344.
19
Ibid.
20
Ibid.
21
Again, I am not arguing that I think Berkeley has an adequate account of the commonsensical distinction between appearance and reality nor between real and apparent
colors. There are substantial problems with the instrumentalist resolution he offers that
I discussed previously. If Silvers objection to Berkeleys AFM and AFC is that Berkeleys
account of this distinction is more repugnant to common sense than Hylas account,
I might find myself in agreement. However, I dont think this admission affects my exegetical points.
22
Ibid., note 3, p. 343.
23
Armstrong, Berkeleys Philosophical Writings, pp. 89.
24
Silver, op. cit., p. 346.
17

1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

BERKELEY AND THE ARGUMENT FROM MICROSCOPES


25

323

Ibid.
Ibid., p. 343.
27
Ibid., p. 347.
28
Margaret Wilson, Berkeley on the Mind-dependence of Colors, p. 254.
29
Interestingly, Wilson footnotes Silvers charge of Berkeleys inconsistent treatment of
microscopes approvingly. Ibid., pp. 263f.
30
Ibid., p. 250.
31
Ibid.
32
Ibid., p. 252.
33
Ibid., p. 255.
34
Ibid., pp. 255f. Further textual evidence is available below in the quotation given from
p. 257.
35
Ibid., p. 262.
36
Ibid., p. 257.
37
I.C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism, pp. 244f.
38
D.M. Armstrong, Colour Realism and the Argument from Microscopes, in
Contemporary Philosophy in Australia, ed R. Brown and C.D. Collins (London: Allen
Unwin, 1969).
39
Margaret Wilson, op. cit., pp. 256f.
40
Ibid., p. 257.
41
Ibid.
42
While Wilson only mentions Tipton and Pitcher as wrongly attacking Berkeley for this
alleged confusion, she could have extended her attack to most contemporary commentators. See note 8 above.
43
Ibid., p. 262.
44
See C.L. Hardin, Color for Philosophy: Unweaving the Rainbow (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1988) for a devastating attack on standard conditions analyses.
26

1999 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.