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The Relationship of Being and Perception in Enlightenment Philosophy

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Vassar College

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  1. Introduction
  2. Berkeley's metaphysical idealism
  3. Descartes' establishment of the essence of material things
  4. The philosophical adventures of Descartes and Berkeley
  5. Berkeley's empiricist epistemology
  6. Berkeley's criticism of rationalism's abstract tendency
  7. The idealisms of Leibniz and Berkeley
  8. Conclusion

The philosophical efforts of the Enlightenment thinkers were based on the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology. Descartes, Leibniz and Berkeley progress in their understandings of being by refining the means by which they are able to make justified claims to knowledge. In a conversation framed around Berkeley's ?to be is to be perceived,? one could phrase the Cartesian rational dualism as ?to be is to apperceive,' and the Leibnizian rational idealism as ?to be is to perceive.' These three formulations typify each philosopher's combination of metaphysics and epistemology while demonstrating how each wrote in response to the connected historical discourse in which they participated. The rationalist epistemology employed by Descartes and Leibniz gives way to the empiricism of Berkeley in his attempt to ground abstract epistemological claims in actual experience.

[...] Souls are ?images of the universe of creatures, but minds are also images of the divinity itself With respect to qualities of monads, Leibniz equates action with distinctness of perception, and passion (passivity) with confusedness of perception (239b). Thus the active agency of God (in Berkeley's terminology) is a quality of the distinctness of perception proper to His place as the limit on the monadological continuum, and those beings less able than him are endowed with apperception to the degree of their lesser activity. [...]

[...] but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived through their being touched . but only through their being understood The process of rational epistemology facilitates sensory perception of body. In the philosophy of both Descartes and Berkeley, the perception of body is thus dependent on a rational mind to perceive sensory ideas. While both philosophers use the interaction of body and idea to explicate their greater projects, the meaning of ?idea' itself differs in the Cartesian and Berkeleyan epistemologies. [...]

[...] Does the faculty of perception in the perceiving being create that which is as a result of its being perceived? Is that which perceives thus a causal agent of that which is being perceived? Berkeley observes that this is an incorrect interpretation, because ?ideas . are visibly inactive- there is nothing of power or agency included in them Instead, the agency required to animate ideas in the mind derives from Spirit, ?whose will constitutes the laws of nature Yet because this notion of spirit is an abstract one, it is by Berkeley's own criteria of no epistemological value, and so his critique of abstraction grinds to a halt. [...]

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