Some Notes on Berkeley and the After-life
George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne is remembered today for a few things. Most acquainted with the history of philosophy would recognize him as the second figurehead of British empiricism, wedged between two other thinkers who are quoted far more often than Berkeley. They might also recall that Berkeley proposed the infamous esse est percipi (“existence consists in being perceived”). Those acquainted with the works of the speculative realists would recognize Berkeley to be the figurehead said realists put forth of “strong correlationism”. Those in the analytic school, specializing in the idealistic phase of the history of philosophy, would know of Berkeley as something they have been working on for years. I too know of Berkeley as a thinker I myself am working on, though I shall not tell you that I am a Berkeleyan per se (hence the quotation marks), or even a Berkeley scholar, among other titles which are all reserved, as per academic customs, for those ripe with degrees and tenures in philosophy departments. I shall only discuss here in the passing a little attempt on my part of reworking several elements in Berkeleyanism. I cannot resist doing so, since these thoughts have troubled me from as early as when I came across them in my first reading of Berkeley. Hence, I refer to this piece only as “notes”, if only so that a few years later, I shall not be much too embarrassed upon rereading this.
On Berkeleyan after-lives and -worlds
In a Berkeleyan world, there are spirits and ideas. Ideas come in successions. We perceive the particular order these ideas came in and came to think of particular sets of ideas as “things”. Spirits are the active agents producing ideas. Among these spirits, more “powerful” spirits (God) also imprint ideas upon other spirits (human spirits). The human spirits receiving these ideas, in turn, can only copy and represent these ideas (Principles of Human Knowledge [hereafter PHK] Part. 1 passage 90). The former was held to be more regular, coherent, and vivid, and the latter, irregular, incoherent.
Berkeley also attempted to justify the Christian (Anglican, specifically) sense of the afterlife in his writings. Death was, for Berkeley, not the extinguishment of this being which I am, but a change of state. The world which is given to me empirically whilst living ceases to be given, and the afterlife which consists also of ideas, begins to be imprinted upon me. What is in question here though is not whether this afterlife exists, but how it is that Berkeley knew of this afterworld, without having perceived it, as something distinct from this present world? There is no knowing this to be the case, since those ideas constitutive of this afterworld have not been imprinted upon us yet. It was all hypothetical, informed by biblical accounts and confirmed only upon death.
What though can we in the 21st century say of this after-life and -world whilst living? Since it could only be hypothetical in the first place, we may do whatever we wish with it, to be sure. This would give us enough cause, for the atheistic among us especially, to dismiss it altogether. We may well think of this hypothesis as something instrumental to wider regimes of meaning whose interrogation should be prioritized over any interrogation of after-lives and -worlds (e.g. the enshrinement of war criminals in Yasukuni shrine and WWII imperial Japan). This is most assuredly true, but its uses by said regimes also revealed a potency in the thought of the after-life and -world. This potency calls for a reappropriation of this thought.
To this end, we may consider carefully Berkeley’s treatment of the afterlife. We would notice first that it presupposed not only the continuation of the spirit after death but also the continued structure of this spirit paired up with the ideas imprinted upon it and those it produces by itself. In this sense, we may say this presupposed continuity actually resembles the knowledge of other minds attainable in Berkeleyanism. As with other minds, Berkeley was confronted with something which he had no way of showing empirically or transempirically (he held spirits to be imperceptible empirically, while we know only intuitively of our own spirits, and no other). Therefore, he chose to apply some of the knowledges he had of himself upon the unknown and tempered this with the remainder of his knowledge. As regards other minds, he began with his own self-knowledge of himself as a spirit with the power of producing ideas, but then noted that not all ideas were produced by him, leading him then to infer that there must exist some other spirit producing those ideas unaccountable as his own. Of these ideas unaccountable as his own though, he also noted that they were far more regular and coherent than his own productions, hence leading him to characterize this other spirit as wise, benevolent, etc. (PHK Part. 1 passage 28–30) As regards afterlives, he depended upon both his self-knowledge1placeholder and empirical knowledge presumed that the current structure of spirit/ideas would persist after death, whilst also speculating that the ideas given to the spirit after death would be different from the ones given in life.
The problem arises here, however, that he had no ground whereby he could justify his speculation that the afterworld (ideas given after death) would be different from the ones given in life. If anything, we would be more reassured if we argue that the current world would only continue to be imprinted upon our senses after our deaths, because our prior perceptions all deal with ideas constitutive of the current world. Furthermore, Berkeley offered no argument against the possibility of this current world continuing to be imprinted upon our senses after our deaths, since he was persuaded of the afterlife by his own faith. Hence, we may say that Berkeley’s treatment of the afterlife actually left us with two options: since the spirit would continue to have ideas imprinted upon its senses even after death, it would either receives ideas constitutive of the current world or ideas constitutive of a new world distinct from the current one. To be entirely certain — and our certainty is supplied by prior perceptions which already rule out the option of a new world — we should have more cause to think the same world would continue to be imprinted upon our senses even after we die. The only means by which we know of an object unknowable empirically or transempirically is by a copy-and-pasting of our knowledges and corrections via our own knowledges (only when promoted). Hence, we can only think of ourselves as living on forever in this world, so long as we live in this world. Anything else would require guesswork confirmable only upon death.
On our own deaths
Indeed, even the thought of death can only be another such guesswork. Heidegger told us that deaths, specifically our own deaths, are always deeply, irreducible private. We know this well when we witness the deaths of others whereby we are made to feel a certain sense of loss. This loss, however, is nothing like the “loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffer[ed]’”. We are at best simply “there alongside” the dead (Heidegger 282). Thus it is that the deaths of others tell us nothing of the deaths suffered by the deceased themselves, much less of our own deaths. The everyday talk of death among others also tells us nothing of our own deaths. When we refer to death as something which “certainly comes, but not right away”, its indefiniteness as something “possible at any moment” is always covered up, as if a piano could not fall from above and crush me as we speak (302). In a word, what is given by others tells us nothing of our own death. All the knowledge of the rate of decay of human bodies, funerary rites, and tabloid discussions of death could tell us nothing of our own deaths. Now, I may still make an effort, as commended by Heidegger, of framing the given within my fate to die, annex my possibilities in this world to my dying being. In so doing, we would, at long last, face death head-on, authentically, resolutely, but Heidegger also made it clear that this was not a mandatory effort. In everyday life, primarily and for the most part, we simply go along with the everyday talk which covers up the indefiniteness of death.
Here I would like to forward an alternative of dropping altogether the thought of our own deaths, under inspiration from what Heidegger would call our everyday being-towards-death. I would like to think of this from within Berkeleyanism and, in so speaking, we are naturally confined to an inferior method2placeholder and an inauthentic life contra Heidegger, according to Heidegger. Now, we know that others shall die, would die, and have died. We know too that one day we may die. This foresight is supplied us by myriad means: education which teaches us that human and all living beings must one day perish, the everyday talk about death as something bound to come to us all, the deaths of others we have witnessed in families, on the roads, etc. None of this tells us, however, of our own deaths. Hence, there is no idea imprinted upon our senses by others constitutive of our own deaths at all. Our promised death then becomes an empty promise: the thought that we shall one day die corresponds to no idea imprinted upon our senses at all, at least not while we still live.
In simultaneity, this means when we anticipate our own deaths, we draw only upon the imprinted deaths of and talked about by others, but never upon any given sense of the loss-of-Being suffered only by the deceased. Of course, we may still follow Heidegger’s cue in conceiving death in terms of our myriad possibilities of being in this world whilst living, as a “way to be”, a being-towards-death (289). That said, so long as the ultimate loss-of-Being is not given empirically, we cannot anticipate at all this loss-of-Being. If we cannot anticipate this loss-of-Being but still wish to conceive death as a way to be, we should more properly think of death solely in terms of our ways to be, without reference to anything not given to our senses. In other words, we have no cause to put at the farthest end of our anticipated ways to be this mysterious loss-of-Being; we have no cause to think of our way to be as having any end at all. Death would then consist only of interlocking possibilities of being in this world. “Death” would become a mere misnomer. We would do better to call the unending way to be, which death has become without its ultimate loss-of-Being, “life” or “living”. This also holds a profound consequence for our own empirical knowledge of ourselves. What we know empirically of ourselves consists of ideas imprinted upon our senses prior, and in terms of the ordering observed among these ideas, we know to anticipate certain outcomes to our own actions. In other words, we know what we are capable of “causing” empirically in terms of imprinted ideas. Since the loss-of-Being is not given at all to us, we have no cause to think ourselves capable of death. The thought that we can die would have to be reserved for those who have died before.
To this, we must also add our certainties that this world, where others die and speak of death, would go on forever. Even if we do die, it would be as if our deaths never happened; as if death was of no consequence, no more than a bump on the road.
Our afterlife consists then in our failure to anticipate anything after death except the indefinite continuation of life. Our immortality consists, empirically at least, on our failure to anticipate our own death, to know ourselves capable of death and what comes after. Though afterlives and immortality are, by our modern sensibilities, mere fictions, this should nevertheless give us cause to live as if we could never die, which, as far as we could guess, we could not — even if this was what Heidegger called a rather “fallen” state of being. This should give us cause to live as if death was of no consequence. If we are suspicious of God, afterworlds, and other things not imprinted upon our senses, we should also be suspicious of our promised deaths.
On Berkeleyan self-interest
What passes for self-interest should certainly also be adjusted in terms of our immortality. To this end, I would like to examine carefully select passages from a political treatise written by Berkeley entitled “Passive Obedience”.
Berkeley began by declaring self-interest (“self-love” in his words) “a principle of all others the most universal, and the most deeply engraven in our hearts” (passage 5). Immediately after though, he argued that self-interest must be pursued not in terms of any benefit to be found in this world, which was “altogether inconsiderable… ‘less than nothing’ in respect of Eternity”. To the contrary, he would have us pursue instead our “eternal interest” (passage 6). Let us note here though that, be it our interests in this current world or in the world after, both must have been imprinted upon our senses by God as successions of ideas where pleasures and pains succeed so and so act. The imprinting of said successions made possible the gauging of our own activities in terms of our self-interests. It should be no surprise then that, by passage 7, Berkeley was calling for us to “trace out Divine will” which wished for the well-being of all of humanity and locate “methods most directly tending to the accomplishment of [divine] design”. By passage 12, this tracing-out was developed into obedience to “laws of nature” (manifest in the order among ideas) set forth by God, and supported by civil government (passage 16). Whether there was an after-life or -world, whether this claim was justified or not, was of no consequence to the subsequent arguments, where the emphasis was on given laws and our relations to those laws. Berkeley was then not so much arguing that we looked forward to some indefinite future for rewards and retribution’s, as that self-interest was to be conceived as something already decided within the given. There existed already particular paths through the successions of ideas which would guarantee the greatest happiness for myself and/or others in this world. Our task is simply to uncover these paths.
Berkeley’s eventual turn towards obedience in this essay was prompted by his recognition of the narrowness of human perception which could neither “[know] all the hidden circumstances and consequences of an action”, nor know the particular sense of morality in others (passage 9). Hence, the task of uncovering the paths within the imprinted world could no longer, for Berkeley, be entrusted to active individual efforts. Instead he called for “the observation of certain, universal, determinate rules of moral precepts, which, in their own nature, ha[d] a necessary tendency to promote the well-being of the sum of mankind” (passage 10). Let us note here though that this turn drew on premises other than the mere conception of self-interest as decided within the given. Laws of nature exist and the successions of ideas are “rigged” almost such that doing A would be far more pleasant than B, and so on. Nowhere does it imply though that these laws must promote any sort of universal well-being. How did universal well-being come into the picture? It came into the picture when Berkeley held God to desire the well-being of humanity, such that to work towards universal well-being was as much a civic duty as a member in the global village as a duty towards God. Duty towards God, in turn, must be fulfilled because of the promise of rewards and retributions after death (passage 6). However, much like the existence of an after-life and -world which was secondary to the premise that a world with its laws was imprinted upon us, the will of God underpinning this world and its laws is equally omissible.3placeholder It then follows that our games within this world and given laws of nature need not aim for the goal of universal well-being at all. We may chart courses through successions of ideas which privilege only our own pleasure. We may even, within what we know of others, chart courses which seek to maximize the miseries of others. None of this would be in opposition to the premise whereby there are, given to us, a world and its laws, and which does no prescribing, does not advocate or dissuade us from any way of living.
To Berkeley’s call for obedience, I would like to call for a plainer alternative where we strip away any appeal to things not or not yet imprinted upon our senses, a la after-lives and -worlds, a la my own death. The pursuit of self-interest must be understood as a matter of charting courses through a given world and given laws. This is also to say that this pursuit can only be made on the basis and within limits of what is imprinted upon our senses. Our own deaths and what shall come after death are two things which shall always evade our senses. They are then two things we must do without. However we wish to live, our pursuits must be made as if we cannot die, as if we shall forever live in this world.
Berkeley, George. “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge”. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne Volume 2, edited by A A Luce and T E Jessop, Thomas Nelson Ltd., 1967.
Berkeley, George. “Passive Obedience”. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne Volume 6, edited by A A Luce and T E Jessop, Thomas Nelson Ltd., 1967.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row, 2008.
Though I cannot go into details concerning this self-knowledge here, I think it worth noting at least that Berkeley held self-knowledge to not consist of ideas, but exist as a “notion” (PHK Part. 1 passage 27, 140, 142, etc.).
By this I mean that we would be thinking of our own deaths as both the loss of our possibilities of being in this world, and in terms of our own being-towards-death. Heidegger has held the treatment of our own deaths as the mere “end” of our worldly lives improper, since this would mean treating human beings as something like a nonhuman equipment (something present-at-hand or ready-to-hand, in his terms) (289).
See here Helen Yetter-Chappell’s “Idealism without God” in Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, where she argued that the personalities, dispositions, etc. of God could be detached from the sensory experiences of God, which alone was required to sustain the world as given to our senses.