Berkeley's Argument and the Perspectivist Fallacy

David Banach




If you can conceive it possible for one extended movable substance, or, in general, for any one idea, or anything like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause
But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for one to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. ... but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them. ... but it does not show that you can conceive it possible the objects of your thought may exist without the mind. To make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do the utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas. (George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, I, 22-23: Berkeley 1962, pp. 75-76)

                 The fact that any conception of a material object is a representation in the mind does not imply that the object of that conception, the material object, is also merely an idea in the mind. It is true that any conception of a material object is an idea in the mind, but it does not follow from this that the object of that conception is merely in the mind as well. Conceptions in the mind can be about objects outside of the mind, and it is commonly thought that Berkeley's argument does not show otherwise. Hence, this argument, upon which Berkeley is willing to put so much weight, is often thought to be obviously invalid because it conflates the properties of a concept with those of the thing the concept represents. I will argue that Berkeley's argument does not make this mistake and that the argument, while still fallacious,  is more subtle and powerful than is commonly thought. In  fact, I will argue that it is a form of argument that is common, and often foundational,  in contemporary thinkers such as Rorty and Putnam, a form of argument I will call the Perspectivist Fallacy. The purpose of this paper is to show that Berkeley's argument, properly interpreted, is a strong version of the Perspectivist Fallacy, to show its similarity to a number of important contemporary arguments, and to show that all of these arguments are in fact fallacious.


The Perspectivist Fallacy


                Before looking directly at Berkeley's argument, we will need to see exactly what the Perspectivist Fallacy is and why it is a fallacy. We will then be able to see more clearly how Berkeley's argument shares the same form as the contemporary arguments of Rorty and Putnam and how all three are based upon the same error.

                The Perspectivist Fallacy is the argument that representations from particular perspectives cannot be true or objective, simply because they are perspectival. There is also a stronger version of the Perspectivist Fallacy which argues that representations from particular perspectives cannot even refer to or be about objects outside of that perspective. (This is the version that I shall attribute to Berkeley.) Before we look at why these types of arguments are fallacies, it will be useful to look at some examples to see just how prevalent these forms of argument are, both in common discourse and in contemporary epistemology:

                The first and most common of these

The Eternal Why:  (Figure 1.) Every representation of reality is just a representation (R1) and needs further justification. But every justification is just another representation (R2), which itself needs justification (R3). In order to determine whether a representation of reality (R1) is true, we need to represent to ourselves the relation or correspondence of the representation to the object (R2). But this second representation is itself merely a representation and its truth must be seen through yet another representation (R3), and so on.

The five year old's version: "Why is the sky blue Daddy? Because different colors of light are absorbed by the atmosphere to different degrees. But why does air absorb light like that Daddy? Because it has a certain molecular structure. But why does the structure absorb light this way Daddy? Because of the nature of light. But why does light have this nature Daddy? Ask your Mother." Each explanation is merely an account which does not carry within itself its own justification; hence, the possibility of a repeated questioning of each account.

Richard Rorty's version: For Rorty, the representation is language, and philosophy is the attempt to justify our linguistic statements by elucidating the way in which language relates to the world. Rorty says in the Preface to Consequences of Pragmatism:

The latter suggestion presupposes that there is some way of breaking out of language in order to compare it with something else. But there is no way to think about either the world or our purposes except by using our language. One can use language to criticize and enlarge itself, as one can exercise one's body to develop and strengthen and enlarge it, but one cannot see language-as-a-whole in relation to something else to which it applies, or for which it is a means to an end. ... Philosophy, the attempt to say "how language relates to the world" by saying what makes certain sentences true, or certain actions or attitudes good or rational, is, on this view, impossible.
     It is the impossible attempt to step outside our skins - the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism - and compare ourselves with something absolute. (Rorty 1983, p. xix)

The attempt to represent the relation between language and the world to determine if there is a correspondence is itself a representation and, as such, needs justification from the outside. Rorty objects to the attempt to use an empirical theory of the relation between representations and the world as a foundation that will guarantee the correspondence of our representations to the world. He says:

... the issue is not adequacy of explanation of fact, but whether a practice of justification can be given a "grounding" in fact. The question is not whether human knowledge in fact has "foundations," but whether it makes sense to suggest that it does - whether the idea of epistemic or moral authority having a "ground" in nature is a coherent one. (Rorty 1979, p. 178)

Rorty answers this question in the negative: "... nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and ... there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence." (Rorty 1979, p. 178)

The Meaning of Life: Every particular action or value can be questioned from some more objective point of view. Every justification of any value is always from some other point of view which itself needs justification. What we do now won't matter 100 years from now, and, even if it did, what matters 100 years from now won't matter from some other point of view. Every value requires external justification. All values that originate from within a point of view cannot be objective and require external justification. (See Nagel,  1986)

"That's Just your Opinion":There is no right answer, because every possible answer is just somebody's point of view. That's just your opinion. (The implication being that simply because it is an opinion from a particular perspective, it can't be objective or correct.)

                Of course, simply calling these arguments fallacious does not make them so. I will attempt to add some argumentative sticks and stones to the name calling.

                The first obvious problem with the argument is that it seems to be a non sequitur. It does not follow directly from the fact that a representation is from a particular perspective that it cannot be objective. If 'objective' means reflecting the object and not merely the subject, then the fact that a representation is perspectival does seem to imply that it cannot be completely objective; but it does not imply that it cannot be partially objective (i.e., that it reflect the object in some of its properties or in some aspect of its form). The fact that a photograph was taken from a particular place with a particular view  of the object does not imply that none of the properties of the photograph are due to, or reflect, the object and not the point of view or the medium of representation. Most versions of the argument simply do not follow unless one takes for granted a particular view of what representations are and how they represent.

                Most versions of the fallacy do in fact take for granted  a particular view of representation and then proceed to show how objective knowledge is impossible because of the very view of representation they assume. The second problem with the Perspectivist Fallacy is that it implicitly assumes a very dubious theory of representation without explicit argument. I call this view the Physical Model of Representation, because it views mental and perspectival representation as self-sufficient objects, using the way that physical objects,  such as pictures,  can serve as representations as a model. To understand most versions of the Perspectivist Fallacy we need to look briefly at this view of representation and how it figures in the arguments of both the weak and strong versions of the fallacy.

                Imagine looking at an object and a physical representation of that object. Take, for example, a statue and the woman it was modelled after. In this case both the object and the representation are contained in the same perception. We perceive their similarities, and we can perceive the correspondences between the statue and the women. This allows us to see, for example, how the elbow of ivory maps onto the elbow of flesh. Thus we can take the ivory as representing the flesh; we project the properties of the woman onto the statue guided by the perceived similarities. The statue represents the woman only in virtue of the complete interpretation of the situation by the observer and the access that he has to both the statue and the woman. (Figure 2) This is a paradigmatic case of physical representation, but it is one that is bound to be incompletely analyzed. It is natural to leave out the part that the observer plays in this situation and attribute the representative qualities of the statue to its similarity to the woman. After all, it is the similarities that guide the projection of the properties of the woman onto the statue. The fact that this projection is an act of the observer, dependent upon his ability to interact perceptually with both the statue and the woman, is easily overlooked. It is this simplified analysis of physical representation that is taken as the paradigm and applied to mental representation.


     The mental image (or the piece of language in modern theories) is seen as a representation or picture. It is thought to function autonomously, apart from the action of an interpreting subject and its interaction with an external object, just as a physical representation seems to. The mental representation is seen as a mental object that represents in virtue of its own properties. Instead of seeing representation as a process of interaction between subject and object and the perspective as the mode or manner in which this interaction is carried out, the representation is reified into an object and the perspective on the external world turned into a view of this mental object, not a view of the external world.  Through a perspective we see only the reified representation not the world; thus, perspectival representation becomes a veil of ideas separating the subject from any independent access to the external object.

                The Perspectivist Fallacy is the argument that objective knowledge, and even reference to external objects, are impossible on this view of representation.  This is completely true. If we only have direct access to the representation and our internal image is our experience of the external object, this image cannot be compared to the external object through some mind's eye that experiences both the image and the external object. There is no way to ascertain the correspondence between internal representation and external object. Every philosophical attempt to ascertain the correspondence between representation and object can only issue in the production of yet another mental representation, since all human knowledge is from a perspective and perspectival knowledge is a view of a representation of the world, not the world itself. (Figure 3) It is this view of representation that is behind Rorty's claim that it is impossible to step outside of our skins (our systems of representation) and that this is what is necessary in order to have objective knowledge of the world:

    It is the impossible attempt to step outside our skins - the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism - and compare ourselves with something absolute. (Rorty 1983, p. xix)


As we shall see, this is also the view of representation that stands behind Berkeley's claim that a representation of an external object is a contradiction in terms: What we see through perspectives are mental objects, ideas, not external objects. Berkeley was one of the first philosophers to realize that when see representations as mental objects without any intrinsic connection to the external world, they no longer can serve their representative function. He was the first to employ the strong version of the perspectivist fallacy, to argue that representations from particular perspectives cannot even represent or refer to external objects.



Berkeley's Argument


                Let us look at how Berkeley's argument involves this stronger version of the Perspectivist Fallacy. As mentioned above, most interpreters (See Bennett 1971: pp. 137-142, Woolhouse 1988: pp. 118-119, and Jones 1969: pp. 287-288 for examples of this interpretation and the criticism that follows it.) view the argument upon which Berkeley was willing to stake the entire issue of the existence of material objects as some instance of the following argument:

1. Assume material objects exist, and try to conceive one existing without being conceived in some thinkers mind.
2. In attempting to conceive a material object existing unconceived, you are attempting to conceive something that is unconceived. This is a manifest absurdity.
By RAA, material objects don't exist.

They then usually add this standard criticism of the argument: The argument makes the obvious confusion between the properties of a concept and the properties of what it refers to. In conceiving a mountain, I don't have rocks in my head. Hence, in conceiving something unconceived, my concept is not unconceived, what it refers to, the external object,  is. The contradiction disappears.

                This interpretation and criticism  of the argument, however, misses the essential point of the argument and its similarity to contemporary arguments. The contradiction in conceiving a material object existing apart from a perceiver does not simply lie in the fact that in conceiving of the object you would become a perceiver of the object through which it would exist as an idea. In the version of the argument that appears in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (Berkeley 1962, pp. 183-192), Hylas is not convinced by the argument given above and claims that the argument shows merely that we cannot perceive material objects directly. Only ideas are perceived directly; material objects are conceived only through the mediation of ideas that represent external objects through their similarity to them. (Berkeley 1962, p. 187) Thus, although we cannot conceive them directly, Hylas argues that external objects existing unperceived are at least possible (Berkeley 1962, p. 189). Philonous answers this by demonstrating that we cannot even represent such objects mediately through our ideas, since our ideas can bear no similarity to anything but an idea and material objects are by definition unlike ideas. Berkeley's argument is really an argument that ideas in the mind cannot even refer to or represent external objects and that, hence, all attempted talk of external material objects "marks out either a direct contradiction, or else nothing at all." (George Berkeley, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge: I, 24. Berkeley 1962, p. 76) The argument correctly interpreted is the following strong version of the Perspectivist Fallacy:

The key premise is the first. If representations are seen as mental objects and perspectives are seen as views of representations rather than views of external objects, then the representation can only serve as a representation, can only refer to something, in virtue of some intrinsic property (similarity for Berkeley). Berkeley was simply the first to see that if one takes what is essentially an interaction between a subject and an object and turns it into a reified entity that is separate from the object, it can no longer fulfill its function as representing or referring to an external object.



Putnam's Version


                Hilary Putnam has recently advanced arguments against the view he calls Metaphysical Realism that have exactly the same form as Berkeley's argument. They are also strong versions of the Perspectivist Fallacy. They argue that it is impossible for representations to represent or refer to external objects outside of the perspective or conceptual scheme from which they originate. For Putnam, the problem is no longer the impossibility of a similarity between mental ideas and extra-mental reality, but the impossibility of independent access to the objects our language is supposed to refer to or represent. He says in the Introduction to Realism and Reason:

Early philosophical psychologists - for example, Hume - pointed out that we do not literally have the object in our minds. The mind never compares an image or word with an object, but only with other images, words, beliefs, judgments, etc. The idea of a comparison of words or mental representations with objects is a senseless one. So how can a determinate correspondence between words or mental representations and external objects ever be singled out? (Putnam 1983 p. viii)

Hence any attempt to philosophically specify the relation between the representation and the object is just another representation, whose relation to reality itself needs to be specified. In his presidential address to the APA, "Realism and Reason," he says:

The problem, in a way, is traceable back to Occam. Occam introduced the idea that concepts are (mental) particulars. If concepts are particulars ('signs'), then any concept we may have of the relation between a sign and its object is another sign. But it is unintelligible, from my point of view, how the sort of relation the metaphysical realist envisages as holding between a sign and its object can be singled out either by holding up the sign itself ... or by holding up yet another sign... . (Putnam 1976, pp. 126-127)

The problem is that any attempt to explain how reference is possible must fail because it will only be more representation or theory. In particular Putnam makes this argument against using a causal theory of reference to explain how representation of external objects is possible. In "Realism and Reason," he says, "Notice that a 'causal' theory of reference is not (would not be) of any help here: for how 'causes' can uniquely refer is as much of a puzzle as how 'cat' can, on the metaphysical realist picture." (Putnam 1976, p.126)  And in "Models and Reality," he adds: "The problem is that adding to our hypothetical formalized language of science a body of theory entitled 'Causal theory of reference' is just adding more theory." (Putnam 1977, p.18)  The argument, in the end, is the same as Berkeley's:  Reference to external objects is impossible. Try to imagine an account of reference to external objects. In doing so you are not representing to yourself the reference relationship, but only a representation or theory of it. Just as you cannot have a concept of a material object that is not a concept, so you cannot have a theory of reference that is not a theory.






                Both Berkeley's and Putnam's version of the Perspectivist Fallacy show the strangely self-defeating nature of the fallacy:  Both arguments assume a view of representation which the arguments that proceed from it show to be mistaken. The strong version of the Perspectivist Fallacy shows that if representations are taken as mental or linguistic objects that have no intrinsic relation to the object they are supposed to represent or refer to, and if perspectives are seen to be views of representations not interactions with or relations to external objects, then representation or reference  will be impossible. That is, representations will not function as representations.

                It is no surprise that when you mistake a relation or interaction between two objects for a third object (and this is the fundamental error involved in the Perspectivist Fallacy), you will no longer be able to explain the relation in terms of this reified object. The Perspectivist Fallacy is similar to reifying the interaction between a bat and a ball (call it the bat-ball relation) and then arguing that it is impossible to hit a baseball with a bat because  the bat-ball relation (now seen as an object, not a relation) must be related to the bat and the ball by two other relations (the bat-(bat-ball relation) relation  and the ball-(bat-ball relation) relation!) which must themselves be related to their relata by third relations, which must themselves be related ... Of course, this is also the similar to the third man argument, which analyzes the similarity between two objects as yet another object, whose similarity to the first two objects must itself be explained by another object, and so on. The Perspectivist Fallacy  assumes  a model of representation that views the act of representing as a reified object and, hence, makes reference and representation impossible.  It then goes on to argue that reference to extra-mental objects is impossible. The conclusion is not surprising, since the view of representation upon which the argument is based is self-defeating.

                The same holds of  the view of objectivity of perspectival knowledge involved in the weaker versions of the Perspectivist Fallacy.  Objectivity requires that the representation reflect the object and not the perspective from which the representation arises. But since a perspective is seen as a view of the representation only and not a relation to the object, every perspectival representation can reflect or represent only another representation or perspective, not reality itself. The attempt to justify our representations only results in more representations.

                Since any perspectival representation is subjective, objectivity can only be reached by multiplying the number of representations we have of an object in order to broaden our view and to reduce the biasing influences of any one perspective. The aim is to reduce the perspectival nature of our representation. To get a representation that takes into account all views and is, hence, a view from nowhere in particular. That this model of objectivity is self-defeating can be seen from the following analogy:

The Amazing Perspectivist Platform: Imagine a platform being built to reduce the amount of load carried by any one of its supporting beams. In order to reduce the load carried by any particular beam upon which the platform rests, the number of beams is increased. Imagine also that as each beam that is added, we whittle a little bit of wood off of all the beams, including the one we add. As more beams are added the strength of each beam is decreased, but this is OK because the portion of the load that each carries is also decreased as we add more. This lessens the load on each beam and decreases the degree to which the platform depends on each beam. The ideal limit of this process is obvious. As you add more and more beams the width of the beams and the weight supported by each will approach zero. This is an attempt to get a platform held up by so many beams that it isn't held up by anything at all.

This analogy makes clear the the fundamental incoherence involved in the view of objectivity assumed by the Perspectivist Fallacy.  It is an attempt to get a representation that does not reflect any perspective or medium, a God's eye view. It is the attempt to get a non-perspectival perspective, a representation that isn't a representation. This is the project Rorty and Putnam criticize, and it is not surprising that the project is impossible since it assumes a self-defeating model of objectivity.

                The analysis of the problems involved in the Physical model of Representation are indeed correct. But they should lead us to question this model of representation rather than to question the possibility of reference and representational knowledge themselves. When a view of representation implies that representation is impossible, it is time to get a new theory of representation, not to conclude that representation is really impossible. The Perspectivist Fallacy assumes, without argument, that a certain view of representation is true and that certain conclusions about the possibility of knowledge and reference then follow. I have tried to suggest that the view of representation that is assumed mistakes what is essentially a relation or interaction between the  subject and the object for a self-subsisting object. Even if I do not at this time explain what a view of representation that did not make this mistake would be like, the minimum conclusion that must be drawn from this analysis is that it is incumbent upon those who employ the Perspectivist Fallacy to make explicit the assumptions they are making about the nature of representation and to defend them. The rhetorical point of the comparison to Berkeley was that most contemporary proponents of the Perspectivist Fallacy would repudiate Berkeley's version of the argument because they no longer share Berkeley's assumptions about the nature of representation. Yet, their arguments are directed at this view of representation and their  general conclusions about the possibility of objective knowledge and reference depend upon the assumption that this view of representation is correct. My claim is that their arguments merely show that a Physical Model of Representation is untenable, not that representation of external objects itself is impossible.

                The Perspectivist fallacy ignores the possibility that representation is an act, not a property of a physical object in isolation from a representer. To show that it is a fallacy I need not demonstrate that such a view of representation is true; I need only show that it is possible. If representing is an act in which we directly interact with the world, particular perspectives must not only become bearers of knowledge, but the foundations of all knowledge. Perspectives are not veils of ideas, they are vistas onto the external world. Perspectives are not windowless rooms from which there is no escape. They are themselves windows on the world. They give a limited and incomplete view of the world, but a view none the less.




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Berkeley, George. 1962.  A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Lasalle: Open Court, 1962.


Jones, W.T. 1969. A History of Western Philosophy,Volume III: Hobbes to Hume (2cnd edition).  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1969.

Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. See especially Chapter XI, pp. 214-222.


Putnam, Hilary. 1976.  "Realism and Reason." In Meaning and the Moral Sciences. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.


   1977. "Models and Reality."  In Realism and Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 1-25.


   1983. Realism and Reason.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.


Rorty, Richard. 1979.  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.


   1983. Consequences of Pragmatism.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.


Woolhouse, R.S. 1988. A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 5: The Empiricists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

© 2006 David Banach 

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