Friday, April 02, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 20

Esse est Percipi

This is the famous Latin dictum summarising the core of George Berkeley's philosophy, and it also forms part of the title of James Hillman's fifth chapter of The Soul's Code.  Now who was George Berkeley, pronounced "Barkley," though we Irish always pronounce it as it is spelt.  George Berkeley (1685 – 1753), was also known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne, that is, Church of Ireland Bishop).  Briefly he was of Anglo-Irish extraction  and a philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory contends that individuals can only know directly their own sensations, and any ideas they get are only intellectual reflections on those perceptions.  Hence we can never get to know objects qua objects, or objects in themselves.   In other words we can never get to know abstractions such as "matter". The theory also contends that ideas are dependent upon being perceived by minds for their very existence, a belief that became immortalized in the dictum, "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived").  Anyway, I remember when I was studying this topic back in the late 1970s that the conundrum of whether something exists or not when there is no one around to perceive it was solved when Berkeley averred that it certainly did exist because it existed in the mind of God.  I also remember the famous limerick penned by the famous Ronald Knox and the equally astute anonymous response to that limerick, also in the form of a limerick.  I'll put them both hereunder as they are very witty and perhaps they also contain not a little wisdom:

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there's no one about in the quad."

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

Now, Hillman does not go into any reflection upon the "esse est percipi" of Bishop Berkeley, but rather accepts it as an obviously valid statement.  Obviously he is no philosopher, and consequently is not into challenging its premises.  He is a psychologist, and an archetype psychologist at that, who merely sees here a good theory to back up his own theory of the accorn.  Our psychologist, then, takes the "esse est percipi" as a funamental principle which can support his own myth of the acorn.  In other words, Hillman points out that it takes others to point out or to perceive the acorn in others.

Examples of this would me a soccer or base ball scout, or indeed a scout in any sport, spotting talent.  He perceives the promise of the acorn in the young player.  Likewise in the Arts.  Often an experienced musician will spot the talent in a younger musician or a teacher or lecturer the talent in a student.  Other examples would be mentoring where often older men and women take younger men and women under their wing.  Once again here Hillman gives examples from various lives and biographies of real people he has either encountered or read about.  As I sit here now typing these words I think of the way the young Beckett was befriended by the older Joyce and how such an artistic and literary friendship grew between them.  Our psychologist calls these relationships "perceptual."  He then states quite wonderfully and wondrously that these are attractions, based on the Imagination and not on thge genitals. (See The Soul's Code, p. 121)  Once again he avers that "failures in relationships come down to failures of imaginative perception." (Ibid., p. 124)

Hillman advances some reflections on the God question with respect to the "esse est percipi" of Berkeley, but these points are beyond the scope of these musings here.  Perhaps later posts at some future date will find me exploring that great metaphysical question.

Above a picture of George Berkeley, Bishop and Philosopher.

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