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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Nols, Carmen


Zeichenhafte Wirklichkeit. Realität als Ausdruck der kommunikativen Präsenz Gottes in der Theologie George Berkleys


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2011. IX, 305 S. = Collegium Metaphysicum, 2. Lw. EUR 59,00. ISBN 978-3-16-150793-9.


Douglas Hedley

A son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet and metaphysician, died young while S. T. Coleridge was learning German and studying at the university of Goettingen in 1799. His name was Berkeley Coleridge. The name of the tragic infant of the poet reveals something of a lineage that conflicts with the traditional triumvirate of British Empiricism: Locke, Berkeley and Hume. George Berkeley may be seen, more helpfully I think, between the Cambridge Pla-ton­ists Ralph Cudworth and Henry More and the nineteenth century S. T. Coleridge.
In her lucid and well structured monograph Carmen Nols endeavours to correct the ubiquitous view of Berkeley as a brilliant reasoner who exposed the inadequacies of Locke’s theory of mind and paved the way for the genius of Hume. Berkeley, on this view, is the brilliant exponent of a quixotic subjective idealism. It is an irony of intellectual history that interest in Berkeley was revived in the early twentieth century just as the concept of ›mind‹ was being denied any existence at all (eliminativism), deemed causally irrelevant (epiphenomenalism) or translated into another category altogether (behaviourism)! Berkeley’s arguments against Locke’s metaphysical agnosticism concerning some of the key problems raised by Descartes’s legacy (e. g. the controversy surrounding Locke’s discussion of ›thinking matter‹) was routinely viewed as a brilliant reductio ad absurdum with an untenable theology attached. By rescuing him from this well entrenched distortion and misrepresentation, N. hopes to reveal the power and suggestiveness of Berkeley for contemporary philosophy and theology. One of the strengths of this book lies in the fact that the author is both philosophically and theologically acute and astute. Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753) can be seen as particularly relevant for contemporary thought because of the linguistic turn and Wort-Gottes Theologie of the Tuebingen school in particular, Juengel, Dalferth, Schwoebel. Re-ality itself becomes the linguistic medium of the creator Deity. Berkeley was not just a Bishop in 1734 but, much earlier in 1717, was a lecturer in Divinity.
N. begins with an account of the tenet ›esse est percipi‹: a helpful if not particularly original discussion. The second chapter is on the existence of the Christian God. The third chapter is concerned with the finite spirit. In this section N. deals with topics such as the imago Dei, self-knowledge or the immortality of the soul. N. gives a good account of Berkeley’s attack on the intelligibility of an inert, extended unperceiving substance, i. e. matter, and his ingenious critique of abstract ideas. Berkeley demolishes Locke’s own scep-tical realism and Locke’s representational theory of the mind by exploiting some of the problems in the Lockean conception of mental images. N. shows how Berkeley links the view of the vulgar that they perceive realities and the view of the philosophers that we view ideas in his theocentric metaphysics. The fourth chapter is on the knowledge of God. Other topics are the relation between faith and reason, special and general revelation, creation, christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. N. deftly weaves together the metaphysical and theological dimensions of Berkeley’s thought in a nuanced and elegant manner. The writing is admirably clear.
N. is quite correct to point out the question of mind and theol-ogy are intertwined. Berkeley’s postulation of a mind superior to the finite mind is both religious and metaphysical. If one were to challenge Berkeley that he was illicitly smuggling a religious idea into an otherwise philosophical argument, he would have presumably been nonplussed. N.’s employment of a dialectical-dialogical Lutheran paradigm for Berkeley’s thought in wake of contemporary German philosopher theologians like Schwoebel or Dalferth works well. Berkeley was attacking Deism and his stress upon our engagement in God’s created order is a dimension of his thought that N. stresses. One might note that Berkeley is a neat instance of the inadequacy of views of Early Modern Philosophy as determined by a shift to human subjectivity. Esse est percipi does not mean that reality is constructed by finite subjectivity. As in the case of Descartes, Spinoza, Male-branche, Leibniz, God has not disappeared. On the contrary, God, for Berkeley, is the sine qua non of his philosophical system.
My major criticism regards N.’s view of Berkeley’s relation to Platonism, which she downplays. Since the seventeenth century one can observe a striking conflict in the philosophy of mind between the adherents of the unavoidability of God and the soul, and the proponents of strict materialism. Is the conscious mind a relic of exploded science like the ›humours‹; or perhaps a well entrenched illusion that modern science disqualifies – like geocentric and common-sense conviction in the sun ›rising‹ in the East and ›setting‹ in the West? Locke resisted the hard materialism of figures like Hobbes but he did not follow the resolute idealism of the Cambridge Platonists for whom ›God is the most knowable of any thing in the world‹ and for whom God is a mind ›senior to the world, and the architect thereof‹ mind superior to the world. Berkeley is, I think, pursuing a critique of materialism that has its roots in the Cambridge Platonists. For this reason I think that the late Platonic Siris of 1744 is not merely an odd aberration but reflects in the distinct mode old interests and obsessions of Berkeley. On footnote 155 on p. 72 N. remarks upon parallels between Berkeley and Augustine, observing that Augustine defines matter as unintelligible. Yet this is a Platonic/Neoplatonic principle! Or on p. 201 note 188 N. stresses the importance of Plato’s doctrine of the soul for Berkeley. I suspect that the legacy of the Platonists is much deeper in Berkeley than N. admits.
Zeichenhafte Wirklichkeit is a fine book to recommend as an introduction to Berkeley’s philosophical theology. There is an extensive and complex secondary literature on Berkeley’s philosophy, which N. covers judiciously. The volume is very handsome: the bibliography is extensive and useful and the index is handy. This work is particularly valuable since it links elegantly Berkeley’s strictly philosophical with his theological interests.