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An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision (Author: George Berkeley)

Section 121

We have shown the way wherein the mind by mediation of visible ideas doth perceive or apprehend the distance, magnitude and situation of tangible objects. We come now to inquire more particularly concerning the difference between the ideas of sight and touch, which are called by the same names, and see whether there be any idea common to both senses. From what we have at large set forth and demonstrated in the foregoing parts of this treatise, it is plain there is no one selfsame numerical extension perceived both by sight and touch; but that the particular figures and extensions perceived by sight, however they may be called by the same names and reputed the same things with those perceived by touch, are nevertheless different, and have an existence distinct and separate from them: so that the question is not now concerning the same numerical ideas, but whether there be any one and the same sort of species of ideas equally perceivable to both senses; or, in other words, whether extension, figure, and motion perceived by sight are not specifically distinct from extension, figure, and motion perceived by touch.

Section 122

But before I come more particularly to discuss this matter, I find it proper to consider extension in abstract: for of this there is much talk, and I am apt to think that when men speak of extension as being an idea common to two senses, it is with a secret supposition that we can single out extension from all other tangible and visible qualities, and form thereof an abstract idea, which idea they will have common both to sight and touch. We are therefore to understand by extension in abstract an idea of extension, for instance, a line or surface entirely stripped of all other sensible qualities and circumstances that might determine it to any particular existence; it is neither black nor white, nor red, nor hath it any colour at all, or any tangible quality whatsoever and consequently it is of no finite determinate magnitude: for that which bounds or distinguishes one extension from another is some quality or circumstance wherein they disagree.

Section 123

Now I do not find that I can perceive, imagine, or any wise frame in my mind such an abstract idea as is here spoken of. A line or surface which is neither black, nor white, nor blue, nor yellow, etc., nor long, nor short, nor rough, nor smooth, nor square, nor round, etc., is perfectly incomprehensible. This I am sure of as to myself: how far the faculties of other men may reach they best can tell.

Section 124

It is commonly said that the object of geometry is abstract extension: but geometry contemplates figures: now, figure is the termination of magnitude: but we have shown that extension in abstract hath no finite determinate magnitude. Whence it clearly follows that it can have no figure, and consequently is not the object of geometry. It is indeed a tenet as well of the modern as of the ancient philosophers that all general truths are concerning universal abstract ideas; without which, we are told, there could be no science, no demonstration of any general proposition in geometry. But it were no hard matter, did I think it necessary to my present purpose, to show that propositions and demonstrations in geometry might be universal, though they who make them never think of abstract general ideas of triangles or circles.

Section 125

After reiterated endeavours to apprehend the general idea a triangle, I have found it altogether incomprehensible. And surely if anyone were able to introduce that idea into my mind, it must be the author of the ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING; he who has so far distinguished himself from the generality of writers by the clearness and significancy of what he says. Let us therefore see how this celebrated author describes the general or abstract idea of a triangle. 'It must be (says he) neither oblique nor rectangular, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenum; but all and none of these at once. In effect, it is somewhat imperfect that cannot exist; an idea, wherein some parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together' ESSAY ON HUM. UNDERSTAND. B. iv. C. 7. S.9. This is the idea which he thinks needful for the enlargement of knowledge, which is the subject of mathematical demonstration, and without which we could never come to know any general proposition concerning triangles. That author acknowledges it doth 'require some pains and skill to form this general idea of a triangle.' IBID. But had he called to mind what he says in another place, to wit, 'That ideas of mixed modes wherein any inconsistent ideas are put together cannot so much as exist in the mind, i.e. be conceived.' VID. B. iii. C. 10. S. 33. IBID. I say, had this occurred to his thoughts, it is not improbable he would have owned it above all the pains and skill he was master of to form the above-mentioned idea of a triangle, which is made up of manifest, staring contradictions. That a man who laid so great a stress on clear and determinate ideas should nevertheless talk at this rate seems very surprising. But the wonder will lessen if it be considered that the source whence this opinion flows is the prolific womb which has brought forth innumerable errors and difficulties in all parts of philosophy and in all the sciences: but this matter, taken in its full extent, were a subject too comprehensive to be insisted on in this place. And so much for extension in abstract.

Section 126

Some, perhaps, may think pure space, VACUUM, or trine dimension to be equally the object of sight and touch: but though we have a very great propension to think the ideas of outness and space to be the immediate object of sight, yet, if I mistake not, in the foregoing parts of this essay that hath been clearly demonstrated to be a mere delusion, arising from the quick and sudden suggestion of fancy, which so closely connects the idea of distance with those of sight, that we are apt to think it is itself a proper and immediate object of that sense till reason corrects the mistake.

Section 127

It having been shown that there are no abstract ideas of figure, and that it is impossible for us by any precision of thought to frame an idea of extension separate from all other visible and tangible qualities which shall be common both to sight and touch: the question now remaining is, whether the particular extensions, figures, and motions perceived by sight be of the same kind with the particular extensions, figures, and motions perceived by touch? In answer to which I shall venture to lay down the following proposition: THE EXTENSION, FIGURES, AND MOTIONS PERCEIVED BY SIGHT ARE SPECIFICALLY DISTINCT FROM THE IDEAS OF TOUCH CALLED BY THE SAME NAMES, NOR is THERE ANY SUCH THING as ONE IDEA OR KIND OF IDEA COMMON TO BOTH SENSES. This proposition may without much difficulty be collected from what hath been said in several places of this essay. But because it seems so remote from, and contrary to, the received notions and settled opinion of mankind, I shall attempt to demonstrate it more particularly and at large by the following arguments.

Section 128

When upon perception of an idea I range it under this or that sort, it is because it is perceived after the same manner, or because it has a likeness or conformity with, or affects me in the same way as, the ideas of the sort I rank it under. In short, it must not be entirely new, but have something in it old and already perceived by me. It must, I say, have so much at least in common with the ideas I have before known and named as to make me give it the same name with them. But it has been, if I mistake not, clearly made out that a man born blind would not at first reception of his sight think the things he saw were of the same nature with the objects of touch, or had anything in common with them; but that they were a new set of ideas, perceived in a new manner, and entirely different from all he had ever perceived before: so that he would not call them by the same name, nor repute them to be of the same sort with anything he had hitherto known.

Section 129

SECONDLY, light and colours are allowed by all to constitute a son or species entirely different from the ideas of touch: nor will any man, I presume, say they can make themselves perceived by that sense: but there is no other immediate object of sight besides light and colours. It is therefore a direct consequence that there is no idea common to both senses.

Section 130

It is a prevailing opinion, even amongst those who have thought and writ most accurately concerning our ideas and the ways whereby they enter into the understanding, that something more is perceived by sight than barely light and colours with their variations. Mr. Locke termeth sight, 'The most comprehensive of all our senses, conveying to our minds the ideas of light and colours, which are peculiar only to that sense; and also the far different ideas of space, figure, and motion. ESSAY ON HUMAN UNDERSTAND. B. ii. C. 9. S. 9. Space or distance, we have shown, is not otherwise the object of sight than of hearing. VID. sect. 46. And as for figure and extension, I leave it to anyone that shall calmly attend to his own clear and distinct ideas to decide whether he had any idea intromitted immediately and properly by sight save only light and colours: or whether it De possible for him to frame in his mind a distinct abstract idea of visible extension or figure exclusive of all colour: and on the other hand, whether he can conceive colour without visible extension? For my own part, I must confess I am not able to attain so great a nicety of abstraction: in a strict sense, I see nothing but light and colours, with their several shades and variations. He who beside these doth also perceive by sight ideas far different and distinct from them hath that faculty in a degree more perfect and comprehensive than I can pretend to. It must be owned that by the mediation of light and colours other far different ideas are suggested to my mind: but so they are by hearing, which beside sounds which are peculiar to that sense, doth by their mediation suggest not only space, figure, and motion, but also all other ideas whatsoever that can be signified by words.