Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision (Author: George Berkeley)

Section 151

To come to a resolution in this point we need only observe what hath been said in sect. 59, 60, 61, where it is shown that visible extensions in themselves are little regarded, and have no settled determinable greatness, and that men measure altogether, by the application of tangible extension to tangible extension. All which makes it evident that visible extension and figures are not the object of geometry.

Section 152

It is therefore plain that visible figure are of the same use in geometry that words are: and the one may as well be accounted the object of that science as the other, neither of them being otherwise concerned therein than as they represent or suggest to the mind the particular tangible figures connected with them. There is indeed this difference between the signification of tangible figures by visible figures, and of ideas by words: that whereas the latter is variable and uncertain, depending altogether on the arbitrary appointment of men, the former is fixed and immutably the same in all times and places. A visible square, for instance, suggests to the mind the same tangible figure in Europe that it doth in America. Hence it is that the voice of the Author of' Nature which speaks to our eyes, is not liable to that misinterpretation and ambiguity that languages of human contrivance are unavoidably subject to.

Section 153

Though what has been said may suffice to show what ought to be determined with relation to the object of geometry, I shall nevertheless, for the fuller illustration thereof, consider the case of an intelligence, or unbodied spirit, which is supposed to see perfectly well, i.e. to have a clear perception of the proper and immediate objects of sight, but to have no sense of touch. Whether there be any such being in Nature or no is beside my purpose to inquire. It sufficeth that the supposition contains no contradiction in it. Let us now examine what proficiency such a one may be able to make in geometry. Which speculation will lead us more clearly to see whether the ideas of sight can possibly be the object of that science.

Section 154

FIRST, then, it is certain the aforesaid intelligence could have no idea of a solid, or quantity of three dimensions, which followeth from its not having any idea of distance. We indeed are prone to think that we have by sight the ideas of space and solids, which ariseth from our imagining that we do, strictly speaking, see distance and some parts of an object at a greater distance than others; which hath been demonstrated to be the effect of the experience we have had, what ideas of touch are connected with such and such ideas attending vision: but the intelligence here spoken of is supposed to have no experience of touch. He would not, therefore, judge as we do, nor have any idea of distance, outness, or profundity, nor consequently of space or body, either immediately or by suggestion. Whence it is plain he can have no notion of those parts of geometry which relate to the mensuration of solids and their convex or concave surfaces, and contemplate the properties of lines generated by the section of a solid. The conceiving of any part whereof is beyond the reach of his faculties.

Section 155

Farther, he cannot comprehend the manner wherein geometers describe a right line or circle; the rule and compass with their use being things of which it is impossible he should have any notion: nor is it an easier matter for him to conceive the placing of one plane or angle on another, in order to prove their equality: since that supposeth some idea of distance or external space. All which makes it evident our pure intelligence could never attain to know so much as the first elements of plane geometry. And perhaps upon a nice inquiry it will be found he cannot even have an idea of plane figures any more than he can of solids; since some idea of distance is necessary to form the idea of a geometrical plane, as will appear to whoever shall reflect a little on it.

Section 156

All that is properly perceived by the visive faculty amounts to no more than colours, with their variations and different proportions of light and shade. But the perpetual mutability and fleetingness of those immediate objects of sight render them incapable of being managed after the manner of geometrical figures; nor is it in any degree useful that they should. It is true there are divers of them perceived at once, and more of some and less of others: but accurately to compute their magnitude and assign precise determinate proportions between things so variable and inconstant, if we suppose it possible to be done, must yet be a very trifling and insignificant labour.

Section 157

I must confess men are tempted to think that flat or plane figures are immediate objects of sight, though they acknowledge solids are not. And this opinion is grounded on what is observed in painting, wherein (it seems) the ideas immediately imprinted on the mind are only of planes variously coloured, which by a sudden act of the judgment are changed into solids. But with a little attention we shall find the planes here mentioned as the immediate objects of sight are not visible but tangible planes. For when we say that pictures are planes, we mean thereby that they appear to the touch smooth and uniform. But then this smoothness and uniformity, or, in other words, this planeness of the picture, is not perceived immediately by vision: for it appeareth to the eye various and multiform.

Section 158

From all which we may conclude that planes are no more the immediate object of sight than solids. What we strictly see are not solids, nor yet planes variously coloured: they are only diversity of colours. And some of these suggest to the mind solids, and other plane figures, just as they have been experienced to be connected with the one or the other: so that we see planes in the same way that we see solids, both being equally suggested by the immediate objects of sight, which accordingly are themselves denominated planes and solids. But though they are called by the same names with the things marked by them, they are nevertheless of a nature entirely different, as hath been demonstrated.

Section 159

What hath been said is, if I mistake not, sufficient to decide the question we proposed to examine, concerning the ability of a pure spirit, such as we have described, to know GEOMETRY. It is, indeed, no easy matter for us to enter precisely into the thoughts of such an intelligence, because we cannot without great pains cleverly separate and disentangle in our thoughts the proper objects of sight from those of touch which are connected with them. This, indeed, in a complete degree seems scarce possible to be performed: which will not seem strange to us if we consider how hard it is for anyone to hear the words of his native language pronounced in his ears without understanding them. Though he endeavour to disunite the meaning from the sound, it will nevertheless intrude into his thoughts, and he shall find it extreme difficult, if not impossible, to put himself exactly in the posture of a foreigner that never learned the language, so as to be affected barely with the sounds themselves, and not perceive the signification annexed to them.

Section 160

By this time, I suppose, it is clear that neither abstract nor visible extension makes the object of geometry; the not discerning of which may perhaps have created some difficulty and useless labour in mathematics. Sure I am, that somewhat relating thereto has occurred to my thoughts, which, though after the most anxious and repeated examination I am forced to think it true, doth, nevertheless, seem so far out of the common road of geometry, that I know not whether it may not be thought presumption, if I should make it public in an age, wherein that science hath received such mighty improvements by new methods; great part whereof, as well as of the ancient discoveries, may perhaps lose their reputation, and much of that ardour with which men study the abstruse and fine geometry be abated, if what to me, and those few to whom I have imparted it, seems evidently true, should really prove to be so.