18-20 May 2017, Bishop Berkeley’s Querist in Context, NUI Galway

Conference Abstracts

Berkeley’s Social Philosophy
By Bertil Belfrage

In this paper I will follow the development of Berkeley’s moral philosophy from his early days as a student at TCD, over intolerant fundamentalism in Passive Obedience (1712), and the first steps to formulate a social philosophy in the Minute Philosopher (1732), towards a program for a welfare state in The Querist (1735-37). I will ask, On what premisses did the standpoint of Passive Obedience rest? Which of these assumptions did he abandon in the Minute Philosopher? Why? What difference in approach is reflected in the change from the opinion that the only way towards a “good” society is to obey the Holy Scriptures to the letter, to the conviction that a “good” society is dependent on such issues as, how a national bank could serve the welfare of the citizens?

“Exciting the Industry of Mankind”: Synopsis and Response to Critics
By George Caffentzis

In this conference devoted to George Berkeley’s The Querist, I am presenting a synopsis of my book about The Querist, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money. The main purpose of my book is to explain Berkeley’s text, i.e., to answer questions like why was it written, who wrote it, why was it published when and where it was, what role did Berkeley’s philosophy play in his proposals for a paper currency and a National Bank in Ireland, why did his proposals fail? My answers to these questions and the method I used to explain them have been the object of criticism. I will respond to this criticism in order to clarify my purposes and methods.

The Querist: Social Engineering and Natural Law
By Daniel E. Flage

In this paper I focus on the passages in The Querist in which Berkeley discusses the preferred structure of society. This is a society in which the practices of the gentry, the common folk, and all in between are directed toward “the common good.” I show that Berkeley’s concern is with the good of each and every person and argue that his justification of that societal model is based on a natural law theory of moral obligation. I then show that Berkeley gives at least a hint at the governmental system would implement such a system.

The Querist and the Development of Berkeley’s Thinking about Economics
By Adam Grzelinski

The late editions of The Querist (1737–1750) appeared almost 30 years after the publication of An Essay Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain (1721), the first of Berkeley’s writings dealing with the problems of Ireland’s economy. During the period similar issues were raised in at least two of Berkeley’s writings, namely A Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations (1724), and the Alciphron (1732). The differences between the earlier works and The Querist, as well as between the earlier and the late editions of the latter work allow to pose a question about the development of Berkeley’s understanding of the role of economics and its relation to morality and religion. In the paper I would like to analyze the differences between the Essay and further development of Berkeley’s understanding of economics. In comparison to the earlier writings, in The Querist Berkeley suggests different solutions to Ireland’s problems such as a less paternalistic role of the state and a different vision of functioning of the religiously heterogeneous country. Also, The Querist offers a more subtle analysis of the economic situation in Ireland, and economics is treated as a science standing on its own feet, partly independent from morality and religion. Seen from this angle, the changes introduced in the late editions of The Querist are the final stage of the process of changing the attitude to the economic aspect of the well-being of Ireland and to economics as such.

From the Querist to Nudge: A Critical Analysis of Forms of Paternalism
By Marc A. Hight

Berkeley is generally thought to be a traditional paternalist: he advocates for coercive interventions with the intent of making the target of the intervention better off. There are, however, different kinds of paternalism, distinguished in part by whether the interventions leave target individuals with some measure of freedom of choice. Led by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, a contemporary form of the view called libertarian paternalism has emerged. They argue that paternalist policies are justified provided that the target individuals retain freedom of choice and would be “better off as judged by themselves” by the interventions. Libertarian paternalism has come under serious philosophical scrutiny recently, mostly from anti-paternalists who claim that the libertarian version is mostly a disguised form of full-blown paternalism. Here I draw lessons from Berkeley (in particular from the Querist) to provide a new line of criticism drawn from the perspective of traditional paternalism. There are reasons for paternalists to resist the contemporary libertarian version as well. I engage two lines of reasoning, one focusing on the core motivation of paternalism and how libertarianism drifts away from that ideal, and a second based on conceptual difficulties surrounding the libertarian requirement that individuals make judgments about their own well-being over time.

Money, power, vision and touch, with some remarks on the benevolence of both God and national banks
By David Hilbert

Although The Querist ranges over a wide range of issues concerning the economic and social problems that faced Ireland, the central practical element is Berkeley’s proposal for the reform of the Irish monetary system. This proposal has both a theoretical presupposition and then a fair amount of detail as to its proper implementation. Berkeley’s key theoretical insight is that money has no value of its own and its value is entirely derived from the power over goods and services it commands. The implementation requires that a publicly owned, and appropriately regulated national bank issue paper currency and control it for the benefit of the Irish public. Much better known than Berkeley’s ideas concerning currency reform is Berkeley’s theory of vision, according to which visual ideas have no necessary connection to tangible ideas of space and have no direct connection to pleasure and pain. Berkeley proposed that visual ideas are given to us by God in regular association with tangible ideas so that we can learn how to use them to act for our benefit. The two theories share an obvious structure: signs without any intrinsic value that are used as a guide to what is valuable are produced by a benevolent authority. I will explore this shared structure, argue that the monetary theory is deliberately modeled on Berkeley’s theory of visual signs and discuss the details of the comparison. I will then show that this analogy, properly understood, helps illuminate some puzzling aspects of his proposed new currency system.

Is there more to Berkeley’s decision to publish the emasculated version of The Querist in 1750
than his prefatory Advertisement implies?
By Patrick Kelly

George Caffentzis’ illuminating consideration of the circumstances that led Berkeley to publish the first edition of The Querist in 1735-7, in order to persuade the Irish parliament to establish an Irish National Bank as the solution to the country’s economic crises, forcefully poses the question why he should have decided to publish a revised version of the work in 1750, shorn of his detailed arguments in favour of the bank. Examination of the changes in the second edition, the somewhat improved economic circumstances of the mid-century, and his subsequent reaction to the work suggests – despite the disclaimers in his prefatory Advertisement – that when he republished the work Berkeley may not altogether have given up hope of seeing his bank proposal adopted by parliament.

Bishop Berkeley, The Querist and understanding the state of Ireland in 1735-1737
By Eoin Magennis

The paper will revisit the economic and political context of the mid-1730s when Bishop Berkeley wrote The Querist in its original three parts. At that point there were signs that the Irish economy had begun to not only recover from the poor harvests, food shortages and declining trade and rents of the late 1720s, but was beginning to show signs of an economic boom. In politics a period of instability in parliament appeared to be passing with a new Speaker, Henry Boyle MP, beginning to show his growing strength in successive sessions (1733-4, 1735-6 and 1737-8) and his independence from the administration in Dublin Castle (something which ‘The Irish Patriot or queries upon queries’ (c.1737) deals with in more detail). This paper will further explore these contexts for The Querist, assuming that Berkeley was not only outlining a new way of looking at Ireland’s current state and future economic development, but also that the bishop had some intentions that Irish legislators, merchants and landlords would adopt some of his prescriptions, including not only his plans for a National Bank. By returning to the state of Ireland in 1735-7 we can look at how perceptive a commentator Berkeley was of the economy and body politic of Ireland at that time and why, perhaps, The Querist became a compelling analysis or insight for readers in the decades that followed.

Berkeley’s Rules for Sound Banking
By Edward McPhail and Salim Rashid
edward.mcphail@gmail.com; srashid@illinois.edu

We discuss George Berkeley’s guiding principles for maintaining a properly functioning banking system. While Berkeley understood the powerful effects such a system has for promoting economic growth, he also recognized the inherent instability and fragility that can plague banking and finance. We provide an analysis of Berkeley’s suggested rules for sound banking and describe the safeguards he believed that would help avoid financial crises. By devising institutions and rules of the game which encourage good behavior and punish bad, Berkeley believed that it was possible to mitigate financial crises. We discuss the problems Berkeley’s rules sought to address and their relevance.

Berkeley’s Immaterialist Monetary Policy
By Kenneth L. Pearce

In this paper, I argue that Berkeley’s defense of fiat currency in The Querist rests on the same foundation, and is part of the same basic project, as his defense of immaterialism in the Principles and Dialogues.

In Language and the Structure of Berkeley’s World, I argue that the first and most foundational move in Berkeley’s philosophical development is the rejection of a picture of language I call ‘The Theory of Meanings’. According to this view, a word gets to be meaningful by having a conventional association with a special entity – its ‘meaning’ – that non-conventionally picks out things in the world. On my reading, Berkeley’s critique of abstraction is meant to show that there could not possibly be such a thing as the (one and only) meaning of a general word like ‘triangle’. Berkeley’s alternative view is a use theory of language which takes a bit of language to be meaningful when it is used according to conventional rules in a public social practice aimed at some practical good. These linguistic rules tell us not only what ideas to have or expect but also how to feel and act. As a result, I suggest, a Berkeleian sign system (such as a language) can be understood as something like a Wittgensteinian form of life.

In the Principles and Dialogues, Berkeley is responding to an epistemological crisis created by the Theory of Meanings. According to the Theory of Meanings, a word like ‘cherry’ can be meaningful only if it corresponds to some idea which picks out some objects in the world. These objects, however, cannot be identical to any sensible qualities; they must instead be distinct things (substrata) in which those sensible qualities inhere. They are therefore not themselves sensible. This leads to the skeptical crisis: if we can’t be sure that the word ‘cherry’ succeeds in picking out some mind-independent objects in the world, how can we be sure that it is meaningful, or that any of the claims made using it are true?

Berkeley believed that these worries rested on linguistic confusions. Once we recognize that the proper function of the word ‘cherry’ is not to pick out mind-independent material substrata but rather to assist us in navigating the world of sense experience, then we will see that there is in fact no serious question to be raised about the meaningfulness of that word or the truth of utterances containing it. Getting clear on these points will help us to refine our linguistic tools to employ them more usefully. The root of the skeptical problem is the divorce of language from its use in “the common actions of life” (Three Dialogues, Luce and Jessop p. 246).

In The Querist, Berkeley is responding to an economic crisis. In Berkeley’s view, this crisis is also created by the Theory of Meanings (or its economic analogue). Berkeley understands money as a sign. At the time of writing, there was significant panic over fiat currencies. According to Berkeley’s analysis of the situation, the panic arose from the assumption that precious metals were intrinsically valuable, and the value of paper money therefore depended on its association with precious metals. This, Berkeley holds, is a mistake. Just as no idea could be intrinsically of or about anything, independent of how it is used, so no object could be intrinsically valuable independent of its role in our practices.

The search for intrinsic economic value is doomed to fail, but this does not mean that our economic problems are insoluble. Instead, we must recognize that money, like any other sign, is a tool for accomplishing certain practical purposes. In particular, money gets its meaningfulness (value) from its role in allocating labor power. The root of the economic problems, as Berkeley sees it, is not the divorce of money from precious metals, but rather the divorce of money from labor power. This is directly analogous to the materialist’s error: it is not the separation of words from ideas that is the problem, but rather the separation of words from their role in “the common actions of life.” Understanding the practical role of signs – including both words and money – will enable us to save our form of life from epistemological and economic threats.

The Influence of The Querist on Economic Theory in Poland in the 1740s and 1750s
By Marta Szymańska-Lewoszewska

A synopsis in Polish of George Berkeley’s 1750 edition of The Querist with A Word to the Wise was, as Anna Hochfeldowa noticed in 1983, prepared by Jozef Andrzej Zaluski and appended to a book on Polish economy by Stefan Garczynski published in 1751. In that improvement tract, already written in 1742, Garczynski criticized gentry and clergy for ruining the country and provided suggestions for improving the situation. The subject of this paper is an examination of the nature of the relation between the synopsis of Berkeley’s work and Garczynski’s tract. I will observe what queries Zaluski included in his synopsis and what role they played in Garczynski’s critical account of Polish economy in the 18th century.

Berkeley’s The Querist: A Commentary On Its Ethical Foundations
By Richard J. Van Iten

…As the sum of human happiness is supposed to consist in the goods of mind, body, and fortune, I would fain make my studies of some use to mankind with regard to these three particulars…

Excerpt from Berkeley’s Advertisement by the author in The Querist

Approximately three years prior to the first appearance of The Querist Euphranor, Berkeley’s agent in the dialogue, Alciphron, puts the question, “Will it not follow that in order to make a nation flourish it is not sufficient to make it wealthy, without knowing the true end and happiness of mankind, and how to apply wealth towards that end?” In my commentary on Berkeley’s The Querist I turn to several of his lesser known writings to construct what I believe to be the underlying Ethical Foundations Berkeley works from in his effort to promote the creation a market-driven economy. The, so to say, synthesis of Market and Morality that I attribute to Berkeley turns on the belief that the venture Berkeley undertakes with The Querist is not only consonant with his own sense of duty regarding the good and welfare of humankind but also accords with his biblically-based Work Ethic. Like many of the Protestant Reformers who preceded him, Berkeley rejected the prayer-penance solution to poverty, relying instead on the teachings of the Christian apostle, Saint Paul. I conclude with the observation that as the having of wealth becomes more common and the scope and scale of suffering diminish, Berkeley’s understanding of “…the true end and happiness of mankind…” -Life Eternal-grows increasing abstract and a new variety of materialism takes hold of human imaginations. Secularism, the pernicious mantra of Alciphron, gains new appeal!