The twenty-seventh of April, 2011: a bow-wowing fatso, and a paradox not worth refuting

I’ve long felt that George Berkeley, the Bishop of Cloyne, has been the victim of a historical injustice. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the side of a bishop in a philosophical debate before, but I’m going to now.

Berkeley (born 1685, died 1753) argued that anything external to our direct experience could not be held to be part of our knowledge – so that if he, for instance, were to turn his back on the land and look out to sea, he could no longer be certain that the land existed.

To which the Great Cham, the bow-wowing  Dr Samuel Johnson, famously responded by closing his eyes, stubbing his toe on a stone, and crying:

I refute it thus!

Which is clearly a rubbish response that makes no sense. I wish Bishop Berkeley had been there when Johnson did that. Then he could have said, ‘no, you pompous idiot – the point is, the stone may not have existed before you kicked it, but, when you kicked it, it became a part of your direct experience, and therefore can be said to exist, obviously. Way to miss the point, fatso’.

I don’t suppose, being a churchman and so on, he would really have called Dr Johnson a pompous idiot (or fatso). But someone should have.

Still, he wasn’t as dismissive about Berkeley as Descartes, who said ‘le paradoxe de Berkeley ne vaut pas la peine d’être réfuté’ – Berkeley’s paradox is not worth refuting. Sometimes I think that in the old days all the philosophers were just stupid.

Johnson’s toe-stubbing is the weakest celebrated put-down in history. The second-weakest celebrated put-down in history is by Winston Churchill – the one where he’s accused of being drunk, and says and you are ugly, but I will be sober in the morning, and everyone cheers and throws their hats in the air…

As has been remarked by the Australian comedian Sarah Kendall, the obvious response is: “Ah, but Mr Churchill, that does not work, as you are also ugly.”


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