The Empiricists represent the central tradition in British philosophyas well as some of the most important and influential thinkers in human history. Their ideas paved the way for modern thoughtfrom politics to science, ethics to religion. The British Empiricists isa wonderfully clear and concise introduction to the lives, careers andviews of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Russell and Ayer.
Stephen Priest examines each philosopher and their views on awide range of topics including mind and matter, ethics and emotions,freedom and the physical world, language, truth and logic. The bookis usefully arranged so that it can be read by thinker or by topic,or as a history of key philosophical problems. By the end of thebook the reader will be equipped to:
recognise and practise philosophical thinking understand the methods of solving philosophical problems used
by the British Empiricists appreciate the role of empiricism in the history of Western
For any student new to philosophy, Western philosophy or the British Empiricists, this masterly survey offers an accessible, engagingintroduction.
Stephen Priest is Senior Research Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford,a member of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Oxfordand a member of Wolfson College, Oxford. His books have beentranslated into six languages.
T H E B R IT I S H E M P I R I C I S T S
Stephen Pr ies t
T H E B R IT I S H E M P I R I C I S T S
First published 1990by Penguin Books
Second edition published by Routledge2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
1990, 2007 Stephen Priest
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted orreproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical,or other means, now known or hereafter invented, includingphotocopying and recording, or in any information storage orretrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication DataPriest, Stephen.
The British empiricists/Stephen Priest. 2nd ed.p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.1. Empiricism History. 2. Philosophy, British. I. Title.B816.P75 2007146.440941 dc22 2007009898
ISBN10: 0415356288 (hbk)ISBN10: 0415356296 (pbk)ISBN10: 0203002628 (ebk)
ISBN13: 9780415357234 (hbk)ISBN13: 9780415357241 (pbk)ISBN13: 9780203003107 (ebk)
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2007.
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IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER,ARTHUR PRIEST MBE, MA (OXON)(19211986)
1 What is empiricism? 1
Doing philosophy and doing history 1
Defining empiricism 5
Ants and spiders 7
Ancient Greek empiricism and rationalism 14
Empiricism and rationalism in medieval philosophy 17
The flight of the bee 19
Empiricism and American pragmatism 25
The logic of empiricism 29
2 Hobbes 32
Hobbes in history 32
3 Locke 64
Locke in history 64
Innate ideas 67
Sensation and reflection 75
Physical objects 86
Personal identity 95
Space and time 101
4 Berkeley 116
Berkeley in history 116
Abstract ideas 127
The self 131
God and other minds 134
Space and time 136
5 Hume 144
Hume in history 144
Impressions and ideas 146
Physical objects 149
Space and time 152
Personal identity 160
Mind and body 163
Memory and imagination 170
6 Mill 183
Mill in history 183
7 Russell 209
Russell in history 209
Mind and matter 220
Logical atomism 221
Meaning and truth 225
8 Ayer 236
Ayer in history 236
Meaning and metaphysics 239
Philosophical analysis 242
Mind and body 248
Personal identity 249
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDIT ION
What exists? Is there anything beyond experience? If so, can weknow it? What are minds? What are physical objects? Am I a physicalobject? Is there free will? Do numbers exist? If so, what are they?Are moral questions merely matters of subjective opinion or aresome things right and some things wrong? Why should we obeythe state? Are there limits to our knowledge; things we could neverknow? If so, can we know that?
Philosophy is about philosophical problems and nothing else.British empiricists have always understood this well and I havepresented their ideas as attempts to solve problems about minds,language, physical objects, freedom, emotions, science, reason,numbers, causation, ethics, politics and many other subjects.
Philosophical problems lie in the basement of commonsense andevery intellectual inquiry. Often they go unnoticed for years oreven centuries as some way of living or some pattern of explanationor criticism proceeds with unexamined assumptions. Then suddenlyit is realised that the procedure requires people to be causallydetermined, or free; or it requires matter to exist, or minds; or itpresupposes the existence of the past or remote events in spacetime,or meaningful language, or a society, or the state, or the existenceof God. Notions like these are taken for granted as the unquestionedtools and assumptions of other intellectual disciplines and common-sense. Philosophy calls them into question. Where other subjectsand everyday life continue with more and more explanations, moreand more information, more and more criticism, philosophy invites
us to halt abruptly and ask what we are assuming. Other subjectsbuild higher and ever more complex buildings. Philosophy takes usdown to the basement to examine the foundations. There sometimeswe find God, sometimes matter, sometimes societies, sometimesnatural laws. Commonsense is one building among the others.
This book is an introduction to the approaches to philosophicalproblems of a group of philosophers with enough in common to becalled the British Empiricists. As we shall see, on some of theproblems they agree, on others they disagree violently. I shall bewell satisfied if the reader unearths some unquestioned philosophicalassumptions from his or her own basement. We all have them.
The history of ideas is also a fundamentally important subject.There are few things more educative than the attempt to suspendones own beliefs and imaginatively to enter the perceptions andvalues of alternative mentalities. As historians we do this all thebetter if we understand the social, political and economic climate inwhich a philosopher wrote, as well as the parental and educativeinfluences on that philosopher. I have therefore opened each chapterwith a short historical introduction to the empiricist concerned. Thesesections should not be confused with philosophy; philosophicalproblem-solving being always and everywhere independent of biog-raphy. Although this is a philosophy book, in What is Empiricism?I have entered into the interesting historical question of whetherthere is a clear distinction between rationalist and empiricist phil-osophers and offer a sharper distinction between rationalism andempiricism than the view that rationalism is the doctrine that theintellect is the best guide to the nature of reality, and empiricism isthe view that experience is the best guide to the nature of reality.
I have had to omit some British empiricists because of the wordlimit: Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and G. E. Moore.Ideally, William of Ockham and Duns Scotus (arguably the greatestScottish philosopher) would be treated. I should also have liked toinclude Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, even though they are naturalscientists first and philosophers second. Newton is particularlyimportant because so many assumptions in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy are Newtonian, and quite possibly false. SirIsaiah Berlin told me that J. L. Austin should be in the book, andone empiricist deleted. However, I am convinced I have includedthose British empiricists most studied in universities and I have