The Cartesian Roots of Berkeley's Account of Sensation
On the old story about early modern philosophy, Descartes is a “rationalist” who devalues the senses, and Berkeley an “empiricist” who rejects this. Berkeley plays into this story in his Notebooks, where he writes: “in vindication of the senses effectually to confute wt Descartes saith in ye last par. of the last Med: viz. that the senses oftener inform him falsly than truely” (794). But when we turn to this “last par.,” we find Descartes maintaining that “my senses report the truth much more frequently than not” (CSM2: 61). In this paper, I draw on recent commentary to outline Descartes' positive account of sensation. I then look carefully at Berkeley's account of the same, in particular, by considering his distinction between human and divine perception and his account of the laws of nature. In so doing, I suggest that there are noteworthy parallels between Descartes' and Berkeley's accounts with respect to the function of sensation and the ways in which sensations can fulfill this function. I conclude by sketching some ways in which this understanding of Berkeley can illuminate some aspects of Berkeley scholarship.