In his seminal essay “Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story,” David Stove traces the development of modern Idealism — all of it — back to one single “argument” put forth by George Berkeley. This argument is so hideous that Stove calls it “the Gem,” and it goes like this:
We can know things only
- as they are related to us
- under our forms of perception and understanding
- insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,
we cannot know things as they are in themselves.*
It’s also the basis of all the Left’s current polysyllabic flimflammery (“intersectionality,” “gender studies,” “critical race theory,” etc.). Yes, all of it.
Pick any of the bullet points up there you like; they all amount to the same thing. For instance, “We can only know things insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes” is just a clunky way of saying “we can only know what we can know,” because having something “fall under our conceptual schemes” just IS “knowing it.” Ditto “under our forms of perception and understanding,” and as Stove says, you can plug in anything you like.
He also says you can find this kind of thing going back at least as far as the Cynics. Diogenes or someone like that supposedly had to have a disciple follow him around at all times lest he fall off a cliff, so confident was he that his perceptions weren’t to be trusted. Why weren’t they to be trusted? Well, we can only get information about the world through our senses. Unless you want to argue that when you see a rock, that rock actually, physically lodges itself in your brain — ha ha!! — you only have a perception of the rock, mediated by your senses. Diogenes didn’t know about the optic nerve and all that, but he would’ve said that the neuro-anatomy of the eye proves that we can’t know things as they are in themselves, since anything you see isn’t the thing, but only a perception of the thing.
In other words, we’ll never know what, or how much, distortion happens between the rock itself and our perception of the rock. Maybe perception is like a radio signal, that gets louder and clearer the closer you are to the transmitter, fainter and weaker the further way you go. And perception really does work that way at least some of the time, it seems — on a dark and stormy night, you might easily mistake Tim for Steve until he, Tim, gets very very close. Meanwhile, you’re basing all kinds of behavior on an incorrect perception — you’re getting ready to punch Steve out for hitting on your sister, whereas you’d welcome Tim with open arms. Let’s hope Tim gets into recognition range before your fist hits!
On the other hand, Stove would say — and, indeed, all rational people with no ideological axes to grind would say — that all that Cynic junk is a category error. That perceptions can be wrong says nothing about the validity of perception in itself. To say “mistaking Tim for Steve proves we can’t know Tim-in-himself” would be like saying “the fact that we can’t breathe water means there’s no such thing as breathing-in-itself.” You can only see what your eyes allow you to see, because “using your eyes” just IS “seeing.” It’s a tautology.
What does that have to do with Idealism? Well, Berkeley said something to the effect of “you can’t perceive trees without forming an idea of them in your mind.” It’s another tautology — that’s just how “seeing” works — but from this, Berkeley concluded that nothing can exist without Something to perceive it. Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one’s around to hear it? I bet you thought that was a joke making fun of goofy hippies, but Berkeley really does address a question just like it… and he concludes that no, it doesn’t make a sound, because the very idea of “sound” depends on a hearer. No ear to hear it, no sound.
From this, Berkeley concludes that existence itself, all of it, depends on perception. Not your perception, or mine, because lots of things are happening all the time that no human mind could ever perceive directly (think of atoms bonding). God’s mind, though, is always on the job, and thus, Idealism — the universe and everything in it are God’s perceptions, His ideas. This is “Subjective Idealism.”
Subjective Idealism is a little too ideal, and a whole lot too subjective, to appeal to a guy like Karl Marx, who loved nothing more than dressing up as science’s best friend. What Marx wanted was Objective Idealism, or, better yet, Materialism, which is just Idealism cosplaying as science. To get it, he turned to Hegel.
Hegel said a lot of things, most of them incomprehensible, but his biggest thing was the notion that the universe is actually having a conversation with itself. Hegel was fascinated by things like the Sorites Paradox. At some point, quantity becomes quality. E.g. here. Is Captain Picard bald, would you say? How can you be sure? No matter what definition of “bald” you use, you’ll never be able to measure the precise moment in time when ol’ Jean-Luc goes from “bald” to “not bald” and back again. Obviously “quantity of hair” transforms itself, by some mysterious process, into the quality of baldness. The only way to square that circle, Hegel says, is to regard the world itself as Spirit — objectively Spirit, get it? Objective Idealism.
Do that, and you’ve got Hegel’s famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Once again, Hegel says that the universe is nothing more than Spirit talking to itself. That’s how you get from “Jean-Luc has hair” (thesis) through “Jean-Luc is bald” (antithesis) to “Jean-Luc has a monastic fringe” (synthesis). Jean-Luc’s hair, like Spirit, somehow “goes beyond” itself (the famously untranslatable world aufheben). This has lots of fun consequences, but chief among them is this: The law of non-contradiction no longer applies. Any seeming contradictions are resolved by that conversation the universe is having with itself — the Dialectic.
Grant that, and you can say whatever the hell you want and call it Science, because hey, why not? We’ve already deep-sixed one of the pillars of rational thought.
“it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” That’s Karl Marx’s attempt to bring all that gassy “Spirit” junk back down to earth. If you believe in Spirit, but not God, you have to explain how poor critters such as ourselves could ever have access to the Spirit-filled world that exists out there, independent of our “forms of perception” or “conceptual schemes” or whatever value you plug into the Gem’s first term. Subjective Idealists, obviously, can appeal to God himself, like Berkeley did. Objective Idealists can’t, because for them the Spiritual world just IS the real world and vice versa. Thus Marx and his “social existence” determining consciousness.
As Gems go, that one hardly rises to the level of cubic zirconium. That it is a Gem is obvious — “we can only be conscious of whatever our class situation allows us to be conscious of” is a tautology, but somehow, someway, Karl Marx has transcended the cognitive limits of his class situation so thoroughly that he can proclaim to us, ex cathedra, that no one can ever escape the cognitive limits of his class situation. But…. that’s the point. The Gem works, and because it works, you can run wild with it. If Berkeley’s Gem is the basis of all later Idealism, then Marx’s is the basis of Postmodernism, which in turn is the basis of all modern Leftist gobbledygook.
As Stephen R.C. Hicks points out in his excellent book Explaining Postmodernism, the professoriate had a crisis of faith after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” seemed to all but say that Communism doesn’t work as advertised — that cults of personality, secret police, etc. are features, not bugs, of Marxism-Leninism. By the late 1980s, their last excuse — that the KGB etc. were worth it because of future prosperity — had run out, because the USSR was bankrupt, and 1991 put the nail in the coffin of Communism as a political system. But, as anyone who has read When Prophecy Fails would’ve guessed, Socialism’s abject failure in the real world did nothing to dent the professors’ faith in the spiritual truth of Socialism.
Thus, Hicks says, Postmodernism — if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts… or, in the PoMos’ case, deny that there’s such a thing as a fact in the first place.
How? Easy. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence,” remember, “but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” So: All your so-called “facts” are just perspectives, just “ways of knowing,” determined for you by your social existence. Some ways — the White, male ways, specifically — are more privileged than others, and there you have it. It’s Gems all the way down; just plug in whatever victim group you want:
We can only know what our gonads allow us to know — Feminism.
We can only know what our melanin levels allow us to know — Critical Race Theory.
We can only know what our sexual preference allows us to know — Queer Theory.
We can only know what society allows us to know — Postmodernism.
We can only know what our privilege allows us to know — Intersectionality.
Etc. All you have to do to sell it is disguise the obviousness of the Gem premise — by saying “thus-and-such is just a social construction,” for instance.
Grant that, and everything else follows. Since you’re starting from a tautology, thanks to the miracle of Dialectics you can say whatever you want. There’s no cognitive dissonance, because there’s no cognition at all. It all arrives at the same point — whatever degraded version of Idealism your victim group is pushing. As Stove says, all you need for a Gem is tautology in the premise, Idealism in the conclusion, and pomposity throughout. Berkeley to Hegel to Marx to Derrida, the Left’s entire intellectual genealogy in four steps.