Response to George Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

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A Response to George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

The following essay is a response to George Berkeley’s Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he argues that the Cartesian notion of substance is incoherent, that the word "matter" as Descartes uses it, does not mean anything.

This essay is also about words as memories, and about the two fictional Marcels, young and old.

Hylas is a Cartesian thinker, and Philonous is Berkeley’s voice of reason.

Words are like vessels—they are merely novel constructions of sounds empty of meaning until we fill them. They mean only what we discern in them, and nothing more.

Words are only our impressions of them—imprecise, indefinite,
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Even if language allows this, philosophical argument does not. Philonous objects: "How many shapes is your matter to take?...you mean nothing at all... you employ words to no manner of purpose, without any design or signification whatsoever" (Berkeley 54, 57). Philonous, the philosopher, wanting to describe his thought-world precisely, attempts to restrain unruly language by defining words clearly and distinctly—it is a task familiar to us. Berkeley, through Philonous, realizes the power of words as interpretations of thought-meaning (ideas); he attempts to control that power by making one word mean one thing only. But, indeed, words are imprecise, indefinite, unclear—Berkeley can approach, but can not gain complete reign over his language.

Marcel too knows that words are imperfect, but, unlike Berkeley, revels in the infinite complexity of language that both causes and is born of its imperfection. He devotes his life to words, to the depiction of real experience in thoughts expressed in writing. For Marcel, the novelist, all there is, is language—words which contain in themselves more than themselves. Some words are motifs, like "hawthorn," "lilac," "church," "novel." These are the words to which Marcel, the author, returns, and in which he develops meaning through repetition and connotation. Other words are names and place-names, like