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What is it the Unbodied Spirit cannot do? Berkeley and Barrow on the Nature of Geometrical Construction

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Abstract:

In §155 of his New Theory of Vision Berkeley explains that a hypothetical ‘unbodied spirit’ ‘cannot comprehend the manner wherein geometers describe a right line or circle’.1The reason for this, Berkeley continues, is that ‘the rule and compass with their use being things of which it is impossible he should have any notion.’ This reference to geometrical tools has led virtually all commentators to conclude that at least one reason why the unbodied spirit cannot have knowledge of plane geometry is because it cannot manipulate a ruler or a compass. In this article I will show that such an interpretation is flawed. I will instead argue that Berkeley's understanding of Euclidian geometry was based on Isaac Barrow's account of the foundations of geometry. On this view geometrical objects are conceived in terms of the idealized motion that generates the objects of geometry. Consequently, that what the unbodied spirit cannot do in this context is to form an idea of motion rather than being unable to handle geometrical tools.

1All references to Berkeley are from, A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop (eds.), The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1948) The following abbreviations are used: An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision, section x = New Theory x; Philosophical Commentaries, entry x = Commentaries x; Part I of A Treatise concerning the Principles of Knowledge, section x = Principles x. All other references to Berkeley's works are of the form The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, volume x, page y = Works, x, y.

Keywords: Barrow; Berkeley; New Theory of Vision; geometry; motion

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09608788.2012.664022

Affiliations: Trinity College Dublin,

Publication date: 2012-03-01

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