The author examines George Berkeley’s idealist arguments in the context of branding.
The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013
The title of this short essay is a barely amusing paraphrase of the famous quotation from Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753).1 Berkeley was an idealist, which means, in philosophical terms, that he believed that mind predominates over matter. In fact, Berkeley was something of an extremist among idealists, believing that matter, or the material world, does not actually exist at all.
Berkeley was also a monist—disbelieving the duality of mind and body advocated by Descartes. But finally, most intriguingly, he was an empiricist—believing that experience shapes our appreciation of the world. His beliefs stand in sharp distinction to those of Continental rationalists like Hegel who believed, as Plato did, that concepts are primary, pre-existent and transcend experience.
Rationalists believe that there can be a priori metaphysical knowledge; empiricists don’t.
If matter does not exist though, the question arises as to where, exactly, experience arises from? Berkeley’s answer is that is comes from perception. ‘Esse es percipi,’ he says. ‘To be is to perceive.’ And what we perceive, he maintains—our experiences—are only ideas. If physical substance does not exist, though, these ideas can only arise, ultimately, from the mind of God. This is indeed what he believes. And the reason that reality does not jolt about, flashing into existence like a neon bulb to please the perceiver, is that all reality is permanently perceived by the mind of God—and thus the personal illusion is sustained.
To modern ears, schooled in the natural sciences, with our deep-seated western materialism, secularism and realism, this sounds like lunacy at worst or a sort of religious anachronism at best. Common sense tells us the world exists.
I would simply point out that common sense used to tell us that women didn’t deserve the vote. That homosexuality was criminal. That Newtonian physics was a sufficient explanation of movement. That the earth was the centre of the universe. Common sense is a malleable idea. We should not be too distracted by it. The clue is in the name.
In fact, I will argue that Berkeley’s views are not only relevant today, but that they are also in large measure “correct”. And finally, that they are deeply practical—and even inspirational, particularly for those of us concerned with branding.
Having been concerned with law and ownership originally, branding evolved to become an economic activity attracting customers. In latter decades it moved on further to become a largely psychological discipline, managing customers’ relationships. And even more recently it has evolved still further to become sociological process—managing a sort of memetic ecosystem. In future decades perhaps we will see its final incarnation as a philosophical science: branding not as epistemology, nor even as ontology, but as metaphysics …
Let’s examine each of Berkeley’s idealist arguments2 in turn by picturing a glass of red wine. Berkeley’s first argument is that the temperature of our Bordeaux—warm on the lips; cold on the tongue—is clearly dependent upon the mind. It has no objective reality in and of itself. The example he actually uses is to imagine that one of your arms is bathed in ice; the other in hot water. Plunge both arms into a basin of tepid water and you will receive two contradictory signals about temperature. It follows, according to Berkeley, that secondary qualities like temperature are all in the mind; and also that such secondary qualities are dependent upon primary qualities such as density, structure and energy. It also follows that these features must likewise be mind-dependent. They too are merely ideas, the content of experience. Thus all experience is mental and detached from any underlying substance.
His second line of argument is to interrogate what this thing might actually be, the wine that we taste as cold? He unpicks this problem in two parts: Firstly to ask specifically what it means to “be cold”? And secondly, to ask what it means to “be” at all?
The first problem amounts to asking what it means in general to support or generate a given property. Any problem ultimately reduces down to a question of causality. Does the mind generate the attribute “coldness” and retroact its causality to a particular object, or does the idea of an object pre-exist and generate a set of impressions that we choose to describe as cold. It is clear—to Berkeley at least—that neither directional relationship can be true. In which case “to be cold” is simply a metaphorical relationship, and thus a linguistic trick, which tells us nothing of reality.
Secondly, Berkeley wonders what it means to “be”? Subsequent to Berkeley it has been argued that “being” cannot be explained, on the grounds that it is explicitly indefinable; that it is universal; or is simply self-evident.3 None of these evasions will suffice though. In fact the problem of “being” caused the celebrated 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger to spend an entire book trying to define it, and still come up short. It is thus unsurprising that Berkeley also decides that being is conceptually inexplicable. On both sets of grounds, material substance is thus a meaningless concept.
Thirdly, Berkeley argues from the basis of knowledge. It is, in pure logical terms, at least possible that my glass of wine might exist. But if it did, how would I know? I would either have to know it by reason or from my senses. For Berkeley the senses prove to be a dead end as they can only inform us of our perceptions—which we know to be divorced from any concrete reality. And sadly reason, too, proves to be a lost cause, because there is no necessary connection from physical objects to mental experiences. Thus he concludes that my glass of wine is unknowable, even if substantive.
Fourthly, he argues against the possibility of physical causation of experiences, noting that there can be no causal relation between the material and the mental as nothing may straddle their essential dualism. The impression I form—the particular taste of blackcurrants, the velvet texture, spices and intoxication cannot come from a physical form. Only the mental can affect the mental:4
How can any idea or sensation exist in, or be produced anything but a mind or spirit?
This definition and the impasse it causes, leans of course, on a definition of mental as being “in the mind”, rather than “before the mind” as Bertrand Russell5 notes based on the elaborations of Kant6 and then Schopenhauer7 through the concept of representation. Likewise, Berkeley’s argument does not account for the possibility that the causal relation may be neither mental nor material, as the philosopher, Stephen Priest has argued. It is not impossible that it may be of some other form.
Finally, Berkeley argues from the limitations of imagination, not as an asset but rather as a process of conceiving. Specifically he focused on our inability to imagine physical objects. Berkeley argues that it is impossible to imagine a physical object. His point is that at the very moment that I might theoretically “imagine” any such object, it instantaneously becomes a mental object alone and thus divorced from any putative physical origin. If follows nothing that is or can be conceived is material.
There are issues with many of these arguments, of course, but they are essentially sound and remarkably hard to refute. But I am less interested here in their logical resilience, than their practical, or rather their creative implications.
What can branding practitioners learn from a 17th-century man who denied reality?
The first lesson, of course, is subjectivity. At the most fundamental level possible, the universe is subjective. Therefore any branding activity that relies upon conjuring a common attitude among audiences must note, first and foremost the subjectivity of perception. When I say I taste blackberries in a fine Bordeaux, you may find the reference meaningless, pretentious, or even absurd. And the more my language departs from the commonplace the worse the problem gets. Bordeaux may taste ‘stormy’ or like ‘rhubarb and custard’. Communicators know this of course, and try to stick with universal ideas which they can then twist. When Nike adds the word ‘just’ to its slogan ‘do it’ it taps into a universal desire to rebel; to act out; to stand up for oneself. The best slogans and brands to this—they find the universal subjective which Husserl8 as a function of eidetic phenomenology. The act of perceiving imbues reality with structure. Every brand owner must ask ‘how’—with what attitude of mind—his or her brand should be perceived.
The second lesson, dependent upon the first, is responsibility. Berkeley’s reflections should encourage us to question the structure of experience. We know now that time is relative. We also know that atoms are far from being the smallest particles—a finding that leaves around 99 per cent of the universe unexplained. We know now that matter is probabilistic. It comes into being in an ad hoc way and its location is unknowable. Its existence or non-existence depends upon the observer, at the quantum level. We can also make a very good case that time is not linear. And finally we can make a perfectly coherent and sound argument that the universe is actually composed of encoded information.
When we as branding practitioners speak of experience and seek to mould it, we are merely reprogramming information. Telling you that I taste cherries in this wine has fundamentally altered its makeup as a set of prospective sense-impressions. Branding does not simply alter psychology; it alters reality.
The truth is not “out there”, it is “in here” in our own experiences. This realization should both scare and empower brand managers. A brand’s ideas can and do change the world, irrevocably. But with power comes responsibility.
The third lesson is serendipity. Berkeley shows us that there is no cause and effect, except within the mind itself through a process of self-communion and comprehension. And also, whatever we might do, the physical world has no definite connection with the world of mind. Our glass of wine is ultimately unknowable. And meaningless. Its mysteries cannot be simply and methodically extracted. Furthermore, we must understand that whatever we might do as “information managers”, events and experiences will always intervene to override our efforts. Traditionally, brand managers try to squeeze out the opportunity for serendipity, leaving nothing to chance. Berkeley’s logic suggests that this is misguided—that the very personal context of experiences is what makes them resonant and “sticky” for the individual. Allowing space for improvisation to intervene within the mental, for experience and experimentation with your brand, is the key to effectiveness.
The fourth lesson follows from the denial of causality and encourages the embrace of helplessness. As children we understand well the experience of helplessness, and reach out accordingly. However, as we grow, this helplessness is crusted over with narcissistic efforts to deny it—either by seeking a sense of control, which cannot really exist, leading to frustration, or by feeding that helplessness to a constant search for affirmation, manifest in human perfectionism and competition. Berkeley tells us that we are, ultimately helpless. We are shaped by ideas and no amount of effort can control the “causes” of these ideas, because we ourselves are that cause. The only way through, says Berkeley is an embrace of the universal. Berkeley saw this universal as the mind of God—mankind as merely the filament for His energy. To us, in a more secular era, we may simply reinterpret this universality as a common human instinct for survival, protection and growth. Strong branding should acknowledge the fundamental helplessness that underlies our subjectivity, and offer us ways to reaccess and reacquaint ourselves with this universal truth of childhood. When brand managers talk of empowering the customer, this is what they must address: the existential loneliness of empiricism.
The fifth and final lesson is anti-reason. In principle, as an empiricist, Berkeley is against reason. Berkeley argues that imagination is a bubble, closed to the outside world, and only capable of imagining ‘what can be brought before the mind’. But Berkeley’s argument only holds for those objects we can hold in front of our mind. It does not apply to those objects, experiences or ideas that we may hypothesize, rather than picture. A pink elephant may be an imaginary object, but the trillionth prime number is something that cannot be called to mind, but does, nonetheless exist. This is the difference between conceiving as picturing by imagination and conceiving or hypothesizing by reason. Berkeley denies that the trillionth prime exists, in his sense. Berkeley calls on us, as brand managers to focus on what can be touched and felt; to keep our feet on the ground; to give feeling primacy over thinking.
Berkeley’s idealist empiricism is ultimately a compromise between the emergent scienticity of his era, and his own faith. It is a counterattack on the perils of scepticism into which Hume and others descended. It is a rigid and rather unforgiving philosophy: staunch, curiously pragmatic, and fiercely optimistic.
Great branding is a mental, subjective, responsible, serendipitous, unreasonable process. It empowers us not to escape helplessness, but to come to terms with it—to find deepest connections to the “worldmind” that surrounds us, whether we see it as human, divine, or merely a set of algorithms.
1. ‘If a tree falls in a wood and there is no-one around to hear it. Does it make a sound?’
2. I follow here the same sequence of dissection as S. Priest: The British Empiricists, 2nd ed. London: Routledge 1990.
3. M. Heidegger: Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell 1967.
4. G. Berkeley: Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues. London: Penguin 1988.
5. B. Russell: The History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin 1957.
6. I. Kant: Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin 2007.
7. A. Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications 1967.
8. E. Husserl: Ideas. New York: Routledge 2012.