Mar 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1685) of George Berkeley — generally known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne) — an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called “immaterialism” (later referred to as “subjective idealism” by others). This theory denies (in qualified form) the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

Berkeley was born at his family home, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. Little is known of his mother. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College, Dublin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1704 and completing a master’s degree in 1707. He remained at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer. His earliest publication was on mathematics, but the first that brought him notice was his An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, first published in 1709. In the essay, Berkeley examines visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. While this work raised much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics. The next publication to appear was the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, which had great success and gave him a lasting reputation, though few accepted his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This was followed in 1713 by Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounded his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived. One of his main objectives was to combat the prevailing materialism of his time. The theory was largely received with ridicule, while even those such as Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who did acknowledge his “extraordinary genius,” were nevertheless convinced that his first principles were false.

According to Berkeley there are only two kinds of things: spirits and ideas. Spirits are simple, active beings which produce and perceive ideas; ideas are passive beings which are produced and perceived. The use of the concepts of “spirit” and “idea” is central in Berkeley’s philosophy. As used by him, these concepts are difficult to translate into modern terminology. His concept of “spirit” is close to the concept of “conscious subject” or of “mind”, and the concept of “idea” is close to the concept of “sensation” or “state of mind” or “conscious experience”.

Thus, Berkeley denied the existence of matter as a metaphysical substance, but did not deny the existence of physical objects such as apples or mountains:

I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it. (Principles #35)

This basic claim of Berkeley’s thought, his “idealism”, is sometimes and somewhat derisively called “immaterialism” or, occasionally, subjective idealism. In Principles #3, he wrote, using a combination of Latin and English, esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived), most often if slightly inaccurately attributed to Berkeley as the pure Latin phrase esse est percipi.  Hence, human knowledge is reduced to two elements: that of spirits and of ideas (Principles #86). In contrast to ideas, a spirit cannot be perceived. A person’s spirit, which perceives ideas, is to be comprehended intuitively by inward feeling or reflection (Principles #89). For Berkeley, we have no direct ‘idea’ of spirits, albeit we have good reason to believe in the existence of other spirits, for their existence explains the purposeful regularities we find in experience. “It is plain that we cannot know the existence of other spirits otherwise than by their operations, or the ideas by them excited in us” (Dialogues #145). This is the solution that Berkeley offers to the problem of other minds. Finally, the order and purposefulness of the whole of our experience of the world and especially of nature overwhelms us into believing in the existence of an extremely powerful and intelligent spirit that causes that order. According to Berkeley, reflection on the attributes of that external spirit leads us to identify it with God. Thus, a material thing such as an apple consists of a collection of ideas (shape, color, taste, physical properties, etc.) which are caused in the spirits of humans by the spirit of God.

Other than philosophy, Berkeley also influenced modern psychology with his work on John Locke’s theory of association and how it could be used to explain how humans gain knowledge in the physical world. He also used the theory to explain perception, stating that all qualities where, as Locke would call them, secondary qualities therefore perception laid entirely in the perceiver and not in the object. These are both topics today studied in modern psychology.

In the period between 1714 and 1720, Berkeley interspersed his academic endeavors with periods of extensive travel in Europe, including one of the most extensive Grand Tours of the length and breadth of Italy ever undertaken. In 1721, he took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chose to remain at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing this time in Divinity and in Hebrew. In 1721/2 he was made Dean of Dromore and, in 1724, Dean of Derry. In 1725, he began the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries in the colony, in pursuit of which he gave up his deanery.

In 1728, he married Anne Forster, daughter of John Forster, Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, and his first wife Rebecca Monck. He then went to North America in pursuit of his goal to found a college. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation at Middletown – the famous “Whitehall.” In 1732 he left North America and returned to London. He and Anne had four children who survived infancy: Henry, George, William and Julia, and at least two other children who died in infancy. William’s death in 1751 was a great cause of grief to Berkeley.

While living in London’s Saville Street, he took part in efforts to create a home for the city’s abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors. In 1734, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, a position he held until his death. Soon afterwards, he published Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, directed against both Shaftesbury and Bernard de Mandeville; and in 1735–37 The Querist. His last two publications were Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tarwater, And divers other Subjects connected together and arising one from another (1744) and Further Thoughts on Tar-water (1752). Pine tar is an effective antiseptic and disinfectant when applied to cuts on the skin, but Berkeley argued for the use of pine tar as a broad panacea for diseases. His 1744 work on tar-water sold more copies than any of his other books during his lifetime. He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired. With his wife and daughter Julia he went to Oxford to live with his son George and supervise his education. He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

The University of California, Berkeley, was named after him, although the pronunciation has evolved to suit American English: (/ˈbərkliː/ BURK-lee). The naming was suggested in 1866 by Frederick Billings, a trustee of the then College of California.

The potato was the great staple of the Irish as early as the 17th century and was well established in Berkeley’s day. There are various Irish recipes for potatoes that I have given already. Champ, sometimes called poundies, is a common Irish country dish similar to colcannon. You don’t really need a recipe because it is basically mashed potatoes with additions. Cook diced potatoes in the usual way until they are soft enough to mash. Drain the cooking water and mash with the addition of butter, milk, cheese, and, most important, chopped green onions. In the past chopped nettles were sometimes used in place of the green onions. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Jan 102018
 

Today is known as Traditional Day or Fête du Vodoun, a public holiday in Benin that celebrates the nation’s heritage particularly as it relates to the West African practice of vodun. The celebration is held annually on January 10 throughout the country but most notably in the city of Ouidah on the coast. Vodun was officially declared a religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists to Ouidah to participate in the festivities ever since. During Matthew Kerekou’s Marxist/military rule of 18 years which ended in 1991, vodun was suppressed and outlawed in the country. With the exit of Kerekou from power, the practice began to thrive freely again. Following his return to power as a democratic elected president in 1996, Kerekou capitulated to the people’s wish when taking his oath of office by acknowledging the existence of ancestral spirits, and the government declared January 10th as public holiday.

You will read various statistics about the popularity of Vodun. Some observers claim that as much as 60% of the population of Benin practice Vodun, but according to the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin declared themselves as Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5% Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% as Muslim, and 17.3% as practitioners of Vodun (the rest following various other indigenous religions or having no religious affiliation). I’m not sure that I can say a whole lot about vodun that will be terribly accurate because I’ve never been to West Africa nor studied the local spiritual practices particularly closely, but I’ll do my best. The one thing I can say with no fear of contradiction is that Vodun is grossly misunderstood by outsiders.

Vodun (meaning “spirit” in both Fon and Ewe languages, also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) is practiced by the Ewe people of eastern and southern Ghana, and southern and central Togo,the Kabye people, Gen-speaking people, and Fon people of southern and central Togo, and southern and central Benin. It is also practiced by some Gun people of Lagos and Ogun in southwest Nigeria. All these peoples belong to Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, except the Kabye. Vodun is distinct from the various traditional African religions in the interiors of these countries and is one source of religions with similar names found among the African diaspora in the Americas, such as Haitian Vodou; Dominican Vudú; Cuban Vodú; Brazilian Vodum; and Louisiana Voodoo. I use the word “voodoo” in my title here, because it is one spelling of the Fon word that is pronounced /vodṹ/  (in IPA transliteration), and because it is more familiar to most Westerners than Vodun. However, it is very important not to confuse Vodun with popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of Voodoo.

Anthropologists class Vodun as a form of magic (differentiating it from religion). This is a technical distinction that causes anthropologists to argue endlessly, and froth at the mouth a lot, so I’ll keep it simple (which probably is a synonym in this case for “wrong” or “misguided”). Anthropologists, going back to James George Frazer and The Golden Bough, have tried to separate supernatural practices into magic and religion, but the differences are not really hard and fast. Ideally, magic takes as a basic assumption that the world is divided into physical and spiritual forces that are deeply entwined, such that everything affects everything. The art to being a good magical practitioner is knowing the rules that govern how actions in one place have results in another place. In some ways magic is akin to physical science, which also believes that everything is connected to everything else. For example, Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation (which got superseded by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity), states that EVERYTHING attracts EVERYTHING else in the universe (with a force proportional to their masses, divided by the square of their distance apart). This law applies to planets, stars, galaxies, and sub-atomic particles. In principle, therefore, I exert a force on you, and you exert a force on me. When I see you (in person), light from your body enters my eye and becomes part of my body. Everything influences everything. Magic differs from science in that it posits a spirit world that is also connected to the physical world, whereas science does not. What differentiates magic (and science) from religion, is that magic (and science) works regardless of the intentions of the practitioner, whereas in religious systems, intention is everything. Break a mirror and you get 7 years of bad luck whether you intended to break it or not. That’s magic. If you want to undo the bad luck you must know the magical rules concerned with mirrors, and perform the necessary magic to make things right again.  In a religious system you undo bad fortune through prayer, and your prayer may be granted, but only if you pray with a good heart. Pray with bad intentions and the supernatural world will ignore you, or maybe even do you more harm.

Of course, magic and religion cannot be separated so easily in this way. The big push that led to the Protestant Reformation was the belief, on the part of the likes of Luther and Calvin, that magic had heavily infiltrated Catholicism and perverted it away from “true” religion. Candles, incense, bells, relics, etc. etc., were seen as magical nonsense by the Reformers. Even with the best will in the world, you don’t get rid of magic that easily. Professional baseball players on a long hitting streak may keep doing certain things repeatedly (even ritually) – eating the same breakfast before games, driving the same route to the baseball stadium, for example – even though they have no obvious connexion to the hitting streak. Magic can be reassuring in that way. Why jinx a good thing?

Vodun cosmology centers on the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, ethnic group, or nation. The vodun are the center of ritual life, and in some ways appear similar to doctrines such as the intercession of saints and angels within Catholicism that ultimately produced syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou. Adherents of vodun also emphasize respect for ancestors, and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

Patterns of vodun practice differ considerably within West Africa, and even within Benin. In many traditions, a divine creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being who bore seven children and gave each rule over a realm of nature, such as, animals, earth, sea, and so forth. In other traditions, the universe has both female and male aspects, often portrayed as the twin children of the creator, represented cosmologically by the moon (female) and the sun (masculine). Dan, who is the creator’s androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and as a go-between between the female and male, and between the supernatural and natural. As the overall mediator between the spirits and the living, Dan maintains balance, order, peace, harmony and communication. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine.

Because all physical objects contain divine power, even mundane items can have spiritual efficacy. Herbs can cure illnesses, not because of their physical properties but because of their divine nature. Even ordinary, everyday objects can be used in ritual because of their inherent spiritual force. Vodun talismans, called “fetishes” in English, are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold because of their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Drumming, dancing, singing; the ritual slaughter of goats and chickens; and drinking copious amounts of homemade gin, are all intrinsic parts of festivities in Benin on this date.

A very common street food (as well as home food) for festivals throughout Benin is Atassi or Waakye, which closely resembles beans and rice dishes found throughout Europe and the Americas. The dish is popular during Fête du Vodoun because the two complementary ingredients represent the duality central to vodun, and the dish itself is especially sacred to twins who are held in high honor in many West African cultures because of their resonance with the primordial twins of the creator. Beans and rice are called waakye in Benin because “waakye” is the local Fon word for sorghum, sometimes millet, leaves added to the cooking water to produce a distinctive brown color and subtle flavoring. You do not really need a recipe if you have any experience with beans and rice, especially because the Benin version is very plain.  Here’s a video for you.