Essay 12: Can There Be an Archimedean Vantage Point Outside of Everything? Isaiah Berlin

We saw in our discussion of Descartes and his knowledge quest (we quoted “Meditation 2” from his Meditations of 1641) that he “flirts” with the idea of finding an Archimedean point outside everything.

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (died in 1997) argues that this is intrinsically unreachable and beyond our ken:

“I am certain, for example, that I am not at this moment the Emperor of Mars dreaming a dream in which I am a university teacher on the earth; but I should find it exceedingly hard to justify my certainty by inductive methods that avoid circularity. Most of the certainties on which are lives are founded would scarcely pass this test. The vast majority of the types of reasoning on which our beliefs rest, or by which we should seek to justify them if they were challenged, are not reducible to formal deductive or inductive schemata, or combinations of them.

“If I am asked what rational grounds I have for supposing that I am not on Mars, or that the Emperor Napoleon existed and was not merely a sun myth, and if in answer to this I try to make explicit the general propositions which entail this conclusion, together with the specific evidence for them, and the evidence for the reliability of this evidence, and the evidence for that evidence in its turn, and so on, I shall not get very far. The web is too complex, the elements too many and not, to say the least, easily isolated and tested one by one; anyone can satisfy himself by trying to analyse and state them explicitly. The true reason for accepting the propositions that I live on earth, and that an Emperor Napoleon I existed, is that to assert their contradictories is to destroy too much of what we take for granted about the present and the past.

“For the total texture is what we begin and end with. There is no Archimedean point outside it whence we can survey the whole of it and pronounce upon it.”

(Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories, Princeton University Press, 1988, page 114)

The idea of the ultimate “detached observer” whether Plato or Descartes who can jump over his own human shadow and specify existence and “know the mind of God” (as Stephen Hawking proposed) is a kind of false and even delusional holism and not the educational “exercises in holism” we propose where all  exercises are tentative and have no claim to finality.