Mired in coursework on a bleak February day I recall a common refrain from classrooms of my childhood. A student would plaintively announce, “I’m stuck!”
Often it was during math class and usually the problem seemed utterly insoluble. As adult students these same struggles and doldrums can occur; in mid-winter it’s easy for even the most dedicated of us to wrestle to keep our focus. Course work can seem like a monotonous cycle with precious little progress—akin to water endlessly circling a drain yet never quite veering over the precipice. Perhaps, instead of asking “are we there yet?” we need to think of learning itself as a perpetual circling process: where the object of our study eludes us just enough to wick us onward. And, to maintain some semblance of unity between ourselves and the objects of our study, it might be helpful to see ourselves as relating with our material in a condition of partnership rather than as adversaries.
To this end, the 18th Century philosopher, George Berkeley, believed that the external material world did not exist externally to us at all. On the contrary, his immaterialism stated that because our senses can deceive us, and owing to the fact that our minds are what make sense of all that we see, touch, and hear, our perceptions are the only truth in the universe of which we can be certain (Acton, 298). This counter-intuitive approach may allow us to reconsider our struggles with coursework; perhaps we need to change our perceptions of that difficult essay or set of equations and realize that it’s not the work that’s hard, it’s how our minds are thinking about it. Small consolation in dark times, but bear with me!
Berkeley stated that, for practical purposes, an external world of objective reality requires some conscious and subjective self being around to perceive it. When that being is us labouring at our desks, knowledge of this fact can be empowering. We’re the masters of our destiny, and study schedules and weekly goals are our domain to conquer. So when the slogging seems insoluble it’s worth considering whether we’ve allowed our task to take on impossible dimensions: ones which we can reign in because it was us that imagined their enormity in the first place.
But other than for purposes of levity is it really worth asking if our struggles are all in our head? “What think you of distrusting the Senses, of denying the real Existence of sensible Things, or pretending to know nothing of them?” Berkeley has Hylas say in his ‘Three Dialogues’ (Berkeley, online). We know that we’re bogged down with school and the weather outside is gloomy so why doubt these facts?
Yet, as Berkeley’s depiction of Philonous replies: “In reading a book, what I immediately perceive are the letters, but mediately, or by means of these, are suggested to my mind the notions of God, Virtue, Truth, etc. Now, that the letters are truly sensible things, or perceived by sense, there is no doubt: But I would know whether you take the things suggested by them to be so too” (Berkeley, online). Even the driest list of facts and figures is mediated by the meanings imparted to them by their disciplinary context; numbers, the bane of many a math-phobic’s existence, matter in terms of their application as statistics for business of science or, in the case of the classroom, for learning how to learn to apply them.
Mathematics appear objective and their answers susceptible to a true/false binary yet even their stark numeric significations are mediated by the context which gives them their real meaning. The fact that the answers to equations are found in the back of the textbook are testament to this: it’s not about the numbers at all but the process of applying them in the rational manner prescribed by mathematics itself. “There are no units and no numbers in nature apart from the devices that men have invented to count and measure” H.B. Acton wrote about Berkeley’s philosophy. Or, put another way, objects succumb to the ideology of arithmetic which presses numbers into service to solve their problems. In this sense struggles with math are sometimes ameliorated by using real-world problems to explain them: placed into sentences and explained as societal solutions numbers lose their rigidity and obscurantism. Our interpretations of them as abstract and intimidating may be reduced when we see them reduced to their actual and lowly status as mere tools.
Berkeley’s Philonous continues: “This point then is agreed between us, That Sensible Things are those only which are immediately perceived by Sense…It seems therefore, that if you take away all sensible Qualities, there remains nothing sensible” (Berkeley, online). So, numbers may be scary, but in the end they are imaginary, mere wraiths that haunt us until we cease to believe in their powers. Putting things in perspective might be the way out of our academic doldrums. Difficult aspects of our coursework are part of our greater journey towards career and life fulfilment and are, so to speak, only so may potholes in a winter road. Set in their larger context our struggles become momentary and lose some of their weight. We are the creative human students and the course material is rarely beyond us. One day we may even look back with diffidence and humour on our past tribulations. Berkeley consistently “denied the very possibility of inert, mindless, material substance” and so may we deny that our course material (let alone the weather!) can have power over our meaning-making abilities (Acton, 296). Mind over matter becomes tangible when we remember that we are capable of feats far beyond moments of pessimism.
Furthering the cause of thinking our way to success, Berkeley explained that much of what we take to be external is instead our own internal extrapolation from life conditions. For instance, distance is suggested rather than sensed (depth perception requires two eyes and a mind to piece to together the images)—we see trees or buildings and conclude from experience how far away they are. “Just as one does not hear a man’s thoughts, which are suggested by the sounds he makes, so one does not directly see distance, which is suggested by what is seen” (Berkeley, 297). We see distance relative to our expectations as well as by what our eyes see. What seems like an overwhelming wordcount requirement for an essay invariably diminishes as the fingers type; what in high-school English seemed a massive paper becomes a mere passing flourish in University. The only certainty is that choosing to do nothing guarantees that nothing will be done; nothing is impossible, despite how time may fly by as we mindlessly scroll social media when we ought to be studying.
Much depends on how we think about things, then, and this realization can provide relief from a deterministic worldview wherein a realm like geometry appears as an impenetrable morass of angles and lines. In fact, the smallest or largest task is relative to how we think about it. This is where common suggestions to write lists of gratitude and un-gratitude can help give us perspective. With distance courses most of us are grateful that we can set our own schedule and study in our pyjamas, while, at the same time, we may not be so grateful for the lack of peer interaction and having to ward off the distractions of home life. Imagining best and worst scenarios also may help; for most of us the worst-case outcome in a course is having to order that dreaded two-month extension.
Berkeley, ever keen to show that experience is relative to our mental condition rather than external reality, asks us to consider how we can ever know the true size of something. Hopefully, putting study challenges in perspective takes only a flea-sized speck of imagination.
Berkeley has Philonous and Hylas state:
“Phil. A Mite therefore must be supposed to see his own Foot, and Things equal or even less than it, as Bodies of some considerable Dimension; though at the same time they appear to you scarce discernible, or at best as so many visible Points.
Hyl. I cannot deny it.
Phil. And to Creatures less than the Mite they will seem yet larger.
Hyl. They will.
Phil. Insomuch that what you can hardly discern, will to another extremely minute Animal appear as some huge Mountain.
Hyl. All this I grant.
Phil. Can one and the same thing be at the same time in itself of different Dimensions?
Hyl. That were absurd to imagine.
Phil. But from what you have laid down it follows, that both the Extension by you perceived, and that perceived by the Mite itself, as likewise all those perceived by lesser Animals, are each of them the true Extension of the Mite’s Foot, that is to say, by your own Principles you are led into an Absurdity.
Hyl. There seems to be some Difficulty in the Point.”
Some difficulty indeed! It turns out that in every moment of our education there have been obstacles that seemed gargantuan and yet we managed to overcome them and soldier on. Like ants marching two by two we can vanquish all obstacles! Schooling being a classic realm of ideas and concepts we can truly walk through walls and this is where Berkeley’s immaterialist philosophy applies: our potential is relatively unlimited so long as we don’t allow setbacks to diminish our self esteem and make us feel small. In this sense we’re not so different from elementary school students struggling with long division; it remains only for us to remember that some how we did in fact pass the Fifth Grade and conclude that this too, be it a gnarly essay or daunting statistics exam, we shall pass.