Wednesday 28 June 2023

"I refute it thus!" - in which Johnson kicks a stone.


Sculpture by William Fawke, found in The Garden of Heroes and Villains

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus.”

This is a story from Boswell’s life and I first heard it before I had fallen down the wonderful rabbit hole of Johnsonianism. I’d heard of Johnson, there was a chapter of him in the Horrible Histories book Wicked Words, which repeated stories about him rolling down hills and a bizarre story about him kicking a mother and baby out of a carriage because she talked in baby talk - I’m not sure I’ve heard this story anywhere else. But I heard of Johnson kicking the stone in a lecture about George Berkeley, part of a series of lectures about him I had during my BA in philosophy. The lecturer was one of the best ones and he’d gone through Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge really intelligibly. He told the story to illustrate how a misunderstanding of Berkeley could lead to an intelligent man making a stupid argument. I just remember thinking that this Johnson guy was a badass.

(Incidentally, there was actually an American Samuel Johnson who was a philosopher, educator and keen proponent and correspondent of Berkeley. There’s also Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, the official fool, stiltwalker and writer of Hurlothrumbo - his opinion on Berkeley is unknown but I reckon he’d have been a fan. Honestly, his characters in the play like the King Soaretherial lived in states of ideas more than matter.)

Johnson’s non argument has led to his action becoming the name of a logical fallacy called ‘argumentum ad lapidem’ or appeal to the stone. Essentially, when the first person makes a claim (the non-existence of matter) and the second refutes the claim (we are satisfied his doctrine is not true) and then backs up the claim without any evidence or reasoning (I refute it thus). As such, Johnson is represented in the philosophical community as a chump. I, however, think that philosophers are chumps and I will take a little time to justify Johnson’s actions

First, a brief overview of Berkeley and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Berkeley had read his Locke, particularly An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which all human knowledge is taken in by the senses and then systematised by the mind. This led a fundamental flaw in Berkeley’s eyes, if all we took in was sense data, how could we know that matter, that objects independent of the sense data actually exists? What is an apple if the size, shape, colour, flavour, texture and smell taken out? As he famously put it, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" 

His solution is that esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. That objects exist only as ideas - in the sense that idea is meant in Locke, as units of thought. But Locke had distinguished primary ideas, like extension, solidity and number, which come from an object and secondary ideas such as red, sweetness, aesthetic qualities, that come from the mind. Berkeley said that all ideas were secondary ones and that we can’t detach our experience of something from the qualities is possesses. The benefit of this idea is that it simplifies things, removes the need to believe in a strange, barely perceptible material world.

One of the aspects of the series of lectures was a look at any possible way of disproving Berkeley and he sewed his argument shut. It’s one tight, locked down text and, if playing Berkeley at his game, there really is no way to beat him, it is impossible to refute. In the book, he lists various arguments that could be made against his assertion of ‘the non-existence of matter’. One of these is listed, ‘Is not the whole of mankind of the opposite opinion?’ In his arguments against this, Berkeley reminds his readers that people are often wrong about things. He also says that people don’t really think the opposite. He encourages a person to imagine an object without its qualities, to imagine an apple without it’s shape, weight, texture, colour, smell, sweetness - what is really left? That to imagine only matter is the thing that’s ‘impossible to conceive.’

Honestly, Berkeley really battens down his hatches when it comes to arguing against possible objections. He even addresses religious qualms (being a Bishop and all) about how the non-existence of a material world may make miracles less miraculous. He repeatedly states that his immaterialism does not negate the existence of the ‘real and substantial in nature’ as the only things we know about those things are the ideas gathered from our senses. If he had been there, watching Johnson kick that rock with mighty force, he would have said that Johnson had used his sense to prove the existence of the idea of solidity in the rock - but not the existence of a rock-matter separate from his experience of kicking it. Indeed, any disproof that relies on any kind of sense perception only re-enforces it, and there’s no way of going outside of that sense perception. 

To be fair to Johnson though, he was no philosopher. A clever man certainly, I’d even esteem him wise about many things, but Johnson did not enjoy abstract philosophical debate. All the things that excited Johnson, be they politics, poetry, morality or chemistry had real world consequences. He was only interested in how people’s lives were effected and even when talking about poetry, his focus was always on the impact and effect on a reader. Even his biggest intellectual feat, his Dictionary of the English Language was about tying ideas to words, bringing both out of the ether and into people’s hands. What’s more, Johnson as a man was stridently proud of his non-academic status, reflecting that although his life had been far harder than those friends who’d stayed in university, it had given him tools and grit they did not.

Also, and most importantly, Johnson’s not involved in a philosophical debate, he’s just got bored of Boswell wittering on about some nonsense about matter not existing, probably garbled and half understood and Johnson’s had enough. Boswell will ‘never forget the alacrity’ that Johnson kicked that stone, kicking so hard he rebounded off. That speed and force tells it all, as does the curt ‘I refute it thus’, Samuel Johnson is not trying to make a grand philosophic point and failing, he’s just trying to get James Boswell to shut the fuck up.

I still think he’s a badass.


  1. Huzzah! for Johnson not enjoying the claptrap of philosophical argument.