George Berkeley 1685–-1753
George Berkeley has been described by some as a brilliant abstract thinker, while others have regarded his views as inconsistent and unconvincing. His most important philosophical theory, immaterialism, is spelled out in Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). In this work, he claims that all of reality can be divided into two categories: the mind, which perceives and wills; and the passive objects of perception—in Berkeley's terms, ideas—whose existence depends on the thoughts and operations of mind or spirit. In this view, what one may say is reality is actually just a perception of the senses. Berkeley's argument for immaterialism takes a different form in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), in which Philonous tries to convince Hylas that immaterialism is not only less skeptical than materialism, but more faithful to common sense. An Anglican bishop, Berkeley reconciled his immaterialism with a belief in God, by whose mind all things, including the human mind itself, are perceived and thus receive their existence. Berkeley won few converts to immaterialism; however, his philosophy is considered by many to be worthy of study for what it can teach us about the world and philosophical reasoning.
Berkeley was born on March 12, 1685, at Kilkenny, Ireland. A few months after his eleventh birthday, he entered Kilkenny College. It was in these early years that he found himself using his imagination to a great degree. Later in life, he would urge his readers in his Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge to think using their imaginations. After he received his bachelor's degree in 1704 from Trinity College in Dublin, he began to fill notebooks now known as his Philosophical Commentaries (c. 1705). The notebooks chart Berkeley's study of philosophers such as John Locke, Isaac Newton, and René Descartes, as well as the development of his theory of immaterialism, which he called “the Principle.” Berkeley became a fellow of Trinity College in 1707 and would hold the position for seventeen years. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1710, and in 1734 he was named Bishop of Cloyne. Berkeley's two main publications issued during his nearly twenty-year tenure in Cloyne, The Querist (1735) and Siris (1744), deal with the problems he faced as bishop. Berkeley moved to Oxford 1752 and died there the following year.
The early writings of Berkeley were consumed with the development of his principle of immaterialism. Works like the Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and the Philosophical Commentaries espouse a belief in “the Principle,” which, rendered simply, holds that “to be is to be perceived or to perceive.” The only reality, according to Berkeley, consists of ideas and what can be perceived in the mind. Berkeley's medium as a philosopher was argument or debate, and in the first thirty-three numbered paragraphs or sections of the Principles he develops at least six different arguments for immaterialism. In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philomous, Berkeley casts the arguments in the form of debates between two characters in order to convince the reader of perceptual relativity. Another important work by Berkeley, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), attempts to explain how we perceive by sight the distance, magnitude, and situation of objects. Berkeley's life as a cleric furnished the material for Passive Obedience (1712), which is based on three sermons he delivered. Here he advocates “absolute unlimited non-resistance or passive obedience due to the supreme civil power wherever placed in any nation.” The Querist, written during his tenure as Bishop of Cloyne, is a series of several hundred questions on the causes of the poverty of Ireland.
Although Berkeley won few converts to immaterialism, he has been widely read and studied as one who added substantially to philosophical thought. For many, Berkeley provides clear example of an abstract thinker no longer at home in reality. Berkeley himself was disappointed in the reception of his major principles as espoused in A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and undertook the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in response to critics who said he was wasting his time with metaphysics. Few in the eighteenth century made any serious attempt to understand him. While most most modern critics have agreed that Berkeley's arguments are not conclusive, the do, as Ian Tipton has pointed out, raise interesting and provocative issues. Some have placed him alonside John Locke and David Hume as one of the three greatest philosophers of the eighteenth century. Others, including John Wild, have admired his contributions to science and perceptual psychology. G. A. Johnston has offered perhaps the highest praise of Berkeley, declaring that he is “perhaps the freshest and most original thinker in the history of British philosophy.”
*The Philosophical Commentaries (notebook) c. 1705
Arithmetica absque algebra aut Euclide demonstrata and Miscellanea Mathemetica (prose) 1707
An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (prose) 1709; revised edition, 1732
A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (prose) 1710; revised edition, 1734
Passive Obedience, or the Christian doctrine of not resisting the supreme power, proved and vindicated upon the principle of the law of nature. (prose) 1712
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (prose) 1713; revised edition, 1734
Advice to the Tories Who Have Taken the Oaths (prose) 1715
De Motu: sive, de motus principio & natura, et de causa communications mottum (prose) 1721
An Essay towards Preventing the ruine of Great Britain (prose) 1721
A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations, and for converting the Savage Americans to Christianity (prose) 1724; revised edition, 1725
Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher, 2 vols. (prose) 1732; revised edition, 1752, 1803
A Sermon preached before the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (prose) 1732
The Theory of Vision, or Visual...
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SOURCE: “The Meaning of Berkeley,” in George Berkeley: A Study of his Life and Philosophy, Russell & Russell, 1962, pp. 480-502.
[In the following essay, which was written in 1936, Wild provides a survey of Berkeley's career and an overview of his philosophical development.]
Berkeley completed the Siris, his last and definitive philosophical work, in 1744. His health, already failing, was further impaired by the exhausting study and meditation which had been necessary for its composition. He himself declared, according to his first biographer Stock, “that this work cost him more time and pains than any other he had ever been engaged in.” He was able, however, to carry on his episcopal duties with unabated zeal, and several more or less occasional writings of this period have survived.
Among these is a “Letter to the Roman Catholics of The Diocese of Cloyne,” which he wrote in 1745 in a remarkably sympathetic tone, advising them against siding with the Pretender, whose conquest, he maintained, would be a disaster to them as well as to the representatives of the Irish Protestant Church, whom he similarly advised in “A Letter to his Clergy by the Bishop of Cloyne on the Occasion of the Rebellion in 1745.” The friendly recognition of Catholics by a Protestant Bishop was an unprecendented step in the history of the Irish Church.
The See of Cloyne...
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SOURCE: “The Origins of Berkeley's Thought,” in The Development of Berkeley's Philosophy, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965, pp. 12-67.
[In the following excerpt, Johnston discusses the experiences and influences that resulted in the formation of Berkeley's philosophical theories.]
I. PHILOSOPHICAL AND RELIGIOUS ENVIRONMENT
It is the merest commonplace to say that every thinker owes much to his predecessors and contemporaries. His thought is consciously influenced by philosophers, scientists and moralists; and, in addition, it bears upon it the stamp of that subtler but none the less potent force, the social environment in which he lives. Berkeley is perhaps the freshest and most original thinker in the history of British philosophy; yet, more than any other, he was influenced both by his immediate philosophical predecessors and by the social surroundings in which he was placed. He was aware of his debt, though not, perhaps, of the full extent of it. “I must acknowledge myself beholding to the philosophers who have gone before me,”1 he reminds himself in the Commonplace Book; but at the same time he compares these predecessors to adventurers, “who, tho' they attained not the desired port, they by their wrecks have made known the rocks and sands, whereby the passage of aftercomers is made more secure and easy.”2 But Berkeley's indebtedness...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Existence in the Mind,” in Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by C. B. Martin and D. M. Armstrong, Anchor Books, Inc., 1968, pp. 184-95.
[In the following essay, Luce examines the use of the term “in the mind” in Berkeley's works, arguing that Berkeley refers to perceivable existence rather than mental existence.]
We find existence in the mind asserted and existence outside the mind denied scores of times, probably more than a hundred times, in the Principles.2 In the earlier portion of the work there is scarcely a section without a reference to the doctrine. The term in the mind is clearly a hinge of Berkeley's system, and it has been persistently misunderstood, in my opinion, from his day to ours.
Kant took it to mean that ‘the objects in space are mere products of the imagination’.3 Critics to-day are reluctant to attribute such nonsense to a sensible thinker; but many of them make much the same mistake as Kant. They put the charge less bluntly and more broadly; for Kant's words ‘products of the imagination’, they would substitute ‘products of our faculties’; but that change would not affect the gravamen of the charge, viz., that Berkeley's existence in the mind is mental existence.
My task is to show that by existence in the mind Berkeley does not mean mental...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Master Argument,” in Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, January, 1974, pp. 55-69.
[In the following essay, Gallois considers the role imaging and perception play in the “master argument” of Berkeley's philosophy.]
In the first dialogue of the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, the following famous argument occurs which I shall refer to as the master argument.
Philonous: “… If you can conceive it possible for any mixture or combination of qualities, or any sensible object whatever, to exist without the mind, then I will grant it actually to be so.”
Hylas: “If it comes to that the point will soon be decided. What more easy to conceive of a tree or a house existing by itself, independent of, and unperceived by any mind whatsoever? I do at this moment conceive them existing after that manner.”
Philonous: “How say you Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?”
Hylas: “No, that were a contradiction.”
Philonous: “Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived?”
Hylas: “It is.”...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's World View III: The Existence of Unperceived Objects,” in Berkeley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1977, pp. 163-79.
[In the following essay, Pitcher examines Berkeley's ideas regarding the existence of unperceived objects.]
Although Berkeley believes that he must deny that we ever perceive so-called physical objects (e.g., trees and houses) and maintains that we perceive only our own ideas, he sometimes says things that imply that we do, after all, perceive things like trees and houses. Consider this passage from the Principles:
Sensible objects may likewise be said to be without the mind, in another sense, namely when they exist in some other mind. Thus when I shut my eyes, the things I saw may still exist, but it must be in another mind.
(PHK [Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge] I 90; see also PHK I 3 and 48)
If ‘the things I saw may … exist … in another mind,’ then those things cannot be my own ideas of sense, for my ideas cannot exist in any other mind: so by ‘the things I saw,’ here, Berkeley must mean so-called physical objects. We should not charge Berkeley with contradicting himself, however, for we can interpret him to be implying only that we mediately perceive natural objects.
It is yet...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley on the Physical World,” in Essays on Berkeley: A Tercentennial Celebration, edited by John Foster and Howard Robinson, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1985, pp. 83-108.
[In the following essay, Foster examines two apparently contradictory views in Berkeley's philosophy: that all reality exists solely in the mind and that a physical world does indeed exist and follows set laws.]
Berkeley's philosophy of the physical world is built around two central claims. The first is his claim that reality is ultimately purely mental, consisting solely of minds (spirits) and what exists or occurs within them. The second is his claim that there is a physical world and one which (more or less) answers to the specifications of our ordinary beliefs. These two claims appear to be incompatible: it seems that to accept the existence of a physical world, with its three-dimensional space and its solid extended occupants, is precisely to accept the existence of something outside the mind. But Berkeley believed that the two claims could be reconciled. He thought that the physical world itself is wholly constituted by the things which exist and the facts which obtain in the mental reality. It is the nature of this reconciliation which I want to explore in the present essay.
Before we look more closely at Berkeley's own position (or positions), it will be useful to...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Imagination,” in Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley, edited by Ernest Sosa, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 85-102.
[In the following essay, Tipton considers Berkeley's belief about the human imagination and its role in his philosophy of immaterialism.]
In Principles, 22-3, and in a parallel passage in the Dialogues,1 Berkeley presents an argument that is important in his eyes because he thinks, or appears to think, that it is sufficient to establish his immaterialism. He is, he says, “content to put the whole” upon the issue of whether his reader can “conceive it possible for one extended moveable substance, or in general, for any one idea or any thing like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it.” The reader, or Hylas in the Dialogues, has only to look into his own thoughts to find the answer. To be sure, one can frame the idea of books or trees without framing the idea of any onlooker, but that does not do the trick. “… it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the objects of your thought may exist without the mind: to make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy.”
Most commentators, including me, have not been...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Objection to Abstract Ideas and Unconceived Objects,” in Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley, edited by Ernest Sosa, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 61-81.
[In the following essay, Bolton provides support and opposition for Berkeley's rejection of abstraction as well as his form of idealism.]
1. According to Berkeley's famous theory of perception, we see, feel and otherwise perceive nothing but ideas; the whole of the sensible world with its trees and rocks, sun and stars, consists of nothing but idea sequences. The oddity of the consequence, that we eat, drink and clothe ourselves in ideas, seems to have discredited this theory for the first two hundred years. But in this century, the theory has been applauded for its elegant economy and the daring way it cuts off speculation about the existence and nature of the sensible world. Many other early modern philosophers regarded sensory ideas as only the means by which we perceive other sorts of things; for them, ideas were instruments which, even if fully known in themselves, offer at best partial knowledge of objects that exist in the sensible world. Berkeley's stunningly simple move is to identify objects we apprehend by sense with aggregates of ideas, while still maintaining that ideas are fully accessible to the mind that has them. This is inter alia a thesis about the intentional objects of...
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SOURCE: “The Attack on Matter” and “Immaterialism and Common Sense,” in The British Empiricists, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 106-38.
[In the first essay that follows, Urmson gives an overview of Berkeley's conflict with John Locke in the area of the definition of matter. In the second, he examines Berkeley's contention that, in order for his theory of immaterialism to be considered true, it must coincide with common sense.]
THE ATTACK ON MATTER
George Berkeley was born on 12 March 1685, near Kilkenny in Ireland. His ancestry was English, but his grandfather, a royalist, moved to Ireland at the time of the restoration. Berkeley considered himself to be an Irishman; he referred to Newton as ‘a philosopher of a neighbouring nation’ (P [Principles of Human Knowledge] 110) and, commenting sarcastically in his private notebook on what he regarded as a philosophical absurdity, he wrote: ‘We Irishmen cannot attain to these truths’ (C [Philosophical Commentaries] 392). He was sent to Kilkenny College, which Congreve and Swift had recently attended, and then, aged only fifteen, to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1700. There he studied mathematics, languages, including Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew, logic and philosophy; the philosophy course was up to date and included the study of Locke, the French philosopher-theologian Malebranche, and...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Idealism: Yet Another Visit,” in Berkeley's Metaphysics: Structural, Interpretive, and Critical Essays, edited by Robert G. Muehlmann, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 23-37.
[In the following essay, Allaire surveys the ontology of Berkeley's philosophy of idealism, and why it fails.]
In these remarks, I try to show that Berkeley's idealism was inevitable and that its failings continue to be instructive. Being too long indifferent to epistemological matters, I have only recently come to believe the former. All ontological solutions to the problems of knowledge issue in idealism or a variant of it, I think.
Berkeley's ontology contains two basic kinds: minds and ideas, as he calls them. The former—also called spirits, souls, and selves—are acknowledged to be (mental) substances (PR [A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge] 7); the latter, except for some simple ideas that are deemed qualities, though not relative to substances, are not otherwise categorized by Berkeley. Why that is so is of concern later.
I want now to develop a simple representational device in order neatly to exhibit some features of Berkeley's ontology. Let lowercase exes with subscripts stand for minds; lowercase efs with subscripts, for simple ideas. That “vocabulary” suggests that the schema has...
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SOURCE: “The Substance of Berkeley's Philosophy,” in Berkeley's Metaphysics: Structural, Interpretive, and Critical Essays, edited by Robert G. Muehlmann, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 89-105.
[In the following essay, Muehlmann thoroughly analyzes Berkeley's central metaphysical doctrines and some of the motivations behind them and concludes that many who have read his principles have been misled.]
In the Philosophical Commentaries, the “juvenile” Berkeley enthusiastically sketches out a bundle analysis of finite minds: a mind is constituted of episodes of volition and occurrences of ideas.1 But it is clear that Berkeley endorses a substance analysis by the time the Principles appears. As early as PR 2 he says that a mind is “a thing entirely distinct” from its ideas; and numerous additional passages in both the Principles and Dialogues give voice to the position that finite minds are active substances distinct from, but both “causing” (some of) and “supporting” (all of), their ideas. That dramatic change in his position raises the question to which this essay is addressed. Why does Berkeley endorse the substance analysis of mind when he writes the Principles?
By the time I am able to provide an answer, I will have shown that this question is not equivalent to its negatively expressed...
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SOURCE: “Berkeley's Ideas of Sense” in The Empiricists: Critical Essays on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, edited by Margaret Atherton, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999, pp. 89-106.
[In the following essay, Cummins examines Berkeley's belief about perception, claiming that he limits himself because he refuses to separate the physical world from the perceptions of the senses.]
In Section One of the Principles,1 Berkeley divides the objects of human knowledge into three groups. They are either “ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly ideas formed by the help of memory and imagination, either compounding, dividing or barely representing those originally perceived in the aforesaid ways.” Berkeley proceeds to specify, with respect to ideas of the first division, the qualities which are the proper objects of each of the five senses. By smell, for example, odours are perceived and by hearing, sounds. Next he states, “And as several of these are observed to accompany each other, they come to be marked by one name, and so to be reputed as one thing.” After listing some of the things constituted by ideas of sense, for example, apples, stones, and books, he asserts that as they are pleasing or disagreeable, such collections excite “the passions of love, hatred, joy, grief and so...
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Hicks, G. Dawes. Berkeley. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, 325 p.
Surveys Berkeley's life and provides the reader with an overview of the philosopher's major principles.
Luce, A. A. The Life of George Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1949, 250 p.
Surveys Berkeley's life and career.
Wheelwright, Philip. Introduction to George Berkeley: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, pp. ix-xxxiv. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1935.
Provides an overview of Berkeley's life and some of his major principles.
Armstrong, David M. “Discussion: Berkeley's New Theory of Vision.” In Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 21, No. 1 (January 1956): 127-29.
Discussion of one critic's comments about Berkeley's theory of vision and perception.
Ayers, Michael R. “Substance, Reality, and the Great, Dead Philosophers.” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 1970): 38-49.
Analyzes Berkeley's “principle” in great detail.
Bennett, Jonathan. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, 361 p.
Allows for a comparison...
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