Article abstract: Berkeley put forth a novel theory of sense perception that led to the denial of the existence of physical objects. Serving as the link between John Locke’s commonsense materialism and David Hume’s skepticism, Berkeley’s ideas spanned the philosophical gap between classical traditionalism and the emergence of modern science.
George Berkeley was born on March 12, 1685, in or near Kilkenny, in County Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest son of William Berkeley. Little is known of his boyhood, but there is evidence that he was a precocious child. In 1696, he attended the Kilkenny School, and in 1700, Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied mathematics, logic, languages, and philosophy. He was graduated in 1704 and received his M.A. in 1707, becoming a Fellow of Trinity College. During this period, the principal influences upon his thought were the ideas of English philosopher John Locke and the continental thinkers Nicolas Malebranche and Pierre Bayle. Berkeley had begun the line of thought that he was to pursue in his later major works, that is, his argument for the immateriality of objects, based on the subjectivity of sense perceptions. Before the age of thirty, he had published three of the most important philosophical works in eighteenth century England, books that have become classics in English philosophy. All three were published within a four-year period, from 1709 to 1713, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.
In An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, Berkeley’s design was to show how human sight conceptualizes distance, magnitude, and the location of objects and whether ideas of sight and touch are similar or different. His goal in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge was to demonstrate that an uncritical acceptance of materialism inevitably leads to skepticism and atheism. In Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley refines and extends these ideas, arguing in dialogue form that the notion of a “material substratum” is a meaningless verbal abstraction.
Even though these books, as an example of English prose, are superb in style and clarity, they were, when they appeared, either dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored. Common sense convinced most people that “matter” was real enough, and Dr. Samuel Johnson’s declaration, “I refute him thus,” upon kicking a large stone, was refutation enough.
In 1709, Berkeley was made a deacon in the Church of England and was ordained a priest in 1710. That same year, Berkeley traveled to London, where he met writers Joseph Addison, Sir Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. Berkeley was present at the first night of Addison’s play Cato (1713) and wrote a lively description of the evening. He wrote essays for Steele’s The Guardian (1713) against the ideas of the freethinkers. Pope praised Berkeley, and Swift presented him at court.
In 1713-1714, Berkeley traveled on the Continent, where he probably met and conversed with Malebranche. He returned there in 1716-1720, serving as tutor to George Ashe, son of the Bishop of Clogher. On his return, he published De motu (of motion), in which he argued against Isaac Newton’s notion of absolute space, time, and motion and made reference to his ideas on immaterialism. This work also earned for Berkeley the title as “precursor of Mach and Einstein.” He retained his fellowship at Trinity College until 1724, when he became dean of Derry.
Disappointed at having failed to attract the interest of educated English society in his philosophical theories, Berkeley turned his attention toward propagating Christianity and educating American Indians, even settling on a scheme to build a college in Bermuda for that purpose. He was granted a charter, with the Archbishop of Canterbury acting as trustee and Parliament allotting a grant of twenty thousand pounds for the project. There was, however, some opposition to the plan, and the project was eventually abandoned.
In 1728, Berkeley married Anne Forster, an intelligent and well-educated woman, and they moved to Newport, Rhode Island. The marriage was a happy one and six children—four sons and two daughters—would be born to the couple. Returning to Ireland in 1731, Berkeley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. There he administered his diocese with skill and grace for eighteen years. At the time of his leaving America, he had donated generously of his books and money to Yale University, and it is interesting to note that the United States honored his largess 150 years later when the university town of...
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