(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

George Berkeley 1685–-1753

Irish Philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”