A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge Analysis

George Berkeley


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The idea that “all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind—that their being is to be perceived or known” will hardly seem obvious to anyone unfamiliar with George Berkeley or with idealism. This startling statement has considerable shock value, but it is true to Berkeley’s bold metaphysical thesis that reality is mental or spiritual in nature.

The statement’s emphasis on perception reveals its author’s epistemological and methodological approach: empiricism. Although not all empiricists would accept Berkeley’s conclusions and not all metaphysical idealists would accept his method, none would deny his importance in the traditions of both empiricism and idealism. That his method and even his immaterialism have influenced some modern physicists and that his analytical technique is valued even by such antimetaphysicians as the logical positivists are proofs of the classical status Berkeley’s work has enjoyed.

His aims, however, were primarily those of a metaphysician and theologian; he wished to undermine skepticism and atheism by refuting materialism, to demonstrate God’s existence and immateriality, to show the immortality of the soul, and to clarify current scientific and philosophical confusions. The latter are due, he claimed, not to inherent defects in people’s mental faculties but to their use: “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.” Berkeley intended to settle this dust and to destroy materialism.