Berkeley, George (1685–1753)

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George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher of English ancestry, and Anglican bishop of Cloyne, was born at Kilkenny, Ireland. He entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1700 and became a fellow in 1707. In 1709 he published his first important book, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision. This was well received, and a second edition appeared in the same year. The following year A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, was published. This is the work in which Berkeley first published his immaterialist philosophy, and although it made him known to some of the foremost writers of the day, its conclusions were not taken very seriously by them. In 1713 Berkeley went to London and there published the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, a more popular statement of the doctrines of the Principles. While in London, Berkeley became acquainted with Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Richard Steele and contributed articles to Steele's Guardian, attacking the theories of the freethinkers. He traveled on the Continent in 17131714 (when he probably met and conversed with Nicolas Malebranche) and again from 1716 to 1720. During this tour he lost the manuscript of the second part of the Principles, which he never rewrote. Toward the end of the tour, he wrote a short essay, in Latin, titled De Motu, published in London in 1721, criticizing Isaac Newton's philosophy of nature and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's theory of force. In 1724 Berkeley was made dean of Derry.

About this time, Berkeley began to prepare a project for establishing a college in Bermuda, at which not only the sons of American colonists but also Indians and Negroes were to receive a thorough education and be trained for the Christian ministry. Having obtained promises of subscriptions from many prominent people, Berkeley promoted a bill, which was passed by Parliament, providing for considerable financial help from the government. In 1728, before the money was forthcoming, Berkeley, who had just married, left for Rhode Island, where he intended to establish farms for supplying food for the college. He settled in Newport, but the grant never came; and in 1731, when it was clear that the government was diverting the money for other purposes, Berkeley had to return home. While in Newport, however, Berkeley had met and corresponded with the Samuel Johnson who later became the first president of King's College, New York (now Columbia University). Johnson was one of the few philosophers of the time to give close attention to Berkeley's philosophical views, and the correspondence between him and Berkeley is of considerable philosophical interest. While he was in Newport, Berkeley also wrote Alciphron, a series of dialogues in part developed from the articles he had written for the Guardian, directed against the "minute philosophers," or freethinkers. This was published in 1732.

Berkeley was in London from 1732 to 1734 and there wrote The Analyst (1734), a criticism of Newton's doctrine of fluxions and addressed to "an infidel mathematician." This and A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735) aimed at showing that the mathematicians so admired by freethinkers worked with concepts that could not withstand close scrutiny, so that the confidence given to them by "the philomathematical infidels of these times" was unjustified. It is not surprising that Berkeley was made bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, in 1734.

Berkeley carried out his episcopal duties with vigor and humanity. His diocese was in a remote and poor part of the country, and the problems he encountered there led him to reflect on economic problems. The result was The Querist (17351737), in which he made proposals for dealing with the prevailing idleness and poverty by means of public works and education. He also concerned himself with the health of the people and became convinced of the medicinal value of tar water. In 1744 he published A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water, and divers other Subjects connected together and arising from one another. When the second edition appeared in the same year, the title Siris, by which the book is now known, was added. Much of the book is concerned with the merits of tar water, but Berkeley passed from this subject to the causes of physical phenomena, which, he held, cannot be discovered in the phenomena themselves but must be sought for in the Divine activity. This is in line with his earlier views, but some readers, on the basis of his admiring references to Plato and the Neoplatonists, have considered that by this time he had considerably modified his original system. The Siris was Berkeley's last philosophical work. He died suddenly in Oxford nine years later.

An account of Berkeley's life and writings would be inadequate without some reference to his Philosophical Commentaries. A. C. Fraser discovered a series of notes by Berkeley on all the main topics of Berkeley's philosophy and published them in 1871 in his edition of Berkeley's works, under the title of Commonplace Book of Occasional Metaphysical Thoughts. It was later noticed that these notes had been bound together in the wrong order, and it has now been shown that they were written by Berkeley, probably in 17071708, while he was thinking out his New Theory of Vision and Principles. This work makes it clear that Berkeley was already convinced of the truth of immaterialism before he published the New Theory of Vision, in which that view is not mentioned. The Philosophical Commentaries throw valuable light upon Berkeley's sources, bugbears, prejudices, and arguments.

Main Themes of Berkeley's Philosophy

Since the word idealism came into use in the eighteenth century, Berkeley has been known as a leading exponent of idealism, and even as its founder. He himself referred to his main view as "the immaterialist hypothesis," meaning by this that he denied the very possibility of inert, mindless, material substance. This description has some advantage over idealism in that it brings out Berkeley's radical opposition to materialism; whereas the opposite of idealism is realism, and there are grounds for doubting whether Berkeley intended to deny the realist contention that in perception people become directly aware of objects that persist unchanged when they cease to be perceived. Berkeley's fundamental view was that for something to exist it must either be perceived or else be the active being that does the perceiving. Things that are perceived he called "sensible things" or "sensible qualities," or, in the terminology he had borrowed from John Locke, "ideas." Sensible things or ideas, he held, cannot exist except as the passive objects of minds or spirits, active beings that perceive and will. As he put it in the Philosophical Commentaries, "Existence is percipi or percipere," and he added "or velle i.e. agere "existence is to be perceived or to perceive or to will, that is, to be active. Thus there can be nothing except active spirits on the one hand and passive sensible things on the other, and the latter cannot exist except as perceived by the former. This is Berkeley's idealism or immaterialism.

criticism of contemporary science

The above account of Berkeley's writings emphasizes their apologetic intent, an intent that can be seen in the subtitles of his major writingsthat of the Principles is typical: Wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences, with the grounds of scepticism, atheism and irreligion, are inquired into. It will be seen that "the chief causes of difficulty in the sciences" are also prominent. Berkeley considered that in the mathematics and natural sciences of his day insufficient attention was given to what experience reveals to us. Apart from Newton, the mathematicians were, he wrote in the Philosophical Commentaries, "mere triflers, mere Nihilarians." For example, they conceived of lines as infinitely divisible, but this is not only absurd, it could be maintained only by men who "despised sense." Thus Berkeley regarded himself as protesting against the excesses of uncontrolled rationalism. Hence he put forward a most antirationalistic view of geometry, although he never developed its implications very far. Similarly he thought that the natural philosophers deluded themselves with words when they tried to explain the physical world in terms of attractions, forces, and powers. Natural science, as he understood it, was descriptive rather than explanatory and was concerned with correlations rather than with causes. He thus sketched out a view of science that was revived and developed by nineteenth-century and twentieth-century positivists.

sensible qualities are the signs of god's purpose

Berkeley's positivism, however, was confined to his account of natural science. The order of phenomena, he held, was willed by God for the good of created spirits. In deciphering the conjunctions and sequences of our sense experience we are learning what God has decreed. Thus sensible qualities are the language in which God speaks to us. In the third and fourth editions (1732) of the New Theory of Vision Berkeley said that the objects of sight are a divine visual language by which God teaches us what things are good for us and what things are harmful to us. In the Alciphron, published that same year, he argued that "the great Mover and Author of Nature constantly explaineth Himself to the eyes of men by the sensible intervention of arbitrary signs, which have no similitude or connexion with the things signified." We learn that certain visual ideas are signs of certain tactual ones, certain smells signs of certain colors, and so on. There is no necessity about this, any more than things necessarily have the names that convention assigns to them. Just as some sensible qualities are signs of others, so sensible qualities as a whole are signs of the purposes of God who "daily speaks to our senses in a manifest and clear dialect."

Thus, taken as a whole, Berkeley's philosophy is a form of immaterialism combined with an extreme antirationalist theory of science. The regularities between phenomena are regarded as evidence for, and as signs of, God's purposes. Just as a man's words reveal his thoughts and intentions by means of the conventional signs of language, so the sensible order reveals God's will in phenomena that could have been ordered quite differently if he had so decided.

The New Theory of Vision

Although Berkeley did not mention his immaterialism in An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, this work throws important light upon his quarrel with the mathematicians and his rejection of the rationalist point of view. It contains, too, an interesting statement of what Berkeley then thought about geometry. Furthermore, the Essay helps us to see, from what Berkeley said about the objects of vision, how he came to the view that sensible qualities cannot exist "without the mind." Among the main contentions of the book is the claim that distance or "outness" is not immediately perceived by sight; it is "suggested" in part by the sensations we get in moving our eyes but mainly by association with the ideas of touch. According to Berkeley, we see the distance (and size) of things only in the sense in which we see a man's shame and anger. We see his face, and the expression on it suggests to us how he is feeling. In themselves, shame and anger are invisible. Similarly, we see shapes and colors, which are signs of what we would touch if we were to stretch out our hands, but distance itself is no more seen than anger is. In expounding this view, Berkeley developed the thesis that the objects of sight and touch are utterly disparate, so that no feature of the one can have more than a contingent connection with any feature of the other.

descartes's theory of the perception of distance

Consideration should first be given to Berkeley's criticisms of an important geometrical account of how distance is perceived and assessed, the account given by René Descartes in his Dioptrics (1637). In this work Descartes referred to six "qualities we perceive in the objects of sight," namely, light, color, shape, distance, magnitude, and situation. Descartes argued that one of the ways in which men ascertain the distance of objects is by means of the angles formed by straight lines running from each of their eyes and converging at the object seen. He illustrated this by reference to a blind man with a stick (the length of which he does not know) held in each hand. When he brings the points of the sticks together at the object, he forms a triangle with one hand at each end of the base, and if he knows how far apart his hands are, and what angles the sticks make with his body, he can, "by a kind of geometry innate in all men" know how far away the object is. The same geometry would apply, Descartes argued, if the observer's eyes are regarded as ends of the base of a triangle, and straight lines from them are regarded as converging at the object. The more obtuse the base angles formed by the lines running from this base and converging at the object, the farther away the object must be; the more acute these angles, the nearer the object must be. Berkeley put the matter somewhat differently from Descartes, pointing out that according to the latter's view the more acute the angle formed at the object by the lines converging from the eyes, the farther away it must be; the more obtuse this angle, the nearer the object must be. It is important to notice that this "must" is the "must" of mathematical necessity. From what Descartes said, it is necessarily the case that the more acute this angle is, the farther away the object is; the more obtuse the angle, the nearer the object. "Nearer" and "farther" logically depend upon the obtuseness or acuteness of the angle. In criticizing this view, therefore, Berkeley was criticizing the view that distance is known a priori by the principles of an innate geometry according to which we know that the distance of the object must vary in accordance with the angle made at the object by straight lines converging there from the eyes of the observer.

berkeley's criticism of descartes

Against Descartes's view Berkeley brought a complex argument that for purposes of exposition, is here broken up into three parts. The first is that people who know nothing of the geometry of the matter can nevertheless notice the relative distance of things from them. This is not very convincing, for Descartes obviously thought that the geometry he regarded as "innate in all men" might be employed by them without their having reflected on it. The second argument used by Berkeley is that the lines and angles referred to by Descartes "have no real existence in nature, being only an hypothesis framed by the mathematicians." This argument is of interest in showing how Berkeley thought that mathematicians were inclined to deal in fictitious entities, but it is unlikely that Descartes was deceived by them in this way.

Berkeley's third and main argument was based upon a theory that he expressed in the words, "distance, of itself and immediately, cannot be seen." William Molyneux, from whose Dioptrics (1692) Berkeley borrowed this theory, had supported it by the argument that since distance is a line or length directed endwise from the object seen to the eye, it can reach the eye at only one point, which must necessarily remain the same however near or far away the object is. If this argument is accepted, then distance could not possibly be seen, and could only be judged or, as Berkeley believed, "suggested."

distance is suggested by what is seen

What, then, according to Berkeley, is seen? The answer is not altogether clear, but it would seem that he thought that the immediate object of vision is two-dimensional, containing relations of above and below and of one side and the other, with no necessary connection with a third dimension. Hence the relation between what is immediately seen on the one hand and the distance of objects on the other must be contingent and cannot be necessary. Distance, then, must be ascertained by means of something that has only a contingent relationship with what is seen. Berkeley mentioned the sensations we have when we adjust our eyes, the greater confusedness of objects as they come very close to the eyes, and the sensations of strain as we try to see what is very near. But he mainly relied on the associations between what a man has touched and what he now sees. For example, when a man now sees something faint and dim, he may, from past experience, expect that if he approaches and touches it he will find it bright and hard. When he sees something at a distance, he is really seeing certain shapes and colors, which suggest to him what tangible ideas he would have if he were near enough to touch it. Just as one does not hear a man's thoughts, which are suggested by the sounds he makes, so one does not directly see distance, which is suggested by what is seen.

sight and touch

Berkeley's view that distance is not immediately perceived by sight is rejected by some writers, for instance by H. H. Price, in his Perception (1932), on the ground that it is plainly contradicted by experience. We just do see visual depth, it is held, so that it is idle to deny this fact on the basis of an argument purporting to prove that we cannot. Again, some critics, such as T. K. Abbott in Sight and Touch (1864) have argued not only that we do get our idea of distance from sight, but also that touch is vague and uninformative by comparison with sight, and hence less effective in giving knowledge of the material world. This discussion need not be developed, however, since, although he said in the Essay that by touch we get knowledge of objects that exist "without the mind" (§55), Berkeley's real view was that no sensible thing could so exist. It cannot be denied that on occasion Berkeley's language was imprecise. A crucial example of this occurs in his discussion of the question of whether a man born blind would, on receiving his sight, see things at a distance from him. According to Berkeley, of course, he would not; but to such a man, the most distant objects "would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind" and would appear "(as in truth they are) no other than a new set of thoughts or sensations, each whereof is as near to him as the perceptions of pain or pleasure, or the most inward passions of his soul" (Essay, §41). It will be noticed how readily Berkeley passed from "in his eye" to "in his mind," and how he assimilated such very different things as sensations and thoughts. Indeed it is hard not to conclude that he thought that whatever was not seen at a distance must appear to be in the mind. If this is true, then one of the objects of the Essay was to show that the immediate objects of vision must be in the mind because they are not seen at a distance.

geometries of sight and of touch

As already seen, an extremely important thesis of the Essay is that the objects of sight and the objects of touch are radically different from one another. We see visible objects and we touch tangible objects, and it is absurd to suppose that we can touch what we see or see what we touch. According to Berkeley, it follows from this that tangible shape and visible shape have no necessary connection with one another. Geometers certainly supposed themselves to be concerned with shapes in abstraction from their being seen or touched, but Berkeley did not allow that this is possible. A purely visual geometry would necessarily be confined to two dimensions, so that the three-dimensional geometry that we have must be fundamentally a geometry of touch. He reinforced this strangely pragmatic view with the observation that a sighted but disembodied being that could not touch or manipulate things would be unable to understand even plane geometry, since without a body it would not understand the handling of rulers and compasses and the drawing of lines and the placing of shapes against one another.

Arguments for Immaterialism

The arguments now to be considered are set out in the Principles and in the Three Dialogues. They are largely concerned with what Berkeley called "ideas," "ideas or sensations," "sensible things," or "sensible qualities." The very use of the word idea itself and, even more, its use in apposition with sensation had the purpose of indicating something that does not exist apart from the perception of it. Pains and itches are typical sensations, and no one supposes that they could exist apart from a being that experiences them. Rocks do not suffer, and water does not itch. When, therefore, sensible things such as colors, sounds, tangible shapes, tastes, and smells are called ideas, they are assimilated with sensations and hence relate to the perceiving beings that have them. It is now necessary, therefore, to examine the arguments with which Berkeley justified this.

seventeenth-century materialism

Berkeley's arguments for immaterialism can be understood only if we first consider the sort of view it was intended to refute. When Berkeley was forming his views, the natural sciences had been so far advanced by the work of such men as Galileo Galilei, Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, and Newton as to have given rise to a scientific view of the world. Such a view had been elaborated, in its philosophical aspects, by Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). Space and time were, so to say, the containers within which material things were situated. The movements and relations of material things could be explored by experiments and characterized in mathematical formulae.

Explanation in terms of particles in motion

The features of the world, thus revealed as fundamental, were those of place, shape, size, movement, weight, and the like; and it was in terms of these that heat and cold and color and sound found their explanation. Heat was thought to be due to the rapid movement of atomic particles, color to the transmission of particles or to the spreading of waves, and sound to the movement of the air between the emitting object and the ear. Whereas solid, shaped, moving objects, and the air and space within which they existed, were regarded as basic features of nature, the colors we see, the heat we feel, and the sounds we hear were held to be the effects that substances possessing only the basic characteristics produced in creatures with sense organs. If all creatures with sense organs and consciousness were removed from the world, there would no longer be any experienced sounds, but only pulsations in the air; particles would increase or decrease their speed of movement, but no one would feel hot or cold; light would be radiated, but there would be no colors as we know them. In such a world colors and sounds, heat and cold, would exist, as Boyle put it, in his Origins of Forms and Qualities (Oxford, 1666), only "dispositively," that is, those primary things would be there that would have given rise to the secondary ones if creatures with the requisite sense organs and minds had been there too.

Primary and secondary qualities

In this way a distinction was made between the primary qualities of things, which are essential and absolute, and their secondary qualities, which are those among the primary ones that give or would give rise to heard sounds, seen colors, and felt heat. It was an important element of this view that nothing could be perceived unless it acted upon the sense organs of the percipient and produced in his mind an idea. What was immediately perceived was not the external object but an idea representative of it. Locke had made people familiar with this theory, and had maintained that whereas the ideas we have of heat and cold and of color and sound correspond to nothing like themselves in the external world; for all that exists in the external world are solid bodies at rest or in movement, the ideas we have of the solid, shaped, moving bodies, that is, our ideas of primary qualities are like their sources or archetypes outside us. According to the view, then, that Berkeley was considering, material objects are perceived mediately or indirectly by means of ideas, some of which, the ideas of primary qualities, are like their originals; others, the ideas of secondary qualities, are relative to percipients and are unlike anything that exists in the external world.

materialism leads to skepticism

Berkeley had two objections to the view that material objects are perceived mediately by means of ideas. One is that since it is held that we never perceive material things directly, but only through the medium of ideas, then we can never know whether any of our ideas are like the qualities of material substances since we can never compare our ideas with them; for to do so we should require direct or immediate acquaintance with them (Principles, §18). Indeed, if we accept Locke's position, then the very existence of material substances is in doubt, and we are constantly under the threat of skepticism (Principles, §86). Thus Berkeley argued that Locke's theory was in fact, although not by intention, skeptical, and that it could be remedied only by the elimination of material substances that could never be directly apprehended.

distinction between primary and secondary qualities untenable

Berkeley's second objection is that there can be no distinction between ideas of primary qualities and ideas of secondary qualities such as to make secondary qualities relative to the mind in a way in which primary qualities are not. In the Three Dialogues Berkeley elaborated the arguments, already used by Locke, to show that the ideas we have of secondary qualities are relative to the percipient and are what they are by reason of his condition and constitution. Things have no color in the dark; the same water can feel hot or cold to different hands, one of which has been in cold water and the other in hot; heat and cold are inseparably bound up with pain and pleasure, which can only exist in perceiving beings; and so on. But Berkeley then went on to argue that just as heat, for example, is inseparably bound up with pleasure and pain, and can therefore, no more than they can, exist "without the mind," so extension is bound up with color, speed of movement with a standard of estimation, solidity with touch, and size and shape with position and point of view (Principles, §§1015). Thus Berkeley's argument is that nothing can have the primary qualities without having the secondary qualities, so that if the latter cannot exist "without the mind," the former cannot so exist either.

all sensible qualities must be either perceived or perceptible

The preceding argument, however, is only a hypothetical one to the effect that if secondary qualities cannot exist "without the mind," primary qualities are in like case. What must now be considered are the reasons for holding that secondary qualities and, indeed, all sensible qualities can exist only in the mind so that their being is to be perceived. Berkeley, as already indicated, stated and elaborated well-known arguments to show that heat and cold, tastes, sounds, and the rest are relative to the percipient. Perhaps the most persuasive of these are those that purport to establish an indissoluble connection between heat, taste, and smell on the one hand, and pain or pleasure or displeasure on the other. Since no one denies that pain and pleasure can exist only if felt, then this applies to heat so intense as to be painful and to lesser degrees of heat as well. But in the Principles, his systematic treatise on the subject, Berkeley did not make use of these arguments, but said that "an intuitive knowledge may be obtained of this, by any one that shall attend to what is meant by the term exist when applied to sensible things" (§3). His view here is that "sensible things" are by their very nature perceived or perceivable. He supported this by asserting that to say there was an odor is to say that it was smelled, to say that there was a sound is to say that it was heard, to say that there was a color or shape is to say that it was seen or touched. According to Berkeley, unsmelled odors, sounds unheard, colors unseen, and shapes unseen or untouched are absurdities or impossibilities; brown leaves could not rustle on a withered tree in a world where life was extinct and God was dead. The very notion is absurd or impossible. Can more light be shed on the matter than is provided by the assertion that we have "intuitive knowledge" of it?

It must be remembered, in the first place, that Berkeley was contrasting the sounds we hear, for example, with the movements in the air, which men of science sometimes call sounds. Sounds in the latter sense, he said, "may possibly be seen or felt, but never heard " (Three Dialogues, 1). From this it may be seen that Berkeley looked upon sensible qualities as each the object of its own mode of perception, so that sounds are heard but not seen or touched, colors seen but not heard, heat felt but not seen, and so on. Hence colors require a viewer, sounds a hearer, and heat someone who feels it; and this is one reason why the being of sensible things is held to be their being perceived. The various modalities of sense are distinguished from one another by the mode of perception peculiar to each one, and in making these distinctions it is implied that perception is essential to them all. It is well known, of course, that Berkeley's critics accuse him of failing to distinguish between the object perceived and the perceiving of it. The perceiving of it, they say, can only be an act of a percipient without whom it could not exist, but the perceived object, whether it be a sound or a color or a shape, is distinct from the perceiving and could conceivably exist apart from it.

Whatever may be thought of this argument, it should not be used against Berkeley as if he had not thought of it. In fact he put it into the mouth of Hylas in the first of the Three Dialogues and rejected it on the ground that in perception we are passive and so are not exerting an act or activity of any kind. It should also be noticed that when Berkeley discussed sensation in detail he stated that sensible things or sensible qualities are perceived immediately, that is, without suggestion, association, or inference. We say that we hear vehicles and that we hear sounds. According to Berkeley, we hear sounds immediately, but vehicles, if they are out of sight, are suggested by or inferred from what we do hear, and so are heard only mediately or by means of the sounds immediately heard. Thus the sound we hear immediately is neither suggested nor inferred, but is heard just as it is. For this to be so, it must be before the mind; for if it were not before the mind, it would have to be inferred or suggested. Thus sensible qualities, as immediately perceived, must be objects of perception; their being is to be perceived.

Inconceivability of a sensible object existing unperceived

A very famous argument is now to be considered: It is inconceivable that anything should exist apart from, or independent of, mind. This argument was put forward by Berkeley in similar terms both in the Principles (§§22, 23) and in the Three Dialogues (1) and takes the form of a challenge to the reader to conceive of somethinge.g., a book or a treeexisting absolutely unperceived. Berkeley argued that the attempt is impossible of fulfillment, since in order to conceive of a tree existing unperceived we who conceive of it, by the very fact of doing so, bring it into relation to our conception and hence to ourselves. As Hylas admits, in recognizing the failure of his attempt, "It is a pleasant mistake enough. As I was thinking of a tree in a solitary place, where no one was present to see it, me-thought that was to conceive a tree as existing unperceived or unthought of, not considering that I myself conceived it all the while." This is an argument that was later accepted as fundamental by idealists of such different persuasions as Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Francis Herbert Bradley, who held that it shows that mind or experience is essential to the universe.

Sensible objects are complex ideas

Berkeley's example of a tree makes it necessary to consider how trees and other things in nature are related to ideas, sensible qualities, sounds, colors, shapes, and so on. According to Berkeley, such things as trees, books, and mountains are groups of ideas or sensible qualities and are hence as much within the mind as the latter are. Indeed, in his view, books, trees, and mountains are ideas, though complex ones. He admitted (Principles, §38) that this use of the word idea for what is ordinarily called a thing is somewhat odd, but held that, the facts being as they are, idea is better than thing. A tree is a group of ideas touched, seen, and smelled; a cherry, a group of ideas touched, seen, smelled, and tasted. The sensible qualities or ideas, without which we should have no conception of a tree or cherry, do not belong to some unseen, untouched, untasted substance or substratum, for the very conception of such a "something I know not what" (as Locke had called it) is incoherent, and rests upon the false view that we can conceive something in complete abstraction from ideas of sense.

Sensible objects, as ideas, are perceived directly

Berkeley therefore concluded that it is his theory that conforms with common sense, not that of the materialists or the dualists. For according to Berkeley we perceive trees and cherries directly by seeing, touching, and tasting them, just as the plain man thinks we do, whereas his opponents regard them as perpetually hidden from us by a screen of intermediaries that may be always deceiving us. Berkeley considered that by this view he had refuted skepticism of the senses, for, according to his theory, the objects of the senses are the things in the world: the trees, houses, and mountains we live among. But trees, houses, and mountains, as compounded of sensible qualities or ideas, cannot exist "without the mind."

sensible objects not copies of material archetypes

Berkeley's arguments showing that all sensible qualities or ideas exist only as perceived and that, therefore, things in nature, being groups of such ideas, cannot exist "without the mind" have now been expounded. It is now necessary to complete this account of Berkeley's arguments for immaterialism with his argument to show that not only must sensible qualities or ideas exist in the mind, but also that nothing like them can exist outside it. For anyone reluctant to accept immaterialism is likely to fall back on the view that our ideas, although in our minds, are copies of material archetypes. Berkeley's objection to this in the Principles (§8) is that "an idea can be like nothing but an idea," which he illustrated by saying that a color or shape can only be like another color or shape. In the Three Dialogues (1) he expanded the argument in two ways. Ideas, he said, are regarded by some as the perceived representatives of imperceptible originals, but "Can a real thing in itself invisible be like a color; or a real thing which is not audible, be like a sound? " His other reason for holding that ideas cannot be like any supposed external originals is that ideas are "perpetually fleeting and variable," and "continually changing upon every alteration in the distance, medium or instruments of sensation," while their supposed originals are thought to remain fixed and constant throughout all changes in the percipient's organs and position. But something that is fleeting and relative cannot be like what is stable and absolute, any more than what is incapable of being perceived can be like what is essentially perceptible.


The following are Berkeley's central arguments in favor of immaterialism. They arose out of his exposure of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the then current scientific view of the world, with its distinction between primary and secondary qualities and its theory of representative perception. According to Berkeley, since primary qualities cannot exist apart from secondary qualities, and since secondary qualities, and indeed all sensible qualities, cannot exist "without the mind," the independent material world of the then current scientific view was a conceptual absurdity. This was supported by the argument that our ideas cannot be likenesses of an external material world, since there is nothing conceivable they could be likenesses of except mind-dependent existences of their own type. The theory of representative perception was held to be essentially skeptical, and Berkeley claimed that his own theory, according to which we directly perceive ideas and groups of ideas that exist only as perceived, eliminates skepticism and accords with common sense.

Metaphysics and Theology

In section 3 of the Principles, where Berkeley stated that we have intuitive knowledge of the fact that for sensible qualities to exist they must be perceived, he also stated that when we say that the table is in the room that we have left we mean that if we were to return there we could perceive it "or that some other spirit actually does perceive it." This shows that Berkeley was concerned with the problem of giving an account, within the terms of his immaterialism, of the continued existence of things that are not being perceived by any human being. It also shows that he considered two ways of dealing with this problem. One way was to extend the doctrine that the existence of sensible things is their being perceived into the doctrine that the existence of sensible things is their being perceptible. The other way was to argue that when sensible things are not being perceived by human beings they must be perceived by "some other spirit."

berkeley not a phenomenalist

The first way points in the direction of the modern theory of phenomenalism, the theory according to which, in John Stuart Mill's happily chosen words, material objects are "permanent possibilities of sensation." But might not anything, even material substances possessing only primary qualities, be perceptible, even if not actually being perceived? Some twentieth-century upholders of phenomenalism argued that the world was perceptible before there was any life or mind, in the sense that if there had been gods or human beings they would have perceived it. This could not be possible on Berkeley's theory, however, since, as we have seen, he held that only ideas or sensible things can be like ideas or sensible things, so that what is perceptible is limited by what is perceived.

perceptible objects perceived by god

The perceptible, therefore, is limited to the mind-dependent, and, for Berkeley, the very notion of something that might be perceived, but is not, is unacceptable. Thus it seems that Berkeley was forced to supplement his phenomenalist account of unperceived objects with the view that whatever is not being actually perceived by human beings, but is only perceptible by them, must be an object of perception by "some other spirit." He used this same expression in section 48 of the Principles, where he denied that "bodies are annihilated and created every moment, or exist not at all during the intervals between our perception of them." In the Three Dialogues (2) he argued that since sensible things do not depend on the thought of human beings and exist independently of them "there must be some other mind wherein they exist. " This other mind is God; and thus, according to Berkeley, the existence of sensible things when not being perceived by finite spirits is a proof of the existence of an infinite spirit who perceives them always. Indeed, Berkeley considered it a merit of immaterialism that it enables this brief and, as he thought, conclusive proof to be formulated.

our ideas come from god

In the Principles Berkeley put forward another proof of the existence of God, this time a proof based upon God as the cause of our ideas. As has been shown, Berkeley held that ideas are passive and that the only active beings are minds or spirits. Now some of our ideas, namely, ideas of imagination, we ourselves produce, but others, the ideas of sense, come to us without our willing them. "There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them" (Principles, §29). That this is God may be concluded from the regular order in which these ideas come to us. The knowledge we have of God is analogous to the knowledge we have of other men. Since people are active spirits, we do not have ideas of them, but only of their expressions, words, and bodily movements. Through these we recognize them as possessors of minds and wills like those we know ourselves to have. Similarly, God reveals himself to us in the order of nature: "every thing we see, hear, feel, or in any wise perceive by sense, being a sign or effect of the Power of God."

active spirits and passive ideas

These, then, are the elements of Berkeley's metaphysics. There are active spirits on the one hand and passive ideas on the other. The latter could not exist apart from the former, but the ideas in the minds of human beings are caused in them by God and sustained by him when they are not perceiving them. Regularly recurring groups of ideas are called bodies, and the ideas that form them are arbitrarily connected together and might have been connected quite differently. Thus there is no natural necessity or internal reason about the laws of nature, but the regular sequences of ideas reveal to us a single infinite being who orders things for our benefit. Active spirits and passive ideas are of different natures. The mind is not blue because the idea of blue is in it, nor is the mind extended because it has an idea of extension. Ideas are neither parts nor properties of minds. Berkeley seems to have thought that the relationship is sui generis, for he said that sensible qualities are in the mind "only as they are perceived by it, that is, not by way of mode or attribute, but only by way of idea " (Principles, §49).

god's ideas and our ideas

As already seen, Berkeley held that God was both the cause of the ideas in the minds of embodied finite spirits and also the Mind in which these ideas continued to exist when embodied finite spirits were not perceiving them. Berkeley was thus faced with the problem of how the ideas in finite minds are related to the ideas in God's mind. If we recall Berkeley's claim that he was on the side of common sense against the skeptics, then we should expect the ideas that continue to exist in God's mind to be identical with those that had been in the minds of the embodied finite spirits who had formerly perceived them.

However, he found that there were difficulties in this view. Humans perceive ideas of sense by means of sense organs, and their ideas vary in accordance with their position and condition, but God does not have sense organs. Furthermore, some ideasfor example, those of heat and cold, and sensations of smell and tasteare inseparable from sensations of pain and pleasure, but God is impassible, that is, not subject to feeling or emotion; hence he cannot be supposed to perceive ideas of this nature. In the Three Dialogues (3), therefore, Berkeley concluded that "God knows or hath ideas; but his ideas are not conveyed to Him by sense, as ours are." From this it is natural to conclude that the ideas that God perceives are not identical with the ideas that embodied finite spirits perceive. Berkeley was obviously thinking along these lines when, in the same Dialogue, he said that the things that one perceives, "they or their archetypes," must, since one does not cause them, have an existence outside one's mind. Elsewhere in this Dialogue he distinguished between what is "ectypal or natural" and what is "archetypal and eternal." Thus Berkeley's arguments and the language he used combine to suggest that the ideas in God's mind are not the same ideas as those in the minds of embodied percipients.

This point was taken up by the Samuel Johnson referred to earlier, in his correspondence with Berkeley. Johnson suggested that Berkeley's view is that "the real original and permanent existence of things is archetypal, being ideas in mente Divina, and that our ideas are copies of them." Johnson was too polite to press the point, but it follows that what we directly perceive are copies or representatives of divine originals, so that Berkeley's claim to have reinstated the direct, unmediated perception of common sense, in place of the representative and skeptical theory of the philosophers and scientists, cannot be substantiated. In his reply, Berkeley hardly met this point when he stated that material substance is an impossibility because it is held to exist apart from mind, whereas the archetypes in the divine mind are obviously inseparable from God's knowledge of them.

Philosophy of Nature

Berkeley carried on a persistent battle against the tendency to suppose that mere abstractions are real things. In the New Theory of Vision he denied the possibility of "extension in abstract," saying "A line or surface which is neither black, nor white, nor blue, nor yellow, etc., nor long, nor short, nor rough, nor smooth, nor square, nor round, etc., is perfectly incomprehensible" (§ 123). In the introduction to the Principles, his most explicit discussion of the matter, he quoted Locke's account of the abstract idea of a triangle "which is neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once," and pointed out that any actual triangle must be one of these types and cannot possibly be "all and none" of them. What makes any idea general, he held, is not any abstract feature that may be alleged to belong to it, but rather its being used to represent all other ideas that are like it in the relevant respects. Thus if something that is true of a triangle of one of these types is not true of it because it is of that one type, then it is true of all triangles whatever. Nothing exists but what is particular, and particular ideas become general by being used as representatives of others like them. Generality, we might say, is a symbolic device, not a metaphysical status. Thus Berkeley's attack on abstractions is based on two principles: (1) that nothing exists but what is particular, and (2) that nothing can exist on its own except what can be sensed or imagined on its own. If we accept the first principle, then abstract objects and Platonic forms are rejected, and if we accept the second, then possibility is limited to the sensible or imaginable.

space, time, and motion

We have already seen how Berkeley applied the above two principles to the abstract conception of unperceived existence, and to the abstract conception of bodies with only the primary qualities. It must now be shown how he applied them to some of the other elements in the scientific worldview he was so intent on discrediting. Chief among these were the current conceptions of absolute space, absolute time, and absolute motion. According to Berkeley, all these are abstractions, not realities. It is impossible, he held, to form an idea of pure space apart from the bodies in it. We find that we are hindered from moving our bodies in some directions and can move them freely in others. Where there are hindrances to our movement there are other bodies to obstruct us, and where we can move unrestrictedly we say there is space. It follows that our idea of space is inseparable from our ideas of movement and of body (Principles, §116).

So too our conception of time is inseparable from the succession of ideas in our minds and from the "particular actions and ideas that diversify the day"; hence Newton's conception of absolute time flowing uniformly must be rejected (Principles, §§97, 98).

Newton had also upheld absolute motion, but this too, according to Berkeley, is a hypostatized abstraction. If there were only one body in existence there could be no idea of motion, for motion is the change of position of two bodies relative to one another. Thus sensible qualities, without which there could be no bodies, are essential to the very conception of movement. Furthermore, since sensible qualities are passive existences, and hence bodies are too, movement cannot have its source in body; and as we know what it is to move our own bodies, we know that the source of motion must be found in mind. Created spirits are responsible for only a small part of the movement in the world, and therefore God, the infinite spirit, must be its prime source. "And so natural philosophy either presupposes the knowledge of God or borrows it from some superior science" (De Motu, §34).

causation and explanation

The thesis that God is the ultimate source of motion is a special case of the principle that the only real causes are spirits. This principle has the general consequence, of course, that inanimate bodies cannot act causally upon one another. Berkeley concluded from this that what are called natural causes are really signs of what follows them. Fire does not cause heat, but is so regularly followed by it that it is a reliable sign of it as long as "the Author of Nature always operates uniformly" (Principles, §107). Thus Berkeley held that natural laws describe but do not explain, for real explanations must be by reference to the aims and purposes of spirits, that is, in terms of final causes. For this reason, he maintained that mechanical explanations of movements in terms of attraction were misleading, unless it was recognized that they merely recorded the rates at which bodies in fact approach one another (Principles, §103). Similar arguments apply to gravity or to force when these are regarded as explanations of the movements of bodies (De Motu, §6). This is not to deny the importance of Newton's laws, for Newton did not regard gravity "as a true physical quality, but only as a mathematical hypothesis" (De Motu, §17). In general, explanations in terms of forces or attractions are mathematical hypotheses having no stable being in the nature of things but depending upon the definitions given to them (De Motu, §67). Their acceptability depends upon the extent to which they enable calculations to be made, resulting in conclusions that are borne out by what in fact occurs. According to Berkeley, forces and attractions are not found in nature but are useful constructions in the formulation of theories from which deductions can be made about what is found in nature, that is, sensible qualities or ideas (De Motu, §§3441).

Philosophy of Mathematics

We have already seen that when he wrote the New Theory of Vision, Berkeley thought that geometry was primarily concerned with tangible extension, since visual extension does not have three dimensions, and visible shapes must be formed by hands that grasp and instruments that move. He later modified this view, an important feature of which has already been referred to in the account of Berkeley's discussion of Locke's account of the abstract idea of a triangle. A particular triangle, imagined or drawn, is regarded as representative of all other triangles, so that what is proved of it is proved of all others like it in the relevant respects. This, he pointed out later in the Principles (§126), applies particularly to size. If the length of the line is irrelevant to the proof, what is true of a line one inch long is true of a line one mile long. The line we use in our proof is a representative sign of all other lines. But it must have a finite number of parts, for if it is a visible line it must be divisible into visible parts, and these must be finite in length. A line one inch long cannot be divided into 10,000 parts because no such part could possibly be seen. But since a line one mile long can be divided into 10,000 parts, we imagine that the short line could be divided likewise. "After this manner the properties of the lines signified are (by a very usual figure) transferred to the sign, and thence through mistake thought to appertain to it considered in its own nature." Thus it was Berkeley's view that infinitesimals should be "pared off" from mathematics (Principles, §131). In the Analyst (1734), he brought these and other considerations to bear in refuting Newton's theory of fluxions. In this book Berkeley seemed to suggest that the object of geometry is "to measure finite assignable extension" (§50, Q.2).

Berkeley's account of arithmetic was even more revolutionary than his account of geometry. In geometry, he held, one particular shape is regarded as representative of all those like it, but in arithmetic we are concerned with purely arbitrary signs invented by men to help them in their operations of counting. Number, he said, is "entirely the creature of the mind" (Principles, §12). He argued, furthermore, that there are no units and no numbers in nature apart from the devices that men have invented to count and measure. The same length, for example, may be regarded as one yard, if it is measured in that unit, or three feet or thirty-six inches, if it is measured in those units. Arithmetic, he went on, is a language in which the names for the numbers from zero to nine play a part analogous to that of nouns in ordinary speech (Principles, §121). Berkeley did not develop this part of his theory. However, later in the eighteenth century, in various works, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac argued in detail for the thesis that mathematics is a language, and this view is, of course, widely held today.

Concluding Comments

Berkeley's immaterialism is a strange and unstable combination of theses that most other philosophers have thought do not belong together. Thus he upheld both extreme empiricism and idealism, both immaterialism and common sense, and both subjectivism (as it would seem) and epistemological realism (as it would also seem). Are these mere skillful polemical devices in the war against the freethinkers, or can they be regarded as elements in a distinctive and reasonably coherent metaphysics?

It is odd that Berkeley had so much to say about the relativity of each particular sense and so little to say about our perception of the physical world. He referred to perspectival distortions and the like in the course of defending his view that the existence of sensible qualities is their being perceived, but he did not seem to realize the difficulties they made for his view that perception is direct. Indeed, when, in the Three Dialogues (3) he mentioned the case of the oar that looks bent in the water when in fact it is straight, he said that we go wrong only if we mistakenly infer that it will look bent when out of the water. There is something seen to be straight, something else seen to be crooked, and something else again felt to be straight. We go wrong only when we expect that when we see something crooked we shall feel something crooked. But this implies that our perceptions of such things as oars, as distinct from our perceptions of colors and pressures, are not direct as common sense supposes. This reinforces the criticism we have already mentioned, that the ideas perceived by finite spirits with sense organs are different from, and representative of, the ideas in the mind of God. Berkeley was farther from common sense and closer to the views that he was criticizing than he was ready to admit.

It is obvious enough that Berkeley's immaterialism is not in accord with common sense. What place, then, must be given to his empiricism? He certainly rejected the Cartesian conception of a natural world that deceives the senses and is apprehended by the reason. He denied that mathematics reveals the ultimate necessities of things and anticipated to some extent the linguistic theory of mathematics. In arguing that causes are not to be found in nature, and in maintaining that the sciences of nature are primarily concerned with predicting human experiences, he formulated views that Ernst Mach and his modern-day followers have advocated. Furthermore, although he did not himself adopt it, he briefly formulated the theory of the physical world known as phenomenalism, the theory that consistent empiricists have adopted in order to avoid postulating objects that transcend sense experience. But, in spite of all this, Berkeley was an idealist rather than an empiricist. He held that sensible qualities or ideas are not independent or substantial existences and that minds or spirits are. On this most important matter, he was in agreement with his great contemporary, Leibniz. Furthermore, Berkeley's antiabstractionism, as we may call it, was constantly leading him toward the conclusion that the universe is a concrete unity in which an infinite mind is manifesting itself. If we look at his writings as a continuing and developing critique of abstraction, then we shall see that the Siris is not an aberration or a recantation but, as Henri Bergson said in his lectures on Berkeley, 19081909, a natural continuation of Berkeley's earlier views (Écrits et paroles, 2, p. 309).

See also Touch.


life and principal editions of works

Fraser, A. C. The Works of George Berkeley. 4 vols. London: Clarendon Press, 1871. New (first complete) edition, 1901.

Luce, A. A. The Life of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Nelson, 1949.

Luce, A. A., and T. E. Jessop, eds. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. 9 vols. London and New York: Nelson, 19481957. The introduction and notes in this definitive edition are of great value.

Rand, Benjamin. Berkeley and Percival. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914.

main themes of berkeley's philosophy

Hicks, G. Dawes. Berkeley. London: Benn, 1932.

Leroy, A. L. George Berkeley. Paris, 1959.

Warnock, G. J. Berkeley. London, 1953.

Wild, John D. George Berkeley: A Study of His Life and Philosophy. New York: Russell and Russell, 1936, 1962.

the new theory of vision

Abbott, T. K. Sight and Touch. London: Longman, 1864.

Armstrong, D. M. Berkeley's Theory of Vision. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1960.

Bailey, S. A Review of Berkeley's Theory of Vision. London, 1842.

Turbayne, C. M. "Berkeley and Molyneux on Retinal Images." Journal of the History of Ideas 16 (1955).

Vesey, G. N. A. "Berkeley and the Man Born Blind." PAS 61 (19601961).

arguments for immaterialism

Bracken, H. M. "Berkeley's Realism." Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1958).

Broad, C. D. "Berkeley's Denial of Material Substance." Philosophical Review 43 (1954).

Laird, J. "Berkeley's Realism." Mind, n.s., 25 (1916): 308ff.

Luce, A. A. "The Berkeleyan Idea of Sense." PAS, supp. 27 (1953).

Luce, A. A. "Berkeley's Existence in the Mind." Mind, n.s., 50 (1941): 258ff.

Mates, Benson. "Berkeley Was Right." In George Berkeley, Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Union of the University of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Moore, G. E. "Refutation of Idealism." In his Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge, 1922.

Sullivan, Celestine J. "Berkeley's Attack on Matter." In George Berkeley, Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Union of the University of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

metaphysics and theology

Bracken, H. M. "Berkeley on the Immortality of the Soul." Modern Schoolman 38 (19601961).

Davis, J. W. "Berkeley and Phenomenalism." Dialogue. Canadian Philosophical Review 1 (19621963): 6780.

Fritz, Anita D. "Berkeley and the Immaterialism of Malebranche." Review of Metaphysics 3 (19491950).

Gueroult, M. Berkeley. Quatre études sur la perception et sur Dieu. Paris, 1956.

Luce, A. A. Berkeley and Malebranche. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Myerscough, Angelita. "Berkeley and the Proofs for the Existence of God." In Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Vol. 1, edited by John K. Ryan. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1961.

Sillem, E. A. George Berkeley and the Proofs for the Existence of God. London: Longmans Green, 1957.

philosophy of nature and philosophy of mathematics

Mach, Ernst. The Analysis of Sensations. Chicago: Open Court, 1914.

Myhill, John. "Berkeley's De Motu An Anticipation of Mach." In George Berkeley, Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Union of the University of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Popper, K. R. "A Note on Berkeley as Precursor of Mach." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3 (19531954).

Strong, Edward W. "Mathematical Reasoning and Its Object." In George Berkeley, Lectures Delivered before the Philosophical Union of the University of California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Whitrow, G. J. "Berkeley's Critique of the Newtonian Analysis of Motion." Hermathena 82 (1953).

Whitrow, G. J. "Berkeley's Philosophy of Motion." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3 (19531954).

Wisdom, J. O. "Berkeley's Criticism of the Infinitesimal." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3 (19531954).

H. B. Acton (1967)

Berkeley, George (1685–1753)

views updated May 21 2018


BERKELEY, GEORGE (16851753), bishop of Cloyne, Anglo-Irish philosopher and cleric. Berkeley was born near Kilkenny; little is known of his parents, but they seem to have been minor gentry who claimed some allegiance to the powerful English aristocrats of the same name. In any case Berkeley went to good schools, studying first at Kilkenny College and then Trinity College, Dublin, where he took his B.A. (1704) and M.A. (1707) and became a junior fellow. In his early years at Trinity he wrote An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), in which he argues that our perception of depth is a matter of inference from experience, and the two works in which he expounds his "immaterialism," A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), the latter deploying the dialogue form to render his philosophy more attractive and accessible. In the years ahead Berkeley was often absent from Trinity, but he kept his fellowship, eventually becoming Doctor of Divinity (1721).

Berkeley left Ireland for the first time in 1713, spending time in Londonwhere he was quickly drawn into literary circles by his countrymen, satirist Jonathan Swift (16671745) and essayist Richard Steele (16721729)before embarking on extensive continental tours as a chaplain and tutor. Serious preferment within the church did not come until 1724, when he was appointed to the deanery of Derry, but by then Berkeley's ambitions lay across the Atlantic. He was proposing to found and preside over a college in Bermuda to educate the sons of settler and indigenous families from throughout the English colonies, partly with an eye to better establishing the English Church in America. Berkeley raised considerable sums by public subscription, but a government grant promised by prime minister Robert Walpole (16761745) was not forthcoming.

In 1728, in an attempt to force Walpole's hand, Berkeley sailed for America, where he was to live in Rhode Island for several years. Here he passed his time writing Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher (1732), an extended defense of Christianity, directed in part against the ethical writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd earl of Shaftesbury (16711713) and Bernard de Mandeville (16701733). The Bermuda college was never built. In 1734, three years after his return to England, Berkeley was nominated to the bishopric of Cloyne, an impoverished see in the south of Ireland, where he spent the remainder of his life. His last major work was Siris (1744), an extremely popular medical essay, densely packed with maxims from ancient philosophy, which promoted tar-water as a panacea.

Berkeley is known for the concise and highly original, even idiosyncratic, metaphysical system expounded in the Principles and the Three Dialogues and usually referred to as "immaterialism." This system is best understood as an intervention in late seventeenth-century doctrines of substance, reacting specifically to the thought of the English epistemologist and political theorist John Locke (16321704) and the French Cartesian philosopher Nicholas Malebranche (16381715). These philosophers adhered to a dualism that proposed two fundamentally different kinds of substance in the worldmatter and spirit. They also accepted that our knowledge of material substances was tenuous at best: we have mind-dependent "ideas" that might somehow represent external objects, but since we have no immediate access to those objects apart from our ideas, we can only surmise their existence. Berkeley proposed a radical simplification: there are only active minds and the passive ideas they entertain; material substances simply do not exist. Berkeley observed that there are ideas we make up ourselveswe can dream of a unicorn or imagine a treebut there are also the more vivid and orderly ideas of sense experiencethe ball we turn in our hands. Since ideas can only be the properties of mind, these potent ideas of sense must come from another, more powerful mind. For Berkeley, the only possible explanation is that our sense experience is a direct communication from the mind of God.

Berkeley vigorously defended immaterialism as vindicated by common sense: our ideas of things are surely sufficient for the business of life, in which we never make reference to the elusive material substances of philosophy. Alarmed by what he saw as the growing skepticism of his generation, he also promoted his theocentric system as an antidote to atheism. But despite all this, Berkeley won no adherents. An age that embraced the philosophy of John Locke and the physics of Isaac Newton (16421727) naturally found the elimination of matter difficult to digest. Many refused to take Berkeley seriouslyliterary critic Samuel Johnson (17091784) famously refuted immaterialism by kicking a stonebut English philosophers, notably David Hume (17111776) and John Stuart Mill (18061873), have studied Berkeley's writings carefully and adapted many of his arguments, even as they refused to admit his conclusions.

See also Hume, David ; Locke, John ; Newton, Isaac.


Primary Source

Berkeley, George. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. Edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop. 9 vols. London, 19481957. The definitive edition.

Secondary Sources

Luce, A. A. The Life of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London, 1949.

Tipton, I. C. Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism. 1974. Reprint: Bristol, 1994. A thorough and accessible study of Berkeley's metaphysics.

Peter Walmsley

Berkeley, George

views updated Jun 08 2018


Anglican bishop of Cloyne, divine, and philosopher;b. Kilcrene, near Kilkenny, Ireland, March 12, 1685; d. Oxford, Jan. 14, 1753.

Life. Berkeley was educated at Kilkenny College and at Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered as a "pensioner" in 1700. He studied mathematics, languages (Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew), and philosophy, taking his B.A. degree in 1704. In 1707 he was elected to a junior fellowship and graduated as M.A. Earlier in the same year he published (anonymously) two short works, Arithmetica and Miscellanea Mathematica. In 1709 he was ordained deacon, and in 1710, a priest of the Anglican Church. From 1709 to 1713 he was a tutor at the College and held various academic posts, including that of junior Greek lecturer.

It was during these early years at Trinity that Berkeley's philosophy was born and grew rapidly to its final shape. Between 1704 and 1707 he read J. Locke, S. Clarke, I. Newton, and N. Malebranche, and sought a remedy against skepticism, materialism, atheism, and the waning influence of religion. Between 1707 and 1708 he made a collection of private notesjottings of ideas as they occurred to him. There one can follow the progress of his discovery of the principle, esse est percipi et percipere, with which he launched his attack on a hidden, nonsensible substance existing "absolutely," or independently of mind. Out of these notes Berkeley prepared his two first philosophical works: An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (Dublin 1709), and The Principles of Human Knowledge (Dublin 1710). In 1713 he went to London, where in 1714 he published the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous.

During the next eight years Berkeley traveled in France and Italy. In 1720 he wrote a short treatise De motu on his immaterialism and the principles of mechanics for the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, which offered a prize for an essay on the causes of motion. Berkeley did not receive the prize, but he published his treatise in London in 1721. He returned to Dublin in the same year and resumed his work as a tutor at Trinity. He had been co-opted senior fellow in his absence in 1717, took his B.D. and D.D. in 1721, and was thereupon appointed divinity lecturer and preacher. In 1724 he was appointed dean of Derry, and resigned his fellowship at Trinity.

Berkeley's thoughts then turned to the foundation of a college in Bermuda for the training of clergy for missionary work in America. He obtained a charter for the foundation of St. Paul's College and set sail for Rhode Island in 1728, settling at Newport early in the following year. As he realized that his scheme would fail, he devoted several months of enforced leisure to writing Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher, which he published in London in 1732 on his return. Because he designed it as a vindication of the Christian revelation against current disbelief rather than as a purely philosophical work, he refrained from making use of his principle of immaterialism.

In 1734 Berkeley was appointed bishop of Cloyne and wrote The Analyst, or Discourse addressed to an Infidel Mathematician, in which he attacked Newton's theory of fluxions. Two years later he replied to an attack on this work by a Dr. Jurin in A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics. Berkeley then devoted much time to spreading his ideas on the virtues of tar water in curing diseases. He set them forth, with his views on metaphysics and theology, in Siris (London 1744), in its day the most celebrated of all his works. Its publication provoked some controversy about the medicinal properties of tar water, which Berkeley defended with energy to the end. His last work, Farther Thoughts on Tar-Water, formed the opening paper of his Miscellany, published in 1752.

In 1752 Berkeley left Ireland to settle with his family in Oxford, where he died in his house in Holywell Street in January of 1753. He was buried in the chapel of Christ Church, the Anglican cathedral of Oxford.

Teaching. Berkeley has suffered both from the seemingly incurable habit of historians of seeing him as little more than one of the leading empiricists, linking Locke with Hume, and from the misjudgment of Kant, who regarded him as a subjective idealist. He was unquestionably an empiricist of a kind; he was certainly not a thoroughgoing subjective idealist.

To appreciate his work as a philosopher one must understand his intentions, and to understand his intentions one must, as Ardley has shown (1011) regard him primarily as "one of the company of Anglican divines and reformers" that includes such men as Stillingfleet and Butler, and recognize that "his excursion into philosophy was ancillary to the proper business of his calling." His constant aim in all his work was to revivify Christian theism, to meet the challenge of the contemporary rationalist deism, and to check the rising tide of the new empirical philosophy toward skepticism. At the roots of all the evils he fought, Berkeley saw the currently accepted philosophy of physicsa philosophy that had shaped the metaphysics of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke. He set himself the task of making a critique of the metaphysical assumptions of the new philosophy of ideas. The "new physics" assumed, for the purpose of safeguarding its own method of work, that the universe is a vast mechanical system of purely extended particles that move without purpose in space and time; and that both the particles and their movements are purely quantitative, so that the physical order of things can be expressed adequately by mathematical laws. Berkeley realized that if this postulate of the total mathematicization of nature came to be accepted as more than a rule of method for correlating mathematical abstractions, and as constituting a metaphysics of nature, the world of ordinary human experience would have to be set aside. This would become one vast illusion concealing from man's mind an unknowable, but supposedly real, world of matter or hidden substances. Such a universe could never be known as the work of God. Berkeley claimed to show that the world of the "new physics" is not a real, existent world of things but an artificial construction fabricated out of unreal abstractions, and that the world of common sense, the world of particular things rich in their individual qualities, is the one and only real world that man ought to designate when talking of material things.

Abstraction. The capital error of the 17th-century philosophers lay in their unwarrantable assumption that unthinking, inert matter exists on its own, "absolutely," or independently of mind. They fell into this error because they thought in a world of bogus abstractions, which their fanciful theories of abstraction led them to regard as the sole realities. Berkeley rejected the theory expounded by Lockethat the mind can form a positive,

universal idea of the nature of a thing, or of a triangle, for example, which is no particular triangle but which enables man to think of all particular triangles. The abstract nature of a sensory object is not anything, and what is not cannot help one think of concrete particulars. But though he rejected abstract universal ideas, Berkeley realized that man cannot think without general ideas, for generality is involved in meaning. Man has, he held, general ideas that are not abstract. Such ideas are formed, not by abstracting or separating, but by the mind's considering a particular aspect or "idea" of a thing and relating it to like particular aspects of other things. Man can, he argued, fix the attention on one aspect of a thing, e.g., its squareness, and then use this "idea" that he sensibly perceives in one object as the sign or symbol of all other square shapes in other objects. Generality is, in other words, not a denial of the singularity of things, but a purely functional relation of a particular ideathe result of regarding it as the representative sign of other like ideas.

Esse est percipi et percipere. Matter, pure extension, and passive substances are unreal abstractions. What, then, is a material thing? It is a purely sensible thing. A tree, for example, is just what it is perceived to be; it is that, all that (not merely its primary mathematical qualities), and nothing other than that (not something concealed by its qualities and serving as their support). It is the individual thing a person perceives sensibly to be of a certain size, mass, solidity, shape, volume, of various colors, degrees of hardness, softness, etc. The real apple is the thing one eats, tastes, handles, and smells, and not some insensible substrate of these qualities. As a natural thing is wholly sensible, a material substance is nothing but the assemblage of its sensible properties. But since sensible qualities can exist only in being perceived, or dependently on mind, it follows that the whole being of a sensible thing consists in its being perceived. The primary qualities of extension and motion, being inseparable from the secondary qualities, must be as mind-dependent as the secondary. Sensible qualities need a "support"; however, this must be found not in inert, passive substances (which could neither support anything nor produce any impressions on one's senses), but in active mind, the very nature of which is to perceive sensible qualities and thereby maintain them in existence. Berkeley did not say that material things are modes of mind, as an idealist would say; he denied this categorically: "These qualities are in the mind only as they are perceived by it, not by way of mode, or attribute, but only by way of idea ' (Principles 1.49; also 34).

Matter and Mind. Berkeley's universe comprises the world of sensible things that are neither substances nor material but "ideas of sense," and the world of men who are finite spirits or minds, active substances that think, will, and perceive, and thereby exist. God is infinite spirit or mind, whose creative activity of mind and will set before men's minds the world of sensible things in law and order.

Critique. Berkeley's most enduring contribution to philosophy lies in a field overlooked by historians, namely, his philosophy of science. His critique of the philosophy of the new mathematico-physics, which he likened to a grammar of nature (Principles 1.108), anticipated many of the findings of P. duhem and A. N. whitehead. Berkeley's metaphysics has often been presented and criticized out of its historical setting, and the justifiable criticisms that have been made against his principle of immaterialism and his theory of nonabstract, general ideas have made all too familiar the weaker aspects of his system. Furthermore, the conventional associations of Berkeley with Locke and Hume, as well as with subjective idealism, have hidden from view the import of Berkeley's constructive efforts to remedy the very ills empiricism and idealism brought about. He saw the need to restore man to his central place in the universe; to restore man's esteem for the order of nature, which he considered to have been dismissed as illusory by Descartes and Locke; and to display the universe in its dependence on God, making known His being and providence. In setting man at the heart of his metaphysics, and in highlighting the particularity of existent things, Berkeley is closer in his empiricism to the Christian existentialist philosophers of the 1960s than to the classical empiricists of his day. His pioneering efforts to harmonize the work of the sciences, philosophy, and theology should have won for him a place among the foremost divines and Christian humanists of the 18th century.

Bibliography: The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, ed. a. a. luce and t. e. jessop, 9 v. (London 194857). a.a. luce, The Life of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (London 1949); Berkeley's Immaterialism (London 1945); Berkeley and Malebranche (London 1934). g. w. r. ardley, Berkeley's Philosophy of Nature (Auckland 1962). j. wild, George Berkeley: A Study of His Life and Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass. 1936). a. l. leroy, George Berkeley (Paris 1959), n. baladi, La Pensée réligieuse de Berkeley et l'unité de sa philosophie (Cairo 1945). e. a. sillem, George Berkeley and the Proofs for the Existence of God (New York 1957). c. d. broad, Berkeley's Argument about Material Substance (London 1942). British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4 (195354) 1387, George Berkeley bicentenary issue. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 7 (1953) 3156, George Berkeley issue. g. stammler, Berkeleys Philosophie der mathematik (Berlin 1921).

[e. a. sillem]

Berkeley, George

views updated May 18 2018

Berkeley, George

(b. County Kilkenny, Ireland, March 1685; d Oxford, England, 14 January 1753)

philosophy of science.

Berkeley was a critic of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century philosophical, scientific, mathematical, moral, political, and theological, ideas and an important link in the development of general philosophy between the period of Descartes and Locke and that of Hume and Kant. From his earliest days at Trinity College, Dublin (1700–1713), he came under the influence of Bacon, Boyle, Newton, Locke, and Malebranche. In 1705 he helped to found a society with the aim of pursuing the inquiry into their “new philosophy”; the extent of this inquiry may be gauged from Berkeley’s Commonplace Book, kept during the first few years of that period. Subsequently, particularly in London. Berkeley formed intellectual associations with such prominent figures as Clarke. Swift, Addison, Steele, and Pope. After a brief interlude in America, connected with his abortive attempt to found a college in Bermuda (1729–1731), he retired to the bishopric of Cloyne in 1734. He moved to Oxford in 1752.

Berkeley’s interests (excluding political economy, and his epistemological and theological inquiries except insofar as they bear on science) ranged from those with a primarily scientific focus to the scientifico-philosophical. In the former category belongs A New Theory of Vision (1709), reckoned by Brett’s History of Psychology to have been “the most significant contribution to psychology produced in the eighteenth century,” being “the first instance of clear isolation and purely relevant discussion, of a psychological topic” (Peters ed., p. 409). The main problem examined in this work is the factors that determine our ability to see things at a distance, the assumption being that the sense of vision itself is incapable of doing so. Rather, seeing distant objects requires the suggestions supplied by other senses, especially that of touch, as well as such other experiences as visual distortion caused by failure of eye accommodation. We do not “judge” by means of quasi-optica1 calculation of the distance of objects (the traditional account of Berkeley’s predecessors); rather, we let one group of sensations suggest another, in virtue of experience and custom. Moreover, from saying that all visual sensations “seem to be in the eye,” Berkeley moves to his basic contention, later generalized in his Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), that visual ideas are in our minds. Given his general doctrine that the “being” of things amounts to their being perceived, i.e., being ideas in a mind (the ultimate reference is to the divine mind), he infers that external space is not basic, but is “only suggested” to us by visual ideas, via tactile and other ideas.

This close interweaving of science with epistemology, as well as of metaphysics with theology, is also very prominent in Berkeley’s last major work, Siris (1744), which begins as an investigation of the medicinal virtues of tar water and ends with a disquisition on Platonic philosophy. The body of the book consists, on the one hand, of a discussion of contemporary chemical theory and, on the other, of a critique of Newtonian principles of explanation, of space and time, and of the true interpretation of the concept of causation. The sections on chemistry are of particular interest, for they display considerable acquaintance with most of the major chemical doctrines of Berkeley’s period (e.g. Boerhaave, Homberg, Hales. The younger Lemery, etc.), including a discussion of acids, salts, alkalies, and air that leads to a discussion of fire and light, the latter providing a “bridge” to a spiritual interpretation of all phenomena. Siris thus involves an attempt to assimilate Newtonian concepts to the more complex phenomena of chemistry and animal physiology.

Apart from his more specifically scientific preoccupations, Berkeley Berkeley’s more general aim in these writings is to show that the goal of science can be no more than describing phenomena through the laws and theories (“hypotheses”) of science that govern them, and thus to trace the “grammar” or “language of nature” without intervening concepts, at least in so far as these concepts might be construed existentially or as sources of “active power,” which in Berkeley’s terminology would amount to giving an “explanation.” The opposition to a positive construction of such intervening concepts is paramount in Berkeley’s writing on mathematics, as exemplified in his critique of the foundations of the differential calculus, whether our concern be with Newtonian “fluxions” or with Leibnizian “infinitesimals.” Both, as Berkeley points out in The Analyst (1734), suffer from the fatal defect of demanding that certain “increments” vanish in a result whose demonstration requires these increments to have a finite value.

Berkeley’s basic objection is to a sequence that is imagined to continue indefinitely, yet at the same time is conceived as suddenly ending. This difficulty formed the starting point of many discussions of the foundations of mathematics that continued in England until the nineteenth century, and he himself initially participated in them through replies to objections made to The Analyst. Berkeley does not impugn the employment of the differential calculus for “practical” purposes; his objection is to the quasi-existential positing of the “differential” entities involved. In the Principles this had been stated as an opposition to “abstract ideas.” His fundamental thought (although he lacks the notion of the limit) is “operationalist,” a concentration on the imaginative process of dividing a finite line into finite parts indefinitely, by always, letting the new parts “grow” so that they remain finite lines; this conception is meant to replace “infinite divisibility” into the “infinitely small” (Principles, sec. 128). At a more technical level Berkeley developed an ingenious theory of compensating errors that was meant to explain the “correct” results of the calculus of fluxions, whose “faulty” foundations alone he deplored.

Berkeley’s opposition to abstract ideas is closely connected with a theory of meaning the most relevant component of which is the contention that we should not suppose that to every noun there corresponds a particular idea. In De motu this is applied with special emphasis to the Newtonian concepts of gravitational attraction, action and reaction, and motion in general. Basically, Berkeley regards all such concepts as elements in “mathematical hypotheses” (i.e., what would now be called theoretical terms implicitly defined by certain theoretical axioms). Sometimes he holds that theoretical concepts are simply reducible to individual laws of phenomena (reductionism); at other times he emphasizes their place in the systematic constructions of these laws in overarching theories (a forerunner of the modern instrumentalist position).

The instrumentalist approach affected Berkeley’s theory of explanation and causation, which also drew upon the basic doctrine that all phenomena must be construed as ideas. Since they stand in an accusative relation to a perceiver, the ideas are held to be inactive; this is the doctrine of essepercipi. The logical counter part of the doctrine that no idea can act on any other idea is that no necessary connections exist between any such ideas. As a result, causal explanation cannot be reducible to the “action” of any phenomenalagents, be they “attraction” or “insensible corpuscles.” Causal action reduces to uniform “law-like” association between ideas that function as signs for things signified; the logical center of gravity being again the theoretical system of scientific laws, laws whose ultimate inductive foundation Berkeley places in the uniform operation of the “Author of nature” (Principles, sec. 107).

It follows that the doctrine of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, so central to the thinking of the “Newtonian century/’ in Berkeley loses its metaphysical relevance, reducing at most to no more than a difference of degree, since the opposition to abstract general ideas and the unavailability of the theoretical “corpuscles” for explanation rendered the conception unimportant. Berkeley does not so much deny unobservable entities; once again he is opposed only to treating them as genuine sources of transeunt causal action, since they are in reality no more than abstractions.

These approaches more or less naturally lead to Berkeley’s critique of the Newtonian concepts of absolute space, time, and motion. For it follows at once that all motion must be relative and referred to a physical (phenomenal) system, a contention that Berkeley also urges against Newton’s example of rotatory motion, thus anticipating part of what is now called Mach’s principle. The impossibility of absolute motion is one of Berkeley’s arguments against absolute space; another is its being an abstract idea. Moreover, it is otiose if taken to be an entity “existing without the mind” (Principles, sec. 116). This (somewhat weakly) seems to fit in with the conclusion drawn from the theory that distance and space cannot be determined visually. At best, empty space denotes a mere “possibility” for a body to be in motion, and certainly it is nothing “given in itself,” separate from or prior to body.

Berkeley’s general influence extended to such writers as Hume, Maclaurin, and Kant in the eighteenth century, and Mill, Helmholtz, and Mach in the nineteenth. He also anticipated many of the ideas of twentieth-century philosophers of science.


I. Original Works. The standard edition of Berkeley’s writings is The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, eds., 9 vols. (Edinburgh, 1948–1957).

Berkeley’s major writings on science and mathematics and their philosophy are An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (Dublin, 1709); A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, pt. 1 (Dublin, 1710), the only part published; Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713); De motu (London, 1721); Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (London, 1732); Theory of Vision, or Visual Language, Vindicated and Explained (London, 1733); The Analyst (London, 1734); A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (London, 1735); Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (London, 1744); Further Thoughts on Tat- Water (London, 1752); and Philosophical Commentaries [Commonplace Book], A. A. Luce, ed. (London, 1944).

Collections that include scientific writings are Selections From Berkeley Annotated, A. C. Fraser, ed. (Oxford, 1874); Berkeley: Philosophical Writings, T. E. Jessop, ed. (Edinburgh, 1952); Berkeley: Works on Vision, C. M. Turbayne, ed., in Library of Liberal Arts (Indianapolis, 1963); and Berkeley’s Philosophical Writings, D. M. Armstrong, ed., in Collier Classics in the History of Thought (New York, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography is A. A. Luce, The Life of George Berkeley (Edinburgh, 1949).

Discussions of aspects of Berkeley’s philosophy of science and mathematics since 1842 may be found in the following works: T. K. Abbott, Sight and Touch: An Attempt to Disprove the Received (or Berkeleian) Theory of Vision (London, 1864); G. W. Ardley, Berkeley’s philosophy of Nature (Auckland, 1962); D. M. Armstrong, Berkeley’s Theory of Vision (Melbourne, 1960); S. Bailey, A Review of Berkeley’s Theory of Vision (London, 1842); C. B. Boyer, The History of the Calculus (New York, 1959), ch. 6, pp. 224–229; Brett’s History of Psychology, R. S. Peters, ed. (London, 1953), pp. 408–414; British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 4 (May 1953), which honors the bicentenary of Berkeley’s death; G. Buchdahl, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science. The Classical Origins; Descartes to Kant (Oxford, 1969), ch. 5; F. Cajori. A History of the Conceptions of Limits and Fluxions in Great Britain From Newton to Woodhouse (Chicago, 1919), pp. 57–95; D. W. Hamlyn, Sensation and Perception. A History of the Philosophy of Perception (London, 1961), pp. 104–116: T. H, Huxley, Hume; With Helps to the Study of Berkeley (London, 1894); G. A. Johnston. The Development of Berkeley’s Philosophy (London, 1923); A. A. Luce. Berkeley and Malebranche (Oxford, 1934); J. S. Mill, Dissertations and Discussions, IV (London, 1875), 154–187; A. D. Ritchie, George Berkeley. A Reappraisal (Manchester, 1967): G. Stammler, Berkeleys Philosophie der Mathematik (Berlin, 1922); C. M. Turbaync, The Myth of Metaphor (New Haven, 1962): and G. J. Warnock, Berkeley (London, 1953).

Gerd Buchdahl

Berkeley, George

views updated May 23 2018

Berkeley, George



Like many of his contemporaries, George Berkeley (1685–1753) was a man of wide intellectual and practical interests. Although his most significant contributions to human knowledge are to be found in his philosophical works, Berkeley displayed more than a passing interest in questions that were of an essentially economic nature.

Berkeley’s writings in the area of political economy are of a rather fragmentary nature. Two of his pamphlets, “An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruine of Great Britain” (1721) and “A Word to the Wise” (1749), contain some discussion of economic issues, but their main theme is moral or theological. His major work in political economy, “The Querist” (1735–1737), consists of 895 rhetorical questions reflecting the author’s thoughts on a wide variety of economic and social problems confronting Ireland during the early period of his tenure as bishop of Cloyne (a position he held from 1734 until just prior to his death, in 1753). Berkeley did not write a comprehensive theoretical work in political economy, and as a consequence it is hardly surprising that his writings in this area fall far short of such eighteenth-century treatises as Richard Cantillon’s Essai sur la nature du commerce en général, Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry Into the Principles of Political Economy, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Berkeley displayed a sound grasp of a number of important tools of analysis, but the real significance of his work is to be found in his attempt to bring economic, moral, and theological concepts to bear on the broad problem of man’s material progress, that is, the question of economic development. In fact, Berkeley’s “Querist” represents one of the earliest attempts to focus attention on this important question, the study of which grew out of seventeenth-century philosophical discussions centering upon the idea of progress and the nature of the evolution of man.

To Berkeley, Ireland represented a picture of abysmal poverty and backwardness. Yet this, he felt, could be attributed not to a paucity of natural resources but rather to a failure to exploit these resources adequately. What was required, he argued, was the provision of a large and growing supply of labor; a satisfactory rate of saving; a higher degree of specialization and division of labor; the provision, especially by the government, of vital investment projects, particularly in the area of transportation; and the establishment of a sociological environment conducive to a greater degree of industry, ingenuity, and frugality on the part of the Irish people.

In his attempt to seek a solution to Ireland’s economic problems Berkeley made use of a number of important analytical concepts. Among these concepts were (1) the “relative” doctrine of luxury, which sought to distinguish between, on the one hand, that element of luxury expenditure, in the form of a modest amount of “conveniences and superfluities,” which acts as an inducement to both productive effort and ingenuity and, on the other hand, that consumption of luxury goods and services which takes the form of prodigality and dissipation by the wealthier classes and therefore simply serves to check the rate of saving in the community; (2) the dichotomy between productive and unproductive consumption, which Berkeley accepted tentatively; (3) the division of labor and its role in the establishment and growth of an exchange, or market, economy; (4) the metaphor that money is simply a ticket facilitating exchange; and (5) the possibility of deriving economic gains from international specialization, even when the major obstacles to initiating and maintaining economic growth lie in the domestic rather than the international sector of the economy.

In contrast to Hume, Smith, and Francis Hutcheson, Berkeley rejected the doctrine of natural harmony. He was also sharply critical of the Mandevil-lean theory that private vices are public benefits. Rather, he saw the need for the government to intervene if the bottlenecks inhibiting Irish economic progress were ever to be removed. In order to facilitate the implementation of government policy, particularly in the area of money and credit, Berkeley advocated the establishment of a national bank. It is important to note, however, that the interventionist program outlined in “The Querist” appears to rest essentially on his pragmatic assessment of the problems facing the Irish economy rather than being a derivative of a commitment to any particular philosophical doctrine.

One important theme running through all of Berkeley’s economic writings is the significance of sound moral values as a precondition for social and economic progress. Many of the problems facing Ireland, such as idleness and prodigality, might be traced, he felt, to an absence of moral fiber and public spirit. Thus, in Berkeley’s view, it was not simply the government but also the church that would have to take the lead in initiating and maintaining the forces of economic growth.

One must be careful not to overemphasize the significance of Berkeley’s contributions within the context of eighteenth-century economic thought. Although his work contains a number of analytical insights and a sound understanding of certain aspects of the development problem, his writings, compared to the work of some of the eighteenth-century economic thinkers mentioned above, seem to have had little impact upon later scholars. Nonetheless, in Berkeley we have a great scholar who, had he chosen to devote himself more fully to questions of political economy, would almost certainly have become one of the great figures in eighteenth-century economic thought.

Ian D. S. Ward

[For the historical context of Berkeley’s work, see the biographies ofHume; Smith, Adam; for discussion of related ideas, seeEconomic growth.]


(1721) 1953 An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruine of Great Britain. Volume 6, pages 61–85 in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Nelson.

(1735–1737) 1953 The Querist. Volume 6, pages 105–154 in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Nelson.

(1749) 1953 A Word to the Wise: Or, an Exhortation to the Roman Catholic Clergy of Ireland. Volume 6, pages 231–249 in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Nelson.

The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. 9 vols. Edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop. London: Nelson, 1948–1957.


Hutchison, T. W. 1953 Berkeley’s The Querist and Its Place in the Economic Thought of the 18th Century. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 4, no. 13:52–77.

Ward, IanD. S. 1959 George Berkeley: Precursor of Keynes or Moral Economist on Underdevelopment? Journal of Political Economy 67:31–40.

George Berkeley

views updated May 11 2018

George Berkeley

The Anglo-Irish thinker and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) developed a unique type of idealism based on an empirically oriented attack on abstract philosophizing combined with a defense of immaterialism.

Although born on March 3, 1685, at Dysert Castle in County Kilkenny, Ireland, George Berkeley considered himself to be English. He entered the county school at the age of 11 and in 1700 went to Trinity College, Dublin. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1704 and a master of arts degree in 1707, the year in which he became a fellow. Berkeley maintained his appointment until 1724, when he became dean of Derry, but taught at Dublin only until 1712. During this time he formed a club to discuss the "new philosophy" and wrote his most important works: Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709); Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, pt. 1 (1710); and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713).

Berkeley traveled to England in 1713. He was an intellectual and social success in London; he met the essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and later contributed articles to the Guardian. The poet Alexander Pope described the young philosopher as possessed of "every virtue under heaven." Most of Berkeley's introductions to English literati were arranged by his older Dublin colleague and fellow clergyman, the satirist Jonathan Swift. The most important of these contacts was Lord Peterborough, whom Berkeley accompanied to Europe as chaplain in 1714-1715. During this journey he may have met the French philosopher Nicholas Malebranche. Between 1716 and 1720 Berkeley resided mainly in Italy and France, and while traveling he lost the manuscript of the second part of Principles of Human Knowledge, which was never rewritten.

In 1721 he published a short treatise on natural philosophy, De motu. and an anonymous book on social reformation, Essay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain. About this time Berkeley conceived the idea of establishing a college in the Bermudas to reform the manners of the English colonists and introduce the gospel to the "American savages." Through the influence of his friends he received the necessary patents from Parliament and promises of financial assistance. In September 1728 he married Anne Foster, and shortly thereafter he sailed for the New World. From January 1729 until the fall of 1731 he lived in Newport, R. I. During this period he wrote Alciphron, a series of dialogues directed against freethinkers. The financing of the Bermuda scheme eventually failed and, after donating his books and property to Yale College, he returned with his family to London.

In 1734 Berkeley returned to Ireland as bishop of Cloyne, and he remained there for the next 18 years. Distressed at the widespread famine and disease in Ireland, he devoted himself to social and medical studies. In 1744 he created a considerable stir by publishing Siris, a work that extolled the virtues of tar-water as a cure for virtually all bodily ills and presented his final metaphysical and religious ideas. On the occasion of fighting between Catholics and Protestants, he wrote several liberal tracts promoting tolerance and humanity. Berkeley retired to Oxford University in 1752 and died suddenly on Jan. 14, 1753.

His Philosophy

The "new way of ideas" of British empiricism had been prepared for Berkeley by John Locke. In a broad sense empiricism is an attempt to derive all knowledge from experience. According to Locke, all knowledge is derived from the external five senses or the internal sense of reflection. But from a psychological viewpoint both sensations and concepts are found in the mind. Thus, even sensations are ideal as images which re-present external objects.

The ubiquity of ideas, as sense images as well as concepts, led Berkeley to original psychological and metaphysical views. In Essay towards a New Theory of Vision he argued that man does not immediately perceive either the distance of objects from him or their spatial relations to others. He states that distance and magnitude are suggested by past experience of the correlation between sight and touch.

According to Berkeley, it was a short step for him from the psychological recognition of the ideality of sense perceptions to the metaphysical acknowledgement of the immateriality of all reality. He was the first thinker to take the position of denying material reality. In Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues he argues that if the only evidence for an object's existence is its being perceived, then the conclusion is that existence consists entirely in being perceived or perceiving and that minds and their ideas constitute reality.

This immaterialist thesis, Esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived), is more important as a criticism of materialism than as an exposition of his own spiritualism. In Berkeley's view it is God and His active perception who preserves man from vanishing worlds when objects are not being perceived by him. This means that minds and ideas, which can be empirically verified, are the only realities and that reality is identical with appearance.

Further Reading

The standard edition of Berkeley is edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, (9 vols., 1948-1957). The best biography is by A. A. Luce, The Life of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne (1949). See also J. Wild, George Berkeley: A Study of His Life and Philosophy (1936); A. A. Luce, Berkeley's Immaterialism (1945); E. A. Sillem, George Berkeley and the Proofs for the Existence of God (1957); D. M. Armstrong, Berkeley's Theory of Vision (1960); and A. A. Luce, The Dialectic of Immaterialism (1963). □

George Berkeley

views updated May 14 2018

George Berkeley


Irish Philosopher

George Berkeley is best remembered for his attempt to reconcile religion and science through his empiricist philosophy that separated a phenomenon's true existence from attempts to explain it through scientific laws and theories.

Berkeley received his formal education at Kilkenny College and at Trinity College in Dublin, receiving his B.A. degree in 1704. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1707 and remained associated with the College until 1724 when he became the Dean of Derry. In 1733 he was elevated to the position of Bishop of Cloyne.

Berkeley read widely and became thoroughly familiar with the scientific and philosophical developments that grew out of Newtonian physics. As a result of his deep religious convictions, he attempted to overcome the apparent conflict between the religious and scientific perceptions of the world. He became a spokesman for the Anglican church and a defender of the Christian faith in the effort to counteract attempts by some of science's more ardent supporters to use the ability of science to predict and explain natural phenomena, thereby dismissing the necessity of God. In the process, he criticized what he perceived as logical contradictions in Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) mechanics and attacked the deists. He also developed a unique philosophy of science and reality. His principal publications included Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in 1713, and De motin in 1721.

Philosophically Berkeley was an empiricist, believing that everything, except the spiritual, exists only as it is perceived by the senses. He was strongly opposed to the materialists who maintained that the world is made up only of material objects that act, and are acted on, mechanically and that obey laws of natural necessity that science can determine. He believed that objects and phenomena do not have a material existence but exist only as ideas in the mind of the perceiver. He asserted, however, that all such ideas are invariably in the mind of God and that humans receive the ideas of the phenomena that make up their existence through communion with God. Berkeley's philosophy, for this reason, is sometimes also labeled subjective idealism.

Berkeley's thought has been influential in the history of philosophy because it laid the foundation for later secular empiricists such as David Hume (1711-1776). It has had its greatest effect on the history and philosophy of science through his so-called instrumentalist views. He held that scientific theories are nothing more than tools for predicting the course of natural processes and are neither true nor false, merely useful. For him, Newton's equations are simply mathematical methods for the calculation of observed phenomena: they are not explanations of the phenomena. Scientific laws and theories are summaries of how objects behave under certain circumstances and predictions of how they will behave; they do not provide any real understanding of the phenomena they describe. He also pointed out that the observed data cannot uniquely determine a theory that explains them: more than one theory may be developed to explain the observations.

He believed that in order for humans to use knowledge, it must be linked to experiences that they can understand. In other words, our understanding of a new phenomenon is based on its relationship by analogy to experiences that we have already had; our understanding is dependent on the objects and events that we, as human beings, are capable of experiencing, and these are, of necessity, limited. Berkeley held that science is a "useful fiction" and that its explanations are mental constructs that are different from actual fact. His ideas have become more widely accepted as literal interpretations of scientific theory have became more and more difficult.


Berkeley, George

views updated May 29 2018

Berkeley, George (1685–1753). Philosopher and bishop. One of the most renowned philosophers of his day, Berkeley was born in Kilkenny of English descent. He became a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, but spent 1713–20 in London or on continental travel, becoming well acquainted with Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot. In 1720 his essay ‘Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain’, provoked by the South Sea crisis, attacked luxury and the new commercialism. In 1724 he was appointed dean of Derry but his main interest was in raising support for a college in Bermuda to preach the gospel and he was in America 1728–32. From 1734 he was bishop of Cloyne and spent almost all his later years in the diocese, apart from a last few months in Oxford. His idealist philosophy, attacking the materialism of Locke and Newton, is to be found largely in Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues (1713).

J. A. Cannon

Berkeley, George

views updated May 09 2018

Berkeley, George (1685–1753) Irish philosopher and cleric. Drawing on the empiricism of John Locke, he argued that there is no existence independent of subjective perception (esse est percipi). For Berkeley, the apparently ordered physical world is the work of God. This standpoint is often called subjective idealism.

George Berkeley

views updated May 29 2018

George Berkeley


Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne known for his philosophico-scientific treatises. Berkeley argued that science, no less than religion, relies on metaphysical speculation and lack of rigor as demonstrated by the development of calculus. In The Analyst (1734) he noted that both Newton's fluxions and Leibniz's infinitesimals rely on demonstrations requiring increments with finite magnitudes which nevertheless vanish. Berkeley's attack on these "differential entities" was only intended to reveal calculus' faulty foundation, not to impugn its practical utility.

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