George Berkeley

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George Berkeley

George Berkeley (March 12, 1685 – January 14, 1753), Anglo-Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne, was one of the three great British Empiricists of the eighteenth century (following John Locke and preceding David Hume).

George Berkeley’s name in the history of philosophy is linked to the notion that “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi), which summarizes his subjective idealism and immaterialism. His position—that things and the world only exist in the mind that perceives them—has sometimes been praised and often been ridiculed. It is certainly counter-intuitive but contains a valuable insight that has been passed on to successive generations of thinkers: the independent existence of things apart from our perception of them cannot simply be assumed, no matter how obvious it may seem. Since for Berkeley, things ultimately exist in the mind of God, this view also amounts to a denial of the traditional concept of creation, as well as of prevailing mechanical theories as articulated by Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes).



George Berkeley was born near Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College, Dublin, completing a master’s degree in 1707. He remained at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer. His earliest publication was a mathematical one, but the first which brought him into notice was his Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, published in 1709. Though giving rise to much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics. His next major work appeared in 1710, the Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, which was followed in 1713 by Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounded his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world as represented to our senses depends for its existence, as such, on being perceived. Principles gives the exposition of this theory, and Dialogues the defense. One of his main objects was to combat the prevailing materialism of the time. The theory was largely received with ridicule, though some, such as Dr. Samuel Clarke, considered him a genius. Shortly afterwards he visited England, and was received into the circle of Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Richard Steele. In the period between 1714 and 1720 he interspersed his academic endeavors with periods of extensive travel in Europe. In 1721, he took Holy Orders, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chose to remain at Trinity College lecturing this time on divinity and Hebrew. In 1724 he was made Dean of Derry.

In 1725 Berkeley formed the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers for the colonies and missionaries to the Indians, in pursuit of which he gave up his deanery with its income of £1,100, and went to America on a salary of £100. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation—the famous "Whitehall." On October 4, 1730, Berkeley purchased "a Negro man named Philip aged Fourteen years or thereabout." A few days later he purchased "a Negro man named Edward aged twenty years or thereabouts." On June 11, 1731, "Dean Berkeley baptized three of his negroes, 'Philip, Anthony, and Agnes Berkeley'" (The bills of slave can be found in the British Museum (Ms. 39316); qtd. in Mason, 51).

Berkeley's sermons explained to the colonists why Christianity supported slavery, and hence slaves should become baptized Christians: "It would be of advantage to their [slave masters'] affairs to have slaves who should 'obey in all things their masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, as fearing God;' that gospel liberty consists with temporal servitude; and that their slaves would only become better slaves by being Christian" (qtd. in Berkeley, 347. See his sermon preached in Newport, October 1729).

Berkeley lived at the plantation while he waited for funds for his college to arrive. The funds, however, were not forthcoming and in 1732 he returned to London. In 1734 he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. Soon afterwards he published Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, directed against Shaftesbury, and in 1734-1737, The Querist. His last publications were Siris, a treatise on the medicinal virtues of tar-water, and Further Thoughts on Tar-water.

He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired and went to Oxford to live with his son. His affectionate disposition and genial manners made him much beloved.

The city of Berkeley, California is named after him, but the pronunciation of its name has evolved to suit American English. A residential college in Yale University also bears his name.


Berkeley’s theory states that one can only directly know sensations and ideas of objects, not abstractions such as "matter." He wrote a number of works about this theory, the most widely read of which are his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) (with Philonous, the "lover of the mind," representing Berkeley himself). In 1734 he published The Analyst, a critique of the foundations of science, which was very influential in the subsequent development of mathematics.


Immaterialism and critique of Locke

Berkeley's theory of ideas, which he intends to substitute for the generally acknowledged belief in the reality of matter, is explained with almost identical content in his Principles of Human Knowledge and in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Berkeley denies that things can have any existence outside of the perception we have of them. In other words, he refuses to accept that there be any permanent material substratum in things that would remain independently of any observer. On the other hand, Berkeley expresses no doubts about the perceiving subject (as Descartes does with his Cogito). To exist, therefore, is to be perceived or to perceive (Esse est percipi vel percipere).

Berkeley’s thought is a continuation of Locke’s Empiricism, but Berkeley is much more extreme and, it must be admitted, logically consistent. For Locke, experience through sense perception—not rational deduction—was the only sure source of knowledge. Nevertheless, Locke assumed that, underlying our perception of them, things had an objective “substance” that carried their perceived qualities. At the same time, he was unable to further define it based on his empirical method and called it "something - I know not what." In his Dialogues, Berkeley offers a lively discussion (and demolition) of Locke's primary and secondary qualities as well as his notion of substance.

Locke believed that so-called secondary qualities—like sounds and colors—only exist in relation to the perceiving subject, but that primary qualities such as extension and motion objectively existed in things as attributes of their substance. In his critique, Berkeley proceeds by starting with the most evident and continues until he has eliminated all possible forms of a material substrate independent of cognition, extends his conclusions beyond the secondary qualities to the primary qualities, to prove that these are equally devoid of any existence independently of the perceiving mind. Extension, for instance, cannot be conceived apart from the perspective of an observing eye; hence it is relative (shapes are distorted according to the distance and angle, etc.). In other words, Berkeley easily shows how all qualities that can be perceived are by definition dependent on the mind perceiving them. In conclusion, Berkeley equates the notion that things have an underlying, objective substance to Aristotle's "much ridiculed" materia prima. However, Berkeley is just as dogmatic as those he criticizes. He simply assumes that perceived things have no reality outside of our perception, without even trying to prove his point.

Opposition to Newton’s mechanical worldview and refutation of atheism

Berkeley’s views need to be understood in the framework of his reaction to the advent of Newtonian physics and their mechanical explanation of the world. As expressed in the sub-titles to his two works on the subject, Berkeley believed that such a worldview led directly to atheism. Berkeley thus challenged the Newtonian concept of matter as an ultimate given, leading to a reduction of reality to what can be physically measured, without asking further questions. It is known that Berkeley considered his explanation of the immaterial or ideal nature of all things to be a natural proof of the existence of God.

The necessary existence of God

Ultimately, Berkeley did not believe that things only exist as long as a particular individual perceives them, thus disappearing as soon as that individual has left, which would lead to all sorts of flagrant contradiction. Rather, Berkley believed that the world exists as perceived by the eternal mind of God.

Both in his Principles and in the Dialogues, Berkeley soon reaches the point where he has to confront the common sense objection that things, or ideas, if they exist only in his mind—are bound to appear, disappear, and reappear—each time he changes the focus of his attention or move from one location to the other. The nonsensical nature of such a proposition further results as soon as one tries to imagine how the existence of ideas in one’s mind could be coordinated with their existence in other minds. Berkeley clarifies that this is not at all what he intends to say. "To me it is evident, for the reasons you allow of, that sensible things cannot exist otherwise than in mind or spirit. Whence I conclude, not that they have no real existence, but that, seeing they depend not on my thought and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist. As sure, therefore, as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent Spirit, who contains and supports it." Hence, the existence of a God is necessary, because "all things must be perceived by him."


It is interesting to follow Berkeley as he tries to deal with the chain reaction of embarrassments caused by his peculiar initial position. The question, at this point, is how this position can be reconciled with any idea of a divine creation of the world. This is explained in the third Dialogue. "[W]here not all things eternally in the mind of God? Did they not therefore exist from all eternity, according to you? And how could that which was eternal be created in time? ... What shall we make then of the creation?" This leads to the reply that: "… things, with regard to us, may properly be said to begin their existence, or be created, when God decreed they should become perceptible to intelligent creatures in that order and manner which He then established and we now call the laws of nature.” This allows Berkeley to salvage the Christian concept of creation without contradicting his basic position.

It is true that the notion of God conveniently fills the gaps left by Berkeley's explanation of things being ideas in our minds. But it does not do so as artificially as perhaps occasionalism does when it postulates God's intervention to bridge the gulf between matter and spirit. Though Berkeley starts with the doctrine of things as ideas, his real starting point is his view of God as the sole ground of reality.

A good example of Berkeley's theistic absolutism is his understanding of the notion of cause and effect. As he denies the autonomous existence of the material world, he logically also denies the reality of absolute natural laws, such as cause and effect, and replaces them with the notion of God-given "signs." Hume would accept the first part of the reasoning, but replace the second one by the notion of "habit."

The avoidance of solipsism

Solipsism is the position that nothing exists outside of myself and my experience (it literally means “reduction to myself”). No serious philosopher has ever straightforwardly supported such a position, but Berkeley seems to come dangerously close. However, by clarifying that things exist through God’s perception of them, and not merely through my individual perception, he avoids that danger. On the other hand, Berkeley's thought falls into the category of what could be called divine solipsism: there is nothing much else than God himself in Berkeley's universe. In his effort to deny an unduly independent status to the material world, Berkeley introduces a world that exists only in and through God. All things exist, hence have been known, for all eternity, as God's ideas. Even my perception of them is secondary. Berkeley still maintains the notion of creation (the opposite would have been unthinkable for the devout bishop), but it is reduced to God choosing to unveil the reality of his ideas to us as he sees fit. His philosophy represents a late attempt to preserve the theocentric world-view of earlier Christian thinkers in a new scientific environment where basic data of faith were no longer accepted.

Consequences of Berkeley’s subjective idealism

Berkeley’s denial that things have real existence outside our perception arouses the question whether these perceived objects are "objective" in the sense of being "the same" for our fellow humans, in fact if even the concept of other human beings (beyond our perception of them) is valid. Berkeley argues that since we experience other humans in the way they speak to us—something which is not originating from any activity of our own—and since we learn that their view of the world is consistent with ours, we can believe in their existence and in the world being identical (similar) for everyone.

It follows that:

  1. Any knowledge of the empirical world is to be obtained only through direct perception.
  2. Error comes about through thinking about what we perceive.
  3. Knowledge of the empirical world of people and things and actions around us may be purified and perfected merely by stripping away all thought (and with it language) from our pure perceptions.

From this it follows that:

  1. The ideal form of scientific knowledge is to be obtained by pursuing pure de-intellectualized perceptions.
  2. If we would pursue these, we would be able to obtain the deepest insights into the natural world and the world of human thought and action that is available to man.
  3. The goal of all science, therefore, is to de-intellectualize or de-conceptualize, and thereby purify, our perceptions.

Theologically, one consequence of Berkeley's views is that they require God to be present as an immediate cause of all our experiences. God is not the distant engineer of Newtonian machinery that in the fullness of time led to the growth of a tree in the university's quadrangle. Rather, one’s perception of the tree is an idea that God's mind has produced in someone else’s, and the tree continues to exist in the quad when "nobody" is there simply because God is always there.

Berkeley in context: predecessors and continuators

Berkeley’s immaterialism is not without any antecedents. In the early centuries of Christianity, Gregory of Nyssa had already dealt with the problem of a material world created by a spiritual God and concluded that the qualities of things are immaterial. In the end, however, his thought reverts to the traditional notion of creation ex nihilo, the creation of the world by God out of nothing. Their common concern was that, if one acknowledges the permanent existence of a material world next to God, one undermines the idea of God’s absoluteness.

Berkeley’s contemporaries, including Voltaire and David Hume who sometimes praised his immaterialism, did so for entirely contrary reasons. Whereas Berkeley had meant to underline God’s absoluteness, they felt that his views undermined our certainties about reality. Far from representing a defense against skepticism, said Hume, Berkeley’s views directly led to it. It was somehow Berkeley’s destiny to have his ideas used for purposes alien to the original one, and the combatant of skepticism became the patron saint of skeptics.

Berkeley was also one of the very few philosophers whose contribution was acknowledged by Arthur Schopenhauer. Berkeley’s immaterialism perfectly fit Schopenhauer’s contention that the world is nothing else than our representation on the level of knowledge. Schopenhauer wrote: "Berkeley was, therefore, the first to treat the subjective starting-point really seriously and to demonstrate irrefutably its absolute necessity. He is the father of idealism...." (Parerga and Paralipomena Vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy" § 12). But Schopenhauer also insisted that Berkeley’s philosophy exhausted itself in that one insight. As for Immanuel Kant, whose view that we only know things as phenomena, i.e., as they appear to us, he could have been expected to appreciate Berkeley’s philosophy. Instead, he strongly opposed it because, unlike Berkeley, he believed in the reality of the material world. He merely concluded that we cannot know it as it is in itself.

Berkeley's philosophy remains as the curious mixture of a system that tries to integrate the beginnings of modern critical philosophy with an outlook as theocentric as that of scholasticism. Berkeley is both the epigone of a past age and a still clumsy precursor of the critical method perfected by Kant, an empiricist and a dogmatic idealist.

The philosophy of David Hume concerning causality and objectivity is an elaboration of another aspect of Berkeley's philosophy. As Berkeley's thought progressed, he may have almost entirely assimilated his theories to those of Plato, though this is far from certain. Luce, the most eminent Berkeley scholar of the twentieth century, constantly stressed the continuity of Berkeley's mature philosophy. This suggests continuity between the Principles, Alciphron and the rest of Berkeley's philosophical works. Furthermore, Berkeley’s unwavering panentheism is evidence that counts against a complete assimilation with Platonism, and Alciphron is a development rather than a revision of anything in the earlier works. The fact that the main works were re-issued just a few years before Berkeley's death without major changes also counts against any theory which attributes to him a volte face.

Over a century later Berkeley's thought experiment was summarized in a limerick and reply by Ronald Knox;

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
"Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why this tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God."

In reference to Berkeley, Samuel Johnson kicked a heavy stone and exclaimed, "Thus I refute him." But, Johnson only exhibited the commonplace misunderstanding of Berkeley. The only thing that Johnson knew about the stone was what he saw with his eyes, felt with his foot, and heard with his ears. That is, the existence of the stone consisted exclusively of Johnson's perceptions. Other than that, the stone could possibly be anything imaginable: atoms, quarks, electrical impulses, etc.. Whatever the stone was, apart from the sensations that he felt and the ideas or mental pictures that he perceived, was completely unknown to him and, therefore, was nothing to him. The kicked stone existed as an idea in his mind. Otherwise, it was nothing.

Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge was published three years before the publication of Arthur Collier's Clavis Universalis, which made assertions similar to those of Berkeley. However, there seemed to have been no influence between the two writers.

The Analyst Controversy

In addition to his contributions to philosophy, Berkeley was also very influential in the development of mathematics, although in a rather negative sense. In 1734 he published The Analyst, subtitled A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician. The infidel mathematician in question is believed to have been either Edmond Halley, or Isaac Newton himself, although the discourse would then have been posthumously addressed as Newton died in 1727. The Analyst represented a direct attack on the foundations and principles of calculus, and in particular the notion of fluxion or infinitesimal change which Newton and Leibniz had used to develop the calculus.

Berkeley regarded his criticism of calculus as part of his broader campaign against the religious implications of Newtonian mechanics—as a defense of traditional Christianity against deism, which tends to distance God from worshippers.

As a consequence of the resulting controversy, the foundations of calculus were rewritten in a much more formal and rigorous form using limits. It was not until 1966, with the publication of Abraham Robinson's book Non-standard Analysis, that the concept of the infinitesimal was made rigorous, thus giving an alternative way of overcoming the difficulties which Berkeley discovered in Newton's original approach.

See also


  • Berkley, George. The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, 9 vols. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1949-57. The standard edition, including Berkeley's published and unpublished works.
  • Berman, D. George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
  • Foster, J. and H. Robinson (eds.). Essays on Berkeley. Oxford, 1985.
  • Mason, George C. The Annals of Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island, 1698-1821. Newport, R.I., 1890. ASIN B0008B3OFY
  • Pitcher, G. W. Berkeley. London, 1977.
  • Tipton, I. C., The Philosophy of Immaterialism. London, 1974.
  • Warnock, G. J., Berkeley. Oxford, 1982.
  • Winkler, K. Berkeley: An Interpretation. Oxford, 1989.

External links

All links retrieved February 16, 2013.

General Philosophy Sources


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