Berkeley, George

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Berkeley, George (1685-1783): Irish Philosopher.

George Berkeley was born at Kilkenny, Ireland, March 12th, 1685. He studied philosophy and mathematics at Trinity College in Dublin, and while there came under the influence of John Locke’s writings. In 1707 Berkeley became a Fellow of Trinity College, a position requiring his ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church.

Berkeley’s first important book, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, was published in 1709 while Berkeley was a fellow at Trinity College. In this book the immaterialism of his later philosophical writings first appears, but without causing the notoriety that was to accompany his other writings. In the Essay, Berkeley denied that distance, or "outness," was immediately perceived by sight, and this position helped prepare the way for Berkeley’s attack on the "materialist" hypothesis that actual, material objects exist outside the mind or activity of the perceiver. In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), Berkeley argued that the materialist hypothesis is illogical, that an object without sensible qualities cannot be conceived, and sensible qualities cannot exist on material objects, since to be sensible is just to be perceived. A shape therefore cannot be conceived without a color or tactile quality to give it shape, and these latter qualities exist only in the activity of perception. In arguing for philosophical idealism, Berkeley extended empiricism beyond that of Locke, since Locke emphatically allowed that material objects could and must exist outside of immediate perception, a position that Berkeley found inconsistent with Locke’s own empiricism. Berkeley’s idealism therefore led him to deny the existence of matter, and in this regard he influenced the later idealisms of Fichte, Johann Gotlieb, Schopenhauer, and Bradley. While Berkeley accepted the use of the word "idea," he continued to think of his perceptible objects as things, as an apple just is its perceptible qualities, involving color, smell, taste, and sound, but is no less real for that. What is unreal, in his view, is an apple, such as Locke might claim to exist, which has no taste, smell, sound, or color, and yet which exists objectively in the "real" world. Locke’s dualism, in Berkeley’s view, was inconsistent with his own empiricism, and it was the material half of dualism that had to be abandoned for the sake of coherency.

Despite the implications of his idealism that bodies cease to exist when not perceived, Berkeley insisted on the reality, if not the materiality, of bodies. Johnson, Samuel famously kicked a rock, claiming that this painful encounter proved that Berkeley was wrong, that the rock is real. But in the Three Dialogues Berkeley argued for the existence of a divine mind within which sensible qualities exist when not perceived by a human mind. Such a mind orders and explains the existence of finite bodies, whereas a belief in the materialist hypothesis necessarily leads to skepticism toward God. Dr. Johnson wrote Berkeley inquiring whether this means that we have direct insight into the mind of God, and it is not clear that Berkeley had a good response to this question.

Berkeley’s devotion to religious principles led him to attempt to build a college on the island of Bermuda, one that would bring together English youths and Indians from the American mainland for the purpose of religious education. After visiting America, in 1728, Berkeley grew skeptical about the project’s feasibility, and after a failed attempt to build the college in Rhode Island, Berkeley returned to England in 1731. From 1734 until his death Berkeley held various positions as bishop in the Church. His last philosophical work, Siris (1744), concerns the causes of sensible phenomena, expresses admiration for Plato, and so seems to go beyond the empiricism of his earlier writings. Siris also extols the medicinal value of tar-water, demonstrating Berkeley’s concern for the medical and economic problems of the members of his diocese, most of whom were poor. In 1752 he moved with his family to Oxford and died the following year.

Further reading:

G. J. Warnock, Berkeley, 1953

G. W. Pitcher, Berkeley, 1977

Michael J. Matthis