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George Berkeley

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edit index George Berkeley
George Berkeley (12 Mar 1685 - 14 Jan 1753, and pronounced: "Barkly") was an Anglo-Irish philosopher who advanced a theory of "Immaterialism" and was known as the good "Bishop Berkeley". Seen as a poweful "subjective idealism", Berkeley argued we can directly know only our own Sensation and Idea of an Object. The notion of "matter", for example, is an idea dependent upon being perceived by the Mind, which Berkeley described as "esse est percipi", or "to be is to be percieved." His development in The Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), where Philonous and Hylas represented Berkeley and John Locke, as well as his 1734 The Analyst, itself a critique of the Infinitesimal in the Calculus of Newton and Leibniz, offers highly influential ideas in Metaphysics, Philosophy of Mind and Mathematics.

University of California, Berkeley, as well as Berkeley, California, were named after Berkeley, suggested in 1866 by a trustee of then College of California, Frederick Billings. Berkeley College and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University also bear his name, as does the Berkeley Library at Trinity College, Dublin. Frederick Billings was inspired by Berkeley's Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America, particularly the final stanza:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last

Life and Works

Berkeley was born in Dysart Castle near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College in Dublin, completing a Master's degree in 1707. Berkeley remained at Trinity as a tutor and lecturer in Greek, and his earliest publication was the Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), in which he examined Visual Distance, Magnitude, Position and problems of Sight and Touch. Though controversial at the time, the work has since been accepted as an established step in a theory of Optics.

'In the following Treatise and Three Dialogues, Berkeley developed his fuller system, the leading principle being that the World as represented to our Sense depends on that representation for its Existence - a much misunderstood theory. Berkeley was denying the prevailing Cartesian "materialism of the day, but was ridiculed by Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who neither acknowledged Berkeley's "extraordinary genius," nor fully understood its implications as a challenge to the asusmptions that objects have any meaning in themselves, apart from their usefulness to us.

Visting England, Berkeley was received into the circle of Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Richard Steele, and from 1714-20, took extensive travels in Europe, including an extensive grand tour Italy. By 1721, Berkeley took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his Doctorate in Divinity and remained at Trinity College, becoming Dean of Derry. By 1725, he founded a college in Bermuda, training ministers for the British Colonies, then married Anne Forster, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. They went to America near Newport, Rhode Island, bought a plantation, known as Whitehall. Back in London, on Saville Street, he helped create a home for abandoned children, the Foundling Hospital, in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors. In 1734, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, in Ireland, and soon published Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, directed against the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Bernard de Mandeville, then The Querist.

His last two publications celebrated the virtues of "tar-water", maded from pine tar, arguing its use as an effective antiseptic and disinfectant for the skin, and also as a broad panacea for disease in general. His 1744 book on the medical benefits of tar-war was his best-selling book during his life. Berkeley died in 1752 and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Berkeley's affectionate personality and genial manners earned him love warm regard from many of his contemporaries.

Berkelean Philosophy

Even as a young man, Berkeley theorized that we can never really know what an object is, but can only know if an object is perceived by our Mind. We cannot know about any the Matter "behind" the object, which may "cause" our perceptions, but does not constitute them. Whether the perceived object is "objective", or "the same" for all of us is unclear, but is the very concept of "other" human beings beyond our perception of them even valid? Berkeley answered the problem by seeing that we experience how others speak to us, and like Descartes, that is not originating from any desire of of our own. Thus, we can believe in their existence and in the world being identical, or similar, for everyone perceiving it.

Theologically, one consequence Berkeley required was that God needed to be present as an immediate cause, or unltimate perceiver, of all our experiences. This is not a view of God as a "distant engineer" as Isaac Newton argued, but rather, one allowing that our perception of a tree is an idea God's own Mind has produced in ours. The tree continues to exist when on one is there, simply because God is an Infinite Mind perceiving all. This blend of Plato and Descartes has perplexed philosophers ever since: David Hume developed a Skepticism of Causality and Objectivity partly in response to Berkeley, and Immanuel Kant developed a whole new Idealism as a result of them both. Ronald Knox and an anonymous replier were at least humourous:

There was a young man who said God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue 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 the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God


Samuel Johnson was less kind, and once blocked his eyes and kicked a heavy stone. "I refute Berkeley, thus!" he laughed, believing that his not looking at the stone meant his toe could not hve been hurt, when it was. However, Berkeley later replied that Dr. Johnson perceived the stone with his eyes, his foot, and even heard it with his ears. The Existence of the stone consisted exclusively of Dr. Johnson's perceptions, in a way, and what the stone materially consisted of might very well be entirely different in construction to what Johnson perceived.

John Locke had said we define an Object by its Primary and Secondary Qualities, taking Heat as an example of a Secondary Quality. If we put one hand in a bucket of cold water, and the other hand in a bucket of warm water, then put both hands in a bucket of lukewarm water, one of our hands will report the lukewarm water is both cold and hot at the same time. Since two different hands perceive the water at different temperatures, the temperature is not a Quality of the water, but of the Understanding. Berkeley extended this to Primary Qualities in the same way, arguing Size is not a Quality of an Object, either, since Size depends on the distance between Observer and Object, or even the Size of the Observer. This idea, among those from Gottfried Leibniz, Arthur Collier and others, was clearly further developed later by Einstein in his Theory of Relativity. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his "Parerga and Paralipomena" that 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."

Further Reading

  • Philosophical Commentaries (1707-08, notebooks)
  • An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709)
  • A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I (1710)
  • Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713)
  • De Motu (1721)
  • Alciphron: or the Minute Philosopher (1732)
  • The Theory of Vision or Visual Language Vindicated and Explained (1733)
  • The Analyst (1734)
  • The Querist (1735-37)
  • Siris (1744)


Secondary Literature

  • Ewald, William B., ed., 1996. From Kant to Hilbert: A Source Book in the Foundations of Mathematics, 2 vols. Oxford Uni. Press.
    • Berkley, George 1707. Of Infinites, 16-19.
    • -- 1709. Letter to Samuel Molyneaux, 19-21.
    • -- 1721. De Motu, 37-54.
    • -- 1734. The Analyst, 60-92.
  • Jessop T. E., Luce A. A. A bibliography of George Berkeley. 2 edn., Springer, 1973. ISBN 9024715776, ISBN 9789024715770
  • Turbayne C. M. A Bibliography of George Berkeley 1963-1979, Berkeley: Critical and Interpretive Essays. Ed. by C. M. Turbayne. Manchester. 1982. P. 313-329.
  • Parigi, Silvia. Berkeley Bibliography (1979-2008) - A Supplement to those of Jessop and Turbayne
  • A bibliography on George Berkeley - about 300 works from XIX century to our days
  • Tomy C. A., Varadarajan N. A bibliography on George Berkeley
  • Edward Chaney (2000), 'George Berkeley's Grand Tours: The Immaterialist as Connoisseur of Art and Architecture', in E. Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance, 2nd ed. London, Routledge.
  • Costica Bradatan (2006), The Other Bishop Berkeley. An Exercise in Reenchantment, Fordham University Press, New York


External Links




Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article George Berkeley under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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