George Berkeley


George Berkeley

Irish clergyman George Berkeley completed his most significant philosophical work before turning thirty, during his years as a student, fellow, and teacher at Trinity College, Dublin. Using material from his collegiate notebooks on philosophy, he developed a series of texts devoted to various aspects of a single central thesis: that matter does not exist. In An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), for example, he argued that the phenomena of visual sensation can all be explained without presupposing the reality of external material substances; the objects we see are merely ideas in our minds and that of god. Berkeley spent most of his mature years in London, travelling briefly to Rhode Island in the vain hope of securing financial support for a college to be established in Bermuda. He was appointed Anglican bishop of Cloyne in 1734. BerkeleyHis later writings, which rarely receive philosophical attention, include: criticisms of Newton’s calculus and theory of space in De Motu (1721) and The Analyst (1734); a defence of traditional Christian doctrine in the Alciphron (1734); and, in the interminable Siris(1744), a lengthy disquisition on the presumed benefits to health of “tar-water.”

It is the earlier immaterialist philosophy, in which he employed strictly empiricistprinciples in defence of the view that only minds or spirits exist, for which Berkeley is now remembered. He opened A Treatise concerning the Principles of Knowledge (1710) rather technically, with an extended attack on Locke‘s theory of abstract ideas. The book continues with arguments designed to show that sensible qualities—both secondary and primary—can exist only when perceived, as ideas in our minds. Since physical objects are, on Berkeley’s view, nothing more than collections of such qualities, these sensible objects, too, are merely ideas. In what he believed to be his most devastating point, Berkeley argued that it is literally inconceivable that anything like a material substance could exist independently of the spirits or active thinking substances that perceive it.BerkeleyThrough the remainder of the Principles, Berkeley tried to distinguish his position from that of Malebranche, defended its application to the achievements of modern science, and extolled its beneficial consequences for traditional religion.

The same central doctrine, supported by a very similar train of thought, is expressed in different form in Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous (“Mind-lover”), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas (“Woody”) that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured.


Recommended Reading:Primary sources:

  • The Works of George Berkeley, ed. by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop. (London: T. Nelson, 1948-1957)
  • George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge / Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, ed. by Roger Woolhouse (Penguin, 1988)

Secondary sources:

  • Kenneth P. Winkler, Berkeley: An Interpretation (Clarendon, 1994)
  • Geoffrey J. Warnock, Berkeley (Penguin, 1969)
  • Robert Fogelin, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Berkeley and The Principles of Human Knowledge(Routledge, 2001)
  • Ian C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism (Thoemmes, 1994)
  • David Berman, Berkeley (Routledge, 1999)
  • Thomas Duddy, A History of Irish Thought (Routledge, 2002)
  • Dan Flage, Berkeley’s Doctrine of Notions: A Reconstruction Based on His Theory of Meaning
  • Berkeley: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. by Colin Murray Turbayne (Minnesota, 1982)
  • Douglas M. Jesseph, Berkeley’s Philosophy of Mathematics (Chicago, 1993)
  • George J. Stack, Berkeley’s Analysis of Perception (Peter Lang, 1992)
  • Margaret Atherton, Berkeley’s Revolution in Vision (Cornell, 1990)

Additional on-line information about Berkeley includes: