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 on George Berkeley

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).