Hauptli’s Lecture Supplement Introducing Berkeley [1685-1753]


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Berkeley’s Life:


George Berkeley received his B.A. from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland in 1704 and his M.A. from Trinity in 1707.  His undergraduate experience was strongly influenced by John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [1687], and Nicholas Malbranche’s De la recherche de la véritié [1674].  He also studied Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Kepler, Leibniz, and Plato; and learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in addition to the mathematics, physics, and optics of the day.  While an undergraduate Berkeley kept a notebook of philosophical observations (many generated by his study of Locke) which was posthumously published as Philosophical Commentaries: The Common-Place Book in 1871 (more than a century after his death).  Berkeley became a Fellow of Trinity and filled a number of posts there (including Tutor, Junior Dean,[1] and Junior Greek Lecturer).  According to Colin Turbayne,


while he accepted the great scientific discoveries of his age, he quickly became and remained sharply antagonistic to the metaphysics and epistemology that accompanied them.  Thus, in metaphysics he reacted against the Cartesian-Newtonian world-view, according to which the universe was nothing but a great machine, originally invented by a supreme mechanic.  Berkeley saw that the machine, being automotive, no longer required the mechanic.  Elbowed out of his traditional causal role, God became first “a distant deity” (deism), and then utterly redundant (atheism).  In this view also, he saw that the human mind, shut up in the smaller clockwork of its body, lost its traditional freedom, being impelled and determined “as necessarily as [a ball in motion] is by the stroke of a racquet.”  In epistemology he saw that the view in which the common things of our daily life form merely an unreal screen of appearance between us and the unperceived real world of science must be mistaken.  Moreover, if we can not check the appearances against the realities, we cannot have knowledge of them (skepticism).  Berkeley regarded these consequences of the scientific revolution as the main symptoms of a disease afflicting modern man.[2] 


In 1709, Berkeley published his A New Theory of Vision, in 1710 he published his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,[3] and in 1713 he published his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.  These three works provide his alternative world-view—one that is intended to retain the discoveries while avoiding the problematic metaphysical, epistemological, and anti-theological theses which he took to be so dangerous. 


     In 1713, Berkeley took “holy orders” in the Anglican Church and then left Dublin for London.  He visited the Continent in 1713-1714 and again in 1716-1720.  During this period of his life, he became increasingly concerned with the decline in both religious belief and public morals, and, in 1721 he anonymously published his Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain.  In 1721 he returned to Dublin and Trinity College and earned his B.D. and D.D. degrees.  He filled a number of posts there (among them Divinity Lecturer, Hebrew Lecturer, and Proctor) until 1724.  He then became Dean of Derry and had to relinquish his Fellowship at Trinity.  He was married in 1728—he and his wife Anne had seven children (three of whom died in infancy). 


     Between 1724 and 1732 Berkeley worked on a plan to establish a college in Bermuda to educate colonists and Native Americans.  He spent the period from 1728 to 1732 in Rhode Island awaiting promised funds to build the institution.  During this time he wrote Alciphron: or the Minute Philosopher[4] [1732] which was a Christian apologetic and critique of “freethinkers.”  When it became clear that the funds would not be forthcoming, he returned to Great Britain and in 1734 he became the Bishop of Cloyne.  He served this diocese for nearly twenty years.  During this period he wrote The Theory of Vision, or Visual Language Vindicated and Explained [1733], The Analyst, or A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician [1734],[5] A Defense of Free-Thinking in Mathematics [1735], and Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water.  In 1752 he moved his family to Oxford to help supervise the education of his son at Oxford, and he died there in 1753. 


2. Berkeley’s Theory of Vision—An Introduction to his Philosophy:


According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Berkeley’s A New Theory of Vision [1709]:


...deals with one point only: the relation between the objects of sight and those of touch.  William Molyneux had once set the problem to Locke, whether a man born blind, if he recovered [came to have] his sight, would be able by sight alone to distinguish from one another a cube and a sphere, with both which he had been previously acquainted by touch.  Molyneux answered his own question negatively, and Locke agreed with his answer.[6]  Berkeley also agreed with them about the answer, but for a more fundamental reason.  If extension is an idea common to sight and touch (as Locke held), then visible squareness must be the same as, or have something in common with, tangible squareness.  In virtue of this, the man born blind, so soon as he is made to see, should be able to distinguish between a visible square and a visible circle, and to identify this distinction with the distinction between the square and the circle already known by touch.  If he is unable to do so, it is because there is nothing in common between the visible object and the tangible.  And this is Berkeley’s view.  “The objects of sight and touch,” he says, “make, if I may so say, two sets of ideas which are widely different from each other....A man born blind, being made to see, would at first have no idea of distance by sight: the sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the nearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind.”[7] 


This discussion provides an initial entry into Berkeley’s world-view.  Like Locke, Berkeley is an empiricist—he contends that the mind is “blank” at birth and that our ideas (or the contents of our consciousness) arise only through sensation or reflection.  Also like Locke, Berkeley contends that what are known are ideas.  Locke believes that our ideas represent externalities.  Instead of offering a “representative theory of ideas” (as both Descartes and Locke do), however, Berkeley contends that our ideas are not representations of an external world.  For him our ideas are signs (of other ideas) rather than representations (of things); and we engage in reflection, study, and science in order to better understand the signification of these signs—or as he puts it “the language of signs.” 


     Berkeley holds that ideas can be like noting but ideas, and that any representational doctrine yields skepticism.  In place of such a view, he considers our ideas (or better, our perceptual ideas) to be related to one another according to a series of regular rules (laws of nature) that we can come to understand, and, so, anticipate up-coming experiences. 


     One way to offer such a view would be to adhere to skepticism—to contend that while ideas should represent an external world, they don’t do so.  This is not Berkeley’s way however.  Indeed, he writes to avoid skepticism (which he believes materialists and representationalists must fall into).  Instead of offering a materialism or a skepticism, Berkeley contends that there is no external world which could (or should) be represented.  Thus in addition to being an empiricist, he is an “idealist”—this makes him a decidedly strange sort of philosopher, an empirical idealist. 


     Berkeley believed that Locke’s theories promoted skepticism, atheism, and irreligion,[8] and he sought to overcome these faults.  We should note that while Locke held that our ideas are caused by, and are to represent, external objects (physical objects), he could not explain how this was the case, and he confined full knowledge to the “relations of ideas.”  Moreover, while Locke argues for the existence of a deity, this deity plays almost no positive role in his epistemological and metaphysical system.  Berkeley, on the other hand, assigns no positive role to physical substance, and assigns a major role to a deity. 


     According to Berkeley, then, the physical world is “merely phenomenal”—it is a matter of appearance, and the underlying reality is that there are only ideas and minds—this, of course, is what it is to be an idealist.  This does not mean, however, that he contends that “all is subjective.”  As Jonathan Dancy notes:


as he understands reality, real things are subjective, since they consist of ideas, but not merely subjective, since they are independent of the mind that is aware of them, and so real for it.  One might say that they are both subjective and objective at once.[9] 


While there are subjective idealists,[10] then, there are also “objective idealists.”[11]  Recognizing this is of central importance if we are to come to understand how Berkeley can contend both (i) that there are no physical objects, and (ii) that there are “real” tables and chairs.  Berkeley accomplishes this seemingly impossible stretch by offering a “phenomenalistic analysis” of such “things” which holds that they are [noting but] collections of ideas.  The keyboard I am typing on now is [nothing but] a certain collection of visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and auditory sensations—it is a collection of ideas.  Of course the “imagined idea” I have of the President’s desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2050 C.E. is also noting but a collection of ideas.  There are significant differences between these two sorts of collections however: the former (what we call “perceived things”) is a collection that has a certain regularity, independence, and “connectedness to other things,” while the latter (what we call “imagined things”) lacks this regularity, independence, and connectedness. 


     The following citation from his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous [1713] helps clarify why he offers his empiricistic idealism, and what he means when he claims that “objects” are actually ideas:


Hylas: “Pray, are not the objects perceived by the senses of one, likewise perceivable to others present?  If there were a hundred more [people] here, they would all see the garden, the trees, and flowers as I see them.  But they are not in the same manner affected with the ideas I frame in my imagination.  Does not this make a difference between the former sort of objects and the latter?” 


Philonous: “I grant it does.  Nor have I ever denied a difference between the objects of sense and those of imagination.  But what would one infer from hence?  You cannot say that sensible objects exist unperceived, because they are perceived by many.”[12] 


That is, does the fact that we share the perception of this chair show that these sensible qualities exist outside minds altogether?  Surely there is a difference amongst our ideas, he contends but he denies that this difference is captured by (or needs) the notion of physical objects. 


3. Berkeley and The Meaninglessness of Physical Substance:


A novel point in Berkeley is the view that the notion of material, physical, or corporeal substance is “meaningless.”  He maintains that we should reject such a philosophical conception on straightforward empiricistic grounds.  According to him, meaningless notions are conceptual confusions which must be excised from our thinking!  He maintains that there are only ideas and minds in which they occur (esse est percipi aut percipere[13]). 


     At this point it would be good to note that in many ways Berkeley appears to be several hundred years ahead of his time.  His discussion of the meaninglessness of physical substance brings to mind the views of the logical positivists on metaphysics.  Of course, the positivists were anti-metaphysical, and Berkeley is nothing if he is not a metaphysician, nonetheless there is a parallel here.[14]  Berkeley claims that a certain “linguistic notion” has captured the philosophical imagination and that a certain form of philosophical therapy is necessary to restore us to “common sense.”  The confusion here is one which he believes has serious consequences (atheism and skepticism), and he hopes that by exposing the meaninglessness of the notion of a physical substance, he will help us avoid the mistaken metaphysical notions (and, thus, understand the world rightly). 


     You may have trouble with his use of ‘idea’—he means what we normally mean by ‘thing’.  What does he deny, then, when he maintains that the notion of a physical substance is senseless?  Well, we usually think that physical substances can exist independently of minds.  Berkeley denies this.  His point will be unclear unless we understand his empiricism.  Like Locke, he maintains that the origin of our ideas must be sensory.  He also maintains, however, that only our experience justifies our knowledge claims.  Thus, ask yourself: “what justification is there for the notion of an independently existing physical substance?”  Berkeley maintains that Locke’s “something I know not what[15] shows that there is no justification here. 


     To understand the meaninglessness of “the notion of physical substance,” we must understand what he means by an abstract idea.[16]  According to Berkeley, the mind has the power of generalization, and can form general ideas by considering certain particular sensory impressions, or ideas, as “signs” for a class of particular ideas.[17]  For example, while each particular sensory impression of a triangle will be either equilateral, isosceles, or scalene, the “general idea” of a triangle is an idea which represents all of these particular triangles.  For Locke, a meaningful particular term (my rectangular plot of land, my favorite grapefruit tree, and my wife) has a particular idea that it “refers to.”  Similarly, any meaningful general term (triangle, tree, and person) has an abstract idea that it can “represent.”  For Berkeley, ideas don’t represent things, but they can serve as signs for other ideas; and can be signs of either other particular ideas, or of classes of such. 


     While Berkeley allows that the mind has powers which enable it to formulate new ideas, he denies that there are abstract ideas (he contends that it is impossible for an idea to be equilateral, isosceles, and scalene).  He allows that there are general terms, but denies that they refer to abstract ideas.  According to him all ideas in the mind are particular, and the meaningfulness of general terms arises from the use made of them in discourse.  That is, it is the way that the particular ideas are used that gives them their general sense. 


     To understand this fully, we will have to understand Berkeley’s claim that ideas are signs.  Given this view, the upshot of Berkeley’s discussion of the “abstract idea” of physical substance is that this is an empty phrase which does no real philosophical (or other) work.  He goes on to show us how we can do without this notion, and how it is an unnecessary hypothesis.[18]  In his Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, Garrett Thomson maintains that:


Berkeley denies some aspects of Locke’s theory of language.  He denies that general words are meaningful because they stand for general ideas.  He says that a word can be used meaningfully even when the speaker does not have an idea in mind when speaking.  Instead, Berkeley stresses that words have to be used in a certain way in order to be used meaningfully.  Berkeley comes close to saying that understanding the meaning of a word amounts to knowing how to use it.  The relevance of all this to general ideas is as follows: Berkeley denies general ideas; for him all ideas are particular.  But a particular idea or image can be used to represent in a general way, just as a diagram of a particular triangle can be used to represent all triangles.  General abstract ideas are unnecessary because a particular idea can be used to represent all the particulars of its kind.  In other words, all ideas are particular, but we may put these particular ideas to a general representative use.[19] 


While, ultimately, Locke has three kinds of ideas (particular, general, and abstract), I think it is best to see Berkeley as having only one kind (particular).  However, he allows that there is a “general use” of these particular ideas. 


4. The Role of Berkeley’s Deity:


The following limerick has often been used to summarize Berkeley’s view of the role of a deity:


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 the tree continues to be,

Since observed by Yours faithfully.” 



Berkeley recognizes that there is a difference between our perceptual and our “imaginary” ideas—a difference in their regularity and order—and he contends that this difference indicates a difference in the causes of these ideas.  For Berkeley, the goal of scientists is to uncover the regularity or order amongst our perceptual ideas.  He maintains that the cause of this order and regularity can not be matter, ideas, or the self; and, thus, he contends it must be a specific deity.  With Berkeley, of course, we get a cosmological proof of a deity—an ontological proof would be inconsistent with his empiricism. 


     Just as we must adjust our understanding of the things of the real world as we read Berkeley (thinking of collections of ideas instead of physical things), so we must adjust our understanding of causation or change.  For Locke, and for “modern thinkers” generally, physical change occurs by “mechanical impulse”—that is, when one group of “corpuscles” strikes another such group.  As Jonathan Dancy notes, however:


now Locke...is too sane, and too respectful of contemporary science, not to be somewhat half-hearted in his mechanism.  He recognized two awkward phenomena.  The first is that of attraction.  The moon influences the tides by attraction; this is action at a distance, which cannot be thought of as mechanical.  The second is the phenomenon of cohesion.  Something holds a lump of lead together as a lump, and not as just a heap of the particles that constitute it.  But whatever force that does this, it is hard to think of it as mechanical.  Locke took the view that these two phenomena are and will remain incomprehensible to us.[20] 


In his “Notes” to Berkeley’s Principles, Dancy maintains that:


explanation by appeal to attraction, e.g. explanation of the movements of the tides, was thought to be far from satisfactory or ultimate by the physicists themselves, even by Newton, who wrote in a letter to Richard Bentley, ‘It is inconceivable, that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon, and affect other matter without mutual contact’....Newton’s response to this difficulty was to say that we do not know the cause of gravity; but that it must be something real but not material.  This was to be an elastic and electric fluid which Newton called ‘aether’, whose operations were intermediate causes that explained gravitational effects and all other cases of ‘action at a distance’. 

  The philosophers agreed that real action at a distance is inconceivable.[21] 


For Berkeley, there can be no “mechanical causation,” since there are no physical objects.  His model of causation is “agent causation.”  That is the sort of causation one is familiar with when one decides to take a walk and, then, goes out the door.  For Berkeley, when minds cause ideas, they do not engage in mechanical action! 


5. The “Newness” of Idealism:


In his “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed” M.F. Burnyeat argues that idealism arises only with Berkeley and the Early Modern period:


Greek philosophy does not know the problem of proving in a general way the existence of an external world.  That problem is a modern invention....The problem which typifies ancient philosophical enquiry in a way that the external world problem has come to typify philosophical enquiry in modern times is quite the opposite.  It is the problem of understanding how thought can be of nothing or what is not, how our minds can be exercised on falsehoods, fictions, and illusions.[22] 


Burnyeat notes that idealism is the one position in modern philosophy which (contra Berkeley) has no antecedent in ancient philosophy.  Ancient philosophy, he contends unquestioningly presupposed a realistic orientation:


whatever hints Augustine may have furnished, it was Descartes who put subjective knowledge at the center of epistemology—and thereby made idealism a possible position for a modern philosopher to take.  I mean by this that it is not until someone brings the question “Is there anything other than mind?” into the center of philosophical attention that the replies to it—the affirmative reply of realism, and a fortiori the negative reply of idealism—will commend themselves as worthy of, and requiring, explicit defense.  (What I have ascribed to antiquity is an unquestioned, unquestioning assumption of realism: something importantly different from an explicit philosophical thesis.)[23] 


Burnyeat then goes on to say that:


...it is no accident that in Descartes’ philosophy the following elements are found in the closest association: hyperbolical doubt and the problem of the existence of the external world, subjective knowledge and truth, the dualism which makes one’s own body part of the external world—and the refutation of the ancient skeptical tradition.  All these are substantially new with Descartes, and derive from the very seriousness (in one sense) with which he took the traditional skeptical materials.  It is essential here that this seriousness is entirely methodological.[24] 


Burnyeat concludes his treatment with the following:


...Descartes’ hyperbolical doubt, going beyond all ancient precedent in its use of the idea of a powerful malignant deity, brought into the open and questioned for the first time the realist assumption, as I have called it, which Greek thought even at its most radical never quite managed to throw off.  That was what Berkeley missed.  He failed to see that Descartes had achieved a decisive shift of perspective without with no one, not even Berkeley, could have entertained the thought that esse est percipi.[25] 


To understand what his idealism amounts to, however, we need to turn to a study of his work. 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] ‘Dean’ here designates an ecclesiastical officer in the Anglican Church—a minister who is the chief officer of a cathedral or a collegiate church, or a pastoral or visiting ecclesiastic who acts as a deputy of a bishop or archdeacon. 

[2] Colin Turbayne, “Editor’s Introduction,” in George Berkeley: Principles, Dialogues, and Philosophical Correspondence, ed. Colin Turbayne (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp.vii-xxxiv, p. xiii. 

[3] George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge [1710, 1734], ed. Kenneth Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982].  Following common practice, I will refer to this work as the Principles. 

[4] Berkeley designated deists “minute philosophers,” and he considers them to be, in effect, atheists who are unable to take a truly religious view of the world. 

[5] In his Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921, Ray Monk maintains that: “...in his famous polemic against Newton, The Analyst,...[Berkeley] ridiculed Newton’s Calculus for its theory of ‘infinitesimals’, for pretending that a Something could, if it is small enough, be regarded as a Nothing, and yet still be used in calculations.  What are these ‘infinitesimals’?  More generally...[this sort of critique] might also be seen as a restatement and confirmation of the old idea that analysis is to some degree always a falsification” (Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921 (N.Y.: Free Press, 1996), p.109).  In his “Editor’s Introduction,” Colin Turbayne notes that: “Berkeley’s criticism of the [Newtonian] calculus was an able logician’s direct exposure of the bad logic of its presentation....He showed how the premises were false and the conclusion true, how to resolve this apparently “unaccountable paradox,” and “how error may bring forth truth, though it cannot bring forth science.  The ensuing controversy...did not end until Cauchy’s reformulation of the calculus nearly a century later” (Colin Turbayne, “Editor’s Introduction,” op. cit., p. xxiii). 

[6] Cf., John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], II ix 8, ed. Kenneth Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996).  The reference here, following the standard model, is to Book II, Chapter ix, Section 8.  Further references will refer to the work as “Essay” and the relevant divisions of the work. 

[7] “George Berkeley,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [1996], ed. James Fieser (http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/), p.2.  The citation is taken from the electronic version of February 20, 1998.  The latter portion of the passage from Berkeley can be found in: George Berkeley, An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision [1709], section 132, in Works on Vision: George Berkeley, ed. Colin Turbayne (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), p. 37. 

[8] It is helpful to look at the title page of the Berkeley’s Principles, op. cit., p. iii. 

[9] Jonathan Dancy, “Editor’s Introduction,” in George Berkeley: A Treatise Concerning Human Knowledge, ed. Jonathan Dancy (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1998), pp. 5-69, p. 16. 

[10] That is, individuals who contend that there is nothing beyond what “subjectively” exists—exists for one’s subjectivity. 

[11] That is, individuals who contend that there is an objective reality “beyond” how things “appear” to any individual, but, at the same time, contend that this reality is itself “idealistic”—is “mental.”  Most such idealists, of course, appeal to a deity maintaining that the “ideas” had by the deity are not “subjectivistic,” but, rather, are “objective”—though not “material.” 

[12] George Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous [1713], in Principles, Dialogues, and Philosophical Correspondence, ed. Colin Turbayne, op. cit., p. 193. 

[13] That is, he contends that “to be is to be perceived, or to be a perceiver.” 

[14] Of course, there is also an obvious parallel with John Locke, who intended to avoid empty metaphysical discourse (especially that of the Scholastics) by ensuring that we had a method of reducing our complex conceptions to their simple components so that we could ensure that our words were being used meaningfully—that we had something meaningful in mind. 

[15] Cf., John Locke, Essay II xxiii 2-4, op. cit. 

[16] Note that for him an abstract idea is not a species of idea, but, rather, a mere “notion” which is not actually before the mind—a sign of mental confusion. 

[17] Cf., Berkeley’s Principles, Introduction 12. 

[18] John Locke thought of naming as the basic linguistic activity (he held that naming one’s own ideas was the initial move in language use, followed by the communication of ideas between individuals, this is then followed by the use of words to refer to things).  Berkeley’s view is that we use ideas and words as signs of other ideas.  He offers a different sort theory of language.  Rather than thinking of names as basic, he thinks of language as used for prediction. 

[19] Garrett Thomson, Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (second edition) (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2002), p. 185. 

[20] Jonathan Dancy, “Editor’s Introduction,” op. cit., pp. 12-13. 

[21] Jonathan Dancy, “Notes: The Principles,” in George Berkeley: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Understanding, ed. Jonathan Dancy, op. cit., pp. 194-218, p. 212. 

[22] M.F. Burnyeat, “Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed,” The Philosophical Review v. 91 (1982), pp. 3-40, p. 19. 

[23] Ibid., p. 33. 

[24] Ibid., p. 39. 

[25] Ibid., p. 40. 

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