1902 Encyclopedia > George Berkeley

George Berkeley
Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop of Cloyne
(1685-1753)




GEORGE BERKELEY, bishop of Cloyne, one of the most subtle and original English metaphysicians, was born on the 12th March 1685, at Dysert castle, on the banks of the Nore, about two miles below Thomastown, Ireland. Not much is known of his family, who seem to have been connected with the noble English house of the same name. His father, William Berkeley, was an officer of customs, and appears to have had at one time the rank of captain in the army. We know next to nothing of the mental character of either him or his wife. George, their eldest son, was entered in 1696 at the famous Kilkenny school, of which he was not the only pupil afterwards distinguished. He was remarkably well advanced in studies for his years, and in 1700 was qualified to matriculate at Trinity College, Dublin. There, for the first time, we begin to have a fair knowledge of the circumstances in which he was placed, and of the peculiar mental qualities with which he was endowed. From his own account, and from the few notices of contemporaries, we can gather that his was a mind of peculiar subtilty, keen to probe to the very founda-tion any fact presented to it, and resolutely determined to rest satisfied with no doctrine which had only the evidence of authority or custom, and was not capable of being realized in consciousness. This turn of mind naturally led him somewhat off the beaten track of university studies; he was not understood by his college companions, and began to be looked upon as either the greatest dunce or the greatest genius in the university. To such a reputation his eccentricity of manner, which seems to have resulted from his occasional absorption or passionate enthusiasm, largely contributed. Of the greatest importance for the development of his rare powers in a definite direction was the general condition of thought at the time of his residenco at Dublin. The older text-books of physics and philosophy were no doubt in use (Dublin in this respect has always been conservative), but alongside of them the influences of the new modes of thinking were streaming in. The opposed physical systems of Descartes and Newton had begun to be known; the new and powerful calculus was being handled; the revolution in metaphysical speculation inaugurated by Descartes had reached Dublin; and, above all, the first great English work on pure philosophy, the Essay of Locke, had been translated into Latin, and its doctrines were being eagerly and minutely discussed by the young Trinity College students. Add to this the undoubted influence exercised by the presence in Dublin of such men as the university provost, Peter Browne, afterwards bishop of Cork, and King, archbishop of Dublin from 1703, and it will readily be seen that Berkeley, to use Professor Fraser's words, " entered an atmosphere which was beginning to be charged with the elements of reaction against traditional scholasticism in physics and in meta-physics."
Although more competent than any man of his time to appreciate these new movements of thought, Berkeley did not neglect the routine work of the university. He had a distinguished career, was made scholar in 1702, took his B.A degree in 1704, and obtained a fellowship in 1707. That his interest, however, was mainly directed towards subjects purely philosophical, is evidenced partly by the share he took in setting afloat a speculative society in which the problems suggested by Descartes and Locke seem to have been discussed with infinite vigour, but, above all, by his Common Place Book, containing his thoughts on physics and philosophy from about the year 1703. This curious document, one of the most valuable autobiographical records in existence, throws a flood of light on the growth of Berkeley's own conceptions, and enables us to understand, far more clearly than we otherwise could, the significance of his first published works. In the Common Place Book, if in any writing, is to be found the keen consciousness of possessing a fresh, creative thought, the application of which will change the whole aspect of speculative science. The very first sentences refer to some new principle, and the whole book thereafter is occupied turning over and over again the new conception, showing the different aspects it assumes, and the various applications it has, bringing it face to face with possible objections, and critically con-sidering the relation in which it stands to the fundamental thoughts of his great predecessors, Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So far as reading goes, the Common Place Book shows but a slight acquaintance with ancient or scholastic philosophies; it is evident that the author does not appreciate Spinoza; he does not refer to Leibnitz; Malebranche is frequently mentioned, but hardly in such a way as to manifest sympathetic understanding of him; Norris, the English follower of Malebranche, seems to be unnoticed; More and the Mystics, when referred to, are quoted on isolated points, and to their system the young philosopher evidently felt no attraction. Descartes and Locke, above all the latter, are his real masters in specula-tion, and it is from the careful consideration of their systems that the new principle has sprung to light. And what is this principle! As Professor Fraser has said, there are many ways of expressing it, and Berkeley himself has never given any very definite enunciation. To put it in a form as nearly as possible resembling the statements in the Common Place Book, it may be expressed in the pro-position that no existence is conceivable and therefore possible which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas {i.e., objects) of which such spirit is conscious. Existing things consist of ideas or objects perceived or willed, while perception and volition are inconceivable and impossible save as the operations of mind or spirit. In the language of a later philosophy, the principle is that of the absolute synthesis of subject and object; no object exists apart from mind. Mind is therefore the deepest reality; it is the prius both in thought and in existence, if for the moment we assume the popular distinction between these two. From this primitive truth, which, it seems to Berkeley, merely requires careful consideration in order to be at once accepted, he never wavers. Let attention be but confined to the only possible meaning which existence can have, and, Berkeley thinks, the principle must appear self-evident. Thus he puts in a new light the perennial problems of philosophy, and instead of discussing the nature and relations of assumed entities, such as matter, substance, or cause, would ask us to consider whether or not these have any significance apart from the perceptions or volitions of conscious spirit, what in that case they do mean, and whether the supposed difficulties connected with them do not vanish when their true interpretation is thoroughly grasped. Of all these difficulties that concerned with the nature of matter is of greatest importance to Berkeley. From misconceptions of the true nature of material sub-stance have flowed, according to him, the materialism, scepticism, and infidelity which disfigured the age; and all these are completely banished by the new principle. The applications of his principle and his own inclinations led Berkeley into other departments of science which he was not so well qualified to handla The first result of the principle, as he conceived it, is undoubtedly empiricism in the theory of cognition. The ultimate elements of know-ledge are the minima of consciousness, presentative or representative; pure thought and abstract ideas are not capable of being realized by the mind, and are therefore impossible. The only mathematical processes to which these minima can be subjected are addition and subtraction; and consequently great part of the Common Place Booh is occupied with a vigorous and in many points exceedingly ignorant polemic against the fundamental conceptions of the fluxional and infinitesimal calculus, a polemic which Berkeley carried on to the end of his days.





He soon began to appear as an author. In 1707 he published two short tracts on mathematics, and in 1709 the New Theory of Vision, in which he applied his new principle, though without stating it explicitly. The new theory is a critical examination of the true meaning of the externality which is apparently given in visual conscious-ness, and which, to the unphilosophical mind, is the strongest evidence of the independent existence of outer objects. Such visual consciousness is shown to be ulti-mately a system of arbitrary signs, symbolizing for us certain actual or possible tactual experience—in fact, a language which we learn through custom. The difference between the contents of the visual and the tactual con-sciousness is absolute; they have no element in common. The visible and visual signs are definitely connected with tactual experiences, and the association between them, which has grown up in our minds through custom or habit, rests upon, or is guaranteed by, the constant conjunction of the two by the will of the Universal Mind. But this synthesis, whether on the objective side as the universal thought or course of nature, or on the subjective side as mental association, is not brought forward prominently by Berkeley. It was at the same time perfectly evident that a quite similar analysis might have been applied to tactual consciousness, which does not give externality in its deepest significance any more than visual j but it was with deli-berate purpose that Berkeley at first drew out only one side of his argument. In 1710 the new doctrine received its full statement in the Principles of Human Knowledge, where externality in its ultimate sense as independence of all mind is considered; where matter, as an abstract, un-perceived substance or cause, is shown to be an impossible and unreal conception; where true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality in their new meaning are held t6 be merely arbitrary but constant relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, conjoined objectively in the Universal Mind In ultimate analysis, then, nature is conscious experience, and forms the sign or symbol of a divine, universal intelligence and wilL

In the preceding year Berkeley had been ordained as deacon, and in 1711 he delivered his Discourse on Passive Obedience, in which he deduces moral rules from the intention of God to promote the general happiness, thus working out a theological utilitarianism, which may with advantage be compared with the later expositions of Austin and MilL From the year 1707 he had been engaged as college tutor; in 1712 he paid a short visit to England, and in April of the following year he was presented by Swift at court. His splendid abilities and fine courteous manners, combined with the purity and uprightness of his character, made him a universal favourite. While in London he published his Dialogues (1713), a more popular exposition of his new theory; for exquisite facility of style these are perhaps the finest philosophical writings in the English language. In November of the same year he became chaplain to Lord Peterborough, whom he accom-panied on the Continent, returning in August 1714. He travelled again in 1715 as tutor to the son of Dr Ashe, and was absent from England for five years. On his way home he wrote and sent to the French Academy the essay De Motu, in which is given a full account of his new con-ception of causality, the fundamental and all-comprehensive thought in his philosophy. In 1721, during the disturbed state of social relations consequent on the bursting of the the great South Sea bubble, he published an Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain, which shows the intense interest he took in all practical affairs. In the same year he returned to Ireland as chaplain to the duke of Graf-ton, and was made divinity lecturer and university preacher. In 1722 he was appointed to the deanery of Dromore, a post which seems to have entailed no duties, as we find him holding the offices of Hebrew lecturer and senior proctor at the university. The following year brought him an unexpected addition of fortune, Miss Vanhomrigh, Swift's Vanessa, having left him half her property. It would appear that he had only met her once at dinner. In 1724 he was nominated to the rich deanery of Derry, but had hardly been appointed before he was using every effort to resign it in order to devote himself to his enthusiastically conceived scheme of founding a college in the Bermudas, and extending its benefits to the Americans. With in-finite exertion he succeeded in obtaining from Government a promise of £20,000, and, after four years spent in pre-paration, sailed in September 1728, accompanied by some friends and by his wife, daughter of Judge Forster, whom he had married in the preceding month. Their destina-tion was Rhode Island, where they resolved to wait for the promised grant from Government. Three years of quiet retirement and study were spent in the island. Berkeley bought a farm, made many friends, and endeared himself to the inhabitants. But it gradually became apparent that Government would never hand over the promised grant, if indeed they had ever seriously contemplated doing so. Berkeley was therefore compelled reluctantly to give up his cherished plan. Soon after his return he published the fruits of his quiet studies in Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1733), a finely written work in the form of dialogue, critically examining the various forms of free-thinking in the age, and bringing forward in antithesis to them his own theory, which shows all nature to be the language of God. The work was extremely popular. In 1734 he was raised to the bishopric of Cloyne, and at once went into residence. The same year, in his Analyst, he attacked the higher mathematics as leading to freethink-ing; this involved him in a hot controversy. The Querist, a practical work in the form of questions on what would now be called social or economical philosophy, appeared in three parts, 1735, 1736, 1737. In 1744 was pub-lished the Siris, partly occasioned by the controversy with regard to tar-water, but rising far above the petty circum-stance from which it took its rise, and in its chain of reflections revealing the matured thoughts and wide reading of its author, while opening up hidden depths in the Berkeleian metaphysics. In 1751 his eldest son died, and in 1752 he removed with his family to Oxford for the sake of his son George who was studying there. On the evening of the 14th January 1753, he expired suddenly and painlessly in the midst of his family. And thus quietly closed one of the purest and most beautiful lives on record. His remains were deposited in Christ Church, Oxford.





Although Berkeley's new principle is susceptible of brief state-ment, it is by no means equally possible to give in short compass an adequate account of its systematic application to the several pro-blems of philosophy. It may be sufficient here to indicate gene-rally the relation of the new conception to preceding systems, and to inquire how far the principle is metaphysically justifiable. In the philosophies of Descartes and Locke a large share of attention had been directed to the idea of matter, which was held to be the abstract, unperceived background of real experience, and was sup-posed to give rise to our ideas of external things through its action on the sentient mind. Knowledge being limited to the ideas produced could never extend to the unperceived matter, or substance, or cause which produced them, and it became a problem for specula-tive science to determine the grounds for the very belief in its existence. Philosophy seemed about to end in scepticism or in materialism. Now Berkeley put this whole problem in a new light by pointing out that a preliminary queution must be raised and answered. Before we deduce results from such abstract ideas as cause, substance, matter, we must ask what in reality do these mean,—what is the actual content of consciousness which cor-responds to these words Do not all these ideas, when held to represent something which exists absolutely apart from all know-ledge of it, involve a contradiction ? Are they not truly, when so regarded, inconceivable, and mere arbitrary figments which cannot possibly be realized in consciousness ? In putting this question, not ess than in answering it, consists Berkeley's distinct originality as a philosopher. The essence of the answer, as has been already seen, is that the universe is inconceivable apart from mind,—that exist-ence, as such, denotes conscious spirits and the objects of conscious-ness. Matter and external things, in so far as they are thought to have an existence beyond the circle of consciousness, are im-possible, inconceivable, absurd. External things are things known to us in immediate perception. To this conclusion Berkeley seems, in the first place, to have been led by the train of reflection that naturally conducts to subjective or egoistic idealism. It is impos-sible to overstep the limits of self-consciousness ; whatever words I use, whatever notions I have, must refer to and find their meaning in facts of consciousness. And there can be no doubt that in certain earlier aspects of his theory, where, for example, it appears as a mere analysis of what is meant by reality, it does not rise above this subjective stand-point. But this is by no means the whole or even the principal part of Berkeley's philosophy ; it is essentially a theory of causality, and this is brought out gradually under the pressure of difficulties in the first solution of the early problem. To merely subjective idealism, sense percepts differ from ideas of im-agination in degree, not in kind; both belong to the individual mind. To Berkeley, however, the difference is fundamental; sense ideas are not due to our own activity, they do not result from our will; they must therefore be produced by some other will,—by the divine intelligence. Sense experience is thus the constant action upon our minds of supreme active intellect, and is not the consequence of o dead inert matter. It might appear, therefore, that sensible things had an objective existence in the mind of God ; that an idea so soon as it passes out of our consciousness passes into that of God. This is an interpretation, frequently and not without some justice, put upon Berkeley's own expression. But it is not a satisfactory account of his theory. Berkeley is compelled to see that an imme-diate perception is not a thing, and that what we consider per-manent or substantial is not a sensation but a group of qualities, which in ultimate analysis means sensations either immediately felt or such as our experience has taught us would be felt in conjunction with these. Our belief in the reality of a thing may therefore be said to mean assurance that this association in our minds between actual and possible sensations is somehow guaranteed. Further, Berkeley's own theory would never permit him to speak of possible sensations, meaning by that the ideas of sensations called up to our minds by pre-sent experience. He could never have held that these afforded any explanation of the permanent existence of real objects. His theory is quite distinct from this, which really amounts to nothing more than subjective idealism. External things are produced by the will of the divine intelligence; they are caused, and caused in a regular order; there exist in the divine mind archetypes, of which sense experience may be said to be the realization in our finite minds. Our belief in the permanence of something which corresponds to the association in our minds of actual and possible sensations means belief in the orderliness of nature ; and that is merely assurance that the universe is pervaded and regulated by mind. Human science is occupied in endeavouring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret' the divine langnage of which natural things are the words and letters, and in striving to bring human conceptions into harmony with the divine thoughts.

Instead, therefore, of fate or necessity, or matter, or the unknown, a living, active mind is looked upon as the centre and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.

It may be safely said that the deeper aspects of Berkeley's new thought have been almost universally neglected or misunderstood. Of his spiritual empiricism only one side has been accepted by later thinkers, and has been looked upon as the whole. The subjective mechanism of association which with Berkeley is but part of the true explanation, and is dependent on the objective realization in the divine mind, has been received as in itself a satisfactory theory. Sunt Cogitationes has been regarded by thinkers who profess them-selves Berkeleians as the one proposition warranted by conscious-ness ; the empiricism of his philosophy has been eagerly welcomed, while the spiritual intuition, without which the whole is to Berkeley meaningless, has been cast aside. For this he is himself in no small measure to blame. The deeper spiritual intuition, present from the first, was only brought into clear relief in order to meet difficulties in the earlier statements ; and the extension of the intuition itself beyond the limits of our own consciousness, which completely removes his position from mere subjectivism, rests on foundations uncritically assumed, and at first sight irreconcilable with certain positions of his system. The necessity and universality of the judgments of causality and substantiality are taken for granted; and there is no investigation of the place held by these notions in the mental constitution. The relation between the divine mind and finite intelligence, at first thought as that of agent and recipient, is complicated and obscure when the necessity for explaining the permanence of real things comes forward. The divine archetypes, according to which sensible experience is regulated and in wnicn it finds its real objectivity, are different in kind from mere sense ideas, and the question then arises whether in these we have not again the " things as they are," which Berkeley at first so contemptuously dismissed. He leaves it undetermined whether or not our know-ledge of sense things, which is never entirely presentative, in-volves some reference to this objective course of nature or thought of the divine mind. And if so, what is the nature of the notions necessarily implied in the simplest knowledge of a thing, as distinct from mere sense feeling ? That in knowing objects certain thoughts are implied which are not presentations or their copies, is at times dimly seen by Berkeley himself; but he was content to propound a question with regard to those notions, and to look upon them as merely Locke's ideas of relation. Such ideas of relation are in truth the stumbling-block in Locke's philosophy, and Berkeley's empiri-cism is equally far from accounting for them.

With all these defects, however, Berkeley's new conception marks a distinct stage of progress in human thought. His tine place in the history of speculation may be seen from the simple observation that the difficulties or obscurities in his scheme are really the points on which later philosophy has turned. He once for all lifted the problem of metaphysics to a higher leyel, and, in conjunction with his great successor, Hume, determined the form into which later metaphysical questions have been thrown.

The classical edition of Berkeley's works is that by Professor Fraser (4 vols.—vols, i.-iii., Works; vol. iv., Life, Letters, and Dissertation on his Philosophy, Clarendon Press, 1871), who has been the first, there and in various essays, to exhibit the true form of Berkeley's philosophy. See also Ueberweg's notes to his translation of the Principles (1869); Krauth's American edition of the Principles, with Prof. Fraser's introduction and notes, and a translation of those of Ueberweg; Collyns Simon, Universal Imrnaterialistn (1847); Nature and Elements of the External World (1862) ; Friedrieh, UeberBerkeley's Idealismus (1870). Discussions on various points of Berkeley's doctrine will be found in Fichte's Zeitschrift,
vol. lvi. sqq.; Mill's Dissertations, vols. ii. and iv. ; Huxley, Critiques and Addresses, p. 320, sqq.; Ferrier, Remains, vol. ii. Two adverse reviews of the Theory of Vision may also be noted—Bailey, Review of Berkeley's Theory of Vision (1842) ; and Abbott, Sight and Touch (1864) ; with the last may be compared Monck, Space and Vision. (E. AD.)




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