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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


BERKELEY

(1685 — 1753)

 

EMPIRICAL IDEALISM

Born near Dysert in County Kilkenny, Ireland, the son of an army officer, George Berkeley was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College Dublin, where he studied mathematics and philosophy. He graduated B.A in 1700, was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1707, and taught there (with various breaks abroad, particularly in Italy) until 1724 when he was made Dean of Derry (having been ordained in the Church of Ireland in 1710). In 1728 he went to America with a view to establishing a college in Bermuda but returned In 1731, the promised funding not having materialized. He was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in 1734. In 1752 he moved to Oxford, where he died.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE/ MATHEMATICS

NOMINALISM

[1] "We must beware of being misled by terms we do not rightly understand", Berkeley wrote [De Motu, 1]. Failure to think about the meanings of the words we use in philosophical discussion leads to difficulties and errors when we attempt to define them [Philosophical Commentaries, vol. I, passim]. We are too ready to accept conventional meanings. Some words seem to defy definition. In other cases we use words which do not have a meaning at all, in that they do not refer to anything. "All significant words stand for ideas" [Phil Comm., 378] [a]. An example is Locke's use of the phrase 'material substance' — if by this he means anything other than our actual sense-experiences [see also Principles, I, 17]. Berkeley therefore exhorts us to examine carefully the way we use our language — to analyse it, if we are not to be misled. So why do we use language? [Principles, Introd., 20ff.]. We use it for communication. But Berkeley says it is also used to "raise passions", excite people to action, or deter them from it, and so on. We therefore need to take account of these different functions of language [b] if we are to distinguish between controversies which are "purely verbal' and others which are not [ibid. 22]. As he says, many of the difficulties we encounter in philosophy are our own fault: "We have first raised a dust, and then complain we cannot see" [ibid. 31]. This is particularly evident in our (mis)use of language [c]. Berkeley's view of language underlies his attack on Locke's 'abstract general ideas' [ibid. 6-18]. He supposes Locke to be saying that we can have ideas (that is, images) not only of equilateral triangles, right-angled triangles, and so on, but also an idea of a triangle which is both all and none of these at the same time — a claim that Berkeley rejects. We may use the phrase 'abstract general idea', but it has no reference or denotatum: it does not 'signify'. However, he does not reject general ideas as such, only the view that any general name has "one precise and definite signification" [18]. General words like 'material substance', 'triangle' are not proper names (which signify particular things). So what are general ideas? According to Berkeley a general word "signifies indifferently a great number of particular ideas" [ibid.] By this he means that, say, 'triangle' may refer to this triangle or that triangle, but not to a 'general triangle' or triangularity. A particular idea "becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort" 12]. Therein lies its universality [c].

Although Berkeley held that words stand for ideas, he said that there are no ideas of number denoted by the names of numerals. Number is to be defined as a collection of units [Principles 120]. In arithmetic we should therefore consider not 'things' but signs and only to the extent that they "direct us how to act with relation to things" — the operations of arithmetic being as it were a shorthand method of computation in accordance with rules and which take the place of writing down successions of individual strokes [ibid. 121]. Signs, he said [Philosoph. Commentaries I, pp. 732-5] "are perfectly arbitrary and in our power — made at pleasure". He later extended this view of arithmetic to geometry [see De Motu] (having previously supposed geometry to be about actual lines and figures). Berkeley's approach to mathematics is generally regarded as a conventionalist theory [d].

 

KNOWLEDGE

[2] In his early Essay towards a New Theory of Vision Berkeley offers an account of how we perceive distance. He disagrees with the contemporary 'geometrical' explanation that we estimate distances by means of measurements of lines and angles, which he says is not supported by experience [Essay, 12]. Instead he relates perception of distance to the varying sensations we have when we move towards or away from some object as a result of the changing "interval between the pupils" of our eyes [16]; and also to the degree of "confusion" in our vision (to avoid which we strain our eyes). There thus arises an association, "a habitual connexion", between our experience of sensations and distances [21-28]. Distance is "mediated" by an idea we perceive in seeing [16].

What of the size of sensible objects? Berkeley distinguishes [54ff.] between visible objects and tangible objects, each kind having its own "distinct magnitude". Consider the moon (67-74]. While we suppose the actual magnitude of the moon outside us does not change, its visible apparent size does. How do we account for this seeming contradiction? Berkeley says that this is because when we see the moon at a distance we refer its extension to the tangible and not visible magnitude, though the former may be suggested initially by the latter. He goes on to say that there is no idea in common between the two senses of sight and touch. Nevertheless there is a correlation between them which he attributes to "the author of nature" [a]. The proper objects of vision are, he says, the author of nature's "universal language", and they signify objects at a distance in the same way that signs of our human language suggest things through habitual connections and not by likeness of identity.

Berkeley seems to be suggesting that tangible objects exist outside the mind, while the visible objects which signify them are 'in' the mind. But in his developed theory of perception [Principles of Human Knowledge] he argues that all sensible objects are 'in' the mind. His thesis is as follows. What do we mean when we say that a sensible thing, say, a table exists? Berkeley says that we see it and feel it, and that if we were out of the room, to say it existed would be to say we might perceive it on our return (or that some spirit was actually perceiving it) [3]. To exist, therefore, is to perceive or be perceived [esse est aut percipi aut percipere]. He considers himself to be providing an analysis of statements about the existence of things which is essentially that of "vulgar opinion" (the ordinary man's view ) [3-41. Now, the "objects of human knowledge" for Berkeley are ideas. They are either (1) imprinted on the senses; (2) "perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind"; or (3) formed, compounded in memory or by imagination [11]. He thus rejects the 'innate' ideas of rationalism [b]. To support this identification of sensible things with "collections of ideas" he criticizes Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities [9-10]. It is not possible to conceive of them as apart from each other [c]. Qualities such as shape or extension are just as relative to the perceiver as are colours and tastes. Moreover extension, motion, and so on are "abstract ideas", which have no signification [11]. Similarly there can be no such entity as a material substratum (the phrase "supporting accidents" has no sense). (Indeed Berkeley regards the concept of matter as both unintelligible and pernicious — in so far as he considers materialist philosophies as threatening religion [d].) It follows that sensible things are to be understood as collections of ideas in the mind [see also Dialogues I].

Does this mean that things do not really exist outside us — even tangibly? In reply [33- 40] Berkeley says that sensible things as ideas are the real things, but that they exist in a mind [e]. It might perhaps have been better, he says, had he not used the word 'idea' and kept to 'thing'. He did so because 'thing' is generally supposed to denote an entity existing "without" the mind. We might think it "very harsh" to say we eat and drink ideas, and are clothed with them, but this is simply because the philosophical language is not familiar; it does not affect the truth. If ideas were distinct, this would lead to universal scepticism because our knowledge would be confined to our own ideas [Phil. Comms]. A second reason for using 'idea' is that 'thing' includes not only ideas but also spirits or thinking things, and these are not ideas; rather they have them. Is there then no distinction between the real and the imaginary? Berkeley's answer to this is that while 'real' ideas are imprinted on our senses by the author of our nature, images of things (for example, a unicorn) are under our own control; we can choose to form them at will. Ideas which are real things are also stronger, more orderly, and more coherent than the creatures of (our own) mind and less dependent on the spirit which perceives them [33].

What of that which is perceiving (the percipi not the percipere)? The perceiver for Berkeley is a spirit. We have no idea of such an entity, but Berkeley allows we may have a 'notion' of it [140]. And he says we can have immediate knowledge of spirits: of our own by "inward feeling or reflexion"; and of others (finite human spirits, or the infinite spirit — God) through reason [89] [f], but only mediately via the intervention of ideas as "effects or concomitant signs" [145].

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY/ ETHICS/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[3] Berkeley has distinguished between collections of ideas and the 'spirits' or minds. What are spirits? A spirit, he says, is "that which thinks, wills, and perceives" [138]. Now, while a finite spirit may cease to perceive a table, the collection of ideas constituting the table remains in existence because they are still being perceived by God. And indeed he regards this as the basis for his proof of God's existence [a]. Sensible things do really exist. "It is repugnant that they should subsist by themselves" [Principles 148]. And of course they do not depend for their existence on our minds. They must therefore be perceived by an infinite mind, or God [Dialogues II]. Nothing can be more evident, he says [149],

than the existence of God, or a Spirit who is intimately present to our minds, producing in them all that variety of ideas or sensations, which continually affect us, on whom we have an absolute and entire dependence, in short, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

His argument for the existence of God thus complements his rejection of a Lockean material 'substratum'.

God is infinite spirit. As for his general attributes, Berkeley seems to understand them in a limited analogical rather than either an equivocal or univocal sense [Alciphron IV, 16 and 17] [b]; and he says he gets his notion of God by reflecting on his own soul, heightening its powers, and removing its imperfections [Dialogues III]. There would appear to be a difficulty concerning the relationship between our perceptions of sensible things and the perceptions God has of them 'in His mind'. If things remain in being in God when I am not perceiving them, how is my mind to be differentiated from God's when I do perceive them? Berkeley's solution is to make a distinction between "archetypal and eternal" existence of things in God's mind and their original "ectypal or natural" existence in mine [c] [Dialogues III]. It is God who imprints the ideas in me after the pattern of His own, and relatively to them. It follows that God is directly responsible for the order of nature. As infinite active spirit he is the ultimate cause of all that occurs. The whole of nature is a system of signs [Principles 148], a "visual language of the Creator as a provident Governor" [Alciphron IV, 14]. What we perceive as a regular connection of ideas is not a relation of cause to effect but a sign to be signified [d] — the direct consequence of God's intervention. The fire is not the cause of pain but that which warns me of it in advance [Principles 65].

If God is the ultimate cause, should we therefore attribute to Him all responsibility for evil? Berkeley denies this: he says that apparent evils in nature considered in the whole system of things can be seen to be good; while moral evil is the result of our own freedom [Principles, 153] [e]. And in his moral and political philosophy [see Passive Obedience] Berkeley rejects both psychological egoism and moral sense theories, and advocates a form of utilitarianism — self-love being his principle of action. By following definite rules which are laid down by God (and which can be revealed to us through our reason) our individual happiness and the general good of society can be assured (in the long run) [ibid., 6] [f]. The laws of society should reflect the general law of nature (the system of such general rules); and thereby a state of anarchy can be avoided [g] — a state in which there is no politeness, order, or peace [11 and 15]. Berkeley allows that in certain circumstances, for example, if society's supreme and lawful authority enjoins us to transgress the moral law, we may resist — though we must accept any consequent penalties [h].

 

PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE

[4] Berkeley does not develop a philosophy of science as such, but to the extent that his account of causality can be regarded as a scientific (rather than theological) explanation of the "order of nature" it has implications consistent with his views on language. He is critical of the use of words such as 'attraction', 'absolute space', which many 'mathematical' natural philosophers suppose to stand for 'occult entities', but which have no explanatory value. Any idea of pure space is relative; we cannot conceive of the idea of space as separate from body [Principles 116]. (And he argues against the infinite divisibility of extension [a] — a notion which, he says, is the source of a great many geometrical paradoxes [Principles 123]. It is therefore misleading to attempt to explain a given phenomenon by saying it is 'caused' by, say, attraction, 'force', or 'gravity'. The only true efficient causes for Berkeley are active spirits; terms such as 'force' or 'effort' are strictly speaking applicable only to spiritual agencies and are used in science metaphorically. So what role do they play in natural science? Berkeley says they are but mathematical hypotheses which (in modern terminology) have instrumental value. We use them to frame mechanical principles, (for example, 'action and reaction are equal and opposite'), from which we may derive "general mechanical theorems and particular explanations of phenomena" [De Motu 36]. To talk of cause in science is to say that one phenomenon (or idea) is always found to follow another and never occurs without it [b]. Berkeley thus distinguishes between (1) explanations of the "order of nature" in terms of physics, which describe phenomena and mathematico-mechanical theories and hypotheses, and (2) explanations which relate to genuine efficient causality, ultimately attributable to the infinite spiritual agency, God [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

There has been much discussion about how Berkeley's philosophy should be characterized. He is a realist in the sense that he accepts the existence of a real world of tables and chairs, and people, and so on. But to the extent that he rejects matter and the separation of primary and secondary qualities, and identifies external things as collections of ideas 'in' a mind he may reasonably be termed an idealist. (H. M. Bracken sees him as an "Irish Cartesian" — in The Irish Mind, ed. R. Kearney.) He regarded himself as having 'united' both views — the 'vulgar' opinion that what is immediately perceived are real things, and the 'philosophical' thesis that the things immediately perceived exist only in the mind [Dialogue III]. Further, in his theory of knowledge he is an empiricist, though in so far as he appeals to an infinite mind as the ultimate support of ideas, he is not a phenomenalist. Perhaps this is the most interesting feature of his philosophy: that it is a generally consistent empiricism underpinned by theistic metaphysical assumptions. But it does give rise to many interesting problems.

(1) The phrase 'in the mind' is ambiguous. Berkeley clearly does not want to say that tables and chairs actually exist in his mind, rather that ideas are dependent on mind. At the same time he is espousing a version of direct realism: we perceive tables and chairs directly as collections of ideas; there are no intermediaries (sensibilia, sense-data, as they are called today). However, in his usage the term 'idea' still refers both to qualities (red, hard, etc.) and to objects. Is he right to reject any separation of objects from our immediate experience?

(2) If objects as collections of ideas are mind dependent, can finite minds be differentiated from the infinite mind of God? If not, the Berkeleyan system falls into pantheism. Berkeley's solution, which makes use of an archetype-ectype distinction raises difficulties. (a) Are archetypes Platonic Ideas of which our ideas (dependent on finite minds) are but copies? When I am no longer perceiving, the ectype ceases to exist but the archetype continues. What then is the ontological status of the ectypes which God has put into mind? Moreover, how do the varying ectypes of a particular object in different individuals'minds relate to the one divine archetype?

(3) Berkeley's account of causation may perhaps represent an advance on Locke's, in that only spirits can be causes; things (Berkeley's 'ideas' or Locke's 'material things') have no causative powers. God, however, is the ultimate cause. But if he puts all the ideas into our minds is there any role left for our own individual spiritual agencies? Points 1, 2, and 3 taken together lead to the problem of freedom and evil. Is God's interventionism compatible with the free choice of his creatures?

(4) Clearly (as in the philosophy of Descartes) God's role is crucial. The need for an infinite being to support the continued existence of objects when they are not being perceived by finite minds is obvious. But for a strict proof Berkeley seems to appeal only to considerations of teleology and design — neither of which is convincing. Certainly he has not proved the existence of the infinite, all wise, perfectly good Christian God (to which of course he was committed as an Anglican Bishop).

 

READING

Berkeley: Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709); Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710); Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713); Philosophical Commentaries (Notebooks). The Essay, Treatise, and Commentaries are contained in the collection of Berkeley's works edited by M. R. Ayers. A selection from the Essay, the Treatise, and the Three Dialogues, which also includes extracts from De motu (1721), Alciphron (1732), and Siris (1744), is contained in Berkeley: Philosophical Writings, ed. T. E. Jessop — but now out of print. Note also the essay Passive Obedience or the Christian Doctrine of not Resisting the Supreme Power, Proved and Vindicated upon the Principles of the Law of Nature (1712), in which Berkeley's views on moral and political philosophy are set out. (This can be found in the complete works, edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop.)

Studies:

Introductory

A. A. Luce, Berkeley's Immaterialism: A Commentary on His Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.

J. O. Urmson, Berkeley.

G. J. Warnock, Berkeley.

Advanced

D. Berman, George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man.

J. Dancy, Berkeley: An Introduction.

A. C. Grayling, Berkeley: The Central Arguments.

G. Pitcher, Berkeley.

I. C. Tipton, Berkeley: The Philosophy of Immaterialism.

Collections of essays

J. Foster and H. Robinson (eds), Essays on Berkeley: A Tercentennial Celebration.

C. B. Martin and D. M. Armstrong (eds), Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays.

C. Turbayne (ed,), Berkeley: Critical and Interpretative Essays.

K. Winkler, The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Berkeley

 

[1a c] Language and misuse; significant words stand for ideas

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hamann

   Nietzsche

   Wittgenstein

[1d]

[1a c 1b]

[1f]

[3a]

[2a]

 

[1b] Different functions of language

   Aristotle

   Herder

   Wittgenstein

[3a]

[2b]

[3c]

 

[1c] Rejection of 'abstract general ideas' (e.g., of material substratum); 'nominalism' — general idea through representation of particulars

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hume

   Condillac

Hamann

Austin

[1b]

[1b 2d]

[1f]

[3b]

[1b]

[1c]

 

[1d] 'Conventionalist' theory of mathematics

   Hobbes

   Vico

   Frege

   Carnap

[1e]

[1d]

[1a]

[2b]

 

[2a] Perception of size and distance referred to the tangible: rejection of geometrical accounts

   Descartes

Condillac

[2d]

[3c]

 

[2b e; see also 2c 3c] 'Ideas' in the mind but not innate: sensible things as collections of ideas are real objects: esse est percipi; rejection of rationalist account of perception

   Descartes

   Locke

   Malebranche

Hume

Condillac

Kant

Mill

Moore

Ayer

Austin

Sartre

[2b]

[2a]

[3d 3d]

[2c 2c]

[3c]

[2d 3c 4a]

[2b]

[2c d]

[2a]

[1c]

[1a]

 

[2c] Primary and secondary qualities — no distinction; they are all 'ideas' and real though mind dependent

   Hobbes

   Descartes

   Locke

   Malebranche

Hume

Bradley

[3a]

[2c]

[2b]

[3d]

[2c]

[3b]

 

[2d] Rejection of materialism and material substance

   Hobbes

Hume

[3a 5a]

[1e]

 

[2e see 2b]      

 

[2f] Perceivers as active 'spirits'; immediate knowledge of one's own spirit (inward reflection), of others and God through reason

   Descartes

   Locke

Hume

Condillac

Kant

Mill

Bradley

[2a]

[2e]

[2d]

[3d 4b]

[3b 5a]

[2c]

[4a]

 

[3a]

Proof of God's existence: sensible things require infinite mind for their subsistence

   Aquinas

Hume

Kant

[3e]

[5a]

[5d c]

 

[3b] God as unextended infinite spirit; attributes understood by analogy

   Aquinas

   Suarez

   Spinoza

   Mill

[3c]

[1c]

[2e 3c 2f]

[1b 5a]

 

[3c] God's ideas as archetypes of ideas in individual minds

   Plato

   Malebranche

[1c 3a 4a]

[3e]

 

[3d; cf. 4b] Nature as system of signs; regular connections not causal but signs to be signified; causes not really in nature

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hume

[4a]

[2g]

[1h]

 

[3e] Natural evil good when seen in wider context; moral evil the result of human freedom    Aquinas [4a]

 

[3f] Rejection of egoism and moral sense theories; self-love as principle of action; good and happiness of individual and society secured through adherence to rules determined by God

   Hobbes

   Shaftesbury

   Butler

[7a]

[1d]

[1a e]

 

[3g] Avoidance of state of anarchy    Hobbes [7b]

 

[3h] Civil disobedience

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Rawls

[7f]

[4f]

[1f]

 

[4a] Idea of space relative: inseparable from body; rejection of infinite divisibility of extension

   Epicurus

   Descartes

   Leibniz

Hume

Kant

[2a]

[2c 3f]

[3b]

[1i]

[2b]

 

[4b; cf. 3d] True causes are active spirits; in science causes (as sequential ideas) and mathematical hypotheses have only 'instrumental' value

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hume

   Kant

Popper

[4a]

[2g]

[1h]

[3e]

[2a]

 

[4c] Explanation: (i) order of nature (physics), (ii) as relating to genuine active cause (God) Hume [1h]