George Berkeley’s philosophy

george berkeley

George Berkeley is an Irish philosopher (1685-1753) of English descent, best known for the doctrine that there is no material substance ant that things, such as stones and tables, are collections of “ideas” or sensations, which can exist only in minds and for so long as they are perceived.

Berkeley and perception

Berkeley’s most important works when he was still very young (like David Hume), the first of these is : An essay towards a new theory of vision (1709). Here Berkeley argues that sight does not acquaint us directly with the objects we touch and feel, but rather with visual appearances that are distinct from them, at no distance from us, and indeed in our minds. Strictly, visual appearances are but signs giving us clues as to what objects we may perceive by touch, though we learn to interpret the clues so naturally that we end up by confounding the object seen with the tangigle thing itself.

Throughout this work the reader is allowed to suppose that tangible objets are really are outside the mind and at a distance from us, but in The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), this is described as a vulgar error which “it was beside my purpose to examine and refute … in a discourse concerning vision”. In the Principles, however, there is no such limitation. Whatever we perceive by any sense, be it colour, hardness, odour, or whatever, is said to be an “idea” or sensation that cannot exist unperceived. Things like trees and books are merely collections of such “ideas” and as such they can no more exist without a mind than their constituent “ideas” can.

Berkeley’s idealism vs Locke’s empiricism

Berkeley’s readers have often thought his basic doctrine to be quite patently false, so it may seem surprising that he thought  its truth so obvious that “a man need only open his eyes” to see it. The explanation of his attitude lies in doctrine je was opposing. Berkeley found it widely accepted by philosophers that we come to know “outward” objects through “ideas” or sensations being produced in our minds. In Locke, for example, he could find the claim that the mind “perceives nothing but its own ideas”, together with the view that it is by virtue of their corpuscular or atomic structurethat objets can act on each other and on us to produce ideas that represent them.

Critique of Berkeley’s philosophy

But it seemed to Berkeley that this account gave rise to insoluble problems. In particular, if we allow, as Berkeley does, that we perceive only “ideas”, it seems impossible that we should know about “outward” objects, even that they exist; and there is the additional problem of understanding how something material can act on an immaterial thing (or mind) to produce a sensation in it. Indeed, the more the account of a material thing is elaborated, the more problematic it seems to Berkeley to become, and he claims that the notion is meaningless or contradictory. His own views he sees as the only viable alternative. Tables and the like are not “outward” objects hidden away behind a veil of “ideas”, rather than they are ideas, the very things we perceive.

Berkeley and the cartesianist theory

Berkeley was not just attacking Locke, but Descartes and Malebranche too. In Malebranche, we could find the view that there is no interaction and that God produces the appropriate sensations in us on the occasion of the presence of material objects (= occasionalism). This theory was attractive to Berkeley in that it brought God to the centre of things while a more orthodox materialist system tended to push him to the background. However, to the problem of justifying belief in external objects it added the further problem of explaining why God should needed to create objects which played no causal role. In Berkeley’s philosophical system, a new neaning is given to Malebranche’s rather obscure doctrine that we see all things in God, God emerging as the sole possible cause of our sense experiences and as the omnipresent perceiver in whose mind sensible objects can be said to exist even when no finite spirit perceives them.


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