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Berkeley: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Berkeley: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Berkeley in just one hour.Berkeley’s philosophy denies the existence of matter. According to his work, there is no material world, only our own experience. So when you don’t see something, it isn’t there. Then how does the world persist? Because it is supported by the continuous perception of an all-seeing God. Berkeley’s ideas appear to take empiricism to a ludicrous extreme. But is this quite so absurd as it seems? We are frequently forced to abandon common sense and the obvious in order to progress beyond the immediate muddle of everyday existence towards what we consider to be the truths of science.Here is a concise, expert account of Berkeley’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Berkeley’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Berkeley in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u335b7ef6-e3b8-5d61-97aa-11021f26f64d)

Title Page (#u4b240fe1-9de8-554f-8bfd-5021ef39f0df)


Berkeley’s Life and Works

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Berkeley’s Writings

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates

Chronology of Berkeley’s Life

Chronology of Berkeley’s Era

Recommended Reading

About the Author


About the Publisher

Introduction (#uab62322b-d871-5c38-a444-a5ccd7259002)

Berkeley is the sort of philosopher who gives philosophy a bad name. When you first read his work you think it’s ludicrous. And you’re right, it is. Berkeley’s philosophy denies the existence of matter. According to him, there is no material world.

Modern philosophy had been started in the seventeenth century by the French philosopher René Descartes, who maintained that our only true knowledge of the world is based upon reason. Less than half a century later this Cartesianism, as it was called, was opposed by the English philosopher John Locke, who founded empiricism. Locke took a more common sense view, claiming that our only true knowledge of the world must be based upon experience.

It was perhaps inevitable that philosophy wouldn’t remain constricted within the straight-jacket of common sense for long. Just twenty years after Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding came Berkeley’s Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, which set philosophy free from what most of us regard as reality. This carried Locke’s empirical thought through to some very noncommonsensical conclusions. According to Berkeley, if our knowledge is based entirely upon experience, we can only know our own experience. We don’t in fact know the world, just our particular perceptions of it. So what happens to the world when we are not experiencing it? As far as we are concerned, it simply ceases to exist.

So according to Berkeley, when you don’t see something it isn’t there. This position is adopted by infants who screw their eyes closed when they wish to avoid eating any more spinach and prune puree. Yet by the time we have achieved the exalted status when we eat our spinach and prunes separately (or not at all), we have usually grown out of this attitude. But not Berkeley. According to him, a tree isn’t there if we don’t see it or perceive it in any other way, such as touch or smell. So what happens to the tree? Berkeley was a God-fearing man, who eventually became a bishop. This led him to an ingenious explanation as to how the world persists when we don’t experience it. His position is simply explained in the following two limericks:

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’.

And the reply:

Dear Sir:

Your astonishment’s odd:

I am always about in the Quad.

And that’s why this tree

Will continue to be

Since observed by

Yours faithfully,


In other words: we can know that the world exists only when we are perceiving it. Yet even when we are not directly perceiving the world, it is nonetheless supported by the continuous perception of an all-seeing God.

Berkeley’s empirical conclusion (no permanent reality) and his miraculous solution (an ever-present God) sounds like so much sophistry. Today’s sensibilities for the most part have little time for such apparent intellectual trickery – which seems to belong more to the Middle Ages than to our age of science. So it comes as some surprise when we find that subatomic physics has been forced to a surprisingly similar conclusion to Berkeley’s. According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we cannot simultaneously measure both the momentum and position of a subatomic particle. If one of these elements is measured (i.e., perceived), the other remains indeterminate. Thus, in a very real sense, only the quality which is being perceived (the measured position, say) is real, and the other quality (its momentum: mass and velocity) does not exist in any determinable form. We can only ‘know’ the one we are perceiving. The other element is in a sense ‘there’ (as if perceived by an all-seeing God), but it cannot come into any determinate existence until we perceive it.

Berkeley’s philosophy appeared to take empiricism to a ludicrous extreme. But when we follow through the implications of our common sense assumptions to their logical conclusions, the result often has little to do with the ‘obvious’ common sense assumptions from which we started. Common sense is how we attempt to run our everyday lives. But if we wish to progress beyond the imprecision and muddle of everyday existence to some more certain truth, we frequently have to abandon the obvious. As Einstein remarked: ‘Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’

Berkeley’s Life and Works (#uab62322b-d871-5c38-a444-a5ccd7259002)

Berkeley was the first (and last) Irishman to make a major contribution to philosophy. He was born on March 12, 1685, in the county town of Kilkenny, sixty miles southwest of Dublin. His father was a royalist English immigrant who referred to himself as a gentleman, but was in fact a young officer in the dragoons who became a farmer.

George Berkeley was brought up near Kilkenny in a stone farmhouse on the banks of the River Nore, beside the ruined tower of Dysert Castle. The farmhouse may originally have been one of the castle’s outbuildings, and it too is now a ruin. The last time I visited this spot, all that remained of Berkeley’s house was some low tumbledown walls overgrown with vines. Across the field was the ruined tower of Dysert Castle with crows cawing about the battlements. Beneath the wooded hills the setting sun glinted in the curve of the river. It must have been much the same in Berkeley’s day.

When Berkeley was eleven he was sent away to board at Kilkenny College, the best school in Ireland at the time. Both the satirist Jonathan Swift and the playwright William Congreve had been educated there during the previous decade. At the age of fifteen Berkeley went on to Trinity College, Dublin, which had been founded two hundred years earlier by Elizabeth I to educate one of her ignorant young admirers.

In 1704, at the age of nineteen, Berkeley received his B.A. degree. He had obviously enjoyed himself as an undergraduate, because he hung around in Dublin for the next few years ‘waiting to take up a fellowship’. During this period Berkeley started to read Locke and the French philosopher Malebranche, the leading exponent of Cartesianism. Berkeley agreed with Locke’s empirical belief that all knowledge comes from the senses, but he realized that this resulted in a materialism which didn’t leave much room for God. Throughout Berkeley’s life he remained a sincerely religious man and firmly resisted any tendency toward atheism. But how could he maintain his empiricism while retaining his belief in God?

Ingeniously Berkeley showed how Locke’s belief in materialism was mistaken. He pointed out that we may derive our knowledge from our experience, but this consists only of sensations. We have no access to any underlying material substance which might give rise to these sensations. Despite its apparent absurdity, this argument is profound. It led Berkeley to his famous conclusion: esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived). This triumphantly overcame materialism, but it left Berkeley with the problem of what happened to the world when no one was looking. As we have seen, Berkeley suggested that God is always looking. He derived this view from Malebranche, who held that change is not caused by objects interacting in cause and effect, but by the continuous action of God upon the world.

Berkeley put forward his ideas in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, which he published in 1709, and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, published in 1710. These works, which pulled a lot more than the rug from under the feet of earlier philosophers, caused a sensation. But they are difficult to understand unless you have the staying power of a philosophical steeplechaser. Many readers don’t last beyond the first fence, with an opening sentence such as: ‘It is evident to any one who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually (1) imprinted on the senses, or else such as are (2) perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly, ideas (3) formed by help of memory and imagination, either compounding, dividing, or barely representing those originally perceived in the aforesaid ways.’

Fortunately Berkeley also put forward his ideas in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. These are much more amenable, and begin with Philonous coming across the insomniac Hylas beneath a ‘purple sky’ at dawn with the ‘wild but sweet notes of birds’ twittering around them. These dialogues clarify Berkeley’s ideas, which as we have seen started with common sense and then moved, quite reasonably, to the unreasonable. There is no reason why philosophy should conform to common sense (indeed, there are only brief periods when philosophy has had much to do with it), but people appeared to expect otherwise. Berkeley soon became an object of public ridicule, and as a result was stoutly defended by all anti-philistine intellectuals.

Not surprisingly, many of Berkeley’s contemporaries didn’t consider him to be an empiricist at all. Instead they saw him as an out-and-out metaphysician. There is some truth in this, despite Berkeley’s insistence to the contrary. Berkeley’s empiricism reduces him to a solipsist: one who believes that he alone exists in the world. After all, if my experience is the only reality, how can I possibly know that anyone else exists? All I experience when I see someone else is a collection of impressions. From this, common sense may lead me to infer that this other person exists in very much the same manner as I do. But I do not actually experience this. It is a supposition which is not based upon any perception of mine.

Similarly, Berkeley’s idea that the world itself was maintained by the continuous perception of an all-seeing God is certainly not supported by experience. It is metaphysical: that is, it goes beyond any physical knowledge we are capable of discovering. This leaves Berkeley in the curious position of being both a thoroughgoing empiricist and a thoroughgoing metaphysician – an apparent self-contradiction. Yet this self-contradiction lies at the very heart of our present worldview. Most modern philosophy, and all scientific thought, finds itself in a similar position. Before we can proceed to a rational or scientific explanation of the world, we must first make several far-reaching assumptions that are not derived from experience, and are thus metaphysical presuppositions. For instance, we assume that the world is consistent. From this we go on to assume that it conforms to the laws of logic as we conceive them. Likewise this leads us to believe that this reality in some extremely precise and intimate way conforms to mathematics. A similarly important assumption we make is that the world somehow ‘matches’ our perception. What possible experience could we have that would reveal to us that our perceptions have anything whatsoever to do with what gives rise to them? (A blindfolded patient experiences an extremely sharp localized pain. This could be caused by a needle, an electrode, a bee sting, a drop of concentrated acid, and so on. Which is it? Which of these does his pain resemble? It doesn’t of course resemble any of them. It only resembles similar sensations, not whatever might have caused them.)

Other ‘obvious’ assumptions we make about our experience are equally unwarranted. Take one of the basic laws of logic, that of identity. This basically states that a thing is itself, and everything else is not that thing. A thing cannot be itself and also something else at the same time. We disobey this law every time we confront a work of art. A painting of a landscape, for instance, is viewed simultaneously as a landscape and as a piece of canvas daubed with coloured pigments. It may be argued that what we gain from aesthetic perception is not really knowledge. Even so, it remains an important component of the way we perceive the world. Every time we look at a picture, an image on a screen, or even words on a page, it involves a similar process. This is a central part of our experience, and it contradicts the laws of logic.

There is yet more damaging evidence against our all-but-unconscious precognitive assumptions concerning logical consistency and such. Even science itself must accommodate illogicality. The law of identity doesn’t break down only in aesthetic perception. Something surprisingly similar also takes place in modern quantum physics – which states that light can be viewed as either waves or particles. This defies logical consistency (a wave is simply a motion; a particle is an object). It has been argued that such exceptions simply serve to reinforce the general rule, where logical consistency is concerned. Whether or not this is the case, they certainly reinforce the notion that logical consistency is a metaphysical assumption – and, as such, no more (or less) supportable than Berkeley’s idea that the world is supported by the continuous perception of an all-seeing God.

Interestingly, this latter idea (or its equivalent) has a long pedigree in mathematics. The early Arab mathematicians, who advanced this field of learning almost single-handedly during the period between the decline of the Hellenistic world and the Renaissance, developed their own mathematical philosophy. This provided them with an intellectual and spiritual justification of mathematics. According to their philosophy, mathematics was the way God’s mind worked. And since God made the world, it was bound to work according to mathematics. By learning more about mathematics, they were learning more about the mind of God. This was both a profound and a beautiful idea – and as such it even resembled mathematics itself!

It is not difficult to discern the shadow of this metaphysical idea behind Berkeley’s idea of a world supported by God’s perception. If anything, this Arabic notion of mathematics actually informs Berkeley’s idea. How does God’s all-seeing continuous perception actually see the world? Why, in a way such that the world obeys the laws of his thought: that is, the laws of mathematics and science (or nature). Such laws are God’s perception. The Arab notion of mathematics was of course rooted in Islamic theology, but this didn’t prevent its adoption by Christianity. Indeed, it persisted long after Arab mathematics had been superseded by the European tradition, which was developed after the Renaissance by the likes of Descartes, Pascal, and Fermat. Berkeley’s eighteenth-century contemporary, Isaac Newton, certainly believed in it.

Only with the complete divorce of theology and science was this idea replaced. Modern mathematical philosophy dispenses with the idea of God, which leaves it in a curious situation. Without God, where does mathematics exist? And how does it exist? Is it simply our way of seeing the world? In other words, could there be another form of mathematics for beings equipped with a different perceptual apparatus? When a mathematician produces a new theory, has he discovered it or has he created it? Did it come into being for the first time in his head, or was it always there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered? In other words, would 2 + 2 = 4 be true if there was no one (even God) to think it? Extend that 2 + 2 = 4 to the ‘laws of nature’ and the enormity of the problem becomes apparent. These are the ultimate problems of reality. Berkeley’s solution to this problem may seem fanciful and far-fetched, but it at least answers these questions. Contemporary mathematical and scientific philosophers still find themselves in a quandary over this matter. Stephen Hawking even ends his Brief History of Time
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