GEORGE BERKELEY(A.D. 1685 – 1753) -The Life and Works of Berkeley

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GEORGE BERKELEY(A.D. 1685 – 1753) -The Life and Works of Berkeley -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

George Berkeley was an Irishman of English ancestry. He was born in Kilekenny, Ireland in 1685. At the age of fifteen, he went to Trinity College in Dublin and there received his Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees. Sometime later, he earned additional degrees of bachelor and doctor of divinity degrees. He studied Locke and Descartes at Trinity College, Dublin. While at Trinity, he also studied Malebranche, Newton, and Clarke, including views promoted by Hobbes. The Deism of Toland, the Irishman who wished to eliminate the miracles from Christianity, caused considerable controversy for the attendees at Trinity. The young Berkeley became an ardent defender of Christianity and subsequently published his Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710. In He was ordained in 1707 and while attending Trinity he was appointed as Fellow. In this position, he served as tutor and lecturer from 1707 to 1713 and later from 1721 to 1724.

Returning in 1713 from a visit to London where he had entered into intellectual discussions with the Prince of Wales, Berkeley became enthusiastic about the possibilities associated with the ‘new world.’ He persuaded Parliament to grant him 20,000 pounds to establish St. Paul’s College in the Bermudas. It is here that he could train ministers of the gospel for the colonists and educate and civilize the Indians. It is here where he attempted to start a college in Rhode Island. At this time, he also married a young woman, choosing her “. . . for the qualities of her mind and her unaffected inclinations to books. . . .”). On the way to the new college, he sailed to Virginia and stayed there for three years. While there he was well received and won adherents to his new philosophy, especially those among the ministers and college professors. After his faithful service in the Church of Ireland, he resigned and was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in 1734. Berkeley died in 1753.

His main philosophical writings include the following: A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710); Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713); The Analyst; or, A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician (1734). While in America, he corresponded with the idealistic philosopher Samuel Johnson. During his stay he wrote a critique of freethinking titled Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher (1732). Johnson came under the influence of Berkeley while he was in Rhode Island (1729—1731) while waiting for the funds to arrive for the Bermudian college. Berkeley dedicated his work Elementa Philosohpica to Johnson, which appeared in 1752. His last important writing was Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water and Divers Other Subjects Connected Together and Arising One from Another which defended the virtues of tar-water as a medicine.

The Empirical Epistemology of Berkley

After studying Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, and Newton, Berkeley became familiar with the main trends of the seventeenth century. These trends pondered how the human mind could bridge the gap between its own ideas and the sense world in order to achieve some certainty about what is real. Berkeley stated his presupposition: there is a real difference between sensible things and the mental objects in the mind. It is on this supposition that Berkeley rests his philosophical efforts. He asked: How can a coherent account be given of the world, if the mental object and the real sensible thing are one and the same? In Berkeley’s New Principle, the focal point is determining the meaning of being or existence. His response was that to-be-perceived is the kind of existence that belongs to the sensible thing where this to-perceive is proper to the mind. In order to drive his New Principle forward, he had to accomplish both a negative and positive task. The negative step was to analyze Locke’s theory of abstraction and general ideas and decide where he would differ. Locke’s method, according to Berkeley, was not a realistic process because it involved the manipulation of ideas rather than penetrating the intelligible structure of the real object itself. The positive step was to offer a new definition to the meaning of sensible things. Therefore, the introduction of his metaphysical philosophy introduces what is called ‘empirical immaterialism.’ This philosophical concept eliminates material substance. The human experience is explained as a function of the infinite mind, the finite mind, ideas, and the notions.

Berkeley believed that the cause of philosophical difficulties was abstraction. Locke had cast aside the notion of innate ideas and Berkeley rejected abstract ideas. However, Locke did admit that there was the notion of a ‘substratum’—identifiers of qualities of material objects where there is no direct experience with it. These identifiers would be things like extension, color, motion, man, animal; ones where the mind cannot have an idea of these alone. We can imagine, compound, divide, and symbolize (generalize) and no more. General ideas are only particular ones made to stand for a group (e.g., a triangle). (For example, Berkeley would ask if someone could think of a triangle dismissed of the qualifier of equilateral, scalene, right, and so on.) The error of abstraction arises from language. We wrongly believe that words have precise meanings; that every word stands for an idea, and that language is primarily for communication. It also arouses passions and influences attitudes. These points were later developed by linguistic philosophers.

The cure for this problem is to confine thoughts to naked ideas free from traditional names so as to avoid purely verbal controversies; avoid the snare of abstractions, and be clear in ones ideas. The universality of meaning is not in the abstraction associated with the objects common nature but is rather in the function of certain particular traits that act as a sign applied to other objects as well. The result will be that won’t look for the abstract when particular is known, and we won’t assume all names represent an idea.

The Principles of Human Knowledge

The source of all ideas is sensation, internal perception, memory and imagination. The subject of all knowledge is a perceiver, a mind, me. The nature of ideas is that they are passive object of perception through sensation and reflection, and better known as ‘mentalism.’ As Berkeley said, “To be is to be perceived. He insisted that all the ideas attributed to the outside world are passive. It is impossible of any idea to do anything or be the cause of anything else. This passiveness of ideas regarding the outside world is key to his philosophy. In this, which shows the influence of Malebranche, there seems to be the conclusion that God is the cause of such ideas. The result, according to Berkeley, is metaphysical Idealism.

In the subtitle of Berkeley’s work titled Principles of Human Knowledge, he aims to focus in on “the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences, with the grounds of skepticism.” He opposed atheism where we can only know our own ideas directly and materialism where the material universe is self-existent requiring no need or support from a God, positing that the first principle of the world is only material (cf. PHK, I, 86-96). He believed that these three challenges could be addressed and refuted together with the rejection of matter as a real entity. It is here where Berkeley sees the failure of Locke and Malebranche refutation of these errors. However, a dilemma was formed: in order for matter to be known it must be reduced to the status of an idea or else matter must be placed beyond knowledge. He chose the former.

The Metaphysics of Berkeley: Idealism

Only minds and ideas exist. The three discoveries of the mind are: ideas of sense, ideas of imagination, and minds—understood only as an internal operation. If the esse of ideas is percipi (the condition of being perceived or “to be is to be perceived”), then the esse of mind is percipere (the mind as self-knowing or ‘to be is to perceive’). To be is to perceive (esse is percipi), and to be is to be perceived (esse is percipere). Ideas are passive and inert whereas minds are active and causal. Ideas are fleeting, dependent, and perishable. The mind however is enduring, subsisting, and incorruptible. And in a sense, the mind is unknowable because it cannot be known through ideas. In addition, the mind (or the personal self) is an active reality that contains understanding (both a passive aspect as a receptor of ideas from God and an active aspect as a perceiver of received ideas) and will, both being functional expressions of the mind (rather than ‘powers’ according to the Lockean sense of the mind). The personal nature of God is an immediate consequence of the presence of the infinite will and understanding, both as expressions of His spiritual beingness.

No “matter” or extramental beings exist for several reasons: 1) There is no way to separate being from being perceived. 2) What argues against existence of secondary qualities also apply to primary ones. Extension cannot be known apart from color and bulk. Number is based on unity which cannot be perceived. Figure changes with one’s perspective. Motion is relative. 4) “Things” cannot be known apart from thought; they exist only in thought. 5) Belief in “matter” charges God with a useless creation (cf. Ockham). 6) It is impossible to conceive of anything existing outside of a mind. Perceiving is an operation of the mind; what is being perceived is outside of one’s control. The source of ideas about the sensible world comes from some voluntary spiritual principle. Therefore, these ideas cannot come from any material substance. To do so is a power of mind to form an idea in the mind (not outside of it). But nothing can be conceived as existing unconceived.

Some Objections Berkley Anticipated and Addressed

The first objection to his mentalism seems to be that he is banishing all things from the world and therefore all things become a fanciful illusion. Berkeley’s replies: The sensible world really exists and are involuntary ideas given by God who maintains them according to his natural law. First, this does not do away with Nature. For Nature is the set the rules by which God regularly excites ideas in our minds. The only thing Berkeley rejects is Locke’s philosophy of material substance where he would say something like “we eat and drink and are clothed with ideas.”

Second, it does not do away with Substance for it is only it is an idea gained from a group of sensations. For example, real pain and perceived imaginary pain are both universally admitted to exist in the mind. However, there is a great difference between real pain and perceived pain. Real pain is an involuntary idea given to man by God in accordance with constant natural laws. Third, it is objected that it sounds harsh to eat and wear ideas. However, responded Berkeley, but this is only because of the customary use of words.

Fourth, distant objects are no problem for they are in our dreams. And the sight of a distant object is merely the prognostication that I may soon to feel it. It would seem absurd to think that objects that are seen at a distance and perceived in the mind should be near to us as our own thoughts. Berkeley replies that the ideas of sight are signs which through experienced are learned (similar to the ideas of touch that are learned). These ideas are in the mind and thus we perceive them differently.

Fifth, fire and idea of fire differ, but this is only because fire is more lively idea, and the idea of it is less lively.

Sixth¸ to the charge that everyone believes in matter¸ Berkeley responded that Plato didn’t. Furthermore, universal beliefs have been false. All men may act as if there is matter, even though it is philosophically untrue.

Seventh, Ideas and things differ but only because the former is passive, and the latter is an active idea from God. If extension and figure only existed in the mind, it would follow that the mind itself must be extended and figured. He replies by saying that extension and figure exist in the mind as ideas not as attributes of the mind itself.

Eighth, Berkeley argued that his idealism did not destroy motion. For motion is reducible to sense phenomena, and all we have is ideas of sense phenomena.

Ninth, things not thought about do not cease to exist because God is always thinking about them. It would seem that all sensed objects are annihilated and then created again, depending on whether we are thinking about them. Berkeley responds by saying that all things in the sense world endure continuously in the mind of God (as qualities of spiritual substances instead of matter). This is expressed beautifully in a poem by John Knox:

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 is why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.
(by John Knox)

Tenth, it would seem that Berkeley’s idealism made everything a direct result of God and everything else artificial because there are secondary causes. However, he replies that ideas combined into regular patterns are what we call Nature and this is sufficient for the practical purposes of life. Great strides were accomplished in physics to which their conclusions drew correlations to natural phenomenon in terms of matter and motion. In Berkeley’s philosophy, he rejects some of the notions about natural science. Making his defense, he states that 1) he is not challenging the validity of physics or other natural science, but rather, 2) it is in the domain of metaphysics where the issue arises, giving rise to 3) where the mentalist says these laws furnish the signs for the prediction of the appearance of ideas sensed because God provides the constant and regular manner of objects that physics records in descriptive formulas. It is the mentalist who basically promotes the idea of ‘absolute mind.’

Eleventh, since the Bible speaks of physical bodies, it would seem that Berkeley’s denial of matter would be unbiblical. However, Berkeley responded that bodies are only a collection of sense impressions of which we know as ideas, but not really material things.

Twelfth, miracles don’t lose their force because things are real because they are real perceptions. For example, the disciples really perceived they were touching the resurrected body of Christ, but it was not made of matter.

Berkley’s Proof for God

Berkeley was a theist and relies heavily upon the existence of God in order to secure the identification between sensible esse and percipi. This God is an infinite and actual perceiver. Hence, his New Principle serves as the basis for the proof regarding the existence of God. In addition, the New Principle needs God’s existence as its foundation.

Berkeley’s reason for belief in God was a posteriori. He argued that all ideas are passive objects of perception. Minds perceive, but ideas are only perceived. And I am receiving a strong, steady secession of ideas coming from outside me, forced upon me, and over which I have no control. This we call “world.” And so does everyone else. If one agrees with Berkeley, that a person directly perceives things as they are, then there is no other external reality to know except other spirits who are similar to us. This assures the possibility of knowledge. Therefore, there must be a Mind (i.e., God), an active Spirit causing the “world” of ideas that we are receiving from outside our minds. We do not directly perceive this Mind but only its effects, namely, the ideas it causes).

Berkley’s Conclusion about the Value of His View

Bishop Berkeley believed that his view had great practical and theological value. First of all, he believed that it destroyed the basic for skepticism as to whether our ideas corresponded to reality. By removing matter from the world, he thinks that skepticism will fail in its attempt to make knowledge impossible. As long as matter exists, philosophers will be puzzled as to how the mind operates, asking how matter operates on the mind? There is no material reality since the ideas are reality.

Second, the cornerstone of atheism gone since they held that Matter in motion eternally eliminates the need for God, but there is no matter.

Third, the basis of idolatry is eliminated, for who could worship the mere idea of an object in their mind.

Fourth, the Socinians lose their objection to the resurrection, since there are no material particulars to be resurrected.

Fifth, philosophical puzzles (like Zeno’s) are solved, since there is no matter to be infinitely divided.

Another consequence is that atheism is overthrown by showing that the existence of God is an absolute certainty. All men think and therefore know that other men think as well. Man also receives ideas that cannot be attributed to or caused by another man. Rather, these ideas come from an infinite spirit. This illustrates the existence of God who is the author of nature.

This leads to another consequence of Berkeley’s philosophy: the natural immortality of the soul. What is shown is that physical bodies are in reality just mere passive ideas in the mind which are different than any of its ideas. Taking his cue from Descartes and Locke, with the notion originating with Plato, Berkeley repeats the argument that the soul is a simple and indivisible immaterial substance unable to be dissolved. (The conception of the soul will be later rejected by Hume and Kant.)

A Brief Critique of Berkeley’s Idealism

In addition to the implausibility of many of Berkeley’s responses to criticism (listed above), there are more fundamental criticisms. Two can be mentioned.

First, the whole system begs the question. For he defines all that exists as either minds or ideas. But this is precisely what is to be proven. If one assumes this to begin with, then of course it follows that only minds and ideas exists. So, the whole system is petition principi—begging the question.

Second, Berkeley wrongly assumes that all we know is ideas about things, not the things themselves. But this too begs the question. Perhaps the realist is right that we do not know merely the idea but that we know reality through the idea. That is ideas are not the formal object of the mind but merely an instrument through which we know reality. In this case we would be knowing reality through the ideas and not merely knowing the ideas. Thus, the senses (by which ideas are brought to us are the windows of the mind. They are like a window through which we see reality, not a wall which we see. Or, to put it another way, we do not see only the window; rather, we see through the window at the reality beyond it.

GEORGE BERKELEY(A.D. 1685 – 1753) -The Life and Works of Berkeley -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

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