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George Berkeley

George BerkeleyBorn: 12-Mar-1685
Birthplace: Dysert Castle, County Kilkenny, Ireland
Died: 14-Jan-1753
Location of death: Oxford, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Philosopher, Religion

Nationality: Ireland
Executive summary: Anti-intellectual empiricist philosopher

George Berkeley, Irish bishop and philosopher, the eldest son of William Berkeley (an officer of customs who had, it seems, come to Ireland in the suite of Lord Berkeley of Stratton, lord lieutenant, 1670-72, to whom he was related), was born on the 12th of March 1685, in a cottage near Dysert Castle, Thomastown, Ireland. He passed from the school at Kilkenny to Trinity College, Dublin (1700), where, owing to the peculiar subtlety of his mind and his determination to accept no doctrine on the evidence of authority or convention, he left the beaten track of study and was regarded by some as a dunce, by others as a genius. During his career at Dublin the works of René Descartes and Isaac Newton were superseding the older textbooks, and the doctrines of John Locke's Essay were eagerly discussed. Thus he "entered on an atmosphere which was beginning to be charged with the elements of reaction against traditional scholasticism in physics and in metaphysics" (A. C. Fraser). He became a fellow in 1707. His interest in philosophy led him to take a prominent share in the foundation of a society for discussing the new doctrines, and is further shown by his Common Place Book, one of the most valuable autobiographical records in existence, which throws much light on the growth of his ideas, and enables us to understand the significance of his early writings. We find here the consciousness of creative thought focused in a new principle which is to revolutionize speculative science. There is no sign of any intimate knowledge of ancient or scholastic thought; to the doctrines of Spinoza, Leibniz, Nicolas Malebranche, Norris, the attitude is one of indifference or lack of appreciation, but the influence of Descartes and specially of Locke is evident throughout. The new principle (nowhere in the Common Place Book explicitly stated) may be expressed in the proposition that no existence is conceivable -- and therefore possible -- which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas (ie. objects) of which such spirit is conscious. In the language of a later period this principle may be expressed as the absolute synthesis of subject and object; no object exists apart from Mind. Mind is, therefore, prior both in thought and in existence, if for the moment we assume the popular distinction. Berkeley thus diverted philosophy from its beaten track of discussion as to the meaning of matter, substance, cause, and preferred to ask first whether these have any significance apart from the conscious spirit. In the pursuit of this inquiry he rashly invaded other departments of science, and much of the Common Place Book is occupied with a polemic, as vigorous as it is ignorant, against the fundamental conceptions of the infinitesimal calculus.

In 1707 Berkeley published two short mathematical tracts; in 1709, in his New Theory of Vision, he applied his new principle for the first time, and in the following year stated it fully in the Principles of Human Knowledge. In these works he attacked the existing theories of externality which to the unphilosophical mind is proved by visual evidence. He maintained that visual consciousness is merely a system of arbitrary signs which symbolize for us certain actual or possible tactual experience -- in other words a purely conventional language.

The contents of the visual and the tactual consciousness 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 is not brought forward prominently by Berkeley. It was evident that a similar analysis might have been applied to tactual consciousness which does not give externality in its deepest significance any more than the visual; but with deliberate purpose Berkeley at first drew out only one side of his argument. In the Principles of Human Knowledge, externality in its ultimate sense as independence of all mind is considered. Matter, as an abstract, unperceived substance or cause, is shown to be impossible, an unreal conception; true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality are held to be merely arbitrary, though constant, relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, 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 1711 Berkeley 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 be compared with the later expositions of Austin and John Stuart Mill. From 1707 he had been engaged as college tutor; in 1712 he paid a short visit to England, and in April 1713 he was presented by Jonathan Swift at court. His abilities, his courtesy and his upright character made him a universal favorite. While in London he published his Dialogues (1713), a more popular exposition of his view theory; for exquisite facility of style these are among the finest philosophical writings in the English language. In November he became chaplain to Lord Peterborough, whom he accompanied on the continent, returning in August 1714. He traveled again in 1715-20 as tutor to the only son of Dr. St. George Ashe (c. 1658-1718), bishop successively of Cloyne, Clogher and Derry). In 1721, during the disturbed state of social relations consequent on the bursting of the South Sea bubble, he published an Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain, which shows the intense interest he took in practical affairs. In the same year he returned to Ireland as chaplain to the Duke of Grafton, 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 Miss Vanhomrigh, Swift's Vanessa, 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 scheme of founding a college in the Bermudas, and extending its benefits to the Americans. With infinite exertion he succeeded in obtaining from government a promise of £20,000, and after four years spent in preparation, sailed in September 1728, accompanied by some friends and by his wife, daughter of Judge Forster, whom he had married in the preceding month. Three years of quiet retirement and study were spent in Rhode Island, but it gradually became apparent that government would never hand over the promised grant, and Berkeley was compelled to give up his cherished plan. Soon after his return he published the fruits of his 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. In 1734 he was raised to the bishopric of Cloyne. The same year, in his Analyst, he attacked the higher mathematics as leading to freethinking; 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 published the Siris, partly occasioned by the controversy as to the efficacy of tar-water in cases of smallpox, but rising far above the circumstance from which it took its rise, and revealing 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. He died suddenly in the midst of his family on the 14th of January 1753, and was buried in Christ Church, Oxford.

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 supposed 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 speculative science to determine the grounds for the very belief in its existence. Philosophy seemed about to end in skepticism or in materialism. Now Berkeley put this whole problem in a new light by pointing out a preliminary question. 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 corresponds to these words? Do not all these ideas, when held to represent something which exists absolutely apart from all knowledge of it, involve a contradiction? In putting this question, not less than in answering it, consists Berkeley's originality as a philosopher. The essence of the answer is that the universe is inconceivable apart from mind -- that existence, as such, denotes conscious spirits and the objects of consciousness. Matter and external things, in so far as they are thought to have an existence beyond the circle of consciousness, are impossible, inconceivable. 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 impossible 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. 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 imagination 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 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 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 immediate perception is not a thing, and that what we consider permanent 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 present 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 exists 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. Physical science is occupied in endeavoring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret the divine language 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 center and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.

The deeper aspects of Berkeley's new thought have been almost universally neglected or misunderstood. Of his spiritual empiricism one side only has been accepted by later thinkers, and 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 themselves Berkeleians as the one proposition warranted by consciousness; 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 which 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 knowledge of sense things, which is never entirely presentative, involves 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 empiricism 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 true 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 level, and, in conjunction with his successor, David Hume, determined the form into which later metaphysical questions have been thrown.

Father: William Berkeley
Brother: Dr. Robert Berkeley
Wife: Anne Forster (m. 1728)
Son: George
Daughter: Julia

    University: Kilkenny College (1696-)
    University: BA, Trinity College Dublin (1700-04)
    University: MA Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin (1707)
    Professor: Trinity College Dublin (1707-)

Author of books:
Arithmetica (1707)
Miscellanea Mathematica (1707)
An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709)
Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I (1710)
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713)
Passive Obedience (1712, sermons)
Advice to the Tories Who Have Taken the Oaths (1715)
De Motu (1721)
Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great-Britain (1721)
A Proposal For the better Supplying of Churches (1724)
Alciphron; or, The Minute Philosopher (1732)
The Theory of Vision, or Visual Language... Vindicated and Explained (1733)
The Analyst; or, a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician (1734)
A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735)
Reasons For Not Replying (1735)
A Discourse Addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority (1738)

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