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George Berkeley | 2. Main Themes

George Berkeley
 (1685 –1753)

Main Themes | Part 2

1. Main Themes of Berkeley’s Philosophy.

Since the word idealism came into use in the 18th century, Berkeley has been known as a leading exponent of idealism, and even as its founder.

He himself referred to his main view as “the immaterialist hypothesis,” meaning by this that he denied the very possibility of inert, mindless, material substance.

This description has some advantage over idealism in that it brings out Berkeley’s radical opposition to materialism:

whereas the opposite of idealism is realism, and there are grounds for doubting whether Berkeley intended to deny the realist contention that in perception people become directly aware of objects that persist unchanged when they cease to be perceived.

Berkeley’s fundamental view was that for something to exist it must either be perceived or else be the active being that does the perceiving.

Things that are perceived he called “sensible things” or “sensible qualities,” or, in the terminology he had borrowed from John Locke, “ideas.”

Sensible things or ideas, he held, cannot exist except as the passive objects of minds or spirits, active beings that perceive and will.

As he put it in the Philosophical Commentaries, existence is to be perceived or to perceive or to will, that is, to be active.

Thus there can be nothing except active spirits on the one hand and passive sensible things on the other, and the latter cannot exist except as perceived by the former.

This is Berkeley’s Subjective Idealism or Immaterialism.

2. Criticism of Contemporary Science.

Berkeley’s writings emphasize their apologetic intent, an intent that can be seen in the subtitles of his major writings—that of the Principles is typical:

Wherein the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences, with the grounds of scepticism, atheism and irreligion, are inquired into.

It will be seen that “the chief causes of difficulty in the sciences” are also prominent:

Berkeley considered that in the mathematics and natural sciences of his day insufficient attention was given to what experience reveals to us.

Apart from Newton, the mathematicians were, he wrote in the Philosophical Commentaries, “mere triflers, mere Nihilarians.”

For example, they conceived of lines as infinitely divisible, but this is not only absurd, it could be maintained only by men who “despised sense.”

Thus Berkeley regarded himself as protesting against the excesses of uncontrolled rationalism. Hence he put forward a most anti-rationalistic view of geometry, although he never developed its implications very far.

Similarly he thought that the natural philosophers deluded themselves with words when they tried to explain the physical world in terms of attractions, forces, and powers.

Natural science, as he understood it, was descriptive rather than explanatory and was concerned with correlations rather than with causes.

He thus sketched out a view of science that was revived and developed by 19-20thcentury positivists.

3. Sensible Qualities Are the Signs of God’s Purpose.

Berkeley’s positivism, however, was confined to his account of natural science. The order of phenomena, he held, was Willed by God for the good of created spirits.

In deciphering the conjunctions and sequences of our sense experience we are learning what God has decreed. Thus sensible qualities are the language in which God speaks to us.

In the 3rd and 4th editions (1732) of the New Theory of Vision Berkeley said that the objects of sight are a divine visual language by which God teaches us what things are good for us and what things are harmful to us.

In the Alciphron, published that same year, he argued that

“the great Mover and Author of Nature constantly explains Himself to the eyes of men by the sensible intervention of arbitrary signs, which have no similitude or connexion with the things signified.”

We learn that certain visual ideas are signs of certain tactual ones, certain smells signs of certain colours, and so on. There is no necessity about this, any more than things necessarily have the names that convention assigns to them.

Just as some sensible qualities are signs of others, so sensible qualities as a whole are signs of the purposes of God who “daily speaks to our senses in a manifest and clear dialect.”

Thus, taken as a whole, Berkeley’s philosophy is a form of immaterialism combined with an extreme anti-rationalist theory of science.

The regularities between phenomena are regarded as evidence for, and as signs of, God’s purposes:

Just as a man’s words reveal his thoughts and intentions by means of the conventional signs of language, so the sensible order reveals God’s Will in phenomena that could have been ordered quite differently if he had so decided.