George Berkeley | Introduction

George Berkeley
 (1685 –1753)

Biography | Part 1

George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher of English ancestry, and Anglican Bishop of Cloyne, was born at Kilkenny, Ireland.

He entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1700 and became a fellow in 1707.

In 1709 he published his first important book, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision: This was well received, and a second edition appeared in the same year.

The following year A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1, was published:

This is the work in which Berkeley first published his immaterialist philosophy, and although it made him known to some of the foremost writers of the day, its conclusions were not taken very seriously by them.

In 1713 Berkeley went to London and there published the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, a more popular statement of the doctrines of the Principles.

While in London, Berkeley became acquainted with Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Richard Steele and contributed articles to Steele’s Guardian, attacking the theories of the freethinkers.

He travelled on the Continent in 1713–1714 (when he probably met and conversed with Nicolas Malebranche) and again from 1716 - 1720.

During this tour he lost the manuscript of the second part of the Principles, which he never rewrote.

Toward the end of the tour, he wrote a short essay, in Latin, titled De Motu, published in London in 1721, criticizing Isaac Newton’s philosophy of nature and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory of force.

In 1724 Berkeley was made Dean of Derry.

About this time, Berkeley began to prepare a project for establishing a college in Bermuda, at which not only the sons of American colonists but also Indians and Negroes were to receive a thorough education and be trained for the Christian ministry.

Having obtained promises of subscriptions from many prominent people, Berkeley promoted a bill, which was passed by Parliament, providing for considerable financial help from the government.

In 1728, before the money was forthcoming, Berkeley, who had just married, left for Rhode Island, where he intended to establish farms for supplying food for the college.

He settled in Newport, but the grant never came; and in 1731, when it was clear that the government was diverting the money for other purposes, Berkeley had to return home.

While in Newport, however, Berkeley had met and corresponded with the Samuel Johnson who later became the first president of King’s College, New York (now Columbia University).

Johnson was one of the few philosophers of the time to give close attention to Berkeley’s philosophical views, and the correspondence between him and Berkeley is of considerable philosophical interest.

While he was in Newport, Berkeley also wrote Alciphron, a series of dialogues in part developed from the articles he had written for the Guardian, directed against the “minute philosophers,” or freethinkers. This was published in 1732.

Berkeley was in London from 1732 to 1734 and there wrote The Analyst (1734), a criticism of Newton’s doctrine of fluxions and addressed to “an infidel mathematician.”

This and A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735) aimed at showing that the mathematicians so admired by freethinkers worked with concepts that could not withstand close scrutiny, so that the confidence given to them by “the philomathematical infidels of these times” was unjustified.

It is not surprising that Berkeley was made Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland, in 1734:

Berkeley carried out his episcopal duties with vigour and humanity. His diocese was in a remote and poor part of the country, and the problems he encountered there led him to reflect on economic problems:

The result was The Querist (1735–1737), in which he made proposals for dealing with the prevailing idleness and poverty by means of public works and education.

He also concerned himself with the health of the people and became convinced of the medicinal value of tar water:

In 1744 he published A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water, and divers other Subjects connected together and arising from one another.

When the second edition appeared in the same year, the title Siris, by which the book is now known, was added.

Much of the book is concerned with the merits of tar water,

but Berkeley passed from this subject to the causes of physical phenomena, which, he held, cannot be discovered in the phenomena themselves but must be sought for in the Divine activity:

This is in line with his earlier views, but some readers, on the basis of his admiring references to Plato and the Neo-platonists, have considered that by this time he had considerably modified his original system.

The Siris was Berkeley’s last philosophical work.

He died suddenly in Oxford in 1753.

An account of Berkeley’s life and writings would be inadequate without some reference to his Philosophical Commentaries:

A. C. Fraser discovered a series of notes by Berkeley on all the main topics of Berkeley’s philosophy and published them in 1871 in his edition of Berkeley’s works, under the title of Commonplace Book of Occasional Metaphysical Thoughts.

It was later noticed that these notes had been bound together in the wrong order, and it has now been shown that they were written by Berkeley, probably in 1707–1708, while he was thinking out his New Theory of Vision and Principles:

This work makes it clear that Berkeley was already convinced of the truth of immaterialism before he published the New Theory of Vision, in which that view is not mentioned.

The Philosophical Commentaries throw valuable light upon Berkeley’s sources, bugbears, prejudices, and arguments.