George Berkeley | Biography & Works

George Berkeley
12 March 1685
County Kilkenny, Ireland
14 January 1753 (aged 67)
Oxford, England
Famous in:
Bishop of Cloyne in
Church of Ireland
Subjective Idealism
Everything we Perceive or Think
- is the Mind itself only.
All exists for us
only due to Divine Spirit in us.
18th century philosophy
Travelled to:
America 1728-32
Works Online:
Three dialogues...
Works About Him:
1. Biography & Works
George Berkeley's Signature

Signature of George Berkeley

George Berkeley
 (1685 –1753)

George Berkeley is one of the greatest and most influential Western philosophers of the early modern period:

In defending the immaterialism for which he is most famous, he redirected modern thinking about the nature of objectivity and the mind’s capacity to come to terms with it.

Along the way, he made striking and influential proposals concerning the psychology of the senses, the workings of language, the aim of science, and the foundations of mathematics.

George Berkeley was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, on March 12, 1685, into what now would be called an Anglo-Irish family.

He grew up in Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, and attended school at Kilkenny College, which he left in 1700 for Trinity College, Dublin, where he became a scholar and graduated B.A. in 1704.

He then remained in college, waiting for a fellowship to fall vacant.
It is at this time that his career can be said to have begun.

One of the ways of structuring his career is to see it as falling into 3 periods – early, middle, and late – each dominated by or centring around a project or crusade:

1. The early period is dominated by Berkeley’s immaterialist philosophy, for which he is now best known, a philosophy that was developed around 1707, then published in 1709–13.

2. The second great project was his Bermuda College, conceived circa 1722 and made public in 1724.

3. Berkeley’s third and final crusade was about tar-water, a medicine which first attracted his attention around 1741 and which he publicized in 1744.

It was in the years 1705–9 that Berkeley worked out his immaterialist philosophy, a development that to a great extent we can trace in the two notebooks he kept during this period, now called the Philosophical Commentaries.

This work and the early period itself culminated in Berkeley’s 3 classic books:

1. An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709);
2. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part 1 (1710); and
3. the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous(1713).

Within this first period at Trinity College Berkeley also delivered 2 short papers:

a) one on the Cave of Dunmore - a limestone cave in Ballyfoyle, County Kilkenny, Ireland –

- a show cave open to the public, particularly well known for its rich archaeological discoveries and for being the site of a Viking massacre in 928.

b) and the other ‘Of Infinites,’ which were published posthumously in 1871.

He succeeded in winning the coveted fellowship (1707), published his minor mathematical works (1707) – probably to support his candidature to fellowship –

as well as his Passive Obedience, or the Christian Doctrine of Not Resisting the Supreme Power (1712), his main work of moral or political theory, originally given as 3 discourses in the College Chapel.

Taking leave from Trinity College, Berkeley left Ireland in 1713, partly with the aim of publishing his Three Dialogues in London.

Here he became acquainted with many of the leading literary figures of the time – Pope, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnot, and his countryman Swift, whom Berkeley had probably met previously in Ireland.

He wrote (or at least published) little between 1713 and his next prolific period of authorship, 1732–5, which rivals that of 1709–13.

He did however publish a number of essays in the Guardian (1713), edited by Steele,

and Advice to the Tories Who Have Taken the Oath (1715), which was not identified as one of Berkeley’s works until the 20th century.

In 1721 he published De Motu, his chief work in the philosophy of science, which had been entered (unsuccessfully) for a prize at the French Academy.

During this fallow period Berkeley was travelling on the European continent, mainly in Italy:

He probably intended to write some account of his travels. Five volumes containing his travel notes are extant and were first printed in 1871.

Berkeley’s first-hand account of an eruption of Mt Vesuvius was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1717.

During this period Berkeley also was working on Part 2 of the Principles of Human Knowledge, the manuscript of which (as he informed a correspondent in 1729) was lost in Italy.

Berkeley’s interest in his philosophy seems to have waned during this period:

There is, for example, virtually no mention of it in his correspondence between 1713 and 1729. Nor could he bring himself to rewrite the work lost in Italy.

Indeed he seems to have become generally disenchanted:

His pessimism is shown in his Essay towards Preventing the Ruine of Great Britain, published in 1721, where he laments the decline in social and religious values.

By 1722, however, Berkeley was inspired by a new cause almost as bold as his immaterialism:

Having lost confidence in the Old World, he turned his attention to the New,

where he was determined to found in Bermuda a missionary/arts college, which would transform America, he hoped, both morally and spiritually – possibly also becoming part of the Christian world-historical story.

His project is outlined in A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in Our Foreign Plantations, and for Converting the Savage Americans to Christianity (1724).

However, the enthusiasm and apocalyptic fervour is probably best captured in the final stanza of his best-known poem, “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” first drafted circa 1726 and published in 1752:

Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way;
The four first Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the Day;
Time’s noblest Offspring is the last.

Back in Dublin, Berkeley enlisted considerable backing for his project. Swift supported him, and a number of fellows at Trinity College agreed to become teachers in the projected Bermuda College.

Berkeley then went to England, where he enlisted financial backers and obtained a charter for his college (which was to be called St Paul’s) and a grant of £20,000 from the British government.

In 1724 Berkeley also became Dean of Derry – one of the most lucrative livings in Ireland – mainly in order to facilitate his project.

To accelerate payment of the government grant, Berkeley (and his bride, Anne) left England in 1728 for Rhode Island, which was to be the continental base for his college:

Here he bought a farm, where he and his wife lived for nearly 3 years.
But the grant was never paid, and the project failed.

While in Rhode Island Berkeley wrote his longest book, Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), a defence of natural religion and Christianity in 7 dialogues.

Alciphron was published in London, where Berkeley and his family resided between 1731 and 1734 after their return from America.

In this second great period of authorship, he also published these 5 works:

1. A Sermon Preached before the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1732);

2. The Theory of Vision Vindicated (1733) – a defence of the New Theory of Vision, which Berkeley had appended to Alciphron;

3. The Analyst (1734), which develops Berkeley’s defence of religious mystery in Alciphron, Dialogue 7, while attacking Newton’s theory of fluxions;

4. A Defence of Free Thinking in Mathematics (1735);

5. Reasons for Not Replying to Mr Walton’s Full Answer (1735).

All 5 works are, like Alciphron, connected in some way with the defence of the Christian religion against freethinking (or the minute philosophy, as Berkeley calls it), which he felt was at least partly responsible for the failure of his Bermuda project.

A new note is introduced with the Querist (Part 1, 1735), Berkeley’s principal work on economics:

Although it was partly written in London, the Querist is concerned mainly with the Irish situation – appropriately, as Berkeley’s situation had also changed:

In January 1734 he had been appointed Bishop of Cloyne. In the summer of that year he moved to his diocese, where he remained almost without interruption until 1752.

Although he was an absentee Dean of Derry, he was very much a full-time and conscientious Bishop of Cloyne. His publications in this episcopal period reflect his pastoral and philanthropic concerns.

Two further parts of the Querist were published in 1736 and 1737, containing observations on the social and economic conditions in Ireland as well as practical proposals, particularly for the setting up of a National Bank.

A Discourse to the Magistrates, which was prompted by rumours of an organized blasphemous society in Dublin, called the Blasters, was issued in 1738.

After the Discourse, one of Berkeley’s least impressive works, there is a publication gap of 6 years, although Berkeley was still writing, as is evident from his long but private letter to Sir John James on the demerits of Roman Catholicism as against Protestantism.

It was in this second fallow period that Berkeley came upon his 3rd bold idea, which he published in Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (1744), his last major work:

Tar-water was a medieval medicine consisting of pine tar and water:

As it was foul-tasting, it slowly dropped in popularity, but was revived in the Victorian era. It was used both as a tonic and as a substitute to get rid of "strong spirits".

Both these uses were originally advocated by the philosopher George Berkeley, who lauded it in his tract Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries, Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water:

Here he recommends tar-water as a medicine in the context of reflections on chemistry, philosophy of science, ancient philosophy, metaphysics, and theology.

Berkeley continued to defend tar-water (which he held, or at least suspected, to be a panacea) in various public letters.

Tar-water also was the subject of his last published essay, “Farther Thoughts on Tar-water,”

which appeared in his Miscellany, containing Several Tracts on Various Subjects (1752), which collected a number of his essays, some of an earlier date but most originally published in this period.

Among the later works not so far mentioned is A Word to the Wise, first published in 1749, which develops his social views on Ireland as set out in the Querist, with which it was sometimes printed.

In 1752 Berkeley left Cloyne for Oxford, partly in order to supervise the education of his son George.

He died in Oxford on January 14, 1753.