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The Philosophy of George Berkeley

I. General Notions

John Locke had constructed a theory of knowledge in which the subject was closed up within himself. The object of such knowledge was consequently ideas (subjective impressions) and not things. If ideas are the immediate object of our knowledge, is it ever possible to admit an external reality corresponding to such ideas?

George Berkeley (picture) denied this theory and reduced the reality of the external world to the existence of finite spirits and the infinite spirit (God). There is no material world. For Berkeley, even Locke's concept of substance was merely a name devoid of reality. There exists only the world of spirits, dominated by God, the Supreme Spirit.

In order to show why the philosophy of Berkeley results in an immaterial spiritualistic world, it must be kept in mind that his philosophical meditations were concentrated on solving the religious problem. He sought to restore spiritual and Christian values in the society of his time, in which the so-called freethinkers, relying on Locke's theory of knowledge and on his concept of primary and secondary qualities, fell into incredulity and actual immorality.

Berkeley tried to prove to these materialists that in Locke's theory of knowledge there is no place for their idol -- matter -- and that hence their whole philosophy is vain. All that exists of reality is a communion of spirits to whom God is revealed immediately, and to whom He communicates the ideas they possess.

II. Life and Works

George Berkeley was born in County Kilkenny in Ireland in 1685, the son of an English family that had migrated there. He studied at Trinity College in Dublin, where he remained for a long period as a teacher of theology. In 1709 he became an Anglican divine.

In later years, between 1713 and 1720, he traveled to France where he made the acquaintance of Malebranche, and journeyed also in Italy. In 1728, having conceived the plan of founding a missionary institute for the Christian education of native youth in Bermuda, he sailed for America and got as far as Rhode Island. When the financial means to implement his plan did not materialize, he returned to England.

Nominated Bishop of Cloyne in south Ireland, he dedicated himself to the works of the apostolate. Death took him at Oxford, where he had gone to found the missionary institute that he had not been able to establish in Bermuda. He was sixty-eight years old.

Berkeley's most important writings are: Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, which was rearranged in popular form in the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. In opposition to freethinkers, Berkeley wrote seven dialogues under the title Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher.

III. Theory of Knowledge

The most interesting and original part of Berkeley's thought is his theory of knowledge. He accepts the Empiricist teaching of Locke that the immediate object of our knowledge is ideas (subjective impressions) but rejects the distinction of Locke regarding primary (objective) and secondary (subjective) qualities.

The primary qualities (time, space, motion) are not perceptible separately from the secondary qualities (color, sound, tactile qualities, etc.). Indeed we know the primary qualities only in conjunction with and through the secondary qualities. If we know means to perceive subjective impressions, such impressions cannot be divided into two categories, one subjective and the other objective; all must be impressions felt by the subject, and hence all are subjective.

Furthermore, Berkeley refuses to accept Locke's concept of substance as a mysterious objective substratum which would be the cause of our impressions. Berkeley asks whether such a material substratum, separate from our sensations, can exist. If it is separate from our impressions, then it is not perceptible, is reduced to a term void of significance, and is unknowable and inconceivable. If it is connected with our impressions as a support of those impressions, then it resides in the subject and material substances are cognitive phenomena and hence are subjective.

It is impossible, therefore, that matter be something existing in itself, objective, inert, devoid of thought. When we say that a thing exists, we mean nothing more than that such a thing is perceived by us. The being of things consists in this act of perception: "Omne esse est percipi." (To BE is to be PERCEIVED.)

Primary or secondary qualities, substance and impressions are nothing other than acts of perception, that is, mental facts; and their existence signifies their being perceived as mental acts. Berkeley's theory of knowledge thus reduces all reality to phenomena: The material world exists only as a cognitive act, produced and existing in a mental act, and hence is subjective and not objective.

Berkeley denied general or universal ideas. The mind cannot represent a general color which would be neither red nor white nor any determined color, such as the universal concept of color must be. Hence, only particular, determined ideas exist. The so-called universal ideas are names, not ideas, and exist neither in the mind (because they are not ideas) nor outside the mind (because it is absurd that there be a color which is not determined).

Berkeley's nominalism is more radical than Locke's in so far as he denies all value to general and abstract ideas, whereas Locke had only imposed restrictions upon them.

IV. The Nature of the Universe

Berkeley, while denying the existence of a material world and reducing it to a phenomenon of knowledge, did not deny the existence of the world of spirits. He believed that he had proved the existence of the subjective spirit from the very presence of ideas, for ideas can be produced only by a spirit.

Having thus assured himself of the existence of his own spirit, Berkeley devoted himself to determining its nature: the spirit is both active, a producer of ideas, and passive, a receptacle for ideas. Its activity is revealed in the imagination and in the memory, with which we produce or recall ideas, but more still in the coordination of ideas. Passivity, as we have said, is revealed in the fact that the spirit receives ideas that it has not produced. For example, it is not within my power to see or not to see the objects that are in my room.

The passivity of the spirit gave Berkeley the means of proving the existence of other finite spirits, independent of his own, and the existence of God. In fact, he asked, what is the origin of these ideas that are imposed on my spirit and of which I am not the origin -- for instance, the objects I mentioned before as being present in my room?

They are produced by the will of other spirits, since I perceive, besides my own spirit, other particular agents like myself, who participate with me in the production of many ideas. Besides, there are ideas that I perceive which are not only not produced by my spirit, but are not produced by any finite spirit -- for instance, the regularity of natural phenomena. Fire always burns, independently of any will. Such ideas presuppose a cause superior to all finite spirits -- God, who exists, whole infinite will produces the order and harmony and constancy of natural phenomena.

Having thus demonstrated the existence of God, Berkeley believed that he had solved all the difficulties that could be raised against his idealistic phenomenalism. If, for example, one asks whether the objects in my room exist when I am outside and there is no one in my house, Berkeley answers in the affirmative; because if the objects are not perceived by a finite spirit they are perceived by God. If one should inquire about the difference between real fire and painted fire, why one burns and the other does not, Berkeley would have answered that God, the producer and supreme ruler of all ideas, unites to the first (real fire) the idea of burning, and denies it to the second (fire depicted in a painting).

In a word, the phenomenal world of Berkeley is not unlike the phenomenal world that everyone knows, with this difference: While commonly it is believed that natural phenomena are the product of a physical, material world, for Berkeley this material world does not exist. That which we attribute to matter, he says, must be referred to God, the exciter and revealer of ideas corresponding to material things.

We are on the ground of the occasionalism of Malebranche: God presents to our souls -- produces in them -- the ideas that impress us. The constant relationship with which God determines the ideas of our spirits are the so-called laws of nature. They are the language with which God reveals Himself and speaks to us.

Thus Berkeley believed that he had carried out the work he had set for himself: to justify theism against the attacks of incredulity; and to point out the emptiness of materialism by proving that the world as conceived by the materialist does not exist.

But did Berkeley really attain his goal? The existence of the (finite) spirit as something distinct from ideas implies the concept of spiritual substance; the activity and passivity of the spirit imply the concept of cause; the affirmation of the existence of God implies both the concepts of substance and of cause.

Now, all these concepts should have been established in a preliminary metaphysical study; this Berkeley did not do, and because of his empiristic position, he could not do it. The development of Empiricism toward complete phenomenalism stops halfway in Berkeley.

It was David Hume who drew the logical consequences from Empiricism, and affirmed complete phenomenalism not only in reference to matter, as Berkeley had done, but also in reference to spiritual substance, the concept of cause, and the concept of God.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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