George Berkeley

George Berkeley

Born: 1685. Died: 1753.


- To be is to be perceived. (A physical thing exists only when it is perceived through the use of the senses.)

- Physical things are complexes of ideas (sensations).

- Since no idea or sensation exists outside the mind, no physical thing exists outside the mind.

- The primary qualities (solidity, extension, shape, motion) are as subjective as are the secondary qualities (color, sound, odor, taste, and texture).

- The only kind of substance is spiritual substance: namely, that which perceives and thinks.

- God accounts for the uniformity of nature and its continued existence when no finite mind perceives it; God causes the perceiving subject to have the ideas that constitute the external mind.


George Berkeley was born in or near Kilkenny, Ireland on 12 March 1685.

He was raised in Dysart Castle. Although his father was English, Berkeley always considered himself Irish. In 1696, he entered Kilkenny College.

He entered Trinity College, Dublin on 21 March 1700 and received his B.A. in 1704. He remained associated with Trinity College until 1724. In 1706 he competed for a College Fellowship which had become available and became a Junior Fellow on 9 June 1707. After completing his doctorate, he became a Senior Fellow in 1717. As was common practice for British academics at the time, Berkeley was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1710.

The works for which Berkeley is best known were written during his Trinity College period. In 1709, he published An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision. In 1710, he published A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I. In 1712, he published Passive Obedience, which focuses on moral and political philosophy. In 1713, he published Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. In 1721, he published De Motu. In addition, there is a set of notebooks, often called the Philosophical Commentaries (PC), that covers the period during which he developed his idealism and immaterialism. These were personal notebooks, and he never intended to publish them.

While Berkeley was associated with Trinity College until 1724, he was not continuously in residence. In 1713, he left for London, in part to arrange publication for the Three Dialogues. He befriended some of the intellectual lights of the time, including Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope. He contributed several articles against free-thinking (agnosticism) to Steele’s Guardian. Since the articles were unsigned, disagreement remains regarding which articles Berkeley wrote.

He was the chaplain to Lord Peterborough during his 1713-1714 continental tour. There is some evidence that Berkeley met the French philosopher Nicholas Malebranche during that tour, although the popular myth that their conversation occasioned Malebranche’s death is false: Malebranche died in 1715. He was the chaperone of young St. George Ashe, son of the Trinity College provost, during his continental tour from 1716-21. It was during this tour that Berkeley later claimed to have lost the manuscript to the second part of the Principles. He observed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1717 and sent a description of it to the Royal Society. While in Lyon, France in 1720, Berkeley wrote De Motu, an essay on motion which reflects his scientific instrumentalism. The manuscript was Berkeley’s entry for a dissertation prize sponsored by the French Academy. It did not win.

In May 1724, Berkeley became Anglican dean of Londonderry and resigned his position at Trinity College. He was never a dean in residence. Between 1722 and 1728, Berkeley developed a plan to establish a seminary in Bermuda for the sons of colonists and Native Americans. He actively lobbied for his project. He obtained a charter for the college, private contributions, and a promise for a grant of £20,000 from the British Parliament. After marrying Anne Foster on August 1, 1728, he and his bride departed for America in September 1728. He settled near Newport, Rhode Island, waiting for the promised grant. He bought a farm and built a house named Whitehall, which is still standing. He was an active cleric during his stay in Rhode Island. He was in contact with some of the leading American intellectuals of the time, including Samuel Johnson, who became the first president of King’s College (now Columbia University). He wrote the bulk of Alciphron, his defense of Christianity against free-thinking, while in America. In early 1731, Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London, informed Berkeley that Sir Robert Walpole had informed him that there was little likelihood that the promised grant would be paid. Berkeley returned to London in October 1731. Before leaving America he divided his library between the Harvard and Yale libraries, and he gave his farm to Yale.

After his return to London, Berkeley published A Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1732), Alciphron: or the Minute Philosopher (1732), The Theory of Vision, or Visual Language shewing the immediate Presence and Providence of A Deity, Vindicated and Explained (1733), The Analyst; or, a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician (1734), A Defense of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735), Reasons for not Replying to Mr Walton’s Full Answer (1735), as well as revised editions of the Principles and the Dialogues (1734). The revisions of the Principles and Dialogues contain Berkeley’s scant remarks on the nature and one’s knowledge of mind (notions).

While the Bermuda Project was a practical failure, it increased Berkeley’s reputation as a religious leader. It is considered partially responsible for his appointment as Bishop of Cloyne in January 1734. In February 1734 he resigned as Dean of Londonderry. He was consecrated Bishop of Cloyne in St. Paul’s Church, Dublin, on 19 May 1734.

Berkeley was a good bishop. As bishop of an economically poor Anglican diocese in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, he was committed to the well-being of both Protestants and Catholics. He established a school to teach spinning, and he attempted to establish the manufacture of linen. His Querist (1735-1737) concerns economic and social issues germane to Ireland. Among other things, it contains a proposal for monetary reform. His Siris (1744) prefaces his philosophical discussions with an account of the medicinal value of tar water. The relationship of Siris to his early philosophy continues to be a matter of scholarly discussion.

Except for a trip to Dublin in 1737 to address the Irish House of Lords and a trip to Kilkenny in 1750 to visit family, he was continually in Cloyne until his retirement. In August 1752, Berkeley and his family left Cloyne for Oxford, ostensibly to oversee the education of his son George. While at Oxford, he arranged for the republication of his Alciphron and the publication of his Miscellany, a collection of essays on various subjects.

He died on January 14, 1753 while his wife was reading him a sermon. In keeping with his will, his body was “kept five days above ground, ... even till it grow offensive by the cadaverous smell”, a provision that was intended to prevent premature burial. (This was the age in which some caskets were fitted with bells above ground so the “dead” could “ring up” if their beneficiaries had been a bit hasty.)

George Berkeley was one of the three most famous eighteenth century British Empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume.

He is best known for his motto, esse is percipi, to be is to be perceived. He was an idealist: everything that exists is either a mind or depends for its existence upon a mind. He was an immaterialist: matter does not exist. He accepted the seemingly outrageous position that ordinary physical objects are composed solely of ideas, which are inherently mental. He wrote on vision, mathematics, Newtonian mechanics, economics, and medicine as well as philosophy. In his own time, his most often-read works concerned the medicinal value of tar-water.

And in a curious sense, he was the first great American philosopher.

Major Works of George Berkeley

- A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710
- Alciphron: or the Minute Philosopher, 1732
- An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, 1709
- The Analyst, 1734
- De Motu (On Motion), 1721
- Philosophical Commentaries, 1707–08, notebooks
- The Querist, 1735–37
- Siris, 1744
- The Theory of Vision or Visual Language ... Vindicated and Explained, 1733
- Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, 1713

Quotes from George Berkeley

- "We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see." (from "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge", 1710)

- "He who says there is no such thing as an honest man, you may be sure is himself a knave." (from "Maxims Concerning Patriotism", 1740)


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