BERKELEY George—philosopher and bishop of the Anglican Church, b. March 12, 1685 in Dysert Castle, Ireland, d. January 14, 1753 in Oxford.
From 1700 to 1707 he studied in Trinity College in Dublin and showed particular interest in philosophy and the study of ancient languages (Greek and Hebrew). After being ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1710 he was named the university preacher. In this period Berkeley wrote his most extensive and most important works. In 1713 he went to London where with the support of J. Swift he made connections with the royal court. He was name chaplain for the English legation to Italy. From 1720 (i.e., after his trip to continental Europe, especially to Italy and France where he personally met N. Malebranche) he became the chief initiator of an ethical and religious reform of his fellow Anglicans. In this period he was also a lecturer in Trinity College. At the beginning of 1722, having gained the support of King George I, he proposed the idea of founding a college in Bermuda. The work in Bermuda would have two major aims: to educate the clergy (those from among the local people and settlers), and to evangelize the Indians. The plan was not carried for financial reasons. From 1728 to 1731 he worked in a mission in North America on Rhode Island (Newport); his pastoral work won him many supporters (there he met S. Johnson, who was greatly influenced by his thought; in 1752 Johnson dedicated his work, Elementa Philosphica, to Berkeley). Here he also started a family. In 1734 he accepted the position of bishop in Cloyne (Ireland), and resigned from that position in 1752.
Berkeley’s most important philosophical works: Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (Db 1709); A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (Db 1710; Rzecz o zasadach poznania [Discourse on the principles of cognition], Wwa 1890, Traktat o zasadach poznania ludzkiego [Treatise on the principles of human knowledge], Wwa 1956); Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (Lo 1714; Trzy dialogi między Hylasem i Filonousem [Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous], Wwa 1927, 19562); De motu (Lo 1721); Alciphron or the Minute Philospher (Lo 1732), a collection of maxims that dealt with the social, political, and economic problems of Ireland called The Querist (Lo 1735–1737), and Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (Lo 1744). Berkeley’s complete works are found in a collection edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop: The Works of George Berkeley (I–IX, Lo 1948–1957).
Besides his great religious passion—his pastoral work and apologetical work for his faith with the help of the pen (he fought atheism, deism, and the spreading religious liberalism with unusual zeal), Berkeley should interest in matters of science, especially in philosophy, but also in economics and the natural sciences (e.g., physiological optics, which would be an important influence on his philosophical views—empiricism).
In his philosophical views Berkeley referred primarily and in a critical matter to the thought of J. Locke. In many passages he accepted Locke’s ideas, but in many he disagreed. He was opposed to the three great rationalists: Descartes, B. Spinoza, and G. W. Leibniz. In general his thought oscillated between nominalism, empiricism, immaterialism, spiritualism, subjective idealism, and theism.
EPISTEMOLOGY. Berkeley’s views basically belonged to the empiricist school, although in a later phase (especially in his work De motu and Siris) his views came closer to Platonism. In the first phase of his work, connected with the theory of optics (Essay towards a New Theory of Vision), Berkeley saw a connection between optics and the premises of empiricism. He took the position that the perception of geometrical qualities (shapes, size, and distance between qualities) is a resultant of the association of visual impressions and tactile impressions (especially those connected with motion).
Berkeley’s thought was a more precise development of J. Locke’s in many fundamental questions. In his opinion, there is nothing abstract in things or in the mind, for every idea, which is a content of our mind, is fully determined (concrete). Abstract ideas (concepts) do not create the meaning of a name, since their meaning may be reduced to the indication of a concrete sensible property. In the controversy about universal he thus was opposed to the realism of scholastic conceptions and to conceptualism in Locke’s version. Thus only two kinds of beings exist: thinking beings (those that perceive), and thus spirit, and non-thinking beings (lacking perception), i.e. ideas. There are no general objects or general ideas. An idea here is no longer understood as a representation (as Locke thought—Locke thought that primary ideas existed as objective, and secondary ideas as subjective). An idea is only a mental image. All sensible qualities are always subjective. Consequently spirits (perceiving beings) are by their nature incomposite and indestructible substances, whereas ideas are sensible qualities that are immediately given in experience (ideas are what is perceived). The existence of ideas consists entirely in that they are constantly perceived by some mind (human or divine).
According to Berkeley, there are three basic cognitive powers and three corresponding objects of cognition: the faculty of sense perception—its object is the the connection of sense impressions; the faculty of internal perception (Locke’s reflection)—its object is all (internal) states of the subject; and the ability to combine and distinguish ideas (the domain of memory and imagination), which has a secondary character, for it refers to the objects that are connected with the two prior facutlies (Locke spoke here of three operations: external experience, internal experience, and the ability to create concepts). Consequently the senses are the only source of knowledge concerning bodies (physical objects); the reason is concerned with spiritual matters. The cognitive powers are merely various types of sense perception. If the senses are therefore the only source of knowledge of bodies, then “to know” and “to perceive” are the same. Berkeley draws a conclusion with enormous consequences: all that exists is what we experience (what we perceive), i.e., only sensible qualities can be objects of knowledge. Sense impressions received on their basis are possible only when the subject sees them. Things-ideas (ensembles of sensible qualities) are thus dependent upon the act of perception itself. Cognition does not go beyond the limits of consciousness, and thus reality is identified with consciousness (immanentism).
In his radical sensualism Berkeley came furthermore to the conclusion that mathematics is not a domain of man’s intellect, but of the senses. Mathematics is thus an empirical and descriptive body of knowledge after the model of the natural sciences. However, since mathematics has no contact with experience, it does not bring anything essential to the cognition of reality. Berkeley made many remarks on the critique of the mathematical concept of infinite division. The conception of the impression here became the point of reference—an impression as the fundamental component of cognition cannot be broken down into lesser elements. Another consequence of Berkeley’s principles was that he called into question mechanics as a whole (the Newtonian conception of absolute motion, time, and space, which he regarded as illusions resulting from an abuse of language), and all causal connections occurring in the world (causality is acceptable only when it is conceived as a consequence of ideas of impressions). He also criticized the view that real beings exist that correspond to abstract terms such as force, attraction, or gravity—they are only “mathematical hypotheses”. Contrary to Locke’s doctrine, he thought that there are no objective properties—all properties are subjective (they exist in the mind), for they are a construct of transformations of experience performed by man’s intellect. It follows that sense cognition is the necessary and sufficient condition of all cognition (sensualism).
METAPHYSICS. Berkeley’s reasoning was very radical when it came to understanding substance: since substance is not an object of experience, it does not exist at all; it is only an illusion of the mind. What we know are conglomerates of sensible qualities—if a body were deprived of them (continuity) nothing would remain. The inescapable conclusion was that only perceptions exist: “esse est percipere aut percipi” (to be is to perceive or to be perceived). In fact, things are perceptions. There is no matter conceived as substance independent of perceptions. In this context, a question arose about the existence of an object which no one (no man) beholds. Berkeley found an answer in a theory of perception whose subject is God—He always beholds (perceives) what is in the world. God thus appears here as the universal perceiving subject; hence also the existence of sensible things consists in their complete dependence on God. This implies that all reality (all ideas) exist in God’s intellect. He is the efficient cause of all ideas, because He is the Supreme Mind (the most active, the most spiritual). This view certainly deserves to be called immaterialism (acosmism), and Berkeley intended this view to support argumentation for the existence of God. The sensible world here became a bridge to the manifestation of teleological divine action.
Berkeley also defended the position that the world is real. He thought that he was purifying philosophy for fictitious (most often linguistic) principles. He thus came forth with the radical solution that a spiritual being (human or divine), a mind—an active and discontinuous substance that is therefore indestructible and has no body, coincides with every existence of a thing. In opposition to the mind, ideas are insubstantial, passive, and they are subject to the process of generation and corruption. Thus subsistent (spiritual) beings are the foundation for the existence of ensembles of sensible qualities (material things)—spiritualism.
In this way—this is the inheritance of Berkeley’s doctrine—bodies became the object of science, and the world spirits became the object of metaphysics (it is impossible to know the ideas of spirits, they are the object of our concepts), because all changes in the world have a spiritual nature. Berkeley’s thought had a great influence on the shape of European philosophical thought from J. Locke to D. Hume, later on Kant’s critical philosophy, and ultimately on all modern idealism.
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