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Berkeley, George (1685–1753)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

George Berkeley, who was born in Ireland and who eventually became Bishop of Cloyne, is best known for three works that he published while still very young: An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), and in particular for A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). In the Principles he argues for the striking claim that there is no external, material world; that houses, trees and the like are simply collections of ‘ideas’; and that it is God who produces ‘ideas’ or ‘sensations’ in our minds. The New Theory of Vision had gone some way towards preparing the ground for this claim (although that work has interest and value in its own right), and the Dialogues represent Berkeley’s second attempt to defend it. Other works were to follow, including De Motu (1721), Alciphron (1732) and Siris (1744), but the three early works established Berkeley as one of the major figures in the history of modern philosophy.

The basic thesis was certainly striking, and from the start many were tempted to dismiss it outright as so outrageous that even Berkeley himself could not have taken it seriously. In fact, however, Berkeley was very serious, and certainly a very able philosopher. Writing at a time when rapid developments in science appeared to be offering the key to understanding the true nature of the material world and its operations, but when scepticism about the very existence of the material world was also on the philosophical agenda, Berkeley believed that ‘immaterialism’ offered the only hope of defeating scepticism and of understanding the status of scientific explanations. Nor would he accept that his denial of ‘matter’ was outrageous. Indeed, he held that, if properly understood, he would be seen as defending the views of ‘the vulgar’ or ‘the Mob’ against other philosophers, including Locke, whose views posed a threat to much that we would ordinarily take to be common sense. His metaphysics cannot be understood unless we see clearly how he could put this interpretation on it; and neither will we do it justice if we simply dismiss the role he gives to God as emerging from the piety of a future bishop. Religion was under threat; Berkeley can probably be judged prescient in seeing how attractive atheism could become, given the scientific revolution of which we are the heirs; and though it could hardly be claimed that his attempts to ward off the challenge were successful, they merit respectful attention. Whether, however, we see him as the proponent of a fascinating metaphysics about which we must make up our own minds, or as representing merely one stage in the philosophical debate that takes us from Descartes to Locke and then to Hume, Kant and beyond, we must recognize Berkeley as a powerful intellect who had an important contribution to make.

Citing this article:
Tipton, Ian. Berkeley, George (1685–1753), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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