Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish philosopher, bishop, and scientist.
March 12, 1685
Dysert Castle, near Thomastown, Kilkenny, Ireland
January 14, 1753
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
By 1713, when he was twenty-eight, George Berkeley (BAHR-klee) had made his contribution to philosophy, a conception of the universe as composed solely of minds and their contents. He completed his three major works before he was thirty years old. Born in 1685, Berkeley received his education at Trinity College, Dublin, where he served as tutor from 1707 to 1712. During this period he published An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. The first, a psychological study of perception, was well received, while the second was regarded as the work of a madman or a seeker after notoriety. George Berkeley
The philosophical claim that Berkeley made in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge—which secured for him both the ridicule of his early readers and an honored place in the history of philosophy—was that nothing exists except minds and their contents: ideas, sensations, perceptions. This is a direct result of the empiricist’s claim that all knowledge comes from perception. All that can be discovered in perception is that one is having certain sensations and ideas; hence, there are no grounds for asserting the existence of anything else. One cannot argue for some mind-independent material substance which causes perceptions, for since it is not perceived, it cannot be known. One cannot perceive it, for it is by definition not a sensation or an idea, and these are the sole objects of perception. Berkeley took his views to be in complete accord with common sense and to be a bulwark for the faithful against atheism and skepticism.
Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous was published by Berkeley in an attempt to gain a better hearing for his views; it failed. While in London during 1713 and 1714, he became the friend of literary figures, including Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope. After traveling in Europe from 1715 to 1720, Berkeley returned to London, where he became concerned about public morality. To aid in its improvement, in 1724 he conceived, at considerable person sacrifice and expense, a scheme to found a college in Bermuda for the colonists and native inhabitants of America. While he was spending the years 1728 to 1731 at Newport, Rhode Island, with his wife, whom he married in 1728, Parliament refused to pay him the money it had authorized for the venture. He returned to London.
He then published Alciphron, the defense of religion he had written while in America. In 1734, he was appointed bishop of Cloyne in Ireland. He lived there quietly with his family until just before his death. Although Alciphron was published right before this period, and Siris in the middle of it, Berkeley’s important philosophical writings had been completed thirty years before. Most of his time and interest were taken up with helping his neighbors and extolling the benefits of "tar water" (pine tar), which he had discovered in America and prescribed for almost everything. Berkeley died in England near Oxford, where he had moved to supervise the education of a son who had been admitted to Christ Church.
Berkeley took John Locke’s views about primary and secondary qualities to their logical extreme. He argued that Locke’s primary qualities belonging to the objects outside the mind are in the same category as his secondary qualities, such as color and taste, belonging to the mind itself. Berkeley’s empiricism and radical subjectivism influenced others such as David Hume, who believed that all perceptions and notions are a matter of physiology and habit. Immanuel Kant also espoused the Berkeleyan notion that people are only aware of appearances, not the real, the nominal, or external world. The modern-day version of such views is called phenomenalism. Berkeley’s philosophy, in one form or another, is still alive and a matter of serious philosophical and psychological debate.