The Philosophy of George Berkeley


I: Berkeley’s Project:


Berkeley obviously has a religious agenda. In particular he is interested to oppose atheists and those who would deny the natural immortality of the soul. More generally, Berkeley is interested in opposing the free-thinkers (a group of people that not only includes atheists but deists as well). Deists reject any part of religion based on revelation (i.e. scripture, etc.). They believe in God, and only accept a natural religion (one that can be established on the basis of reason and experience). They generally see God as removed from everyday human affairs.


However . . . .


Berkeley’s Project also appears broader. He also claims that he will address skepticism. Moreover, he wants to make the sciences “more compendious”. So how can we fit these additional concerns within a more comprehensive account of Berkeley’s Project?


Answer . . . .


Berkeley’s attack on the ivory tower, and his (alleged) “return to common sense”.


Berkeley’s intention is to address philosophers and other “men” of speculation. He wants them to abandon abstract philosophizing and return to “real world” where they are to become engaged in both the study and the practice of (Christian) virtue. He sees the endless philosophizing of these men as, at best, useless for the overall betterment of humankind. At worst, the views of the philosophers can have a bad effect by leading “the vulgar” to disrespect men of learning, to disregard important noble truths, as well as by promoting incorrect (and morally harmful) views about the world (such as the view that the soul is mortal).


Berkeley’s Project can be seen as involving both a negative and a positive approach.


II: Berkeley’s Negative (Destructive) Approach


While the kind of philosophy that Berkeley is opposed to might be useless (or worse, harmful) in terms of the overall human good, this doesn’t mean that such an enterprise doesn’t traffic in the truth. One might tout the importance of “truth for truth’s own sake.” Berkeley aims to show that much of the issues of concern to these philosophers are in fact based on philosophical mistakes or are themselves utterly vacuous (i.e. without meaning)  


Berkeley, like his predecessor Locke, is concerned with philosophical perplexity (i.e. philosophical questions and disputes that never appear to be resolved). According to Locke the explanation of our perplexity was that human faculties are limited. By attempting to exceed the scope of human understanding, we delve into areas that we cannot understand. In such a view, there is much that we don’t understand. (For example, we don’t have a full understanding of the real natures of things. We don’t know how the mind thinks, we don’t know how particles of matter cohere together, we don’t know whether the soul is immaterial or material). In this way Locke endorses a kind of ignorance. This Lockean ignorance is, for Berkeley, a kind of skepticism that he seeks to oppose.


Before I go any further, let me mention a couple of other forms of skepticism that Berkeley is concerned to address:


(1)   Skepticism about the External World. How do we know whether there is anything beyond our own experiences? Can we know for certain that there is an external world? These are the types of questions associated with this kind of skepticism – the kind which is perhaps most familiar to us. Here the issue is one of doubt or a lack of certainty or a kind of agnosticism. This is less important to Berkeley than you might have thought.

(2)   Skepticism as the Distrust or Denigration of the Senses. Through the rise of the new science, the importance of mathematics came to the foreground. For some philosophers and scientists the senses fell into a kind of disrepute. They were taken to be generally unreliable and faulty.

(3)   Skepticism as the Denial of the Reality of Sensible Things. This kind of skepticism (which is central in Three Dialogues) is not about doubting, but denial. According to this kind of skepticism sensible qualities don’t really exist or are, in some important sense, absent from the external world. The world as it seems to us is not how it really is. (While it seems that there are colors, sounds, odors which are “out there”, in fact nothing is “out there” except for particles which are extended, with shape, in motion.). Note that this kind of skepticism is deeply connected to Lockean Ignorance of the true nature of things. For in Locke’s view, we are ignorant of the real essences of sensible things. For example, while we know that gold is yellow, etc., we don’t know what its true nature is).

(4)   Skepticism as Lockean Ignorance. See Above.


The main point to appreciate is that, for Berkeley, the skepticism he is opposed to flies in the face of common sense (i.e. against the vulgar). So, for example, Locke appears to be professing ignorance of things that the vulgar know perfectly well. It is not against common sense to deny the reality of sensible things. Also: It is against common sense to denigrate the senses. It is against common sense to be in doubt whether there is an external world or not. Because skepticism has a tendency to undermine the vulgar’s respect of philosophical views, it is very harmful in Berkeley’s opinion.


Because of these concerns, Berkeley is not only interested in addressing perplexity. He is also interested in addressing (Lockean) skepticism. This means that he is rejecting Locke’s account of philosophical perplexity. Instead, Berkeley offers his own account of philosophical perplexity as well as (Lockean) skepticism.


According to Berkeley, the problems do not arise due to human ignorance (or a deficiency in our faculties). Rather the problems arise from philosophers themselves.


“That we have first raised a dust, and then, complain, we cannot see” (PHK I Intro 3).


Because we as philosophers make errors or, worse, use words in meaningless or inappropriate ways, we are led into perplexity or skepticism. The solution is to “undo” all of the error. The solution is to clear away the dust. In this way, Berkeley’s Project can be seen as fundamentally destructive. He seeks to tear down an edifice of confusion.


III: Berkeley’s Positive (Motivational) Approach


In addition to tearing down the philosophy which leads to perplexity or skepticism, Berkeley wants to motivate men of speculation to behave virtuously. In this way, Berkeley’s philosophy should be seen as motivational and even inspirational. In order to accomplish this, Berkeley does two main things.


First, Berkeley aims to establish the existence of God. Obviously, by showing that God exists (and will punish the evil and reward the good), Berkeley thinks he can motivate people to behave well. It is important to note, however, that Berkeley is not merely interested in showing the existence of a Creator. Instead, he also wants to demonstrate the existence of a Governor who regulates our lives on a daily basis. This is important for Berkeley in opposing the deists, for whom God is distant and uninvolved in human affairs. Centrally connected to this desire, as we shall see, is Berkeley’s position that God is communicating with us through a Divine Language (i.e. through visible ideas that communicate tangible ideas) and thereby attempting to regulate our actions.


Second, Berkeley wants to establish the naturally immortality of the soul. (By “natural immortality” Berkeley means that while the soul is not susceptible to the regular changes and decay which befall things in nature, the soul can nonetheless be destroyed by God). Berkeley sees the rejection of the immortality of the soul as profoundly immortal and against the overall well-being of mankind. According to Berkeley, the ultimate end of human beings is eternal life, and we all have a deep desire for immortality. So somebody who teaches against this is promoting unhappiness (as well as immortal behavior). And he sees the possibility of eternal reward and punishment as the central incentive for virtuous behavior. (Note: This seems to make moral behavior motivated by self-interest. One might worry that on Berkeley’s view, people do not act virtuously for the sake of acting virtuously. One of the things that Berkeley would say is that for the most part the vulgar are not sophisticated enough to be motivated abstract concerns about virtue for virtue sake. Only the promise of heaven or hell will seem to do the trick.)