Man and Myth

NOTE: THIS IS A VERY ROUGH (and seriously incomplete) DRAFT!!!


            George Berkeley is one of the most well-known philosophers in the western philosophical tradition and he wrote during the early modern period, one of its most intellectual fertile ever. He is traditionally considered the middle figure of “The Three Great Empiricists” (flanked by John Locke and David Hume), usually contrasted with “The Three Great Rationalists” (Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz).

Given his impact on both Hume and Kant, as well as the overall importance of this period of time to the rest of the philosophy that followed, the overall influence of Berkeley must be minimally reckoned as considerable.  He is most well-recognized for his dictum esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) and his immaterialism (his rejection of matter). And although he did not use the term, Berkeley is generally regarded as the father of modern “idealism” (roughly, the view that the world -or at least the world as known to us - is in some sense mind-dependent) which was defended in different forms by Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer.[1]


Perplexity and Common Sense

            If Berkeley is one of the most important philosophers, he is also one of the most perplexing. His philosophy can seem wildly counter intuitive - even outrageous: Doesn’t Berkeley think the external world doesn’t actually exist at all; that there aren’t material things whatsoever; that there are only mere ideas which we perceive in our own minds? Doesn’t Berkeley turn reality into a mere dream?

One wonders how Berkeley could have endorsed such a radical philosophical picture of the world, and how he could have expected anybody to take it seriously. Even Berkeley’s contemporaries were wary of his opinions. The great philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, for example, commented that Berkeley seemed a man who wanted to be known only for his paradoxes – a kind of Zeno, if you will, who rather than defending a coherent philosophical account of the world, rested content in defending absurdities that couldn’t possibly be true. It is certainly easy to understand why his contemporary, Dr. Samuel Johnson famously attempted to refute Berkeley by simply kicking a stone beside the road, in response to Boswell’s claim that Berkeley’s arguments could not be answered   

To this day, Berkeley continues to be viewed as a philosopher entirely at odds with common sense. In picking up an Introduction to Philosophy text, one could easily flip to a chapter entitled ‘Common Sense Undone’ and find an excerpt from Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge. Indeed, some contemporary philosophers wonder whether we should even study Berkeley at all. What good is a philosopher who holds such views?  Perhaps it is only by dubious circumstances that he has been admitted into the canon of great, Western philosophers in the first place.

Yet some have considered Berkeley a great philosopher, not least of which was the great David Hume himself. And although this crude picture of Hume as merely the empiricist successor of Berkeley has been largely discredited, it remains true that Hume was influenced by Berkeley in very profound ways. Indeed, it is worth noting that Hume himself endorsed the opposite (but equally legendary) view that Berkeley’s arguments are actually irrefutable (although entirely incapable of producing any conviction) – a view also endorsed by John Boswell, and Thomas Reid. Even Kant himself regarded dogmatic idealism (which he attributed to Berkeley) as unavoidable except when undercut by his own transcendental idealism. This odd view of Berkeley’s philosophy (namely as irrefutable but unconvincing) appears to have been in circulation even during Berkeley’s life time.  Notably, both extreme representations – Berkeley as fool and Berkeley as genius centralize this profound opposition to common sense.

 What one perhaps wants is a less dramatic and somewhat more moderate assessment of Berkeley’s philosophy.  Certainly, it is easy to misunderstand a philosopher, and I am afraid that Berkeley is one very good example. Yet, I also think that the outrageousness of Berkeley is part of what is so captivating about him. Philosophy tends to be at its most gripping when it shocks and unsettles. And while I do think that Berkeley has been a victim of serious caricature and misrepresentation, I don’t think that Berkeley can be plausibly understood as offering a philosophically cautious and unsurprising account of the world. 

In keeping with the theme of this monograph series, I’d like to make the issues of paradox and perplexity central to our own investigation into Berkeley’s philosophy. Is Berkeley somebody who departs wildly from common sense? Or can he be reconciled more comfortably with an everyday view of the world?  The theme is important to Berkeley himself, who especially in his major philosophical work, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) develops the view that his own position is much closer to common sense than that of his opponents.  On the face of it, of course, this seems only to be adding insult to injury (or heaping the ludicrous upon the unbelievable). Yet there have been important interpreters of Berkeley who have found a way to see a more palatable Berkeley, so the question is not so easily dismissed.

To see this, let me sketch what I take to be a traditional understanding of Berkeley. In this view, each person perceives her own private ideas. Beyond these individual ideas are the real objects. So, for example, several people may have their own sensory ideas of a table; and beyond these ideas is the real thing that corresponds to them (namely, the table itself). Berkeley is supposed to reject the table itself, leaving us with only our individual, private ideas. Now Berkeley may say that he has not departed from common sense. For example, he may group all of the table-ideas together and call them the table. Or else, he may isolate God’s ideas to constitute the table. But, really, it seems that Berkeley has gotten rid of the actual, external table leaving us with only our own meager ideas. This is because tables and trees are generally regarded as public items which are independent of specific minds for their existence. In such a view, the Irish poet, Yeats’ view of a Berkeley who reduced the world to dream – while metaphoric – surely has a ring of truth to it. In effect, when Berkeley claims that he has not departed from common sense, this seems like nothing more than a sleight of hand

However, A.A. Luce – a very influential Berkeley scholar of the first half of the 20th century – defended an alternative reading of Berkeley’s position. In this view, Berkeley does not get rid of the public table at all. Instead, he adopts the (admittedly surprising) view that the table has a peculiar feature that many of us have not hitherto been aware of – namely that the table itself cannot exist unperceived by some mind or other. Yet while the view is very surprising, it does not depart from common sense so stridently. In the very least, Berkeley does not seem to be denying the existence of the table. The table exists just as it always did. The philosophical insight, instead, is merely that the table has the bizarre feature of being incapable of existing without some mind to perceive it. The important point in this view, is that when Berkeley claims that the table still exists (as usual), his claim appears to be much less of a cheat.

Given that Berkeley has been interpreted in a way that seems friendlier to common sense, we should at least be prepared to take seriously the possibility that Berkeley is more closely aligned than one might have supposed. That being said, Berkeley’s views about common sense are complex – perhaps even contradictory. While the Berkeley of the Dialogues really does seem especially interested in restoring philosophers to “common sense,” the Berkeley of the Principles also proudly endorses the view that one ought to “speak with the vulgar and think with the learned”. One example of “speaking with the vulgar” offered by Berkeley himself, is that we continue to say that the sun rises and sets, despite the fact that it is not the Sun but the Earth that is moving. This proud endorsement, however, raises the real possibility that on several philosophical issues, Berkeley’s commitment to common sense is merely verbal. The worry is that while Berkeley’s own considered ontological views may differ in serious ways from the views of the common folk, that nonetheless the speech of the common folk is to be preserved, but only for propriety’s sake.

Unsurprisingly, then, a recurring motif in the literature has been a split-Berkeley – a kind of Janus-Berkeley. On the one hand, we seem to have Berkeley the man-of-the-people, friend of the masses, and defender of common sense while on the other hand we seem to have Berkeley the metaphysician, philosopher, and chief source of outrage and perplexity. The point that I should like to stress is that the contrast between the traditional interpretation of Berkeley and the Lucian interpretation is reflected in Berkeley’s very own ambivalence: While the former emphasizes the tension between philosophical Berkeley and common sense Berkeley, the latter emphasizes the close fit between the two. While the former has ontological Berkeley actually stray from common sense, the latter has him stay much closer to home. And, in a sense, neither picture really seems to get Berkeley quite right since the complexity – this curious ambivalence – is omitted in favour of a simplification toward one side of the tension.

            One good way to frame this tension is to recognize that for Berkeley there is an important contrast between the views of those he calls the ‘vulgar’ (or the common folk – the “illiterate bulk of mankind” as he sometimes calls them) and those he calls the ‘philosophers’ (the learned, the men of speculation).  This distinction, equally important to Hume, plays a significant role in the orientation of Berkeley’s own views: He explicitly aims to show where both the vulgar and the philosophers fail; to reconcile the parts that he accepts; to, in some sense, go beyond both. This obviously raises an interesting question about the very positioning of Berkeley’s intellectual efforts: To what extent would he seek to describe them as part of the enterprise of philosophy at all? To what extent is he advocating a return to the views of the vulgar? Berkeley’s positioning of his work presents itself as a kind of third option that is neither quite of the vulgar nor quite of the philosophers. In this way, Berkeley’s work poses interesting meta-philosophical questions about the nature of philosophy itself, and its relationship to common sense and the views of the ordinary person.



The Works of Berkeley

            Because of their particular importance, this guide will focus almost exclusively on Berkeley’s Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). It is in these two chief works that Berkeley develops his most well-known and influential metaphysical and epistemological doctrines. Unfortunately, then, one failing of the guide is its support for the general ongoing neglect of Berkeley’s rather rich corpus. The point is worth emphasizing, since Berkeley is often viewed as a narrow philosopher with a specific paradox to peddle or axe to grind. This representation, however is grossly inaccurate.

Berkeley’s first major work Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision (1709) was a very influential empiricist contribution to the psychology of vision. In 1712 Berkeley published three of his sermons as Passive Obedience, his most detailed discussion of moral and political philosophy, in which he (pace Locke) defended the view that subjects are bound by moral law to obey their sovereign unconditionally. Berkeley’s de Motu (1721) was a contribution to natural science in which he argued against the real existence of dynamic forces (pace Leibniz). Berkeley’s Alciphron: Or the Minute Philosopher (1732) was a well-received Christian apologetic, addressing issues such as the freedom of the will, human knowledge of God, and the Divine Mysteries. In his major mathematical work, The Analyst (1734), Berkeley powerfully criticized the calculus of both Newton and Leibniz, thereby making a notable (albeit controversial) contribution to 18th C. mathematics. And Berkeley last major work, Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Enquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water (1744), was an erudite (albeit mysterious) reflection on physics, metaphysics, and medicine. 

Aside from these contributions, Berkeley also wrote a good deal about prevailing social, political, and economic issues of the day.  Aside from several anonymous philosophical contributions to The Guardian (1713) in which Berkeley criticizes the “free-thinkers” of the time, his works include Advice to the Tories who have taken the Oaths (1715), Essay on the Ruine of Great Britain (1721), Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations (1724), Querist (1735-7), Discourse addressed to the Magistrates (1738), Word to the Wise (1749), and Maxims concerning Patriotism (1750).

The focus on the Principles and the Dialogues, then, simply does not do justice to the scope of Berkeley’s work. That being said, any responsible introduction really needs to take this kind of focus: Berkeley’s metaphysical/epistemological views have achieved a philosophical significance that his others views have not. In order to understand what has had the greatest impact, therefore, what has turned out to be Berkeley’s legacy - one needs to begin with his immaterialist doctrine. This is not to say that this guide will ignore some of the issues discussed in other works. Indeed, it simply cannot ignore Berkeley’s theory of vision and his philosophy of mathematics and natural science. However, other works will be drawn on only for the purpose of further illuminating his central philosophical masterworks.

The Principles was originally intended to be the first part of a larger treatise. However, before turning to compose the second part, Berkeley wrote Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in order to present his views (which had not been well-received) in a more accessible form. Although Berkeley had apparently written a substantial portion Part II, it was lost in Italy; and Berkeley never re-wrote it. We are left, then, with only these two works as the chief guides to Berkeley’s philosophy.

Now some commentators hold that Berkeley’s Principles constitutes his strongest, most definitive statement of his philosophy, while others represent the Dialogues as a more developed, mature elaboration of the view. Berkeley himself, however, merely explained that the latter was intended to “treat more clearly and fully of certain principles” presented in the Principles; and “to place them in a new light” (Three Dialogues, Preface). One of the goals of this guide, rather than focusing on one or the other of Berkeley’s major works or else ignoring the differences between them, is to compare and contrast the argumentative strategies deployed in both works. For instance, while the Principles tends to emphasize Berkeley’s rejection of abstract ideas and his insistence that philosophical perplexity is much ado about nothing, the Dialogues does not. By contrast, the latter, unlike the former, explicitly undertakes the project of showing that the views of “the philosophers” lead to a radical departure from common sense and a commitment to skepticism.  My hope is that this approach will provide readers with a rich account of Berkeley’s philosophy which does not erase the differences between his two works or else emphasize one of his works to the exclusion of the other.


Berkeley’s Life[2]

George Berkeley was born to the fairly well-to-do William and Eliza Berkeley in the county of Kilkenny, Ireland on March 12, 1685. His grandfather had come to Ireland from England after the Restoration, receiving the collectorship of Belfast and his father also held a collectorship. Berkeley was the eldest of six sons - Rowland, Ralph, William, Robert, and Thomas. While we know little of the first two, we know that William was a soldier and Robert was a churchman and a chief support of Berkeley during his declining years. We also know that Thomas, the youngest, had been condemned to death for bigamy in 1726. 

Berkeley lived at Dysart Castle, near Thomastown until entering the boarding school, Kilkenny College in 1696 (at the age of 11). He entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1700 (age of 16). Locke’s Essay was already part of the course, thanks to the influence of Irish philosopher, William Molyneux. Berkeley was elected Scholar of the House in 1702 and received his B.A. degree in 1704 (age of 20). Peter Browne was the Provost of Trinity and some evidence indicates he may have been Berkeley’s theology instructor. Peter Browne was well known for his response to John Toland’s book Christianity not Mysterious (a highly controversial deistic, anti-clerical work). Much later (in 1732-3), Berkeley and Browne would find themselves in a theological/philosophical dispute concerning human knowledge of the Divine.

Early accounts of Berkeley’s life, after his death in 1753, circulated questionable details about his student days (helping to promote the negative image of Berkeley). In particular, he was represented as a recluse and the butt of student jokes – “the greatest dunce in the whole university.” In a famous joke, he is said to have walked into a post, whence someone responded, “Never mind, Doctor, there’s no matter in it.” Additionally, some alleged fondness for reading “airy romances” was fingered as one peculiar source of his immaterialism. Generally such caricatures have been discredited. Certainly, it seems clear Berkeley was hardly a recluse given his involvement in at least two student societies during these years. While there has been some speculation about the nature of these societies, one appears to have involved debating some particular subject, and then considering “the inventions, new thoughts or observations in any of the science” proposed by a member. The second society seemed to involve discussing the “new Philosophy” which was emerging. 

However, recent evidence suggests one particular story may have been true. According to this story, after witnessing a public execution and becoming curious about the sensations of a man at the point of death, Berkeley and fellow student, Thomas Contarine, planned to take turns hanging (to be released by other on signal). Berkeley, who went first, lost use of his senses, Contarine waited too long, and when loosed, Berkeley fell “senseless and motionless” to the floor. (Contarine decided not to take his turn).


After receiving his BA in 1704, Berkeley remained at Trinity College in order to wait for an opening so that he could become a university fellow (this involved teaching and administration and the college). After a highly competitive examination, Berkeley was elected Junior Fellow 1707 and received his M.A. a month later. Fellows were obligated to take Holy Orders; and in 1709 Berkeley was ordained deacon, and in 1710 ordained priest. On both occasions he was ordained by Dr. Ashe, Bishop of Clogher (and the former Provost of Trinity). Apparently there was some controversy concerning Berkeley’s 1710 ordination: William King (Archbishop of Dublin) was angered that Berkeley had been ordained without his permission, and Berkeley issues an official apology in 1710. There is other evidence that the relationship between Berkeley and King may have been far from agreeable.

Between 1707 and 1710 there is tremendous work on Berkeley’s part, culminating in his 1710 masterpiece, A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. In 1871 A.C. Fraser first published Berkeley’s private notebooks. And while Berkeley’s notebooks have been the source of considerable scholarly dispute, this much seems relatively clear (1) the notebooks were written around 1707-8; (2) they reflect Berkeley’s developing philosophical views. Additionally, there exists an earlier version of Berkeley’s Introduction to the Principles (which concerns his anti-abstractionism) which was probably written in 1708. There are important discrepancies between this and the one which was published with the Principles in 1710, again indicating Berkeley’s philosophical development.  In 1709 Berkeley’s revolutionary Essay Toward A New Theory of Vision was published. An important contribution to the science of vision, the Berkeleian approach came to play a dominant role until the mid 1950’s (ATH).

In 1710, Berkeley published the Principles. While this philosophical work has ultimately secured an important place in the philosophical canon, it was hardly well-received at first – certainly it did not have the same reception as the Essay. Indeed, it seems to have been generally rejected and ridiculed without a reading. Influential philosopher Samuel Clarke, placing him in the same camp as Malebranche, accused him of an abstruse metaphysics that was of no use to practical affairs. This was anathema to Berkeley, who commented to his friend Percival that “Fine spun metaphysics are what I on all occasions declare against, and if anyone shall shew me anything of that sort in my ‘Treatise’ I will willingly correct it” (BD 89). When further pressed by Percival to offer his objections to Berkeley’s position, Dr. Clarke simply refused to respond at all. Undaunted by this reception, however, Berkeley began working on Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in order to put his theory “in a different light.”

In 1712 Berkeley published three earlier sermons blended together as Passive Obedience. His reasons for publishing involved his desire to respond to accusations that he was a Jacobite which emerged as a consequence of his sermons.[3]  Berkeley’s view that rebellion against the state is against moral law is easily applied to the Glorious Revolution itself (by which William ascended to the throne), so it is easy to see why such accusation might have been made. Yet, it could also be taken to urge restraint on the part of the Jacobites with respect to the current reign. So it is a matter of some scholarly disagreement what Berkeley’s actual political position was and whether it was a position that changed over time.

Berkeley left Ireland in 1713 for London in part to publish his Dialogues there (which he did in May of that year), in part to meet “men of merit.” There, Berkeley quickly became friends with many of the leading London intellectuals of the day: Joseph Addison, John Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope, Richard Steele, and Jonathan Swift. In 1714, Berkeley contributed several essays to Steele’s new periodical The Guardian. Scholarly controversy still continues over authorship of at least some of these essays all of which were published anonymously.  Recent evidence also shows that Berkeley was the editor of Steele’s Ladies Library (1715), an educational book for women.

Around this time, Berkeley embarked on two Continental tours.  During the first one which lasted ten months between 1713-14, Berkeley had the occasion to visit Paris, Alps, Turin, Genoa, Sicily, Pisa, and Florence. While in Paris, Berkeley may have had the opportunity to meet Father Malebranche. Whether this is the case or not, a fanciful story emerged that they did in fact meet and that during heated dispute, Malebranche became so worked up that he died a few days later (Berkeley is cited as the occasional cause). The story can’t be true, however, since Malebranche died a few years later (rather than a few days latter) in 1715.

Before Berkeley began his second tour, the issue of Jacobism returned to haunt him. In 1715 he published Advice to the Tories who have taken the Oaths urging Tories to acquiesce to the ascension of George I (of the House of Hanover) after the death of Queen Anne. This has been taken as evidence that Berkeley was not (at least not at this time) a Jacobite, since many of the leaders of the Tories had Jacobite sensibilities. The pamphlet preceded the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. But in 1716 Berkeley had sought the church preferment of St. Paul’s in Dublin. Initially confident of his chances, he was ultimately denied in favour of Duke Tyrrell who had written a letter denouncing Berkeley. In addition to criticizing Berkeley’s long absence from Trinity College, he cited Passive Obedience as evidence of Berkeley’s Jacobism.

Berkeley began his second Continental Tour in 1716. Dr. Ashe, Bishop of Clogher granted Berkeley a tutorship to accompany his son George Ashe on his travels. The tour lasted considerably longer than the first one, ending in 1720. They traveled through France to Turin, Rome, Naples, Florence, and Sicily. And Berkeley kept journals of his travels in Italy (some of which remain). Berkeley published his description of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1717. Of note, it is apparently sometime during his travels in Italy that Berkeley lost his draft of the Second Part of the Principles which was to concern his views about the mind. Upon returning to France in 1720, Berkeley submitted De Motu to the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris which had offered a prize for essays on motion. While Berkeley did not win the contest, he published De Motu in 1721.

Berkeley returned to Trinity College where he had already been appointed Senior Fellow in 1717 during his absence. In 1721 Berkeley published An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruine of Great Britain in reaction to what has been called the bursting of The South Sea Bubble. After incurring significant national debt, the South Sea Company was instituted to take over much of the debt and reduce it through trade. The Company managed to manipulate an increase in the price of its stock, leading to a proliferation of other companies (some of them illegal). When the “bubble burst,” the stock of the South Sea Company plunged. Many were brought to trial (including Ministers of the Crown) in this scandal which led to poverty and disorder. In this Essay, Berkeley points to the more general decline in moral and religious values; he argues that the only source of wealth is work and that luxury ought to be curbed by laws.

In late 1721, Berkeley earned the degrees of B.D. and D.D., and he was also appointed Divinity Lecturer. During this time, he again began to seek a preferment. He initially applied for the Deanery of Dromore, with the support of the Duke of Grafton, which would have allowed him to retain his Fellowship at Trinity. However, the Bishop of the diocese had another man in mind, leading to a conflict. Ultimately, Berkeley applied for the Deanery of Derry in late 1722 when a vacancy came open. In 1724, he was installed as the Dean and resigned his Senior Fellowship at Trinity after twenty-four years.

Disappointed with the moral state of Old Europe (probably in part dismayed by the South Sea Bubble), Berkeley began to conceive a plan for missionary work in the New World. His plan was to build a college (St. Paul’s) which was to educate students to become clergymen. His aim was to reach both the colonial folk as well as the natives who were to become missionaries to their people. Berkeley selected the questionable location of Bermuda partially due to its equal proximity to the major colonies.

Berkeley began working on this plan in earnest in 1724, publishing Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations. Between 1724 and 1728 he worked to garner support for his project. After obtaining a charter and a promise of £20,000 from the British Parliament, Berkeley set sail for America in late 1728. He lived in Rhode Island, near Newport – he called the house he built Whitehall (which still stands to this day) to wait for his grant, until learning in 1731 that the money we has promised would never be paid to him. While his ‘Bermuda Scheme’ generated considerable enthusiasm and support (by the likes of Jonathan Swift, for example), it was also significantly flawed. While equidistant to the major colonies, it was very far away from the mainland (600 mi) and since no native Americans actually lived there, they would have to be convinced to make the long travel to St. Paul’s. While these considerations no doubt help sink the project, the political maneuverings which occurred behind the scenes were also considerably more complex

Just before sailing to America, Berkeley married Anne Forster. While not a great deal is known about Anne and her relationship with Berkeley, according to Berkeley himself:

I chose her for the qualities of her mind and her unaffected inclination to books. She goes with great cheerfulness to live a plain farmer’s life, and wear stuff of her own spinning wheel, and for her encouragement have assured her that from henceforward there shall never be one yard of silk bought for the use of myself, herself, or any of our family (BP 236).   


A.A. Luce writes that Anne Berkeley was a well-educated and highly cultured, intelligent and intellectually engaged. She may have been a follower of semi-quietists such as Fenelon and Madame de Guyon. (Given Berkeley’s authorship of Ladies Library, it is clear that he too was also familiar with Fenelon). Berkeley wrote of Anne during their stay in America, “. . .my wife loves a country life and books so well as to pass her time contentedly and cheerfully without any other conversation than her husband and the dead” (262).

A recently discovered letter written by Elizabeth Montagu, suggests that some ladies were offended by Anne Berkeley’s “intire obedience” to Berkeley and her “perfect adoration” of the man. According to Montagu:

Mrs Berkeley said such a Man as Dr Berkeley deserved uncommon attentions, & she thought it wd be strange presumption to oppose the design & inclinations of one so much superior to her, thus she recommended her obedience & preserved unprejudiced the right & privileges of other Ladies whose Husband had not the like please for their submission (3). 

(Montagu also mentions that Berkeley had previously made his “addresses” to Mrs. Anne Donnellan (a close friend of Swift), who had declined although preserving a constant friendship with him). During their stay in America, Anne had two children: Henry and Lucia. Lucia died just before the Berkeley’s left for London.

Berkeley’s Bermuda project ended in failure. However, his visit to America had its own successes. Berkeley had traveled to Rhode Island in order to wait for the grant payment, and he lived there for almost three years. During that time he composed Alciphron: Or the Minute Philosopher which he published in 1732. Aside from Alciphron itself, Berkeley promoted philosophy. His American friend Samuel Johnson generated a correspondence with Berkeley of considerable philosophical and scholarly merit (1729-30). Indeed, Johnson went on to write his own Elementa Philosophica (1752) which he dedicated to Berkeley. He became the President of what would become Columbia University (King’s College) and was the instructor of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Moreover, Berkeley promoted both Harvard and Yale by donating to them a considerable collection of books. And the city of Berkeley, California is named after the great Irish philosopher.

            Instead of returning to Derry, Berkeley lived in London for two and a half years, where his son, George, was born in 1733. Given the Bermuda failure, it was imperative for Berkeley to await “Royal approval” in order to determine his next steps (so it would not have been appropriate for Berkeley to return to Derry). In 1732 he anonymously published his highly regarded Alciphron which reached a second publication the same year and was publicly commended by the Queen; and in 1733 he published The Theory of Vision . . . Vindicated and Explained in response to a published letter which criticized his Essay toward a New Theory of Vision (which was re-published together with Alciphron). Berkeley’s response (published as a tract) was only rediscovered in 1860.

            Berkeley’s Alciphron contained a dialogue which explicitly treated of the question of knowledge of the Divine and the question whether God could be called wise in the same sense that humans may be so-called. In this work Berkeley tacitly rejects the positions endorsed by William King in his Divine Predestination Consistent With Freedom . . . (1709) and Peter Browne in his The Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding (1728). This led Peter Browne the Bishop of Cork and Ross (and the former Provost of Trinity) to add a long, hostile and scathing section criticizing Berkeley’s position in his Things Divine and Supernatural Conceived by Analogy . . . (1733), a work devoted exclusive to the topic of divine analogy. In Theory of Vision Vindicated, Berkeley explicitly refers to “the opinion of our knowing God by analogy, as it hath been misunderstood and misinterpreted by some in late years”  having King and Browne clearly in mind here. And a letter has been recently discovered which seems to be a letter by Berkeley to Browne, explaining his specific reasons for rejecting Browne’s position. Although the dating is not definite, it was probably written in 1733.

            During this same year, Andrew Baxter published his An Enquiry into the nature of the Human Soul which included a chapter that offered the first sustained critique of Berkeley’s immaterialism (a critique to which Berkeley did not reply). What is most notable is a change in climate: During this time there seems to have been some increase in serious engagement with Berkeley’s philosophy and even a new found respect for it. By 1739 Hume has recognized Berkeley as a great philosopher in his Treatise of Human Nature.  

             Now in 1734, Berkeley’s wait for royal approval over: He was granted the Bishopric of Cloyne. That year, he traveled to Dublin were he was consecrated Bishop. During this time, Berkeley published a second edition of the Principles and a third edition of the Dialogues. Both editions contain important revisions including Berkeley’s use of the term ‘notion’ in a more technical way, and the addition two exchanges between Hylas and Philonous concerning whether the rejection of material substance ought to lead to rejection of spiritual substance. Berkeley also published the Analyst or a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician which provoked considerable controversy among the mathematicians. In 1735 he published A Defense of Free-Thinking in Mathematics and Reasons for not Answering Mr. Walton.

Berkeley lived in Cloyne and served as its Bishop for eighteen years. There he fathered four children (John, William, and Julia). Between 1735 and 1737, Berkeley published The Querist in three parts (a work concerning politics and economics comprised entirely of questions), earning his place among Irish nationalists. A contribution to theory of money, Berkeley urged, among other things, the creation of a National Bank. In late 1737 Berkeley visited Dublin for a meeting of Parliament to speak against an anti-theistic society called The Blasters. While in Dublin, Berkeley also wrote and published A Discourse addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority (1738) against this group.

In 1744, Berkeley published his (at the time) widely celebrated Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-water and Diverse Subjects Connected Together and Arising One from Another (which went through six editions in six months). The work blended Berkeley’s views about tar-water (and the process for producing it) with metaphysical concerns. Tar-water is produced from an infusion of tar into cold water which is supposed to extract from tar what were considered its medicinal virtues (such as the capacity to cure fevers and other ailments). Berkeley based his views on experimentation; tar-water became wildly popular yielding increasing reports of its apparent value; and Berkeley speculated that it might be a panacea. While Berkeley’s celebration of tar-water has the object of considerable mirth, as A.A. Luce has pointed out, it was reasonable for Bishop Berkeley to be concerned with the health of the poor in Cloyne. And it continued to be listed in the British Pharmacopoeia well into the 20th Century, from which we can conclude that Berkeley was hardly alone in his beliefs.

In 1745, the final Jacobite rebellion brought unrest in Ireland, and Berkeley responded by raising a troops and purchasing equipment for them, as well as writing letters (including to the Roman Catholics of his diocese) against the rebellion. In 1749, Berkeley published A Word to the Wise, asking all Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland to put aside differences and work toward the good of the country, and in 1750 Maxims concerning Patriotism was published (anonymously as “by a lady”). In 1751, Berkeley lost his son William who died at the age of sixteen. This struck at the Bishop quite deeply: “I had a little friend, educated always under mine own eye, whose painting delighted me, whose music ravished me, and whose lively gay spirit was a continual feat.”

In 1752 traveled London before he died. There, he published the third edition of Alciphron. Notably, Berkeley removed the sections of Dialogue VII in which he argues against abstraction. Some have imagined this to indicate a volte-face on one his central doctrines: The issue is obviously controversial. And he also published Miscellany which includes some of his old work along with Farther Thoughts on Tar-Water. In 1753, Berkeley traveled to London where he died that year on January 14th..



[1] Indeed, it is worth noting that in his famous “Refutation of Idealism”, while G.E. Moore is mainly aiming for the Idealism propounded by Bradley, he directs his argument to Berkeley.

[2] My account of Berkeley’s life borrows heavily from A.A. Luce’s Life of Berkeley (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1949) and David Berman’s George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

[3] A loyalist to the exiled Stuart King James II and his descendants after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89 led to the ascension of Mary II and William III.