Chapter One:

Berkeley’s Project


            Understanding Berkeley’s philosophical project is essential to understanding his philosophical views. Without a clear sense of what Berkeley had hoped to accomplish, he can all to easily seem like a Zeno -  one, who as Leibniz complained, wanted only to be known for his paradoxes. Why would somebody go to such great lengths to show that there is no such thing as matter or that sensible things such as tables and trees cannot ever exist outside the mind? Without recognizing at least some kind of point to these stunning theses, Berkeley’s key ideas can only seem both perverse and unmotivated.    

            The most obvious and best received view is that Berkeley’s agenda is primarily a religious one. The Dialogues is written “. . . in opposition to Sceptics and Atheists,” and the Principles is, at least in part, an inquiry into “. . . the grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion.” And in both cases, Berkeley promises to accomplish three things – answer scepticism, establish the immortality of the soul, and prove the existence of God.  It would seem that religious concerns are basic to Berkeley’s project.

            Yet while this is correct, it is incomplete. Berkeley’s religious views are distinctive. And he has an idiosyncratic agenda to press that is deeply bound up with his distinction between “the philosophers” and “the vulgar.” Berkeley makes it clear in the Dialogues that his goal is to retrieve “men of speculation” from a kind of useless philosophical speculation and to return them to the real world of everyday affairs. In particular, he aims to have “speculation referred to practice” (3D Preface). For Berkeley “reference to practice” concerns everyday virtue, morality, and piety. More specifically, he is interested to dispose men of speculation “to reverence and embrace the salutary truths of the Gospel, which to know and to practice is the highest perfection of human nature” (PHK 156).

Berkeley expects real consequences in restoring men of speculation to practice. In particular, he believes that this would have “a gradual influence in repairing the too much defaced sense of virtue in the world.”  He blames “the prejudices of philosophers” as hitherto prevailing “against the common sense and natural notions of mankind” (3D 168).  In this way, Berkeley aims for his work to have a very real impact upon the world; the chief function of his philosophy is the improvement of human life.   


This general framework is important in beginning to tackle the tough question concerning the relationship between Berkeley’s own philosophy and “common sense.” As I discussed in the preceding chapter, Berkeley’s relationship to the vulgar is complicated. Often, Berkeley claims that he is “on their side,” against the philosophers who depart from common sense. Yet, Berkeley himself appears to depart from common sense in some serious ways. At a deeper level, one wonders why one should even care whether a philosophical view is in accord with common sense, and if so – to what degree. One wants to know why common sense has such an important role to play in Berkeley’s philosophy.

To begin, we ought to recognize that Berkeley’s criticism of the philosophers who stray from common sense is largely connected to his desire to bring these men “down to earth” by reconnecting speculation to practice. The learned, for Berkeley, are supposed to be restored to common sense largely by becoming re-engaged with the world around them, rather than merely amusing  themselves with speculation that has no connection with the everyday world. This is important because it helps explain, at least in part, why common sense plays such a central role in Berkeley’s philosophy: It is of a piece with his project of referring the philosophers back to practice. And Berkeley’s explicit disagreements with the vulgar can be understood in terms of Berkeley’s sense that the virtue of the world has been defaced – that pernicious beliefs and behavior abound even among the common folk. Berkeley’s philosophy, therefore, is positioned as a kind of third point in relation to the learned and the vulgar. Its intended function is to re-engage the learned, bring them on his side, so that any immoral and irreligious conduct of the “illiterate bulk of mankind” can be corrected, and the world restored to virtue.

 Berkeley’s concern with the learned is that practicing speculation in a way that is divorced from the practicalities of the everyday, while “amusing” is selfish and irresponsible. Yet if such speculation, albeit useless to the betterment of mankind, involves determining genuine, although entirely remote, truths then there remains the sticking point that such pursuits may truly be valuable for their own sake. Consequently, one of Berkeley’s major strategies in addressing the learned is to convince them that such speculation is largely vacuous – that it involves mere verbal dispute and gamesmanship. In this respect, Berkeley may be characterized as a kind of anti-philosopher – one who is interested in tearing down the edifice of speculation to expose a naked emperor. However, Berkeley’s views extend well beyond traditional philosophy. He also aims to cut out pointless speculation from the natural sciences and from mathematics, and refer theses sciences to practice and the betterment of human kind as well. In taking this anti-speculative position, Berkeley is interested in targeting two main opponent: (1) Philosophical Perplexity; and (2) Scepticism.

Yet while this “negative philosophical approach” may aim to show that standard speculation for its own sake has no genuine content, Berkeley also needs to motivate such men of speculation to return to everyday practice – that is, to Christian virtue. So in order to secure this end, Berkeley believes that he needs to establish the existence of God and the natural immortality of the soul “as the readiest preparation, as well as the strongest motive, to the study and practice of virtue.” His positive philosophical account, therefore, has also a decidedly functional role to play in his overall agenda.


Part Two: Berkeley as Anti-Philosopher  

Philosophical Perplexity

            For Berkeley, like Locke, Hume, and Kant, the issue of philosophical perplexity is a central theme; the theme leads to meta-philosophical questions about the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy seems to have the possibly dubious distinction of failing to make the sort of progress that one sees in the natural sciences. And it hardly exemplifies the body of knowledge that characterizes logic and mathematics. Instead, one seems to be left with disputes that have no end, problems that cannot be answered, indeed problems that don’t even have an agreed upon formulation in the first place. Given this lack of agreement, this lack of progress, this lack of a textbook of facts and well-confirmed theories, one wonders why?

One position places the chief source of difficulty in the content of philosophical investigation. Because philosophy aims to tackle issues that are so sophisticated and abstract, progress is very hard and missteps are likely. Alas, missteps can lead to philosophical errors that prevail for hundreds of years, requiring subsequent returns to starting points long since rejected.

A less optimistic position maintains that much of the content of philosophical investigation is beyond the scope of the human cognitive capacity. In other words – the issues that vex philosophers, vex them not because of the peculiarity of the content itself, but because such content is beyond our innate abilities to understand. A person attempting to philosophize, then, may be like a blind man trying to see color.

A third position identifies philosophers themselves as the chief source of confusion.  This view opposes itself to the happier thought that philosophy exposes the difficulties and confusions underlying our most cherished common-sense views of the world: Rather than a help, philosophy is hindrance. Often this account of perplexity cites the misuse of language and confusion over language on the part of philosophers. In this way, pseudo-philosophical problems are generated by philosophers through linguistic confusion.

            A fourth account cites the lack of any philosophical method as the culprit. Once a well-defined method of doing philosophy is determined that clearly states the job of philosophy, according to this view, philosophy can move forward. Notably, this account can be added to some of the preceding ones. Thus, the only way to do philosophy for example, may turn out to involve identifying first the philosophical problems which are beyond human grasp and those that are not. Only after this, the account might state, can one then move to answer the problems within our reach.

Indeed, it seems that all of these proposals are compatible with each other. It may be the case that each of these diagnoses account for some (but not all) of philosophical perplexity. It therefore becomes an interesting question what motivates any claim that all (or even most) philosophical perplexity can be accounted for in just one particular way. Alas, we may find ourselves drowning in philosophy again before too long – especially should it turn out that the question what explains philosophical perplexity is itself vexed. 

To return to the issue at hand, questions concerning perplexity were taken quite seriously by philosophers such as Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Locke claimed that his great Essay was originally inspired by a philosophical conversation among friends that reached no resolution. Indeed, he proposed a new way of approaching metaphysics specifically. Instead of simply trying to tackle philosophical problems, Locke thought - instead of “sailing out on the vast Ocean of Being” (E. 1.1.7, 47) – one ought to proceed with a careful examination of the human understanding. In this way, Locke hoped to determine what ideas we have and how we come by them. The payoff was to recognize that there were certain ideas that we did not have, possibly could not have, and so show that certain metaphysical questions exceeded the grasp of human understanding. It is little surprise Locke’s conclusions seem somewhat depressing. For Locke, in many respects our understanding of the world comes up short and the source of such ignorance lies in the limitations of human understanding. He writes:

If by this Enquiry into the Nature of the Understanding I can discover the Powers thereof; how far they reach; to what things they are in any Degree proportionate; and where they fail us, I suppose it may be of use, to prevail with the busy mind of man to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its Comprehension; to stop, when it is at the utmost Extent of its Tether; and to sit down in a quiet Ignorance of those Things, which upon Examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our Capacities. (E. 1.1.4, 44-45)


            Yet there is a very real sense in which Locke is offering a kind of solution to philosophical perplexity in addition to this diagnosis.  His basic strategy is to take standard philosophical problems of his day and effectively sweep them under the carpet by pointing to limitations in the human understanding. For example, for Locke the question how mind and body interact is “answered” by simply showing us that we do not have adequate ideas of the real essences of body and mind, and consequently are in no position to answer that question (E.2.23.15, 305). The Lockean “solution” to perplexity, therefore, is to understand the reach of our capacities, and then to refuse to meddle in that which is beyond us.

Yet Berkeley himself is adamantly opposed to this account of philosophical perplexity. He explicitly flags it his Introduction to the Principles and complains that it reflects poorly on our Maker that we should have such a desire to know these things, only to have that desire thwarted. He writes: “We should believe that God has dealt more bountifully with the sons of men than to give them a strong desire for that knowledge, which he had placed quite out of their reach” (PHK Intro 4).

For Berkeley, the source of philosophical perplexity is, by contrast, philosophy itself. He writes, “Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to our selves. That we have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see” (PHK I Intro 26). His general explanation of this is that the misunderstanding and misuse of language is the key error that leads to such perplexity. In this respect, also, Berkeley borrows extensively from Locke who had also cited the misuse of language as a source of philosophical perplexity (E.3.10.6, 493). However the differences are important –as we shall see in chapter three.



Forms of Scepticism

The traditional way to think about Berkeley’s response to scepticism, is to see him as offering an answer to the question whether (and if so, how) we can know there exists an external (material) world. Descartes, for example, had famously doubted of everything. Yet he found that he could not doubt his own existence and that he was a thinking thing. From this went on to attempt to show God’s existence, and from this prove the existence of the external (material) world. Equally famous, his attempt has generally been found wanting not least of which because of the concern that his attempt to prove God’s existence involves presupposing what needs to be established (namely, that clear and distinct ideas are reliable guides to truth). Thus, we have the notorious “Cartesian Circle.” Inevitably, Berkeley is seen as “answering” this concern by effectively getting rid of the (material) external world altogether. (Problem solved!)

Yet while this concern about scepticism with regard to the external world is admittedly relevant to Berkeley, it ought to be placed within a larger context of concerns that Berkeley has about scepticsm. After admitting that a sceptic is “one who doubts of everything” Hylas and Philonous agree to expand to notion to also include “distrusting the senses, of denying the real existence of sensible things, or pretending to know nothing of them” (3D I). So we have the following forms of “scepticism.”

·        Professed (Lockean) ignorance of sensible things

·        Denial of the real existence of sensible things

·        Denigration of the senses

·        Doubt whether there exists an external world

I address them respectively in what follows.


Lockean Ignorance

Berkeley (unlike Locke) is not simply concerned with philosophical perplexity, but also with a kind of philosophical scepticism. Berkeley writes:

Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and endeavouring to correct these by reason we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation; till at length, having wander’d through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or which is worse, sit down in a forlorn scepticism. (PHK I Intro I)


Here, Berkeley has Locke in mind, transforming Locke’s invitation to “sit down in a quiet ignorance” into the tragedy that we “sit down in a forlorn scepticism.”

            Locke himself does not profess scepticism, of course. Nonetheless, it seems clear the Berkeley regards Locke’s professed ignorance as a form of scepticism. Presumably, the concern is that for Locke, there is much we are ignorant of when it comes to sensible things such as gold, cherries, and men, for example. For while we have knowledge of the various powers or capabilities possessed by such items, we do not have an adequate idea of the real essence of such items, and so do not understand how they can possess the powers that they do. In expanding his concern from philosophical perplexity, to this type of scepticism (i.e., Lockean ignorance of sensible things), Berkeley takes aim at the very account of perplexity originally offered by Locke.

            In this way, Berkeley’s own account is intended to supersede Locke’s treatment of philosophical perplexity, by tackling both the perplexity itself and the Lockean explanation/solution (i.e., “ignorance”) through drawing on an account grounded in the misuse of language – one which was introduced and then underemployed by Locke himself. No doubt the answer that Berkeley wishes to offer is that the very things that we are ignorant of (on Locke’s account) don’t really exist at all. They are nothing but effects of philosophical misunderstandings and misemployments of language that give rise to philosophical hallucinations such as “material substance.”    

            This helps illuminate the role of Berkeley’s “anti-philosophical” stance in reducing men of speculation to “common sense” through showing that the sources of perplexity and/or Lockean scepticism are based on nothing but empty or misused words. More deeply, however, we can begin to appreciate why, for Berkeley, to profess this type of scepticism is to depart in a radical way from the common folk. For they move through life utterly undisturbed by this philosophical ignorance. To them – the understanding of what a cherry is, for example, is the simple knowledge how a cherry looks, feels, tastes, and smells. Importantly, Berkeley takes pains to point out that this philosophical ignorance, in fact, has no consequences in terms of the day to day negotiations of the everyday world. (This is something with which Locke himself would have agreed; he believes that the human understanding while not fitted to grasping the true nature of things, is nonetheless effectively geared toward securing the daily conveniences of life). However, for Berkeley, it seems more than a little bit odd that we should be so in dark about the real nature of things, and yet somehow know enough to get through our day. Philonous presses Hylas:

But is it not strange the whole world should be thus imposed on, and so foolish to believe their senses? And yet I know not how it is, but men eat, and drink, and sleep, and perform all the offices of life as comfortably and conveniently, as if they really know the things they are conversant about. (3D III 228)


This embarrassing question is surely intended to underscore the fact that this philosophical ignorance actually has no bearing on how people live their day to day lives and is therefore an example of speculation that has been divorced by practice. Such a concern is further driven home by Berkeley, who has Philonous make the further point that sceptics such as Hylas themselves are unaffected by such ignorance in their daily lives – presumably ignoring it altogether:

. . .  are you seriously persuaded that you know nothing real in the world? Suppose you are going to write, would you not call for pen, ink, and paper, like another man; and do you not know what it is you call for? (3DIII 228)


Not only does this ignorance have no bearing on how the vulgar blunder through life, it likewise has no bearing on how the philosopher negotiates the world. It is therefore a kind of abstruse, unimportant, wholly speculative sort of ignorance. 

Additionally, however, this state of affairs may indeed have bad consequences in the real world. Berkeley wishes us to appreciate how ridiculous this professed (practically irrelevant, theoretically detached) ignorance must seem to illiterate bulk of mankind. Indeed, he explicitly points to the inherent perversity in the thought that those who spend their time in the pursuit of wisdom, should end up in a place of ignorance on issues that seem so obviously known to the people who amble unreflectively through their day.  Surely it would seem to Berkeley that such a state of affairs may have very bad consequences in making the learned seem ridiculous to the vulgar – thereby undermining any authority or respect that they might otherwise have possessed and ultimately relied on in working toward the betterment of mankind [PHK I 88].


Other Forms of Scepticism

            Hylas and Philonous agree that a sceptic is also one who denies the reality of sensible things. This denial that sensible things are real appears to be deeply bound up with the view of mechanism that secondary qualities such as colors and sounds do not really exist in the object (or more correctly – that there is nothing inherent in the object which resembles the sensation of color or sound). This commitment to the view that the world (as it really is) is populated with matter (characterized only by the primary qualities) appears to open up a gap between the world as it appears to us and the world as it really is. In this view, we experience certain sensations in the mind (mere appearances) where neither they nor even their resemblance actually inhere in the material objects outside of us.

To be sure, not all friends of this mechanic view wished to hold a Galileo type error theory (and outright deny the reality of colors and sounds), as we shall see.  But regardless of whether one maintains an extreme Galilean position or not, the fact remains that a gap is now opened up between the world as it actually appears to us and the real world composed of corpuscles. Berkeley’s general unhappiness with this position is brought out forcefully by Philonous’ long diatribe in the beginning of the Second Dialogue about how beautiful everything is:

Look! Are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul? . . . Is not the whole system immense, beautiful, glorious beyond expression and beyond thought! What treatment then do those philosophers deserve, who would deprive these noble and delightful scenes of all reality? How should those principles be entertained, that lead us to think all the visible beauty of creation a false imaginary glare? To be plain, can you expect this scepticism of yours will not be thought extravagantly absurd by all men of sense? (3D II 210)


Related to this, Berkeley is concerned with the rising ‘distrust of the sense’ in the New Science. According to Locke, for example, while we lack intuitive and demonstrative knowledge that things exist independently of us, we nonetheless have a far less certain sensitive knowledge of such external things. In Locke’s view this knowledge is non-inferential; sensation itself is supposed to secure this knowledge:

‘Tis therefore the actual receiving of Ideas from without, that gives us notice of the Existence of other Things, and makes us know that something doth exist at that time without us, which causes that Idea in us, though perhaps we neither know nor consider how it does. (E. 4.11.2, 630)


According to Locke, we ought to take sensation seriously as a form of knowledge; and accept that our senses, generally do not err, being fitted by God for the conveniences of life, to be able to provide us with such information.

There is no doubt, however, that Berkeley is unhappy with this Lockean degradation of the senses. For according to Locke, this type of sensitive knowledge is vastly inferior to both intuitive and demonstrative knowledge. Consequently, our knowledge of the external (material) world is far less secure than our knowledge of our own existence and our knowledge of God’s existence. The reason for this, it would seem, is precisely this gap that is opened up between our ideas and “the reality of things.”

            As I discussed in the last chapter, this denigration of the senses was fairly common among the new scientists and modern philosophers. For Descartes, while the senses allowed us to move through out the world conveniently, and safe from harm, they did not so much as themselves secure knowledge of the external world. That was left to reason (based on the ideas we receive from sense). Moreover, for Descartes, like Locke, our knowledge of our own existence and of God’s existence preceded our knowledge of material things and the external world. There is a very real sense, then, in which for Berkeley scepticism has to do with restoring the epistemic importance of the senses   


Finally, Berkeley is indeed concerned with scepticism concerning the existence of the external world. Here, however, I will only observe that the traditional answer that Berkeley is supposed to give (i.e., to simply eliminate the material, external world) relies on a particular interpretation of Berkeley that, as we have seen, has been contested. Suffice it to say that if sensible ideas for Berkeley just comprise at least part of the external world, then no inference is necessary. Rather, we would have an immediate, intuitive grasp of the external world.


The Retrenchment of the Sciences

            The Retrenchment of the Sciences occupies a central place in Berkeley’s Principles – and it is firmly situated within Berkeley’s project of returning the learned from useful speculation to the practicalities of everyday life. Berkeley identifies scepticism (i.e, Lockean ignorance of real essences) as the central problem for natural science. His solution is to deny that there are any unknown essences, and to more strongly deny that natural science involves the study of underlying efficient causes at all. Rather it is the study of regularities in the phenomena of nature. This allows Berkeley to “lop off” the parts of natural science which involve over preoccupation with formulating exact universal rules; such a project cannot be carried through, he thinks. Instead, natural science ought to focus on the betterment of mankind through a proper exaltation of God:

We should propose to ourselves nobler views, such as to recreate and exalt the mind, with a prospect of beauty, order, extent, and variety of natural things: hence, by proposer inferences, to enlarge our notions of the grandeur, wisdom, and beneficience of the Creator: and lastly, to make the several parts of the creation, so far as in us lies, subservient to the ends they were designed for, God’s glory, and the sustentation and comfort of our selves and fellow-creature. (PHK I 109)


With this aim in sight, Berkeley explicitly reinstates ‘final causes’ in nature (i.e. ends or goals) which had been banished in the rise of the New Science.


One might contrast Berkeley’s agenda in the Principles with that of Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy.  While Descartes, like Berkeley, promises to establish the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, much of his work consists in laying the metaphysical foundations (the basic principles) upon which his physics will rest: Physics, is the trunk, metaphysics the roots, and the branches are medicine, mechanics, and morals.[1]  By contrast, Berkeley’s philosophy forces a kind of separation between metaphysics (the study of true causes, namely spirits) and natural science (the study of regularities in phenomena). For Berkeley, natural science plays no special role as the trunk of the tree; rather it, like all other sciences, simply aims toward the better of humankind.

            Likewise Berkeley aims to clip the pretensions of arithmetic and geometry, the two branches of mathematics. With regard to the former, Berkeley maintains that subtle speculation in arithmetic has been unduly elevated, largely because the symbols of arithmetic have take to signify something important (such as abstract platonic objects) which can illuminate the natural world.  For Berkeley, however, inquiry into arithmetic in a way that abstracts for its application to ordinary practice is a vacuous trifling with words (PHK I71). Against this tendency to “mystify” arithmetic, Berkeley writes:

Whence it follows, that to study [the symbols] them for their own sake would be just as wise, and to as good purpose, as if a man, neglecting the true use or original intention and subserviency of language, should spend his time in impertinent criticisms upon words, or reasonings and controversies purely verbal. (PHK I 122, my insert)   


While Berkeley does not mention concerns about perplexity or scepticism, he does point out that some “have dreamt of mighty mysteries in number” (PHK I 119). And as we shall see, part of Berkeley’s agenda in addressing atheism precisely concerns the issue of religious mystery. Suffice it to say that here Berkeley is concerned about a dangerous elevation of numbers to the virtual status of the sacred. 

By contrast, with regard to geometry, Berkeley is indeed concerned with perplexities and paradoxes that he thinks arise particularly from the assumption that a finite extension is infinitely divisible, and worse that each part in this division may be divided into an infinity of parts, and so on, an infinite number of times. Berkeley’s answer to this is to show that since the only objects of geometry are ideas, and ideas cannot be infinitely divided, such a process is a great nonsense. In answer to the charge that the rejection of infinite divisibility of finite extension will destroy geometry as a science, Berkeley has only this to say:

. . . whatever is usefully in geometry and promotes the benefit of human life, does still remain firm and unshaken on our principles. . . . it should follow that some of the more intricate and subtle parts of speculative mathematics may be pared off without any prejudice to the truth; yet I do not see what damage will be thence derived to mankind. On the contrary, it were highly to be wished that men of great abilities and obstinate application would draw off their thoughts from those amusements, and employ them in the study of such things as like nearer the concerns of life, or have a more direct influence on the manners. (PHK I 131)  




Part Three: Berkeley as Socratic Philosopher

            Despite his anti-philosophical tendencies, Berkeley can hardly be said to abandon philosophy. He begins the Principles by defining philosophy as “nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth” (PHK Intro). In a letter to his friend, Percival, Berkeley details his positive conception of philosophy by extolling the virtues of Socrates:

Socrates spent his time in reasoning on the more noble and important subjects, the nature of the gods, the dignity and duration of the soul, and the duties of a rational creature. He was always exposing the vanity of Sophists, painting vice and virtue in their proper colours, deliberating on the public good, enflaming the most noble and ungenerous tempers with the love of great actions. In short, his whole employment was the turning men aside from vice, impertinence, and trifling speculation to the study of solid wisdom, temperance, justice, and piety, which is the true business of the philosopher.[2]


In Berkeley’s view, then, philosophy appears limited to a study of the divine (i.e., God and the soul) and the duty of humankind (i.e., morality and righteousness).  A large part of the enterprise of philosophy is motivational in nature: Motivating the study and practice of right conduct, “enflaming tempers with the love of great actions,” enobling and dignifying the human being.    

And like his negative project, Berkeley’s positive project is best understood against the backdrop of the Lockean agenda. In addition to showing that much metaphysical knowledge is simply beyond us, Locke aims to show that, instead, “Morality is the proper Science, and Business of Mankind” (E. 4.12.11, 646). Indeed, Locke claims that a true science of morality is possible since we have do ideas of the real essences of those things relevant to ethical truths.

            While Berkeley himself aims to turn philosophers away from speculation (and in particular perplexity and scepticism), he does not claim that any one science is the proper business of mankind. Instead, of turning men to a new science, he aims to turn them directly to virtuous action. This is to say: Berkeley’s positive turn is action-oriented in a way that Locke’s is not. 

In order to motivate philosophers to return to virtue and piety, Berkeley does not believe that his elimination of philosophical speculation will suffice. Minimally, he thinks, he needs to proffer an incentive to appropriate Christian conduct. By demonstrating the existence of God and by establishing the natural immortality of the soul, Berkeley thinks, philosophers will be motivated to goodness through a concern in securing their eternal fate. The non-Kantian idea here is that ultimately good action can be secured through self-interested motive.[3] Berkeley explicitly argues against the view that virtuous conduct as its own reward is sufficient to motivate righteous behavior. For while he is prepared to allow that virtuous behavior is itself a pleasure, he does not think this subtlety will suffice to motivate the bulk of mankind (those who are strong in passion and weak in intellect).  Certainly the pleasures which attend fame and fortune can overwhelm the refined pleasure of virtuous action. As a consequence, the existence of a future state where rewards and punishments are dispensed by a Divine Being is integral, for Berkeley, to righteous conduct. 


Atheism, Deism, Free-thinking

Berkeley’s positive, motivational project must be understood within the theological context within which he was philosophizing. He explicitly writes of combating both atheism and irreligion, which he sees as playing a significant role in enabling non-virtuous conduct. And certainly the specters of both Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza hover in the background. Yet while both men were branded atheists, both professed belief in God. So the issues here are decidedly tricky.

 First, it is important to bear in mind that the climate of religious tolerance, at this time, was rather different from the climate in either the U.S. or in Europe today. In England, for example, The Blasphemy Act of 1697 Act forbad denying Christianity as the one true religion, the Athanasian doctrine of the trinity, and the Divine authorship of the Scriptures. This is hardly a climate in which atheists could speak their minds freely; indeed during Hobbes’ time, one could be burned for heresy.  Little surprise that if Hobbes was an atheist, he never said as much. Nonetheless, his beliefs were taken as sufficient to brand him an atheist. For example his strong materialism involved denying the existence of any other substance except body – so both the human soul and God himself would have to be material. Berkeley explicitly avers that this materialism is nothing but an “atheism a little disquised” (TVV § 6).

Part of the difficulty is that many deviations from orthodoxy were branded ‘atheistic’ in nature, regardless of whether they had such implications. For example, Descartes himself was unfairly accused of atheism since his identification of matter with sheer extension (i.e., space) seemed to lead to the view that matter itself was co-eternal with God. However, another part of the difficulty is given explicit expressions of atheism were illegal, atheistic views had to be expressed esoterically. Thus we have the plausible interpretation of Hobbes and others as crypto-atheists.[4]

At any rate, it quickly becomes evident why Berkeley saw his attack on materialism as undermining the chief support or cornerstone of atheism. Not only does matter lead to difficulties such as the problem conceiving creation of matter ex nihilo on the one hand, and the problem of the co-eternality of matter on the other (PHK I 92), it renders the soul material, and appears to undercut a world in which a wise God oversees the world with providence, subjecting the world instead to the strict determinism which apparently dispenses with genuine human freedom (PHK I 93).    


The issues are more complex. Berkeley himself writes during the heyday of the famous controversies surrounding Deism particularly in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England. Sometimes mischaracterized as the representation of God as the non-interfering Creator who sets the world into motion and then does nothing else, the term ‘deism’ applies to views which raised serious questions about the relation between scriptural revelation and human reason, assigning revelation either a back-seat role at best or absolutely no role at all. This is not to say, of course, that the new mechanistic picture of the world did not invite conceptions of God as a divine Creator as watchmaker who did not have to sustain and govern the world at ever instant. It did. However, it is to miss what is at issue in the deist controversies.

With deism, we see the emphasis on natural religion (based upon beliefs discoverable by reason, such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of a future state promising reward), to the exclusion of the sacred truths based solely on revelation. At its more extreme, deism involved strong criticism of the clergy taken to admix mysteries into religion for purposes of securing power. Some of the major deists include: Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Charles Blount (1654-1693), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1676-1729), Thomas Woolston (1670-1733), and Matthew Tindal (1657-1733).      

Berkeley was hardly isolated from this dispute. The Provost of Trinity College, Peter Browne, had made his name in responding to Toland’s infamous Christianity not Mysterious with his Letter in Reply. Berkeley himself became increasingly concerned over those called ‘free-thinkers.’ He was particularly concerned by the views of Anthony Collins, whom he believed (with decent reason) to be a covert atheist.[5]

‘Free-thinker’ was a pejorative expression used by the clergy and then reclaimed by Collins in his A Discourse of Free-thinking (1713). The term ‘free-thinking’ itself indicates refusal to submit one’s free use of reason to the demands of any authority, and was at first used by Berkeley as a kind of aspersion. Later, he preferred the expression ‘minute philosopher’ in light of the positive meaning that Collins placed on ‘free-thinker.’

Free-thinking, however, was not restricted to the writings of the deists. Rather, it was fashionable in “drawing-rooms, coffee-houses, and taverns”[6] here an attitude of derision toward the clergy prevailed. Berkeley himself may have been present at some gatherings in order to gather information about the nature and depth of free-thinking. His attitude toward them was certainly hostile. We see the first signs of critique in the Three Dialogues and then his several Guardian essays culminating in his systematic assault in Aliciphron: Or the Minute Philosopher.  


I: The Soul

Once again, Berkeley’s views are deeply bound up with concerns over philosophical perplexity and scepticism. While Locke provides what he took to be a demonstration of God’s existence, he did not see fit to establish the natural immortality of the soul. Indeed, he argued that the question whether the soul is material or immaterial is a classic case of philosophical perplexity that cannot be answered. One the one hand (and no doubt with Hobbes in mind), Locke claims that when our thoughts are focused on matter, it seems hard to conceive a substance distinct from body.  Yet on the other hand (and no doubt with the Cartesians in mind), Locke claims that when our thoughts are focused on thought itself, it seems hard to conceive how inert matter could itself have the power of thought (even kindly bestowed upon it by God).

Since on which side soever he views it, either as an unextended Substance, or as a thinking extended Matter; the difficulty to conceive either, will, whilst either alone is in his Thoughts, still drive him to the contrary side. An unfair way which some Men take with themselves: who, because of the unconceivableness of something they find in one, throw themselves violently into the contrary. (E.4.3.6, 542) 


Locke’s strategy in addressing this perplexity is to argue that we do not have any idea of the real essence of the thing which thinks. Although we do know that it exists, we do not know what it really is.

            On the face of it, however, this lack of knowledge concerning the soul’s immateriality seems to generate problems in securing both religious and ethical conduct. For if we do not know whether we are naturally immortal, then it would seem that we do not know whether the good shall be rewarded and the bad shall be punished. Where then, is the incentive for behaving well?

            Locke answers this question by pointing to the ability of God to resurrect us come Judgment Day, rewarding and punishing us according to our deeds, and ultimately grounds his account in faith in scriptural revelation (ibid) Yet Berkeley, unlike Locke, does not wish to relegate Divine Retribution to mere faith. Rather he wishes to motivate men of speculation – even those who have abandoned faith altogether – to behave in an ethical way. Thus, he believes that he needs to establish the natural immortality of the soul.

            Now in defending his position, Locke grants the possibility that human souls might be material (i.e., he recognizes the possibility that matter can think). This resulted in considerable controversy, not least of which was the well-known dispute between Samuel Clarke and Anthony Collins. Obviously the possibility of a material soul raises the specter of Hobbesianism. It seems to lead to a view which undermines human liberty. And in general, it seems to degrade our notion of the human soul. Certainly such a conception could not be acceptable to Berkeley who deigned to enoble the human spirit and incite to virtuous conduct.


2: God

            Likewise, Berkeley’s proofs of God’s existence are supposed to be motivational. For rather than merely establishing the existence of God, Berkeley aims to show the truth in the scriptural passage of Acts 17:28 that in God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” For Berkeley, this means that God is “present and conscious to our innermost thoughts” (PHK I 155). 

Rather than viewing God as remote from human affairs, he is very close to us. This, for Berkeley, ought to inspirit a “holy fear” necessary to good conduct. God is not shown by Berkeley as a mere Creator of man, but as a Divine Governor, who effectively communicates to us on a regular basis – instructing us how to behave. In this way, Berkeley can address the mechanistic notion of a Creator who does not Govern or Sustain (ALC 4 § 14). It also enables him to address what he sees as “irreligion.” Here he speaks of a “sort of atheism” (PHK I 155) to which those who live in Christian countries have “through a supine and dreadful negligence sunk.” “Since it is downright impossible, that a soul pierced and enlightened with a thorough sense of the omnipresence, holiness, and justice of that Almighty Spirit, should persist in a remorseless violation of his laws” (PHK I 155). Here Berkeley means to address not an atheism of belief (or lack thereof), but an atheism of action – behavior which manifests a lack of a genuine sense of the presence of God and the natural immortality of the soul.


3: The Mysteries

            While Berkeley does not spend much time explicitly discussing the Christian Mysteries in the Principles and the Dialogues, it is an important topic in Alciphron, and it is worth mentioning the issue briefly, since Berkeley does indicate his concern about Christian Mystery in his Preface to the Dialogues. In particular, in addition to outlining his hope this work will help repairing the defaced sense of virtue in the world, he adds:

. . . but also, by showing, that such parts of revelation, as lie within the reach of human inquiry, are most agreeable to right reason, would dispose all prudent, unprejudiced persons, to a modest and wary treatment of those sacred mysteries, which are above the comprehension of our faculties. (3D Preface 168-9)


I will note, then, that the Archbishop of Dublin, William King had recently published an attempt to reconcile Divine Foreknowledge with human liberty by maintaining that terms such as ‘wise’ and ‘good’ apply to God only metaphorically. This opened the door for a scathing attack by Anthony Collins in 1710 which pointed out that by denying God was wise and good in the same literal sense that people can be wise and good, the fundamental claims of Christianity were undermined.[7] Berkeley himself indicated his concern over King’s position in personal correspondence. While this claim is scarcely uncontroversial, I do want to point out in the Third Dialogue (intended to answer possible objections to Berkeley’s position), a great many of the objections involve discussing God (and our knowledge thereof) and his pivotal role in the Berkeleian system. The longest exchange involves Berkeley’s account of the Creation of the World, and the relationship of God and finite spirits to time. Given that in the Preface, Berkeley indicates one of his goals is to establish divine providence, it is tempting to look for an attempt to make sense of Divine Foreknowledge.  



Part Four: The Principles and the Dialogues

            I have presented Berkeley’s project as if it is not manifested differently in Berkeley’s two major works. However, a more subtle comprehension of Berkeley’s overall project can be obtained by reflecting upon the differences. In brief, the Principles captures the spirit of Berkeley’s project far more sharply: It aims to motivate the learned to turn away from useless speculation and to re-engage with the practical affairs of life in order to restore virtue to the world; it is a stark call to action. By contrast, the Dialogues is far less abrasive. It aims to bring comfort to the learned by showing that the Berkeleian position agrees with common sense, avoids scepticism, and provides answers to atheistic assaults on Christianity. Thus Berkeley writes in the Preface to the Dialogues:

And although it may, perhaps, seem an uneasy reflection to some, that when they have taken a circuit through so many refined and unvulgar notions, they should at last come to think like other men: yet methinks, this return to simple dictates of nature, after having wandered through the wild mazes of philosophy, is not unpleasant. It is like coming home from a long voyage: a man reflects with pleasure on the many difficulties and perplexities he has passed through, sets his heart at ease, and enjoys himself with more satisfaction for the future. (3D Preface 168)


            On the title page to the Principles, Berkeley indicates both a major and a minor goal: The major is to inquire into the chief causes of error and difficulty in the sciences; the minor is to inquire into the grounds of scepticism, atheism, and irreligion. By contrast, on the title page of the Dialogues, the major goal is to demonstrate the reality and perfection of human knowledge, the incorporeal nature of the soul, and the immediate providence of a Deity (in opposition to Sceptics and Atheists). The minor goal is to open a method for rendering the sciences more useful and compendious.

It is little surprise then, that much more space is devoted to the Retrenchment of the Sciences in the Principles (§100-134) than in the Dialogues.  By contrast, much more space is devoted to combating scepticism and atheism in the Dialogues than in the Principles. In the Principles Berkeley indicates he is only interested in the grounds of scepticism and atheism. These are dispensed with quickly (§85-95). That said, Berkeley explicitly addresses irreligion in the Principles, while he does not do so in the Dialogues. For Berkeley this means emphasizing the nearness of God (“in whom we live, move, and have our being”) as well as the natural immortality of the soul in order to provide a deep incentive to behave well. The tactic of instilling the fear of God is much more obvious in the Principles (PHK I 155) than in the Dialogues. And this is consistent with the Principles’ call to turn away from irreligion.

While the Dialogues is addressed against both the sceptics and the atheists, however, the attack on scepticism is far more obvious than any attack on atheism. The entire Dialogue is structured as a contest between Philonous and Hylas to see who is closer to common sense and farthest from scepticism. The dramatic movement of the Dialogues involves Philonous gradually forcing Hylas deeper into scepticism. By contrast, Berkeley seems to combat atheism in the Dialogues only through his innovative argument for the existence of God and his all-too brief demonstration of the incorporeality of the soul (3D III 231). However it is worth repeating that much of the Third Dialogue actually concerns God and our knowledge thereof.  As I suggested above, it may be that Berkeley is interested in (at least partially) answering attacks that threaten to undermine traditional religious beliefs about God that make room for mystery.  

            At any rate, the two works while both promoting Berkeley’s project, do so in different ways. In what follows, I aim to show how each work sheds different light upon Berkeley’s position as well as different routes to the same destination. Before we proceed, however, we must look at Berkeley’s rejection of abstract ideas and its relation to his overall project: While the thesis is far more dominant in the Principles, it still plays a role in the Dialogues. In general, it is a key part of Berkeley’s overall theory of language  - a theory which is a key reflection of his overall project as well as the first move in his overall argument.



[1] Preface to the French edition of Principles of Philosophy (CSM I 186).

[2] Rand Berkeley and Percival p. 68.

[3] According to Kant, any action is good only insofar as it is done from duty

[4] A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell pp. 64-7

[5] Ibid., 70-92.

[6] BL

[7] A Vindication of the Divine Attributes . . . abbrv.