One of the most interesting features of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge is the symbiosis between a radical empiricism and a bold and uncompromising idealism. An artful combination of analytical rigor and unfettered speculation, of crystal-like precision of language and winged metaphors or sparkling images, George Berkeley's work is essentially a God-centered philosophy that argues that something exists only insofar as it is perceived by the mind. ...
One of the most interesting features of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge is the symbiosis between a radical empiricism and a bold and uncompromising idealism. An artful combination of analytical rigor and unfettered speculation, of crystal-like precision of language and winged metaphors or sparkling images, George Berkeley's work is essentially a God-centered philosophy that argues that something exists only insofar as it is perceived by the mind.
George Berkeley was born near Kilkenny, Ireland, on 12 March 1685. He entered Trinity College Dublin, where he took his BA in 1704 and became a teaching fellow of the College in 1707. He was a lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and Divinity, and, in some way or other, remained affiliated with the College until 1724, when he was appointed Dean of Derry. Berkeley published most of his major philosophical works at a relatively young age: An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (Dublin, 1709), A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (Dublin, 1710), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713).
George Berkeley's A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge brings forth one of the most perplexing philosophical systems of all times. Also known as "immaterialism," this philosophy is centered on the notion that there is no such thing as matter, that the objects we see around us are nicely packed collections of ideas generated by God's mind, and that, in general, what we call "the world" is just a subtle interplay between God's mind and ours. The things we encounter in the world are either our constructs or God's or both: in any case, they cannot exist unperceived, or un-thought of, by a mind. We ourselves exist in the same way in which characters in a story do: only insofar as there is someone (kind enough) to invent and tell the story. Controversial as this line of thought may seem, it has proven to be extremely influential over the centuries, not only in philosophy, but also in critical theory, literature, and cinematography. To give only a few examples, some of Jorge Luis Borges' stories seem to be rigorously based on Berkeleian insights and so does the movie The Matrix or even some of Woody Allen's films. Anyway, today, when we live half of our lives in "virtual realities" of some kind or other, and the "real world" tends to become more and more virtual, when we talk more and more of socially (or ideologically, culturally, politically) "constructed" objects and realities, reading A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge may well be part of a self-examination exercise.
George Berkeley was born near Kilkenny, Ireland, on 12 March 1685. Although his father was an Englishman from Staffordshire, throughout his life Berkeley considered himself Irish. He first attended Kilkenny College (formerly attended by Jonathan Swift, among others), and then when he was fifteen, he entered Trinity College Dublin, where he took his BA in 1704 and became a teaching fellow of the College in 1707. He was a lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and Divinity, and, in some way or other, remained affiliated with the College until 1724, when he was appointed Dean of Derry. Berkeley published most of his major philosophical works at a relatively young age: An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (Dublin, 1709), A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (Dublin, 1710), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713). Whereas in An Essay Berkley did not, for strategic reasons, deny the existence of matter as such, in Principles his immaterialism has already become a fully fledged philosophical doctrine. On its publication, Principles was not particularly well received in philosophical circles: Berkeley was laughed at, his thesis ridiculed, and one London physician overtly considered him mad. As the poet John Brown would later say, he was vanquished "by a grin." Because of this poor reception and at the same time because he aimed to reach an audience beyond the narrowly specialized circles of philosophers, Berkeley decided to "translate" the difficult content of the book into something more agreeable and easy to read. This is how the Three Dialogues was born. Although it did not present something necessarily new in terms of philosophical ideas and arguments, Three Dialogues is a major philosophical work in its own right, giving Berkeley a prominent place in the grand tradition of the Platonic dialogue and rendering him as one of the most gifted masters of the English language. At the same time, Berkeley's decision to write for a considerably wider audience is highly indicative of a certain tendency of his (which was increasingly more visible as the years passed) to conceive of his philosophical mission not in purely academic terms, but as something that has to be deeply useful for people' lives, for their well being and sense of self-realization. In other words, Berkeley's was a shift toward "philosophy as a way of life," as something that is not to remain a dead letter and empty scholarship, but has to result in an existential transformation to occur in people, in their ways of living and of thinking.
Since early adulthood, Berkeley had taken the dictum "think with the learned, and speak with the vulgar" as one of his precious maxims, but as he grew older he became more and more involved in projects in which his philosophical idealism came to be intertwined, in a highly sophisticated manner, with a certain social idealism. One of these projects was the so-called "Bermuda project." In 1724 Berkeley published A Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations in which he advanced the idea of a "theology college" to be founded in the islands of Bermuda for the children of the European colonists and of the "savage Indians." The college was designed to produce clergymen who would propagate the Gospel in the New World, and provide spiritual guidance to both the colonists and-more importantly-to the native Indians, who would thus be brought to Christianity. Berkeley's project has all the characteristics of an educational utopia: situated in a paradisiacal natural environment, his school was to be an ideal community of philosophers and scholars, dedicated to learning and complex studies, a school whose only aim was to preserve and convey the noblest values and virtues of humankind. Berkeley himself was to be the head of this utopian school; infected with his enthusiasm, some of the Fellows of Trinity College even enlisted as faculty. To speed things up, Berkeley sailed for America and spent some three years (1728-1731) in Newport, Rhode Island, making various preparations and waiting for the necessary funds from England. Money never came and the project gloriously failed, but Berkeley made excellent use of his American sojourn, writing-among other things-Alciphron (1732), a series of philosophical dialogues designed as an "Apology for the Christian Religion." After his educational project failed, Berkeley returned to Europe and in 1734 he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland.
In 1744 he published Siris. A Chain of Philosophical Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar-Water. This book (today passed over in silence by most commentators) was definitely, in his lifetime, a best seller, with five editions in Dublin and London within only one year. The book is about nothing else but a universal medicine: marked by the terrible famine that hit Ireland in the early 1740s, the subsequent epidemic, and the acute lack of professional physicians in his diocese, Berkeley decides to "stand the ridicule" of embarking on yet another utopian project. He undertakes an ample historical-philosophical-theological journey to "prove" that tar-water (a quite inexpensive natural product) is capable of curing virtually all diseases and conferring upon the patient perfect health, a better life and serenity of mind. The speculative (neo-Platonic and esoteric) arguments Berkeley employs in the process places him definitely in the alchemic tradition in which the "philosopher's stone" was also known as medicina universalis. Just like the alchemists of the old times, and even using some of their cosmological and metaphysical speculations, Berkeley dreamed of finding a wonder solution for improving the well being of people's minds and bodies, transcending the narrow limits of humanity and, in some mysterious way, getting closer to the divine. Driven by grand social projects and dreams of human improvement, deeply marked by the utopian traditions of Europe, throughout his life Berkeley was, as his friend Jonathan Swift once remarked, "an absolute philosopher with regard to money, titles, and power." The "good Bishop" died on 14 January 1753 in Oxford.
Principles, as we have it, is in fact the first part of a larger project: a second part was to deal with "the being of a God & the freedom of Man," and a third part was to be about "natural philosophy"; neither of which was completed. Even if Principles is dedicated to the process through which "human knowledge" is being constituted, the book is saturated with theological issues. For this philosophy is essentially a God-centered philosophy: no matter the specific subject matter (ethics, political philosophy, economics) Berkeley deals with, sooner or later God will show up and firmly reassert his central position in the general "scheme of things." One of the most interesting features of Berkeley's philosophical style is precisely the symbiosis between a radical empiricism, expressing itself through an elegant and rigorous literary form, on the one hand, and a bold and uncompromising idealism in the tradition of Plato, Plotinus, Ficino, or the Cambridge Platonists, a highly speculative way of thinking (deeply rooted in Christian metaphysics), on the other hand. Extremely rarely in the history of Western philosophy has there been such an artful combination of analytical rigor and unfettered speculation, of crystal-like precision of language and winged metaphors or sparkling images.
Berkeley's empiricism is centered on the notion that something exists only insofar as it is perceived by the mind ("esse is percipi"). The being of a thing is precisely its being perceived by a mind; in the absence of its perception, we cannot, properly speaking, say that something exists. The computer screen on which this text is being brought to life exists only insofar as I perceive it: in a certain way, it is my eyes that are conferring existence upon it. If I am to take the word "existence" seriously, I am forced to admit that in the absence of my sensorial experience of a certain object, that object would not exist for me-it would be a pure emptiness, the most absent of all objects. The world outside us grows incessantly under our eyes and under our fingertips, and because our ears pay attention to its sounds. We construct the world with our senses. Therefore, we can say we have an object only when we have an experience of it. Yet, it would be plainly absurd to say that objects cease to exist if we don't pay attention to them anymore, if, say, we sleep, or travel, or if we die. Of course, they exist and they don't care about our sleeping, or dying, or going away. They exist because, for Berkeley, in our absence they are perceived by God. The fact that, although I leave my room and go far away, things in my room continue to exist is, for Berkeley, a proof that God exists. In other words, if the principle "to be is to be perceived" is valid, then there has to be a God. Thus, the existence of God is the necessary consequence of the empirical way of thinking on which Berkeley embarked when he adopted the "esse is percipi" principle. In his own words, the things in the world "so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit" (§ 6). In a couple of famous limericks, Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) summed the argument up in a most entertaining manner:
There was a young man who said, "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."
Your astonishment's odd: I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by Yours faithfully,
Along the lines of this radical empiricism, Berkeley undertakes in Principles a rigorous analysis of our knowledge of the outside world, as well as of the complex of notions, concepts and theories we customarily employ when talking about the world. He discovers, among other things, that since we never perceive matter as such (we perceive particular objects-objects of a certain shape, of a certain color, smell, or taste, but not matter as such), we cannot legitimately say that matter exists. Since we use a word about whose meaning we do not have any clear idea, Berkeley thus comes to say that "the very notion of what is called matter or corporeal substance, involves a contradiction in it" (§ 9). Not only is matter contradictory and unintelligible in theoretical terms, but for Berkeley the belief in the existence of matter is simply dangerous: it gives birth to prejudices of all kinds, and has a very bad influence on people's morals, worldviews, states of mind, and behaviors. The belief in the existence of matter is for him the source of evil in sciences and the arts, in society, church and morality: "The existence of matter, or bodies unperceived, has not only being the main support of atheists and fatalists, but on the same principle doth idolatry likewise in all its various forms depend"(§ 94). Matter is an unnecessary and harmful interposition between us and God; it doesn't have any positive role at all, it only keeps away from the proximity of God. There is only one solution: immaterialism. Only the denial of the existence of matter could put an end to the fruitless philosophical disputes that have marked the history of humanity:
Matter being expelled out of Nature, drags with it so many sceptical and impious notions, such an incredible number of disputes and puzzling questions, which have been thorns in the sides of the divines, as well as philosophers, and made so much fruitless work for mankind. (§ 96)
Yet, if we "expel matter out of Nature," what is left? If there is no such thing as matter, what is it, then, that we experience in the outside world? It is God's Discourse. The world is living word. In Principles, as well as in most of Berkeley's other philosophical works, nature is seen as the "visual language" that God uses to speak with us. The things we see around us, their unfolding and succession, their changing into one another, are not meaningless occurrences, but they form a divine speech; they say something about the "Author of Nature." In a strikingly similar fashion, long before Berkeley another Irish philosopher, Scotus Erigena, had said that "there is nothing, in visible and corporeal things, that does not signify something incorporeal and invisible." In fact, when making such a statement Erigena himself relied massively on St. Paul's Epistles, on St. Augustine, on the doctrine of Jesus Christ's Incarnation, as well as on the Platonic way of thinking. With his theory of the world as God's discourse, Berkeley thus joined a long tradition of thinking, one that held that the world is "like a book written with God's own finger." There is nothing more important in life, according to this tradition, than looking for the "Author of Nature" and finding out what his thoughts are: "it is the searching after, and endeavoring to understand those signs instituted by the Author of Nature, that ought to be the employment of the natural philosopher" (§ 6). In this way, God is not some remote abstraction (Pascal's "God of the philosophers"), only vaguely related to the world, but he is immediately present in every single syllable of the cosmic speech as the most authoritative source of its meaning. Not only are the things we see around in God's Discourse: we ourselves are in it, we live in God's speech and have our home there. Quoting from the Bible (Acts 17: 28), Berkeley talks of "that active principle, that supreme and wise spirit, in whom we live, move, and have our being" (§ 6). In other words, we are characters in a story that God is incessantly telling. Any story must have an author, therefore God must exist, so that our story will be told and we will gain our existence. Our own stories, the narratives we create are only finite imitations of God's infinite narrative. The nature of our relationship with God is given precisely by the fact that he is the author and we are his inventions. Jorge Luis Borges, who might well be seen as one of Berkeley's most important disciples in the twentieth century, grasped this Berkeleian insight with remarkable accurateness and pushed it to its ultimate limits. Thus, in one of his fictions ("Everything and Nothing") Borges sketches a possible biography of Shakespeare. When Shakespeare dies, the story goes, he found himself in the presence of God and told him:
"I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself." The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: "Neither am I anyone; I have dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one."
That both Shakespeare and God are dreamers, mutual dreamers, Berkeley would fully agree. It is said that the old Chinese sage Chuang-tzu made once this strange confession to his disciples: "Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I no longer know whether I am Chuang-tzu, who dreamed I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-tzu." If one would be daring enough to translate Chuang-tzu's dream into Berkeley's, one might well say something like this: "Once I dreamed I was God, and now I no longer know whether I am Berkeley, who dreamed I was God, or whether I am God dreaming that I am Berkeley."