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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

George Berkeley: Idealist and Consistent Empiricist

George Berkeley quotes

Young man, there is America, which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners.

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) was the oldest son of an English settler in Ireland. At age fifteen he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He completed his master's degree in 1707. In 1709 he was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church. From 1735 until his death Berkeley was Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland.

Berkeley had established himself as a great thinker by his early twenties. All the philosophical works which made him famous were published between 1709 and 1713. These works are An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). These three books contain the essential elements of Berkeley's immaterialism, a view which he held with minor modification to the end of his life.

In 1728 Berkeley married the daughter of the chief justice of Ireland and departed for America with three companions.

At the time of Berkeley's visit to New England there was no Anglican bishop in the colonies, and Berkeley was the highest ranking Anglican clergyman to venture to the British colonies. Berkeley was also the first philosopher of any note to visit America. As such, he had considerable influence on the philosophical life of the colonies. The first serious criticism of Berkeley's immaterialism came from the Connecticut clergyman and philosopher, Samuel Johnson, who met Berkeley in Newport and corresponded with him for many years. Johnson eventually became a convert to immaterialism, and later became the first president of Columbia University in New York. Johnson also wrote the first American philosophy textbook, Elementa Philosophica, which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, It was dedicated to George Berkeley.

During most of his time in America, Berkeley devoted himself to study, preached occasionally, and wrote his Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. His hope to plant a college in the Colonies never came to fruition. Although Berkeley's plans to convert the savages and increase Christian learning in the colonies had failed, he maintained a lively interest in education in America. On his departure he left his farm, house, and library to Yale. On several occasions, he donated books to both Yale and Harvard. Berkeley in California is named for him.

Berkeley’s central principle of his philosophy is that ideas do not exist outside of a mind perceiving them. This also is an intuitive kind of truth: when I say that an object exists, I mean that I can feel it, that I can see it, or that it is perceived by another mind. As a result, for Berkeley it is impossible to conceive of an absolute and independent reality; esse est percipi (“to be is to be perceived”). The “esse” or being of the object is in its “percipi” or being perceived. Therefore we can only speak of things to the extent that they are in direct relationship with our mind.

Related reading:  Berkeley's Life and Works