The philosophy of George Berkeley

GEORGE BERKELEY issued his first publication, two mathematical essays, in 1707, his Theory of Vision in 1709 and his Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710. This last work is one of the most notable of that sequence of metaphysical systems which, beginning with Descartes, constitute modern philosophy. Berkeley is regarded as the founder of the philosophy of idealism as opposed to the realism of Hobbes. In clear, almost Platonic style, he shows by an analysis of sense-perception that the external world is really dependent for its very existence on the spirit.


IT is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind; or, lastly, ideas formed by help of memory and imagination, either compounding, dividing, or representing those originally perceived in the aforesaid ways. By sight, touch and other senses, I receive various sensations; and any group of sensations, frequently accompanying one another, comes to be known as one thing. Thus, a certain colour, taste, smell, figure and consistence having been observed to go together, are accounted one distinct thing--for instance, an apple.

But, besides this endless variety of objects of knowledge, there is also the 'mind,' 'spirit,' 'soul,' or 'myself,' which perceives them. Neither our thoughts nor imaginations, nor even the sensations which compose the objects of perception, can exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them. It is impossible that objects should have any existence out of the minds for which they exist; to conceive them as existing unperceived is a mere abstraction. Whence it follows that there is no other substance but spirit, or that which perceives.

Some, indeed, distinguish between 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities, and hold that the former, such as extension, figure, motion and solidity, have some existence outside of the mind in an unthinking substance which they call 'matter.' But extension, figure and motion are only ideas existing in the mind, and neither these ideas nor their archetypes can exist in an unperceiving substance.

The very notion of what is called 'matter' involves a contradiction within it. Not only primary and secondary qualities alike, but also 'great' and 'small,' 'swift' and 'slow, 'extension,' 'number,' and even 'unity' itself, being all of them purely relative, exist only in the mind. The conception of 'material substance' has no meaning but that of 'being' in general.

Even if we were to give to the materialists their 'external bodies,' they are by their own confession no nearer to knowledge how our ideas are produced, since they own themselves unable to comprehend in what manner body can act upon spirit, or how it is possible that it should imprint any idea on the mind.

It is evident that the production of ideas in our minds can be no reason why we should suppose corporeal substances to exist, since the rise of those ideas is acknowledged to remain equally inexplicable with or without the supposition of material existences. In short, if there were external bodies, it is impossible that we should ever come to know it; and if there were not, we should have the same reasons to think there were, that we have now.

We perceive a continual succession of ideas; some are anew excited, others are changed or totally disappear. There is, therefore, some cause of these ideas, whereon they depend, which produces and changes them. This cause must be a substance; but it has been shown that there is no corporeal or material substance. It remains, therefore, that the cause of ideas is an incorporeal active substance or spirit.

A spirit is one simple, undivided, active being; as it perceives ideas it is called the 'understanding,' and as it produces or otherwise operates about them, it is called the 'will.' Such is the nature of spirit that it cannot be of itself perceived, but only by the effects which it produces.

The ideas of sense are more strong, lively and distinct than those of the imagination; they have likewise a steadiness, order and coherence, and are excited in a regular series, the admirable connexion whereof sufficiently testifies the wisdom and benevolence of its Author. The set rules or established methods, wherein the mind that we depend on excites in us the ideas of sense, are called the 'laws of nature.'

These we learn by experience, and so obtain a sort of foresight which enables us to regulate our actions for the benefit of life. In general, to obtain such or such ends such or such means are conducive; and all this we know, not by discovering any necessary connexion between our ideas, but only by the observation of the laws of nature.

And yet this constant uniform working, which so evidently displays the goodness and wisdom of that governing spirit whose will constitutes the laws of nature, is so far from leading our thoughts to Him that it rather sends them wandering after second causes. For when we perceive certain ideas of sense constantly followed by other ideas, and we know that it is not of our own doing, we forthwith attribute power and agency to the ideas themselves, and make one the cause of another, than which nothing can be more absurd.

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