George Berkeley


“All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth - in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world - have not any subsistence without a mind,” was the view of George Berkeley, an Irish bishop and philosopher. He was an empiricist and is among the most prominent proponents of Empirical Idealism. Idealism is the view that physical objects are mind dependent and have no existence outside the mind that contemplates them. That is, physical things exist only in the sense that they are perceived. In very simple words: matter doesn’t exist![1] Berkeley was greatly troubled by the rise of skepticism and atheism. He viewed materialism as the principal cause of this trend and made it is his target to disprove materialism and to prove the existence of God.

Berkeley strongly criticizes the idea of abstract ideas. [For example, I have only seen particular triangles, but supporters of abstract ideas maintain that I have in my mind an abstract idea of a ‘triangle’, which is independent of these particular triangles I have seen.] Berkeley believes that the human mind possesses no such abstract idea. Taking the example of a horse, Berkeley says that if we examine our minds we will find an idea of this or that particular horse, but never an idea of ‘horsiness’ or an abstract horse.

Berkeley, in his Idealism, makes use of a confusion created by Locke. Locke had used the word idea as encompassing two meanings: 1) idea as a content of knowledge and 2) idea as whatsoever the mind perceives. Although he intended to keep the two usages separate, it resulted in the confusion between the objects of awareness with state of being aware. Berkeley retained this confused usage.

Berkeley accepted the principle lay down by Locke that all knowledge we obtain comes from senses and experience. However, he criticized Locke for the improper application of this concept. He agreed with Locke on the subjectivity of secondary qualities i.e. the qualities like taste, color, sound and smell are not present in the object itself, but are produced by us. But Locke had also said that primary qualities are present intrinsically in the object. Berkeley disagreed with this. The primary qualities are as subjective as secondary qualities. He pointed out that his perception of shape and size depend upon the position of his eyes, his experience of solidity depends upon his sense of touch, and his idea of motion is always relative to his own position. A straight stick appears bent when placed in water; a bacterium appears larger when seen through a microscope. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities is, therefore, not valid.

Berkeley maintained that the only things which exist are what we perceive, and, he said, we have never experienced or perceived “matter”. If the reader is inclined to a skeptical smile, it is not surprising. Obviously, a common man would say, we have perceived matter. Whenever the hammer strikes our thumb, what else do we perceive, if not matter? Indeed, Dr. Johnson[2] responded to this by kicking a stone and proving, as he thought, that the stone exists.

But did that really prove that the stone exists? Did Dr. Johnson actually ‘experience’ the stone? When he kicked it, he must have felt something hard and solid. He had the sensation of hardness, but he never felt the actual matter of the stone. He might have kicked a stone in dream and experienced the same pain, but there is no stone present in this case. Berkeley insisted that all sensible objects are nothing more than collections of sensible qualities, so they are merely complex ideas in the minds of those who perceive them. Therefore, there are no material objects. It must be understood that Berkeley is not denying the existence of sensible things i.e. of what is perceived directly by the senses. But he says that these ‘things’ are not material objects, but ‘ideas’ present in the mind.

Berkeley believes that ‘To be is to be perceived’ and ‘To be is to perceive’. He says that no such thing can exist which neither perceives nor is being perceived. He asks his readers to think of a sensible object existing independently of any perceiver. It may appear to be an easy task, but it is not so. Suppose you conceive of something very far away — suppose, a house in an isolated jungle — that no one perceives. But if I am thinking about it, it is present in my mind; and since it is present in my mind, the supposed house is nevertheless mental.

This raises a little problem: the existence of what I see depends on my seeing it. So, does a thing ‘disappear’ whenever I close my eyes? Does it mean that whenever I blink, the thing pops out of existence and is again created? As the reader will feel, it is a very absurd notion, although, strictly speaking, it practically makes no difference.

Nonetheless, Berkeley has a way out of it. He says that the existence of what I perceive does not depend only on my perceiving it; it will exist as long as anyone perceives it. When I close my eyes, the object infront of me will continue to exist if someone is perceving it. And this ‘someone’ happens to be God. Even when none of us perceives any object, God does. All things are permanently present in the mind of God, and they exist independently of our perception. So, Berkeley claimed that the existence of God is far more clearly perceived than the existence of man himself. Hence, Berkeley thought, materialism was defeated and belief in God was restored.

However, Berkeley has his critics. His arguments are not without flaws and can be refuted to a certain extent. Bertrand Russell writes: “He [Berkeley] thinks he is proving that all reality is mental; what he is proving is that we perceive qualities, not things, and that qualities are relative to the percipient.”[3]

Referring to the challenge to conceive an object [say, a house] which no one perceives, Russell answers: “‘I do not mean that I have in mind the image of a house; when I say that I can conceive a house which no one perceives, what I really mean is that I can understand the proposition “there is a house which no one perceives”, or, better still, “there is a house which no one either perceives or conceives.”.’ This proposition is composed entirely of intelligible words … I am sure that it cannot be shown to be self-contradictory.”[4]

It is possible for things to exist, which have never been conceived or perceived before, for example: the series of integers goes on to infinity; it means that there would be many integers, which none has ever thought of, and yet, they exist. However, Berkeley can respond to this by saying that the integer only comes into existence when one thinks of it, or perhaps that God has thought of all the integers up to infinity.

Berkeley was, in fact, only a partial empiricist and had failed to develop the empirical principles to their logical conclusions. This was pointed out by Hume, who shall be under our consideration in the next chapter.

[1] Idealism may also mean, such as when applied to Kant, that an objective external reality exists, but a substantial part of the objects is determined by our perception and understanding. [See Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, page 273]
[2] Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
[3] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, page 624
[4] Ibid, page 627.