He was born at Dysert Castle in County Kilkenny. At fifteen he entered Trinity College, Dublin. At twenty he formed a club to study “the new philosophy,” which meant Locke. At twenty-one he entered into his “commonplace book” the idea which, he hoped, would crush materialism forever: that nothing exists except by being perceived, that therefore mind is the only reality, and matter is a myth.
As . . . the doctrine of matter, or corporeal substance [has been] the main pillar and support of skepticism, so likewise upon the same faith have been raised all the impious schemes of atheism and irreligion. . . . How great a friend material substance hath been to atheists in all ages, were needless to relate. All their monstrous systems have so visible and necessary a dependence on it, that when this cornerstone is once removed, the whole fabric cannot choose but fall to the ground; insomuch that it is no longer worth while to bestow a particular consideration on the absurdities of every wretched sect of atheists. 178
So in the next seven years, and before completing his twenty-ninth birthday, Berkeley issued his most important works: 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, in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists (1713). The first was a brilliant contribution to psychology and optics; the others profoundly stirred the waters of modern philosophy.
The essay on vision stemmed from a passage in Locke, 179 which told how William Molyneux (a tutor in Trinity College, Dublin) had posed a problem to him: Would a man born blind be able, on recovering his sight, to distinguish by sight alone a sphere from a cube if both of these were of like material and size? Molyneux and Locke had concurred in the negative; Berkeley agreed with them and added his own analysis. Sight gives us no perception of the distance, size, relative positions, or movements of objects, except after correction by the sense of touch; through repeated experiences this correction becomes almost instantaneous; and sight then gives us such a judgment of the shape, distance, place, and motion of objects seen as we should have if we touched them.
A man born blind, being made to see, would at first have no idea of distance by sight; the sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the nearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind. The objects intromitted by sight would seem to him (as in truth they are) no other than a new set of thoughts or sensations, each whereof is as near to him as the perception of pain or pleasure or the most inward passions of the soul. For our judging objects perceived by sight to be at any distance, or without the mind, is entirely the effect of experience. 180
Space, then, is a mental construct; it is a system of relationships built up in the course of experience to co-ordinate our perceptions of sight and touch. Operations reported by the Royal Society (1709, 1728) confirmed this view: when a congenitally blind person was surgically given sight, he was at first “so far from making any judgment about distances that he thought all objects whatever touched his eyes. . . . He knew not the shape of anything, nor any one thing from another, however different in shape or magnitude.”181
The Principles of Human Knowledge was a remarkable product for a lad of twenty-five. Again Berkeley took a leap out of Locke’s Essay. If all knowledge comes from the senses, nothing has reality for us unless we perceive or have perceived it; esse est percipi—to be is to be perceived. Locke had supposed that perceptions were caused by external objects pressing upon our sense organs. How do you know, asked Berkeley, that such objects exist? Have we not in our dreams ideas as vivid as in our waking hours? Locke tried to save the independent reality of objects by distinguishing between their primary and secondary qualities: the latter were subjective, “in the mind”; the others—extension, solidity, figure, number, motion, rest—were objective; they subsisted in some mysterious substratum of which Locke confessed himself ignorant, but which he and the world identified with “matter.” Berkeley now announced that the primary qualities are as subjective as the secondary; that we know the extension, solidity, figure, number, motion, and rest of objects only through perception; that therefore these primary qualities too are subjective, are ideas. The world is for us just a bundle of perceptions. “It is the mind that frames all that variety of bodies which compose the visible world, any one whereof does not exist longer than it is perceived.” 182 Take away from “matter” the primary as well as the secondary qualities, and “matter” becomes a meaningless nonentity. The materialist is left mouthing nothings. 183
Berkeley was well aware that others besides materialists would protest against this sleight-of-hand evaporation of the external world. He was not at a loss when asked if the furniture in our rooms ceases to exist when no one is there to perceive it. 184 He did not deny the reality of an external world, an external source for our perceptions; 185 he merely denied the materiality of that world. External objects may continue to exist when we do not perceive them, but that is only because they exist as percepts in the mind of God.186 And in truth (he went on) our sensations are caused not by external matter, but by the divine power acting upon our senses, Only spirit can act upon spirit; God is the sole source of our sensations and ideas. 187*
Berkeley’s contemporaries thought this was all an Irish lark. Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son that
Doctor Berkeley, a very worthy, ingenious, and learned man, has written a book to prove that there is no such thing as matter, and that nothing exists but an idea. . . . His arguments are, strictly speaking, unanswerable; but yet I am so far from being convinced by them that I am determined to go on to eat and drink, and walk and ride, in order to keep that matter, which I so mistakenly imagine my body at present to consist of, in as good plight as possible. 188
And all the world knows what pains Dr. Johnson took to answer Dr. Berkeley:
After we came out of church [says Boswell] we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus!” 189
Berkeley, of course, would have pointed out to the Great Cham that all that he knew of the stone, including the pain in his toe, was subjective: a bundle of perceptions called a stone, mingling with a bundle of auditory sensations called Boswell and a bundle of indoctrinated ideas called philosophy, had generated a response resulting in another bundle of sensations. Hume agreed with Boswell and Chesterfield: Berkeley’s arguments “admit of no answer and produce no conviction.” 190
Hume found Berkeley’s puzzle fascinating, but drew from it a devastating conclusion. He admitted that “matter” vanishes when we divest it of all the qualities which our perceptions ascribe to it, but he suggested that the same could be said of “mind.” We have seen Locke’s preview of this point; but Berkeley foresaw it, too. In the third of the Dialogues he makes Hylas challenge Philonous:
You acknowledge you have, properly speaking, no idea of your own soul. . . . You admit, nevertheless, that there is a spiritual substance, although you have no idea of it; while you deny there can be such a thing as material substance, because you have no notion or idea of it. Is this fair dealing? . . . To me it seems that according to your own way of thinking, and in consequence of your own principles, it should follow that you are only a system of floating ideas, without any substance to support them. Words are not to be used without a meaning. And as there is no more meaning in spiritual substance than in material substance, the one is to be exploded as well as the other. 191
Philonous (lover of mind) answers Hylas (Mr. Matter):
How often must I repeat, that I know or am conscious of my own being; and that I myself and not my ideas, but somewhat else, a thinking, active principle that perceives, knows, wills, and operates about ideas? I know that I, one and the same self, perceive both colors and sounds; that a color cannot perceive a sound, nor a sound a color; that I am therefore one individual principle, distinct from color and sound. 192
Hume was not convinced by this reply; he concluded that Berkeley, willynilly, had destroyed both matter and soul, and that the writings of the brilliant bishop, who had longed to defend religion, “form the best lessons of skepticism which are to be found either among the ancient or modern philosophers, Bayle not excepted.” 193
Forty years remained to Berkeley after publishing his three treatises. In 1724 he was appointed dean of Derry. In 1728, on a promise of funds from the government, he sailed to found a college in Bermuda for “the reformation of manners among the English in our western plantations, and the propagation of the Gospel among the American savages.” 194 Having reached Newport, Rhode Island, he waited for the promised twenty thousand pounds, none of which ever came. While there he composed Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher (1732), to put an end to all religious doubt. He left his mark upon the mind of Jonathan Edwards, and wrote a famous line: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” After three years of vain expectations he returned to England. In 1734 he was appointed bishop of Cloyne. We have seen how Swift’s Vanessa made him one of her executors, and left him half her property. In 1744 he issued a strange treatise, Siris, . . . the Virtues of Tar-Water—to which he had been introduced by the aforesaid savages, and which he now recommended as a cure for smallpox. He died at Oxford in 1753, aged sixty-eight.
No man ever surpassed him in proving the unreality of the real. In his effort to restore religious belief, and to exorcise the Hobbesian materialism that was infecting England, he turned philosophy outside in, and made “all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, . . . all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world,” 195 to exist for man as merely ideas in his mind. It was a risky enterprise, and Berkeley would have shuddered to see Hume and Kant draw from his pious principles a critique of reason that left no basic dogma undislodged in the ancient and beloved edifice of the Christian faith. We admire the subtlety of his web-weaving, and concede that no one since Plato had written nonsense so charmingly. We shall find his influence everywhere in Britain and Germany in the eighteenth century, less in France, but rising again in the epistemological abracadabra of nineteenth-century Kantians. Even today European philosophy has not yet quite made up its mind that the external world exists. Until it reconciles itself to the extreme probability thereof, and faces the problems of life and death, the world will pass it by.
All in all, this was the finest epoch in the history of English philosophy. The bell that Francis Bacon had rung to call the wits together had been heard after the subsiding fury of the Civil War. Hobbes was the bridge over that mindless void, Newton was the lever by which mechanics moved theology, Locke was the peak from which the problems of modern philosophy came clearly into view. From that English quartet, soon abetted by the canny, uncanny Hume, came a powerful influence into France and Germany. The French thinkers of this period were not so profound or original as the English, but more brilliant, partly because they were Gauls, partly because a more stringent censorship compelled them to spend their substance upon form and dispense their wisdom in wit. Then in 1726 Voltaire came to England. When he returned he carried Newton, Locke, Bacon, Hobbes, and other contraband in his bags; and France for half a century thereafter used English science and philosophy as weapons to écraser l’infâme of superstition, obscurantism, and ignorance. An English midwife served at the accouchement of the French Enlightenment.