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A Critical Glance Into George Berkeley's Philosophy Of Immaterialism

This research paper will delve into the life of Bishop George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher of the Enlightenment era best well-known for his theory of Immaterialism, a form of Idealism that placed that there were no material substances but only mental ones, as well as his contributions to the discipline of philosophy by adopting a doctrinal method of legal research. It also looks at the philosophy of Idealism and immaterialism and how they might be examined critically.

One of his renowned principles is 'esse is percipi,' which translates to 'to be is to be perceived.' We examine how Berkeley presents his argument, using real-world examples, to prove his thesis of immaterialism. We will examine how George Berkeley incorporates Christian theology as well as God's presence into his theory to justify it. Berkeley contends that the very presence of an external reality is implausible.

He employs the master argument so as to bolster his rejection of matter and favour of a reality that exists purely through our imaginations. Berkeley contends that since a concept can be nothing more than an idea, how can it be derived from an external physical entity? Berkeley argues for a God who establishes natural rules for our minds to comprehend.

We will critically look into this theory of his using examples. We will also investigate how the continuity and regularity of the reality we sense are preserved in the absence of any thought or mental perception on the part of the observer. We can also observe how George Berkeley pulls concepts from a number of his time's most renowned philosophers and stitches them together to fit his theory.

"All men have opinions and only a few think"- George Berkeley

George Berkeley was such a philosopher who ventured to think, and he thought daring thoughts. He was a strong advocate of idealism[1] and pioneered immaterialism[2] as a subset of it. In philosophy, Idealism refers to any viewpoint that emphasises the essential importance of the spiritual interpretation of reality. It may believe that the universe or reality exists primarily as spirit or consciousness, that ideas and norms are more foundational in reality than perceptual things, or that whatever exists is primarily known in mental dimensions.

Thus, the two major types of idealism are metaphysical idealism[3], which claims the idea of reality, and epistemological idealism[4], which believes that the mind can comprehend only the psychic or that its entities are conditioned by their perceptibility in the developing knowledge. In a nutshell, idealism holds that material objects are ultimately mental in nature. Materialism[5] and idealism are both kinds of monism in the sense that they both believe that there exists only one fundamental type of thing in the world; they merely disagree over what that type of thing is.

Berkeley was born on March 12, 1685, at his parental residence, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest child of William Berkeley, a cadet of the Berkeley noble family, whose ancestors can be traced all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon era[6] and who had worked as feudal lords and landlords in Gloucester, England. His mother is presumed to be Elisabeth Southerne, although it has not been confirmed conclusively.

He began his education at the Duke of Ormonde's School at Kilkenny during July 1696 and continued there till January 1700, when he enrolled Trinity College, Dublin, as a Scholar in 1702, earning a BA in 1704 and also an MA and a Fellowship in 1707. After completing his degrees, he worked as a professor and Greek instructor at Trinity College.

In addition to teaching, he pursued divinity and was anointed deacon in February 1709, subsequently priest the following year. Although Berkeley retained his fellowship in Trinity College, Dublin, till 1724, he resided the most of the time between 1713 and 1724 outside of Dublin. In January 1713, he travelled to London to organise the publishing of a few of his works. In November of the same year, he travelled to Italy as Lord Peterborough's chaplain.

Berkeley resigned from Trinity College in May of 1724 for becoming the Anglican Dean of Londonderry, however he never lived in the city, spending the vast majority of the subsequent four years in London. During this time, he aspired to construct a college in Bermuda to educate the children of colonists as well as Native Americans he sought to evangelise.

He got married to Anne Foster on August 1, 1728, and shortly after that they sailed off to America. They arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, and purchased a farm. Henry and George, their first two children were born while they were living near Newport, Rhode Island.

There he awaited his scholarship grant, which would have allowed him to construct the planned College. By the middle of 1731, however, it was clear that he wasn't going to receive the money, so he departed to London by October. During his stay in America, he penned a lot of pieces, which he published two to three years upon his return.

Berkeley was selected as the Bishop of Cloyne in January 1734 subsequently consecrated on May 19, 1734, at St Paul's Church, Dublin. In this post, he dedicated himself to Ireland's social and economic issues, striving his best as an Anglican bishop to improve the lives of everyone living in the largely Roman Catholic society.

Berkeley's health had worsened by the late 1740s. His youngest son, William, died in 1751, hastening his deterioration. In fact, his plan was to reside at Oxford for the remainder of his existence, which he expected to be short. On the evening of Sunday, January 14, 1753, he suffered a heart attack while resting with his family while listening to his wife reading.

He died so calmly that the tragedy is claimed to have gone unnoticed, with the family believing he had fell asleep. He had left instructions not to bury him for at least five days, and so he was buried on 20 January at Christ Church, Oxford.

Contributions To Philosophy

George Berkeley was one among the most well-known British empiricists[7]. (John Locke and David Hume being the other two.) He was an Irish Enlightenment philosopher[8] probably most famous for his doctrine of Immaterialism, a kind of Idealism that maintained that there were no material substances but only finite mental substances as well as an infinite mental entity, God. He is also thought to be the father of modern Idealism.

Berkeley's famous notion was 'esse is percipi'[9], which means that to be is to be perceived. Berkeley believes that mind-independent objects do not exist. It is regarded as the basic premise of human understanding, and it serves as the foundation for his argument of God's existence.

Berkeley's golden era of authorship began with his Trinity College years. He examined visual range, magnitude, position, and issues of vision and touch in An Essay 'Towards a New Theory of Vision'[10] (1709), and concluded that the proper (or actual) objects of sight are not without mind, despite "the converse being considered valid for tangible objects."

He helped bring all objects of sense, including tangibles, within the mind in his 'A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I'[11] (1710); he turned down material substance, material causes, and vague general ideas; he asserted spiritual substance; and he tried to answer numerous objections to his theory and managed to draw theological and epistemological consequences. He concentrates on moral and political philosophy in 'Passive Obedience'[12] (1712).

His 'Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous'[13] (1713) emphasised the basic point of the principles by its appealing literary style and avoidance of complications. The two works discuss immaterialism in unison. His 1721 publication of 'De Motu'[14] resulted in a significant leap forward in scientific knowledge.

There is also a set of notebooks known as the "Philosophical Commentaries"[15] that span the period in which he formulated his philosophies idealism and immaterialism. These were personal notebooks, and he didn't have an intention of publishing them. While in America, he penned the majority of 'Alciphron'[16], his defence to Christianity against free-thinking.

Berkeley was also well-known for his contributions to theology, relativity arguments, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mathematics, moral philosophy, and immaterialism. His works also contributed to the formation of Berkeley's razor[17]; a logic rule given by philosopher Karl Popper[18] during his examination of Berkeley's fundamental scientific book De Motu.

Theory Of Berkeley's Idealism And Immaterialism

Bishop George Berkely was a keen critic of his predecessors, especially Rene Descartes[19], John Locke[20], and others. He criticises materialism, defined as "the concept that material things exist." Despite the fact that many of Berkeley's first readers were baffled and found his work unacceptable, he inspired thinkers such as David Hume[21] and Immanuel Kant[22].

Berkeley dubbed his view of the perceived universe 'immaterialism.' Berkeley had been an idealist. 'Idealism' In philosophy, identifies and characterizes metaphysical positions that say that reality is undifferentiated and inseparable from human sight and comprehension; that reality is a mental construction strongly related to ideas. He believed that everyday objects are simply collections of ideas that are dependent on our minds. Berkeley was always an immaterialist. He believed that there were no material substances. There only exist finite mental substances and an infinite mental substance, God.

The concept that "sensible things are just those which are instantly seen by sense" underlines George Berkeley's theory that matter doesn't really exist.

All knowledge, thus according to him, derives from perception; what we observe are ideas, not objects in themselves; a thing in itself must be beyond experience; hence, the reality only comprises ideas and minds which perceive such ideas; a thing only exists insofar as it perceives or is perceived. We can see from this that Berkeley believes consciousness exists because of its capacity for perception.

Berkeley believed that reality was just a series of mental ideas. He explained it as 'esse is percipi', to be is to be perceived. There was nothing that existed in a physical world external to our minds. All of reality is just mental ideas that we perceive. It was quite a radical theory.

Firstly, Berkeley rejects the direct realist[23] approach. The direct realist approach is the theory which states that we directly perceive the external world how it is. What we see and experience is exactly the same in our minds as in the external world. Berkeley prima facie rejects this idea and uses John Locke's 'primary and secondary quality distinction'[24] to support his rejection of this theory.

John Locke used an indirect realist approach to reality by highlighting how many parts of reality exist in the mind and not in an external world. For example, how can something taste sweet to one person taste bitter to another, or how can a hot palm perceive water as cool while a cold hand experiences the same water as burning if these attributes existed in material reality and were constant all the time?

As a result, he asserted that these traits are in fact mind-dependent and only exist as mental concepts. John Locke used this argument against direct realism but as an indirect realist John Locke still believed in an external world existing outside of our minds or primary qualities that cause the ideas or the secondary qualities in our minds but Berkeley rejected the existence of an external world altogether. Berkeley believed that he has good grounds to continue this line of thought further and show that he cannot in fact make a distinction between an external world and mental ideas we perceive.

Locke's main argument in support of indirect realism was that secondary qualities appear different at different times and to different people. For example, colour can look different under different lights based on the rate of absorbtion by receptor's in one's eye, taste can taste different to different people and so on. So these are just ideas in the mind but he claims an object's extension and figure exists in an external world.

However the same argument can be applied to an object's extension: how can the same building look tall at one site but small at another what is the right size it should be perceived so if primary qualities are subject to change they fall into the same brackets as secondary qualities and so should be considered mind dependent ideas too.

Berkeley goes on to explain further against indirect realism using the likeness principle. He argues that whether you believe in an external world or not, we are aware that we only perceive our own ideas of reality not the perception of reality directly, however if we only ever directly perceive our ideas an idea can be like nothing but an idea. Berkeley then uses the master argument to further strengthen his rejection of matter and advocacy of a reality solely in our minds and to answer how if an idea can be like nothing but an idea and we only perceive our ideas then how can they derive from an external physical material object.

Berkeley argues that the very existence of an external world is in fact inconceivable. Whatever it be, it is being perceived as an idea in our mind we therefore have no access or cannot even conceive of a material world existing outside of our minds.

Berkeley has raised some good arguments for idealism. But critically analysing an immaterial world all existing in our minds seems to go against common sense. Even if we say there is no physical world how can our reality be so consistent for example, when one goes to their room. They have the idea of it with all their things. They then leave for a few hours then again go back to the room and it's exactly the same. Same things, same colours, in the same position and all in the same size. If there is no physical world in which ideas come from then how can one explain this 'regularity'[25] we perceive every day.

How can one be having such a regular idea if there was not a physical structure of a material object in an external world generating these ideas. And it's not just the regularity but also the 'continuity'[26] for example, if one leaves a pot full of water open in the sunlight for a few hours and when they come back part of the water will have evaporated.

Similarly, if one lights a candle in a room and leave for a few hours when I come back the candle wax will have melted. Well if there is no physical candle wax or evaporated water in an external world and one was not present to perceive the idea of the candle melting and the water evaporating then how has the candle melted or how has the water evaporated? how does existence have the continuity even when there are no minds present to perceive.

In fact, Berkeley has replies to both those rejections. He attributes the sustenance reality we perceive to the most powerful mind in existence, the mind of God. Berkeley argues in favour of a God who creates laws of nature for our minds to perceive. He adds that God keeps our mental reality in a state of regularity so when one does get back to their room, they perceive their rooms in a state of regularity. So, everything will be the same colour and the same shape and in the same positions.

And even when there are no minds around to perceive something the continuity persists because the mind of God is still there to perceive it. Reality is essentially all created and within the mind of God so when one leaves a room after having lit a candle or leaving a pot of water open, God's mind is still present to continue its burning of the wax and evaporation of water respectively.

Another one of the major questions that Berkely had to answer was that if reality is then just mind dependent ideas. Then how can we distinguish a dream or hallucination from reality? We perceive dreams and hallucinations in our minds. If we follow Berkeley's logic all dreams and hallucinations are real but again, we know they are not so, what do we make of them. We can still tell apart reality from hallucinations and dreams.

The real things in our immature reality have regularity, our reality is ordered, it has steadiness and vivacity. It is coherent and these are not, similarly in dreams or hallucinations. So, I do not think that one must concede and claim any hallucination or dream has to be taken as real.

Berkeley's idealism solely functions with the presumption of such a God in effect; without God, it fails. His version of Idealism is filled with challenges. To advance the theory, Berkeley presupposes the existence of a God. He uses the existence of God to evade some of the major loopholes in his theory. Therefore, this Idealism opens the door to scepticism and, finally, solipsism.

If we agree there is no material world and realities in our minds then what stops one from taking it even further and saying every person or other mind, they perceive is not real but just an idea in their own mind. What if all of reality including other people was just an idea in our mind and does not exist outside of our mind. For us that means our mother, father and everyone we have ever met is just an idea in my mind and they all do not exist outside of it, leaving us as the only real unconscious person in the whole of reality. Some may take the theory even further.

Berkeley's theories sparked debate since they opposed Descartes' worldview, which was expounded upon by Locke, and culminated in the rejection of Berkeley's interpretation of empiricism by various seventeenth and eighteenth-century thinkers. "The world creates the perceptual thoughts we possess of it by the ways it interacts using our senses," according to Locke's viewpoint. This violates Berkeley's worldview since it not only implies the presence of physical problems in the world, but it also implies that there is no material reality beyond our conceptions. In Berkeley's viewpoint, the only reasons that exist are those that arise from the employment of the will.

Berkeley's philosophy does not go in concordance with the modern-day findings of science and hence cannot be considered to be so very credible.

According to Berkeley, the world is comprised entirely of minds and thoughts. He sees everyday objects as a collection of thoughts. Because it seems to deny the existence of familiar objects of daily reality, the so-called immaterialism of the principles and dialogues may still appear to some readers today as strange, or even as suggestive of psychiatric disorder.

Berkeley's philosophy appears to contain a significant amount of Christian theology, so connecting his underlying beliefs alongside his philosophical ideas. Berkeley's work impacted many others, including David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Despite widespread criticism, Berkely's books are the foundational pillars upon which modern idealism is founded. As a result, it is crucially significant in the philosophical world.

  1. Guyer, Paul and Rolf-Peter Horstmann, "Idealism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Kenneth P. Winkler , Berkeley: An Interpretation, 1989 - Oxford University Press UK
  3. Supra note1
  4. Ibid
  5. Smart, J. Jamieson Carswell. "materialism." Encyclopedia Britannica, July 25, 2022.
  6. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Anglo-Saxon." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 9, 2022.
  7. J. A. Passmore, Descartes, The British Empiricists, and Formal Logic, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 545-553 (9 pages)
  8. Bristow, William, "Enlightenment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  9. Downing, Lisa, "George Berkeley", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  10. George Berkeley, Towards a New Theory of Vision, 1709
  11. George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I, 1710
  12. George Berkeley, Passive Obedience, 1712
  13. George Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, 1713
  14. George Berkeley, De Motu, 1721
  15. Supra note 9
  16. Ibid
  17. William G. Lycan, Occam's Razor, Metaphilosophy Vol. 6, No. 3/4 (July-October 1975), pp. 223-237
  18. Popper, Karl R. (Karl Raimund), 1902-1994. Conjectures and Refutations : the Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper & Row, 19681965.
  19. Descartes, René, 1596-1650. Discourse on Method ; and, Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis :Hackett Pub. Co., 1993
  20. Locke, John, 1632-1704. The Second Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford :B. Blackwell, 1948.
  21. Hume, David. 1978. Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge. 2nd ed. London, England: Oxford University Press.
  22. Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804. Immanuel Kant : Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings. Cambridge ; New York :Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  23. Harold I. Brown, Direct Realism, Indirect Realism, and Epistemology, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jun., 1992), pp. 341-363 (23 pages)
  24. Bolton, Martha, "Primary and Secondary Qualities in Early Modern Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  25. Supra note 2
  26. Supra note 2

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