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Berkeley, Georgelocked

  • M. A. Stewart

George Berkeley (1685–1753)

by John Smibert, 1730

Berkeley, George (1685–1753), Church of Ireland bishop of Cloyne and philosopher, was born at or near Kilkenny on 12 March 1685. His father, William Berkeley (d. in or after 1734), who later held a military commission, was a gentleman farmer descended from a Staffordshire family related to the earls of Berkeley; he owned the property of Dysart, further down the River Nore near Thomastown, where Berkeley grew up. Berkeley's mother, a great-aunt of General James Wolfe, has been tentatively identified as Elisabeth Southerne, daughter of a Dublin brewer and on her mother's side a descendant of James Ussher (Luce, 23).

Early years

For three and a half years from July 1696 Berkeley received a classical schooling in Kilkenny at what was then the Duke of Ormonde's School, whose former pupils included Jonathan Swift and William Congreve. A friendship established there with his fellow scholar Thomas Prior, his subsequent Dublin agent, is documented through an extensive correspondence that is important for Berkeley's biography. He left school in January 1700 and entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a pensioner, signing the matriculation register just after his fifteenth birthday; he was elected Erasmus Smith exhibitioner in 1701 and scholar the following year, and graduated BA in spring 1704. He was fortunate to go through college at a time when Dublin society still showed the effects of the great efflorescence of new learning associated with William Molyneux, the friend and correspondent of John Locke, and the Dublin Philosophical Society. The scholastic philosophy of the Laudian curriculum competed with reading in the Cartesian and atomist traditions and the writings of Locke.

Berkeley had an unbounded interest in the natural world. His recollections of his boyhood exploration of the Cave of Dunmore near Kilkenny were written up a few years later for the inaugural meeting (10 January 1706) of a society for natural history and the sciences—probably a college club—a constitution for which survives among his papers. After graduating he prepared an elementary textbook in which he explored the basis of arithmetical notation and the principal arithmetical processes as functions of that notation, explaining these without resort to algebraic or geometrical techniques. He published this in 1707 as Arithmetica, jointly with a further set of studies entitled Miscellanea mathematica dedicated to Molyneux's son Samuel, and indicated that mathematics had been his primary interest for three years. He probably took pupils in the subject while awaiting an opening as a junior fellow. A vacancy arose in 1706 and it is no coincidence that Berkeley published these texts before the fellowship competition in June 1707. He secured the election and his London publisher, Churchill, was one of those to send congratulations. A month later he took his MA.

Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin

Berkeley's tutorial responsibilities appear to have been light, but from 1709 to 1712 and from 1721 until his resignation in 1724 he accepted further occasional duties from time to time as librarian, junior dean, Greek lecturer, divinity lecturer, senior proctor, and Hebrew lecturer. On 19 February 1709 he was ordained deacon, and a year later priest, in the college chapel by St George Ashe, bishop of Clogher and vice-chancellor of the university. Ashe shared Berkeley's interests in mathematics and the new philosophy. Berkeley's ordination to the priesthood, at the normal interval from ordination as deacon, so incensed Archbishop William King, who was visiting England, that he ordered a prosecution in the ecclesiastical court. King represented it as an infringement of his diocesan jurisdiction, but was probably smarting from recent criticism by Berkeley; he had not contested the diaconal ordination the previous year. The matter blew over. These early years of Berkeley's professional career are important for a second friendship and another source of a lifelong correspondence: this was with Sir John Perceval, later first earl of Egmont, a landowner, privy councillor, and something of a colonial nationalist.

Two early pieces not published in Berkeley's lifetime have attracted later scholars. 'Of infinites', read to the reconstituted Dublin Philosophical Society on 19 November 1707, shows Berkeley's continuing absorption with mathematics and an evident indebtedness to Locke. An untitled homily delivered, while still a layman, in the college chapel on 11 January 1708 addresses the problem of how people can respond to the prospect of a future state they cannot conceive; this problem Berkeley derived directly from Locke and continued to address within a Lockean framework, notwithstanding the contrary suggestion of A. A. Luce (Works, 7.11–12) and others. There followed a productive period in which his most famous and revolutionary philosophical publications went through their first editions. An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), a work of lasting importance in the psychology of perception, was transitional between Berkeley's already informed interests in mathematics and natural philosophy and a growing independence of mind in metaphysics and epistemology. Part one of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) is the classic exposition of his philosophy of immaterialism as an antidote to infidelity, prefaced with an influential essay in the philosophy of language; part two was later lost in manuscript, with other papers, in Italy. The first work was dedicated to Perceval, the second to the same earl of Pembroke as had formerly been Locke's patron. Pembroke had been the outgoing lord lieutenant and the galvanizing power behind the Dublin Philosophical Society when Berkeley wrote his paper in 1707.

In response to actual and reported criticisms, Berkeley recast his philosophy in a more popular form as a debate between the established new philosophy and his own in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). In the same period he delivered three highly theoretical sermons on passive obedience in the college chapel, revising them for publication (1712) to counteract allegations of Jacobitism. Berkeley's defence of moral absolutes was too refined for many in practical politics. He sought to reconcile an obligation not to resist the rightful ruler with an obligation to follow conscience in not fulfilling an order to do wrong, though it might precipitate adverse personal consequences whose acceptance was 'passive obedience'. The rumours lingered, but Berkeley put out a firmly anti-Jacobite tract for the tory side, Advice to the Tories who have Taken the Oaths, in 1715. He would support the loyalist cause in letters to the Dublin Journal in 1745–6, when he also armed a local militia at his own expense.

After 1712 Berkeley kept his fellowship for another twelve years but spent only three of them in Dublin. In January 1713 he obtained leave to visit England, under a misapprehension about the likely benefits of English weather in curing an 'ague'; by September he had negotiated the first in a succession of two-year leaves, by royal authority, that saw him through the decade. He moved widely and easily in London cultural circles. Dublin contacts provided introductions to persons with connections in church or state, while curiosity about his philosophical theories attracted leading literary figures. Edward Southwell, secretary of state for Ireland, helped Berkeley establish a personal friendship with Pembroke, and he was cordially received by his compatriots Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift. Steele was soon to launch The Guardian and recruited Berkeley to combat the growing tide of freethinking. Berkeley contributed about a dozen essays, for which he prepared by eavesdropping in London coffee houses. Removed from the relatively sheltered environment he had previously known, he was apt to see moral and spiritual degradation everywhere, and whether he always put the best construction on the sophisticated conversation of the metropolis cannot now be established. Steele's bookseller Jacob Tonson undertook the publication of Three Dialogues, which Berkeley dedicated to a recent acquaintance and kinsman, Lord Berkeley of Stratton. At the same time Berkeley undertook compilation of the three-volume Ladies Library (purporting to be 'by a Lady') for Tonson, for which Steele wrote a preface. This quite heavily edited set of readings on social convention, the family, and religion was intended to better women's education and social standing, and went through six editions in Berkeley's lifetime. In the same literary culture he met Joseph Addison and the Scriblerian circle round Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot. With Addison, despite political differences, he developed a particular rapport, accompanying him to the opening night of Cato in April 1713. His admiration for Pope was reciprocated and through Pope he was introduced to Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, whose architectural and other artistic enthusiasms he shared. Addison, Pope, and Arbuthnot humoured Berkeley in his philosophical opinions without being convinced by them. He visited George Smalridge in Oxford and soaked up the music and theatre there. Swift secured for him introductions at court, including one to Charles Mordaunt, earl of Peterborough—another link with the age of Locke. Berkeley was recruited as his chaplain in October 1713 when Peterborough was dispatched to attend the coronation of the king of Sicily.

Most of the party never went beyond northern Italy. Berkeley was awed by the public buildings and churches of Paris, and while there studied the paintings and statuary of the Louvre. Letters to Perceval and Prior show that a significant meeting with the philosopher Nicolas Malebranche was arranged, and there is no reason to think that it did not occur. Berkeley had closely studied Malebranche's metaphysics, deriving both positive and negative lessons from it; and critics of Berkeley, especially in France, had begun to associate the two philosophies, though Berkeley himself repudiated the connection. Elsewhere on his travels, he commented on the open gambling of the priests at Lyon. 'The opera here is magnificent enough, but the music bad' (Works, 8.76). He spent new year crossing the Alps, a perilous trip 'in open chairs'. At Turin and Genoa he was disappointed with the colleges and bookshops:

I … do not find that learning flourishes among them. Nothing curious in the sciences has of late been published in Italy. Their clergy for the most part are extremely ignorant; as an instance of it, they showed me in the library of the Franciscans in this town a Hebrew book, taking it to be an English one.

ibid., 8.79

Leghorn was worse: 2000 priests, none of them worth talking to. The climate suited him, but the countryside was not what the Roman poets had led him to expect:

England is a more poetical country, the spring there is forwarder and lasts longer, purling streams are more numerous, and the fields and groves have a cheerfuller green … England has the most learning, the most riches, the best government, the best people, and the best religion in the world.

ibid., 8.84

Berkeley returned by way of Paris and the Low Countries a few months before the Jacobite rising gave him a less sanguine view of the British situation. By May 1716, with powerful patrons, he confidently expected the living of St Paul's, Dublin, but the lords justices successfully opposed it. So apparently did Robert Molesworth, although Berkeley had been on cordial terms with Molesworth's eldest sons, his companions from Genoa to Paris in 1714. The rival candidate, the Revd Duke Tyrrell, wrote to Molesworth portraying Berkeley as someone 'highly esteemed' by the Jacobites, 'a creature of Dean Swift', and committed to 'the Tory interest' (Berman, 84). Bishop Ashe came to the rescue, employing Berkeley to travel with his son, St George Ashe the younger, and thus he found himself, with sword and pistol, making another winter alpine crossing. They were in Italy for four years (1717–20). In Rome and elsewhere they studied art, architecture, and antiquities, and in travelling further afield Berkeley felt a greater affinity than previously with the region's classical past. This time he was more impressed with the scenery, particularly round Naples and later on Ischia, where he was seriously ill. He was scornful of the idle Neapolitan aristocracy. He twice climbed Vesuvius when activity was threatening, and a report of his observations went to the Royal Society. An incomplete set of richly detailed journals survives. In the summer of 1717 they reached the heel of Italy, and Berkeley was dismayed at the poverty. He investigated the activity and folklore of the tarantula. Later in the year they crossed to Sicily, where the remains of Hellenic culture were more to his taste. He studied the natural history and met the Cartesian philosopher Tommaso Campailla (1668–1740). For much of 1720 they were in Florence, securing copies of art works that cost them great delays, and spent time in the company of the Scottish painter John Smibert. They returned to Rome in November.

Berkeley was back in London early in 1721, and in Dublin for the new college session that year, when he qualified for the degrees of BD and DD. He had attained senior fellowship while abroad in 1717. He returned with the manuscript of De motu, written during the journey home in an unsuccessful bid for a prize of the Académie des Sciences at Paris. Without giving overt expression to immaterialism, this work presents an account of natural philosophy that is compatible with the immaterialist position. Arriving back in the wake of the South Sea investment crisis, he also wrote and published An Essay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain (1721), an important piece of early economic literature, condemning the rush to acquire wealth through paper speculation instead of building it upon a solid base of manufacture, trade, and 'industry'. The failure of the South Sea shares was for Berkeley the symptom, not the substance, of the malady, which lay in the abandonment of generations of moral and religious tradition. The freethinkers and their secular values were the nation's undoing.

Although Berkeley undertook additional duties, his final years at Trinity College were subject to uncertainty about his future career. His links with the Ashes were terminated through the death of both father (1718) and son (1721). He was by now in favour with the duke of Grafton, the lord lieutenant, who as one of the lords justices had opposed his earlier preferment. Berkeley set his heart on the sinecure deanery of Dromore and secured a patent for it. The bishop of Dromore, however, claimed the right of appointment and installed his own nominee. Berkeley instituted legal proceedings financed by the Grafton administration, but as the months dragged on lost confidence in the outcome. Meanwhile by May 1722 he had resolved to emigrate permanently to Bermuda, with or without the deanery income. He planned to set up a college for the moral regeneration of the American colonies before they were overrun by popish missionaries from the Hispanic countries. In May 1724 he was awarded the rich deanery of Derry and relinquished his college living. He was installed in the new position but never took up residence. It carried financial obligations and he needed to cover for his intended absence. He concluded his affairs in Dublin that summer.

The Bermuda project

The proposed college was intended to train colonists and native Americans in equal numbers, the former to bring a 'reformation of manners' to their own communities and augment the protestant priesthood, the latter to convert the indigenous population to 'religion, morality, and civil life' (Works, 8.127). Although Berkeley was in earnest on both counts, his health was still a consideration: he believed Bermuda had the best climate in the world and an ideal economy, and he had Elysian visions of its topography. Much of his information came from out-of-date travellers' reports, but in June 1723 he found himself in receipt of a providential windfall. He was named co-executor and joint residuary legatee of the estate of Esther Van Homrigh, Swift's tragic Vanessa. There were, however, debts and a protracted lawsuit to settle and a fair portion of the estate was lost in costs. The affair does not seem to have soured Berkeley's relations with Swift, who probably neither had nor sought any claims on the estate, and the executors suppressed the Vanessa correspondence; Swift wrote to Lord Carteret, the new lord lieutenant, in September 1724, inviting him to encourage Berkeley's designs.

The next four years, spent mostly in London, were chaotic. Administrative problems over the Van Homrigh estate and the deanery were compounded by dilatory or unreliable agents. John Smibert, who had settled in London, would guide the sale of Vanessa's art collection. At the end of 1724 Berkeley published A proposal for the better supplying of churches in our foreign plantations, and for converting the savage Americans to Christianity, arguing the moral urgency of the project. He was addressing an Anglican public and bizarrely dismissed what he called 'the two presbyterian colleges of New England, which have so long subsisted to little or no purpose' as evidence that 'where Ignorance or ill Manners once take place in a Seminary, they are sure to be handed down in a Succession of illiterate or worthless Men' (Works, 7.354). He ignored the parlous state of the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg which already existed for purposes similar to his own, but that institution became indirectly the beneficiary of the mood of support for Berkeley's venture, attracting reform and investment to put it on the sounder footing that his own lacked. In the short term, however, his proposal caught the public imagination. By June 1725 he had a royal charter for 'St Paul's College in Bermuda'. He had discovered a dormant endowment that controlled vacant land in Bermuda reserved for educational purposes and had this written into the specification. In reissuing the Proposal to publicize the charter he instituted collection procedures for subscribers. He deleted the offensive reference to Harvard and Yale and extended his canvass to liberal Scots presbyterians. Hearing of the government's income impending from land sales on St Kitts, he lobbied hard for this to be put to the service of the college. George I approved of the St Kitts scheme and instructed Robert Walpole to prepare a petition from the Commons for its implementation, which was overwhelmingly carried. The utopianism of the venture is captured in verses penned by February 1726 that Berkeley published only long afterwards in A Miscellany (1752): Europe was in decay but a new golden age was dawning; time would play out its final act, as 'Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way'.

With the accession of George II, Berkeley was in favour with the intellectual Queen Caroline, and to keep the royal interest sweet he attended for a time regular but fruitless salons which she organized with himself, Thomas Sherlock, Samuel Clarke, and Benjamin Hoadly. Ever since the publication of the Principles he had sought to have Clarke on his side philosophically and probably met him on his first stay in London, but Clarke always dogmatically dismissed Berkeley's philosophy; churchmen with whom he formed closer contacts at various times included the future bishops Benson, Conybeare, Secker, and (despite philosophical differences) Butler. Another lady with whom Berkeley established a strong intellectual kinship was Anne (1700/01–1786), daughter of John Forster, former chief justice of the common pleas at Dublin. They married, probably in London, on 1 August 1728, and sailed together soon afterwards. Two children were born in America, the first of whom was still living at Berkeley's death, the other dying in infancy; five others were born after their return, of whom two were alive at Berkeley's death. Anne Berkeley lived to eighty-five, dying at Langley, Kent, on 27 May 1786.

Although £20,000 of public money was now formally earmarked for the Bermuda college, no account was ever established, or date set, for its use. The ministry, reluctant converts to the scheme, were repeatedly warned by merchant interests that it was impracticable, a criticism Berkeley ascribed to the commercial values he opposed and to sectarian opposition to the established church; but even within the largely sympathetic Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge to which he was elected in 1725, those with first-hand knowledge of the American colonies and missions raised serious doubts. To prevent a threatening decline in private support, Berkeley sailed for Newport, Rhode Island, with a small advance party on 6 September 1728; this included Smibert, who painted several well-known portraits of Berkeley and of his party before settling for life in Boston. The journey was hazardous and protracted. They made an unscheduled landfall on the Virginia coast about the turn of the year and were officially received at Williamsburg before reaching Rhode Island on 23 January 1729. By the spring Berkeley had bought a farm of 96 acres at Middletown 'with two fine groves and winding rivulet upon it' (Works, 8.194), whose produce would support the college. He employed slaves and was apparently indifferent to the institution of slavery provided that it was humane, seeing the moral need rather as one of conversion and baptism. He built a new house, Whitehall, which is now maintained as a historic site although the adjoining farmland has given way to urban development.

Berkeley often preached at Newport in the winter and in remoter outposts in the summer. The strongest and longest friendship he established among New England churchmen was with Samuel Johnson (1696–1772) of Stratford, Connecticut, a refugee from Calvinism who later became first president of King's College, New York (later Columbia University), and lent support to Berkeley's philosophy through his Elementa philosophica (1752) and other writings. Throughout his career Berkeley had little time for dissenters, although he abhorred the use of violence against them. The religious tolerance characteristic of Rhode Island induced a degree of ecumenicism in his social practice that was not always maintained in the pulpit. Reports of growing infidelity in English society, to which he was always liable to give credence, were fuelled by the continuing bad faith of the government in failing to lodge the funds he considered legally his. This was a factor in his writing Alciphron, a set of dialogues located notionally in England, but drawing much of the landscape description from Rhode Island, which was to sell well and stimulate controversy after his return. In this, theist and immaterialist combine their defences against a medley of intellectual trends (derived primarily but not exclusively from Locke, Bernard Mandeville, and the third earl of Shaftesbury) that Berkeley regarded as obstructive to religion. The work includes Berkeley's second foray into moral philosophy. Increasingly through 1730 he received reports that his funding would not come. Facing the reality in early 1731, he arranged a speedy return, via Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was in London with his family on 30 October 1731 and, despite the failure of his own scheme, had some part in the discussions of those planning the development of Georgia.

Berkeley had made two strategic errors before embarking for the New World, which no amount of long-distance communication through intermediaries could remedy. He left Britain when the funds had been only voted and not paid, and he held out for an impossibly distant offshore location against the advice of knowledgeable friends of the enterprise. When he embarked for Rhode Island he was already considering relocating the college there. After arriving and testing local opinion he decided he had misjudged the country and the mores of the people. He wrote to friends, confidentially, that he now thought Rhode Island the better location, but dared not broach the matter with government until the money was in the bank. Rumours circulated which he felt obliged to deny, but the tide of opinion had changed and he had lost his chance.

How much hard support, both unconditional and conditional, Berkeley received for the Bermuda project is uncertain. He had promises as prospective teachers from three fellows of Trinity College named in the charter; Robert Clayton may have been a fourth before his elevation to a bishopric. Smibert was probably another teaching recruit, given that Berkeley's detailed architectural designs include provision for a school of fine art. A posthumous anecdote, derived from Oliver Goldsmith, that connects John Christopher Pepusch with a planned post in music is more problematic. Thomas Blackwell, the Aberdeen classicist, recorded having discussions with Berkeley in London but declined a position, and there is evidence that some members or former members of Edinburgh's Rankenian Club were approached, from a sympathy for Berkeley's philosophy they had shown in correspondence. In addition Berkeley had firm or provisional commitments from potential colonists with no teaching ambitions. His widow reported to the Biographia Britannica that of the planned 'circus' of houses for gentlemen, 'many had been actually bespoken, and the Dean had been requested to superintend the building of them'. As for donations, records survive of £5065 in twenty-eight personal subscriptions (Works, 7.361), which Berkeley offered back to all who were identifiable and alive on his return. Not all accepted them back. The residue he put to related purposes, sending books to Harvard and Yale, and discharging a mortgage loan drawn on his deanery account which freed him to make over both Whitehall and the farm to Yale. In 1733 he presented an organ to Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island.

Bishop of Cloyne

Berkeley had intended to return to Derry if the Bermuda project foundered, but could not do so without dispossessing his deputy of the deanery house and ousting the curates who were carrying out his duties. He resumed the acquaintance and friendship of former supporters in London but faced hostility from influential whigs in both London and Dublin, including the Hoadly brothers, who considered him a visionary. Sympathetic friends like Perceval, on the other hand, lobbied to find him at least some token preferment, to scotch the slanders against him. Exhausted by the American business and in poorer health, he sought a less strenuous deanery consistent with a scholar's life. His letters make regular reference to 'cholic' and 'gout'. While taking time to mull over his future Berkeley prepared new editions of his early philosophical writings, giving a sharper edge in all of them to the attack on freethinking and launching a significant new salvo in the campaign by returning to his former interests in mathematics and natural philosophy. The Analyst (1734) is a sustained critique of Newton's influential theory of fluxions, a theory Berkeley considered incoherent and a disservice to mathematics, but one which, if unchecked, might reinforce prevailing views on the divisibility of matter and support infidelity. The work generated wide interest and opposition among professional mathematicians, his most formidable critic being Colin MacLaurin of Edinburgh. Later scholarship has been divided: some consider that Berkeley got the mathematics right, some that he misconstrued Newton's purpose, and some both.

Berkeley was appointed bishop of Cloyne in January 1734 and consecrated in St Paul's Church, Dublin, on 19 May. This extensive minor see in a predominantly Roman Catholic part of rural Ireland included in its bounds both Perceval and Burlington estates. Despite the unsought and perhaps unwanted elevation, Berkeley judged it compatible with his needs and once again went into a position without fully exploring its finances. He settled to eighteen years of diligent pastoral work, refusing opportunities of further preferment. The return to Ireland was something of a culture shock:

We in this island are growing an odd and mad people. We were odd before, but I was not sure of our having the genius necessary to become mad. But some late steps of a public nature give sufficient proof thereof.

Works, 8.244

Travelling grew difficult and he depended increasingly on visitors and correspondents for news, both political and literary. Soon after his settlement he established a spinning school:

The children begin to find a pleasure in being paid in hard money; which I understand they will not give to their parents, but keep to buy clothes for themselves … I am building a workhouse for sturdy vagrants, and design to raise about two acres of hemp for employing them.

ibid., 8.245

He also planted flax on the sizeable episcopal estate. By 1741 over 100 agricultural day-labourers were employed under his wife's supervision.

In writings from The Querist (1735–7) to A Word to the Wise (1749) Berkeley condemned the English exploitation of the Irish economy and argued for the full integration of the Catholic population into the economic life of the country for the benefit of all parties; but he had no sympathy for the historical claims of a distinctive Gaelic culture. He advocated the development of a self-sufficient economy, complete reform of the banking system, and the introduction of a paper currency. His home became an artistic centre: he bought art works and musical instruments, involved family and visitors in painting and performing, and for a time in the 1740s employed a resident music teacher. The region lacked medical services and severe distress over the winter of 1739–40 led to widespread disease. Berkeley dispensed what advice he could, and somewhat later provided for 'a few stroling sick' (Works, 8.289). In 1744 appeared one of his most controversial works. Siris is a reconciliation of medicine with metaphysics, best known for its advocacy of the medicinal value of tar water, a native American preventative distilled from pine resins. Having conducted his own experiments Berkeley made specific claims for its beneficial effect in alleviating fevers, gout, scurvy, and dropsy. In trying to understand the cosmical principles that might explain this he conceived the possibility, which others took up with greater alacrity, that its properties might be those of a universal panacea, operating as condensed light. Siris had exceptional sales, primarily as a home medicine guide, for a few years and was translated into most western European languages, but its medical claims also provoked criticism. Of several editions separately set in both Dublin and London in 1744, the second London edition was kept in standing type through five separate issues of 1000 or more copies each.

The philosophy of immaterialism

Berkeley was a person of deep piety and spirituality and a good patristic scholar, but has no claim to eminence or originality as a theologian. The little evidence that survives of his preaching shows a preference for straightforward biblical homilies with a conventional moral message, although his mode of delivery appears to have had some impact. His brilliance lay in his philosophical writing, and in the style almost as much as the content. Immaterialism is a philosophy that sees minds or spirits as the only ultimate existents. It does not dispute that there is an objective world order, independent of any individual mind and subject to the laws of nature, or that humans in respect of their corporeal nature need a sufficient understanding of these laws to function effectively in a context in which one bodily object remains spatially external to any other; but it challenges the ‘absolute’ existence of this or any other corporeal nature, abstracted from dependence upon mind. So Berkeley does not deny the common-sense reality of the natural world and the events occurring within it. These are a fact of experience, and he can enforce the distinction between the real and the imaginary by the same practical criteria as anyone else. His novelty lies not in challenging the existence of physical bodies, which he agrees with his critics would be a mark of lunacy, but in an analysis of what that existence consists in, namely in being perceived ('esse is percipi', Principles, section 3) or being capable of being perceived. They are the sum total of actual and potential experiences or, adapting the term given particular currency by Locke, 'ideas'. But these ideas are not chance or random: they are ordered and therefore caused, and inasmuch as they are actual experiences there are beings whose experiences they are. Minds are thus involved both as agents and as percipients, with the divine mind as the overall agent of the order within which created minds function. Agents and their acts are not perceptible and are not subject to this analysis of the existence of perceptibles. We are aware of our own agency by direct consciousness and of other agents by immediate inference.

In holding that the only ultimate agency is that of minds, while believing that there is a graduated scale of such minds from merely sentient to fully rational, Berkeley shared common assumptions of his day. Even in denying that there is also secondary or derived power in physical nature, if this means power vested in something other than minds, he was not significantly out on a limb. His distinctive thesis, that this ontology makes a second substance or ‘matter’ redundant to any theoretical account of the physical world, and that the accounts given of such a substance are incoherent, emerges (as his surviving early notebooks show) out of his wrestlings with the metaphysics of Cartesian and Newtonian science. Although he greatly respected Newton's genius he saw Newtonianism, when read literally, as running into paradox and contradiction from its commitment to absolute time and space and the infinite divisibility of the physical world, and from this he went on to consider the whole of the contemporary matter theory. In the Principles (sections 60–65) he admitted the intricate structures discernible by the microscope as evidence of the systematic character of the natural design and of the laws that enable us to turn nature successfully to human use, but he rejected theories that additionally postulated material and moving parts of bodies below the perceptual threshold of any sentient being whatever. That, in his view, would involve the imperceptible having perceptible qualities.

Developing the critique further in De motu, Berkeley argued that when physical science is reinterpreted within a theocentric framework, abstract forces such as gravity and attraction are unnecessary. While mathematical hypotheses have a practical application in mechanics, the only motion that is actually subject to laws is the perceptible effect—never the cause, or even the instrument—of change. From Alciphron onwards he increasingly stressed that natural philosophy may embody hypotheses with no literal experiential content, which serve only as verbal instruments to direct our practice. Siris admits a role for chemical particles in discussing the 'virtues' of particular treatments, but it is not clear how far these are theoretical entities and how far they are in principle perceivable: their theoretical standing in relation to the laws of nature seems to be acceptable to him as a means of predicting practical effects, so long as they are not made substantial by being credited with genuine power or activity. He even comes round to allowing the terminology of 'secondary' or 'instrumental' causes in referring to the status of aether or light, but the sense in which it is a mediate instrument is one relative to the humans who may harness it. Objectively considered, causation remains both spiritual and immediate.

While Berkeley showed increasing ingenuity as his philosophy matured—not least in finding accommodations with Newtonianism—it is the early foundations of his immaterialism that have continued to attract most interest and comment. His New Theory of Vision is a study in the visual perception of distance in the sense of externality or 'outness'; of relative distance or magnitude; of relative placings in terms of higher and lower, before and beyond; and shape. Taking each in turn, Berkeley shows how we have to learn to interpret visual cues and eye sensations, and how, for doing so, we are crucially dependent on correlations between a changeable vision and a stable touch. We are not equipped with the instinctive geometry for which many contemporaries argued. Vision provides 'signs' consisting in appearances of shaped colour of variable intensities. Their interpretation becomes sufficiently habitual that we think we see the tangible world in which we live and move that these come to 'suggest'; but in fact we are reading the visual ideas like a language in which signifier and signified are only contingently associated, to the point where we are unaware of the transition in thought. There are no data actually common to any two senses: we do not through sight and touch perceive a shape or size that is common to both. The common world we come to believe in is a mental construct. Berkeley inferred that a man born blind who subsequently acquired sight would not immediately identify by vision the shapes appropriate to the sphere and cube he knew by touch, and afterwards considered himself vindicated by the experimental work of William Cheselden. In the Principles he extended his account to the objects of all the senses, including touch, to insist on the mind-dependence of everything perceptible.

Berkeley regularly reinforced his case with a critique of the distinction between what Locke had called 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities. Berkeley believed the prevailing philosophy had shown that colour, sound, taste, and smell are in the mind, although it was hardly consistent with his own position to accept the grounds upon which that was based; then, because any extension, shape, and size that we see are inextricably tied to a colour seen, these are in his view similarly relative to the perspective and condition of the perceiver, so that all the objects of vision, and of other senses by analogy, are mental. In some writings (for example, Principles, sections 11–12) he attacked the distinction between primary and secondary qualities in a form that conflates the views of Locke and Malebranche. But the fact that the distinction was drawn in different ways by Berkeley's time helps explain why many who shared his opinion that only minds are active nevertheless found the rejection of matter unacceptable. Samuel Clarke, for whom secondary qualities like colour were unreal—another idiosyncratic reading—estimated that Berkeley's philosophy would destroy the whole of natural philosophy, an understandable reaction if one sees the reduction of primary qualities to the status of secondary qualities as the reduction of everything quantifiable in nature to an illusion. Berkeley's view was precisely opposite: the 'matter' that he rejected had lost all reality by being deprived of secondary qualities and had become an unobservable fiction of the philosophers, whereas he had removed the mystery of a world beyond experience and turned it into something familiar and fully describable. It was in this sense that he promoted his philosophy as the antidote to scepticism.

Most of the errors Berkeley claimed to detect in the science of the day he traced to incoherences arising from false abstraction—from misconstruing the ability of the mind to draw distinctions of reason as if it were an ability to conceive an order of things separable from all context in experience. An influential application of, and support for, this false abstraction he found in Locke's semantic theory as he understood it: namely, that the same words retain a common signification on different occasions by standing for a common idea that is abstracted from the particularizing details and circumstances of different individuals, thus giving credence to the possibility of a pure science of matter and motion, shape and space. For Berkeley, Lockean abstraction is a self-contradictory process. His alternative view, that words signify indifferently any individual in a class, involves an idiosyncratic use of 'signify' that would permit the same word never to have the same signification on successive occasions, or for different contributors to the same conversation. While signification in Berkeley's sense remains forever variable, definition (which is purely verbal) is constant. He nevertheless retained the Lockean ideal of words standing for determinate ideas in the exact sciences, but he qualified it in important respects. As early as the New Theory of Vision (section 147), the 'proper objects of vision' that constitute a 'universal language of nature' not only function as the signs of a tangible world but also 'regulate our actions' in matters affecting 'our preservation and well-being', and 'all the transactions and concerns of life'. In the introduction to the Principles (sections 19–20), he allowed that words may stand for ideas they no longer call to mind, and that by habituation they may come to have an influence on action or feeling equivalent to that of the former ideas. His model here was algebra. The influence may operate upon us through the mere authority of a name, like ‘Aristotle’ or (in an important discussion that survives in manuscript) ‘St Paul’, which for good or bad reasons has acquired a force in excess of any ideas we may actually have. By the time of Alciphron, he was prepared to loosen the link with ideas further and allow to some words, in both natural philosophy and theology, a use that could not be made individually intelligible. They could still be employed in framing beliefs that have practical applications, whether in relation to a revealed mystery or to a scientific theorem. The assumption that language is primarily a series of learnt associations nevertheless remains paramount for preserving the language metaphor to describe the organized character of experience that Berkeley never abandoned.

Since immaterialism does not contest the existence but only the status of the natural world, its implications are speculative rather than practical. There is, however, one point at which speculation and practice converge, namely in religion. Berkeley believed his philosophy sounded the death knell of atheism as well as scepticism, and this was his overriding purpose. His theism rests on a conventional design argument without the impediment of a metaphysics of matter. This constitutes the climax to the argument of the Principles, but the evidence of design is anticipated from an early stage in the work; Berkeley already assumes a divine existence in his depiction of the language of nature. In Alciphron the emphasis is different, for strategic reasons: the fact that experience functions as a language becomes the sole basis of the design argument itself, since language without controlling intelligence is inconceivable.

Death and reputation

Berkeley was deeply affected by the death of his youngest son, William, in 1751. In August 1752 he left with his remaining family for an extended visit to Oxford, where his second son, George (1733–1795), who later attained a reasonable eminence in the Anglican church, had recently matriculated at Christ Church. By collating tenantry and parish records it is possible to show that the Berkeleys took a house at or near no. 7 Holywell Street (Tipton and Furlong); claims made on behalf of another Holywell address are a twentieth-century fabrication. A generation later the suggestion was that Berkeley had applied to resign his bishopric but the king had refused, permitting him instead to reside where he wished. Any truth behind this may relate to a period in the 1740s when Berkeley seems to have contemplated the development in or near Oxford of a self-supporting spiritual retreat (Works, 7.151–2, 155; 8.287); it came to nothing because of the illness of his eldest son, Henry. In 1752 the intention seems to have been simply to be close for the time being to George. Impressed with the decorum of Oxford students, he accepted his son's expensive lifestyle with equanimity. Berkeley died in his lodgings during tea on Sunday 14 January 1753, while his wife was reading to him from the epistle for the burial service. He had stipulated a simple funeral, and he was buried in Christ Church Cathedral on 20 January. An inscription commissioned by his widow was composed by William Markham, subsequently archbishop of York.

Already recognized at his death as one of Ireland's leading men of letters, Berkeley won few philosophical converts. His older contemporary Arthur Collier reached an immaterialist philosophy independently. In Ireland itself Peter Browne and Robert Clayton responded obliquely to aspects of Berkeley's philosophy, and James Arbuckle published a pleasant satire. The most ardent Irish advocates of Berkeley's philosophy would turn out not to be professional metaphysicians—the natural philosopher Richard Kirwan in his Metaphysical Essays (1809) and the lawyer Henry O'Connor in his Connected Essays and Tracts (1837). Berkeley's importance was scarcely recognized at Trinity College except as a subject for biography until W. A. Butler wrote about him in the Dublin University Magazine in 1836; others remained more critical. Only in the twentieth-century scholarship of A. A. Luce and David Berman has Berkeley's true stature been fully appreciated. In the north, John Young (1781–1829) at the Belfast Academical Institution showed above-average understanding of his system. The Irish literary perception of Berkeley's work has been influenced by the poet W. B. Yeats.

On the British side Berkeley's views have always attracted interest and comment, though often ill-informed. They gained additional currency in his lifetime through the dispassionate reporting of the encyclopaedist Ephraim Chambers and through an intermittent debate from 1747 to 1752 in the columns of the Gentleman's Magazine. Some of the strongest support as well as the most considered criticism in the eighteenth century came from Scotland, but it was directed to particular topics, not least the theory of vision and, later, Berkeley's economic writings. The Rankenians whom he tried to recruit for the Bermuda project probably included George Turnbull and one or two close associates like William Wishart who were attracted to Berkeley's theological voluntarism; later members of the club like MacLaurin were professionally hostile to immaterialism on perceived scientific grounds. Another Scot, William Dudgeon, used Berkeley's immaterialism to support a deist programme in several writings, most explicitly in A Discourse Concerning the Immediate and Necessary Dependence of All Things upon the Deity (c.1734); Dudgeon's opponent Andrew Baxter, on the other hand, felt the need to re-establish a Newtonian basis for theism by challenging Berkeley's conflation of idea and object. Adam Smith modelled his essay 'Of the external senses' almost entirely on the New Theory of Vision. Turnbull's pupil Thomas Reid at one time accepted Berkeley's philosophy without altogether understanding it, and spent much of his career trying to get it out of his system. William Porterfield's critique of Berkeley's optical theory was an important influence on the development of the Scottish response to immaterialism. David Hume was probably the first to extrapolate themes from Berkeley to advance a purely secular philosophy, a tradition continued later by J. S. Mill and by twentieth-century writers on phenomenalism. The Scottish philosopher A. C. Fraser was the first Berkeley scholar of international calibre.

The apparent failure of the phenomenalist programme—the attempt to reduce individually identifiable objects to a determinate set of sensa, or statements about objects to a determinate set of statements about sensa—has been widely seen as entailing the failure also of Berkeley's theocentric immaterialism. Arguably, however, the very attempt to give an analysis of physical objects was itself an error of abstraction, and Berkeley should not have fallen into the paradox of admitting that 'we eat and drink ideas, and are clothed with ideas' (Principles, section 38). On an immaterialist account it is the whole process of food-eating or clothes-wearing—not the food and the clothes in isolation—that depends upon a sustaining mind. A bigger imponderable, which Berkeley never adequately addressed, is whether his system gave him the wherewithal to individuate and identify distinct minds. He attracted the sobriquet of an ‘idealist’ in the eighteenth century, but this is misleading if taken, as it has been, to represent him as a precursor of Kant and post-Kantian idealist philosophies. Berkeley had no theory that the mind structures reality in the idealist sense, and no residual hankering for a transcendent order of anything but self-conscious agents.


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  • BL, papers, Add. MSS 39304–39316
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  • J. Smibert, group portrait, 1730 (Bermuda group), Yale U. Art Gallery; version, TCD
  • J. Smibert, oils, 1730, NPG [see illus.]
  • oils, 1734, LPL
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  • line engraving, NPG
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Trinity College, Dublin
Historical Manuscripts Commission