George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685 – 1753 CE) was an Irish Anglican Bishop and philosopher, whose name is known today in association with the famed university and surrounding town in the California Bay Area, birthplace of this lecture and class.  Berkeley was both an Empiricist, along with Locke and Hume, as well as an Idealist, along with Kant, who we will consider next, and Hegel, who we will examine next time.  Idealism asserts that reality is mentally constructed.  Last time, we heard Hume argue that all ideas are assumptions accumulated through experience.  For the idealists, our reality is constructed out of our accumulated ideas, as Hume holds.  However, just as Descartes gave the Cartesians and Rationalists certainties to fight for without a satisfactory argument to account for them systematically, Hume gave the more empirically minded a new open and evolving picture of the mind without providing a system to account for how we come to structure reality as we do.

Berkeley Castle

Berkeley was born in the Berkeley family castle in the Kilkenny county of Ireland.  He attended and then became a lecturer at Trinity College of Dublin.  In 1710 he published his central text, An Essay Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.  His primary target for criticism was Locke and his distinction between objective primary qualities and subjective secondary qualities.  In 1728, Berkeley married and traveled to America.  He bought a plantation, unfortunately named ‘Whitehall’, in Rhode Island, but after he failed to secure funding from Britain, he returned to London.  While in America, he planned on setting up an ideal (ha!) city and college in Bermuda, a plan that never materialized (ha, again).

Berkeley View West

Berkeley’s works were unpopular in his lifetime, and they remained so until the mid 1800s when new scholars shed light on his work as a precursor of fellow idealists Kant and Hegel, whose work was then dominating the intellectual scene.  In 1866, when the first university of California was founded just north of Oakland, a group of students stood watching ships head out to sea through the Golden Gate seventy years before there would be a bridge.  One of the students, Frederick Billings, who would go on to be the president of the Northern Pacific Railway and a trustee of the university, was reminded of a quote from the final stanza of George Berkeley’s Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America, “Westward the course of empire takes its way”.  Billings suggested that the university and community springing up around it be named after the philosopher, still mispronounced by Americans today.  The name was inspired by Berkeley’s pride in European colonialism, and not his radical Idealism.

Zhuangzi butterfly pine nap

While Kant and Hegel, both Idealists like Berkeley, argued that our reality is mentally constructed, and so the shape of our world and reality is necessarily the shape of our mental constructions, neither denied the existence of the material world.  Berkeley took Idealism to a greater extreme as an immaterialist, denying the material existence of the world apart from perception and declaring reality to be a dream.  In this way he is much like Leibniz, who denied the genuine existence of anything other than the infinite set of monads, Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese Daoist who refers to reality as the great dream, and also much like Descartes, if Descartes had been content to live in a skeptical dream ruled not by a demon but by a rational and loving god.


As an immaterialist, Berkeley argues that material things only exist in the minds of perceivers.  Existence requires perception.  At first, it may seem that Berkeley is the only one who is dreaming, but there is at least some truth to his claim.  Consider a table and the area around the table, one of my favorite examples.  Most of the time, when we are uncritical and have no problems with them, we understand the table to be solid and the space around it to be empty even though neither the table nor anything else is simply or perfectly ‘solid’, nor is the space around it simply or perfectly ‘empty’.

broken table

While our common shared understanding, a simplification of the situation, is useful, it is as much a mental polarization and categorization as it is a physical situation.  If by ‘existing’, we mean something enduring, staying the same over a period of time, and if we accept that there are no things that remain perfectly static over any duration of time, then nothing that we perceive truly exists.  Rather, things relatively exist and relatively change, and we then categorize them similarly together into things that are staying the same and things that are changing.  The table is not completely solid or completely unchanging in any of its parts, but we assume it can be treated as solid and unchanging when there is no reason to do otherwise.  If we were trying to fix or design a stronger table, we would have to consider how solid the table actually is.


 While Hegel believes that our subjective mental understandings are always one and the same as the objective material world, his Idealism does not go as far as Berkeley’s immaterialism.  Berkeley uses the example of an apple, and others often speak of his ideas using the example of a chair.  For Hegel, the being of an apple and its being an apple requires our application of understandings, but if we walk out of the room and leave the apple behind, Hegel does not consider the possibility that it ceases to exist and there is nothing outside of our experience.  For Berkeley, if God does not choose to maintain the existence of an apple outside of our perception and understanding, dreaming the greater dream, the apple ceases to exist.  Thus, the apple ceases to exist if we or God do not perceive it, either in the mind as an idea or in the world as an impression.

Samuel Johnson can't believe what just

There is a story often told of Samuel Johnson, the famous English author and critic, and his famous reaction to Berkeley’s immaterialist Idealism.  Johnson was discussing Berkeley with James Boswell while walking home after church on a Sunday morning.  Johnson became quite upset at Berkeley’s denial of the independence of the material, and so he walked over to a large rock, gave it a kick, and pronounced, “I refute it thus!”.  Of course, both Berkeley and Hegel would object that Johnson hardly proved the independence of the objective and material from the subjective and ideal with his foot, and yet there is something to be said for the denial of absolute immaterial Idealism by way of the action demonstrating physical realism.  We do not treat life as if it were merely a subjective dream, any more than we treat others as if they are figments of imagination in the mind of the solipsist.

zen rock garden

Consider a Chinese Zen story in which two monks are debating about the nature of reality, like Samuel Johnson arguing about a large rock before them.  The master walks over to ask what they are arguing about, and the first monk says that his opponent is arguing that the rock is in the world, while he is arguing that the rock is in the mind, claiming that this is the truly Buddhist point of view.  The master tells the first monk that if the rock really is in his mind, he must have a hard time lifting his head off the floor every morning.  While Zen Buddhism often emphasizes the subjective nature of reality, this story serves as a counter-weight, reminding us that “The rock is subjective” is both a real assertion as well as an ideal perspective.

diogenes dog and lamp statue

There are similar parallels found in the interactions between the ancient Greek philosophers Diogenes and Plato.  Diogenes, who thought that Plato had hijacked the lineage of Socrates, believed in living a simple, practical and cynical life, and he was fond of heckling Plato as he lectured about Idealism.  Plato, an ancient Idealist, believed that the forms of things are eternal and real compared to the physical manifestations of things, which are mortal and unreal.  Unlike modern Idealists such as Kant and Hegel, Plato’s ideas are above in the heavens and only partly down here amongst us.  As mentioned, the last few golden ages of human history have brought us an increasingly psychological view of truth and reality.

Plato Head

According to one story, Plato was teaching about ideal forms and pointed to several cups on a table, arguing that there were many physical cups, but only one idea and form of the cup, which was grasped by the mind, superior to the physical copies.  Diogenes, heckling Plato from the gathered crowd, said that he can see the cups, but not this superior ideal form.  Diogenes picked up a cup, noted that it was empty, and asked Plato where the emptiness of the cup comes from.  Plato paused, unsure of the answer.  Diogenes walked up to him, tapped him on the forehead, and said, “I believe that you can find the emptiness here, Plato”.  In another story, Diogenes was asked by some who had gathered if he could lead them to Plato such that they could hear his famous philosophy.  Diogenes led them to a deserted area of town, gestured into the empty air and said, “May I humbly present you the great philosopher Plato”.  This is, of course, another jab at Plato’s idealism and putting theory and the ideal over the practical and the real.


Berkeley did not deny the existence of chairs or apples, but he argued that they are not material objects we share in an objective reality but rather conceptions we share in a subjective reality.  Berkeley argued that belief in substance beyond perception is unverifiable.  Anything we could experience as existing would have to be perceived, and thus experienced.  If by ‘substance’ or ‘material’, we mean something that is senseless, unlike ourselves, it is impossible for us to experience things as senseless.  Berkeley argues that the senseless material would have to be a perception of something not perceiving, awareness of non-awareness, an idea of something that is devoid of ideas.  He considers this to be an insurmountable contradiction.


Very similar to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, which we will study soon, Berkeley argues that Locke’s primary objective qualities must be merely subjective to us, and cannot be known otherwise.  Berkeley asks us to attempt to imagine something outside of all perception, and concludes that the purely objective is inconceivable.  Though Locke and others argue for it, through ignorance they do not realize that they cannot conceive of what they are asserting.  Here, of course, “can’t conceive of” means cannot reasonably assert.  While Locke can imagine that material things such as apples are objective in particular ways beyond our conceptions, Berkeley argues that, if Locke is honest with himself, he will realize that whenever he imagines the objective qualities of an apple, he is experiencing a conscious subjective perception of an apple as an idea, and cannot conceive of the apple or its qualities beyond perceptions.  If you imagine an apple, are you looking at it from all sides, from no side at all, or from a single side, as one would from particular perspective?

ghost on a tree

Reality consists of minds, which Berkeley refers to as spirits.  While we can have no direct experience of other minds, we believe in other minds because they have ideas, sharing many of them with ourselves.  In the same way, if we see a table jumping and singing in a cartoon, we suspend disbelief and understand it is, for the purposes of fiction, a living, conscious thing that for some reason had the idea to burst into song.  Descartes would possibly laugh at our sympathy for the table.  Thus, Berkeley is no solipsist, as he argues that our recognition of the ideas of others is empirical evidence that they exist.  A solipsist would argue that only one’s own awareness can be known.  Just as it is difficult to maintain skepticism when one is kicked in the shins, it is difficult to perceive beings that express themselves the ways that we do and doubt that they are conscious.

neoplatonism cosmos

Similar to other philosophers we have studied, Berkeley argues that the order and beauty of nature is evidence that reality is itself intelligent, having ideas of its design, and thus leads empirically to belief in God.  Because we experience all things as ideas, but are not able to will the world to exist or not, Berkeley reasoned that there must be a superior mind that causes the existence of ideas via its own ideas.  Berkeley argues that “physical” reality is so hard for us to doubt (though not impossible, as Descartes had shown) because reality is the idea of God, more powerful than our own ideas.  Recall that Hume argued impressions are stronger than ideas.  Berkeley argues that God intentionally conceives of our reality as its primary cause, and so our direct impressions are the ideas of God, from which we derive  the weaker sensations that are our inferior ideas.  For Berkeley, the world begins the way a human begins anything, with an idea.


Berkeley argued against Locke’s distinction between objective primary qualities and subjective secondary qualities, using similar examples that the Pyrrhonian skeptics used against dogmatism and Hume borrowed to use against Rationalism.  Berkeley argues that the qualities Locke took to be objective and physical are also themselves subjective and mental.  Sextus, the Pyrrhonian mentioned previously, pointed out that when one has not yet entered a bath house, one does not feel cold, but after a warm bath one feels cold exiting the bath house.  Locke used a similar example of placing one’s hand in a warm or cold bucket of water, arguing that this demonstrated that heat is a secondary, subjective quality.  Berkeley used similar examples to attack Locke’s primary qualities of motion and length, showing them to be subjective and dependent upon the position and disposition of the viewer.  Berkeley also argued against Locke’s friend Newton, arguing like Einstein that time and motion are not objective and absolute but subjective and relative.


As a final thought, the late American comedian Bill Hicks has a routine about how we never hear positive stories in the news, saying, “Today a young man realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves…Now, here’s Tom with the Weather”, a bit that is a bit Berkeleyan.