Monday, April 19, 2010

George Berkeley: Idealism

George Berkeley, by John Smibert (died 1751), ...Image via Wikipedia

Born in Ireland, George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) spent his childhood years in the quaint comfort of wealth, being a nobleman’s son. As a result he enjoyed the luxuries of that time period, such as private tutors and wealth. These two factors enabled him to go to Kilkenny College and later Trinity College, both in Dublin. Right after getting his Master’s Degree, Berkeley stayed on at Trinity and became a tutor and a lecturer in Greek classes. Later he became bishop of Cloyne in the Church of England.

Berkeley’s contributions
During his education and work career, Berkeley was to publish several important works in several fields. While his first contribution was in the area of mathematics, the very first publication that actually got attention was a scientific piece: “Essay towards a New Theory of Vision.” This essay was published in 1709, and greatly contributed to modern day thought in the field of optics. At the time, however, the essay was quite controversial, and his critics wasted no time in attacking his ideas.

His next important contributions were in the field of philosophy, although once more Berkeley employed the thought of sight and the senses to postulate his theories. The works were actually a series; the first was an explanation and the second a defense of his philosophical ideas. Together, the explanation and the defense of it became a ‘system’ of perception. Berkeley’s system —esse est percipi— was based on the notion that, to ensure the world as represented by our senses to exist, it must first be perceived. In his Principles of Human Knowledge we read:
"All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth - in a word, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world - have not any subsistence without a mind."

This is the beginning of the system of idealism. For Berkeley, all the flora, fauna, objects, and even abstractions (angels), exist only by virtue of their being perceived or thought by a mind.

He continues:
Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to ourselves. We have first raised a dust, and then complain we cannot see.

Again, Berkeley ended up being put through extensive criticism as well as mockery for his ideas, which were meant to combat the prevailing philosophy of materialism at that time.

In “Three Dialogues Between Hylas And Philonous,” he says:
I have no reason for believing the existence of matter. I have no immediate intuition thereof: neither can I immediately, from any sensations, ideas, notions, actions or passions infer an unthinking, unperceiving, inactive substance - either by probable deduction or necessary consequence.

Berkeley’s ideas of existence determined by perception created a conundrum for philosophers, both in his day and today. However, he did introduce an innovative concept to philosophy which has yet to be refuted, despite many efforts. Let’s look at one example. James Boswell in his The Life of Samuel Johnson narrates an anecdote in which Johnson mocks Berkeley:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing 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 never shall 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.’

Though colorful and picturesque, Johnson kicking the stone offers no solution to the conundrum. And until today Berkeley’s argument remains sound.

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