George Berkeley
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Berkeley: Immaterialism
From Garth Kemerling's philosophy pages. This concise description of Berkeley's theories has links to many related concepts.

Review of Consciousness and Berkeley's Metaphysics by Peter B. Lloyd
Berkeley's idealism continues to have relevance and currency.


George Berkeley

"Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only opens his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, to wit, that all the choir of heaven and the furniture of earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived."
The Principles of Human Knowledge

Empiricism is the view that all knowledge comes from experience; in other words, whatever is in the mind got there though the senses. Locke was a strong empiricist who held that the mind was a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth to be written upon by sensory experience. Empiricism is opposed to rationalism, the view that mental ideas and knowledge exist in the mind prior to experience; that there are abstract or innate ideas. Descartes is a major rationalist. Materialism is the view that there is only one basic kind of substance out of which everything is made: matter. On the materialist view, there is no such thing as mind, soul, or spirit. It is all physical matter. Hobbes gave one of the strongest materialist accounts in early modern philosophy.

George Berkeley argued against rationalism and materialism. He also criticized Locke on many points. He noted that most philosophers make an assumption that has no proof: the existence of matter. Of course we have our sensory experience of the world which establishes the physical objects around us (including out own bodies). But Berkeley questioned the inference that our sensory experience is caused by material things or that our sensory experience is of material things. Berkeley's arguments lead him to actually deny the existence of matter altogether. Thus his philosophical view is called immaterialism or idealism.

To deny the existence of matter seems very odd to many people who hear of Berkeley today, it certainly did in his own time. Yet, consider for a moment what this idea of matter is to us. The common sense view of matter may be that there are objects in the world which have no necessary relation to us and that through our senses we can perceive these objects. Yet, science cautions that we do not actually perceive matter. What we perceive are effects that are caused by matter, for instance color is based on reflections from material objects. The more we think about matter, the more strange and distant an idea it becomes. We never really perceive it, but we make a judgment that our perceptions must be caused by something and matter is the cause that we deduce.

Berkeley thought that the idea of matter was both unwarranted and self-contradictory;
By Matter, therefore, we are to understand an inert, senseless substance, in which
extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist. But it is evident from what we have already shown, that extension (space), figure (shape), and motion are only ideas existing in the mind, and that an idea can be like nothing but another idea, and that consequently neither they nor their archetypes can exist in an unperceiving substance. Hence, it is plain that that the very notion of what is called Matter or corporeal substance, involves a contradiction in it.
A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Section 35.

Part of Berkeley's immaterialism can be understood by taking empiricism to its logical furthest extent. If knowledge really is dependent upon sense experience, then we have no direct basis to assert the existence of that which is not perceived. Berkeley's view about this has been codified in his famous dictumEsse Est Percipi or To Be is to Be Perceived.


IQ Home



Lao Tzu