Ports of Call



Berkeley, Immaterialism and Skepticism

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

  • Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous Dialogue 1

Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

In this section of the course we are going to explore the first of Bishop Geoge Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonou. This work was intended as a popular exposition of the philosophical system which Berkeley had previously presented in A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.

When Berkeley was born on March 12, 1685, Newton's revolutionary work -- the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) which was the culmination of a hundred years of mathematical, physical and astronomical advancements, was to appear in print in two years. Locke was living in exile in Holland, working on completing the Essay Concerning Human Understanding which was to be published some three and a half years later in December 1688. Spinoza had died eight years before, and Descartes thirty five.

Berkeley represents a conservative reaction to the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, Boyle, Newton, and Locke. Berkeley rejects not only the materialism of a philosopher like Hobbes, but the dualism of Descartes and Locke. In this unit of the course we are going to follow Berkeley in his remarkable attack on the distinction between primary and secondary qualities -- a distinction which can be traced from Democritus and Leucippus, Lucretius and Epicurus in the ancient world, through Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton and Locke. Berkely objects to this distinction because it seeks to show that matter exists independently of minds, and what properties it has when unperceived by any mind. The first dialogue between Hylas and Philonous is a detailed and sustained attack on this distinction. Before turning to this material, however, we should consider a bit about Berkeley and the world in which he grew up.


George Berkeley (1685-1753)

George Berkeley

Berkeley was born in Ireland near Kilkenny. His father was a customs officer, and was reasonably well off. His granfather had been English, but both grandfather and father lived in Ireland. Berkely did not go to England until 1713, and considered himself Irish. Still, he was Anglo-Irish and not Catholic Irish. The 17th century was filled with English Irish conflict. Cromwell came to Ireland in the 1650s and brutally supressed the country. After his ascession to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III came to Ireland on a military campaign which culminated at the battle of the Boyne and the surrender of Limerick in 1690.

Berkeley was educated at Kilkenny College, where he was proceeded by Jonathan Swift (the author of Gulliver's Travels) and was contemporary with Congreve.
Jonathan Swift
In 1700, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Trinity College, Dublin. Berkeley studied Latin, and Greek, French and Hebrew, mathematics and, among other contempora ry works of philosophy, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Berkeley got his B.A. in 1704, and stayed on at Trinity in the hope that a fellowship might become available. On June 9th, 1707 he was admitted as a fellow and ordained as a n Anglican priest.

In 1707 Berkeley started to keep a note book, filled with reflections about a wide range of philosophical subjects. There are two of these note books filled with some nine hundred entries. They are clearly intended for his own use and not intended for publication. They give us a rare glimpse in the mind of a great philosopher working on problems. These note books have been published as Berkeley's Philosophical Commentaries. Berkely had already developed his immaterialist hypothesis -- the view that matter does not exist. In these notebooks Berkeley, who had a magnificent grasp of the mathematics of his day, expresses his disdain for the mathematicians.

In 1709 Berkeley was ordained as an Anglican deacon and he published his first major work: An Essay toward a New Theory of Vision. In this work Berkeley prepares the ground for his immaterialist doctrine. He argues, for example, that distance is not something immediately perceived. Rather it is inferred in the way in which a man's shame or anger can be inferred from his face or expression. Similarly we see shapes and colors, from which we infer what we would touch if we streched out our hands. Berkeley holds that objects of sight and objects of touch are radically different from one another, so that the features of one are only contingently connected with the features of the other.

In 1710 he was ordained a priest and published A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. This is arguably Berkeley's most important work, and contains his critique of materialism, dualism and his arguments for his immaterialist hypothesis.

In April 1713 Berkely visited England for the first time and was presented to the English court by Jonathan Swift who said of him that he was "a very ingenious man and a great philosopher." He quickly becomes a court favorite. He published the Thre e Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. This is the popular version of the doctrines presented in the Principles.
Pere Malebranche
This is the book you are reading. Swift also introduced him to the Earl of Peterborough and in the late autumn of 1713 he set out for Sicily as the Earl's Chaplin. It is likely that Berkeley met and talked to Father Malebranche in Paris. Malebranche was, very likely, one of the great formative influences on the young Berkeley. In Malebranche's philosophy, God is the only cause. Berkeley's immaterialism, removing matter as a cause of our sensations or of effects on other bodies, has similar results -- God is the author of the book of nature, that is the entire collection of ideas and their sequences and interconnections. Spirits too are causes, so it is not the case that for Berkeley, God is the only cause.

When Berkeley returned to England he apparently intended to return to Trinity College as his leave of absence expired the following year. However, he remained in London. He apparently now took a concern about his own advancement in the Anglican Church, but whatever steps he took bore no fruit. In 1716 he went abroad again as the tutor of the son of the Bishop of Clogher and spent the next four years in travel and sighseeing. In 1721 he returned to Trinity College, having in his absence become a Sen ior Fellow, and in 1724 he was appointed Dean of Derry.

Berkeley is unusual among the great philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century for two reasons. He married and he made the voyage to the Americas. He devised a scheme to found a college in the Bermudas. He was promised a grant from the government for 20,000 pounds to fund the project.
Samuel Johnson

In August, 1728 he married Anne Forster, the daughter of a Judge. In September, after four years of preparation for the new college, he set sail for America and s pent three years in Rhode Island. He was the highest ranking Anglican official to visit the American colonies before the revolution. He bought a large plot of land, built a house, and waited for the promised grant from the government. He also bought a couple of slaves who he treated and educated in the way the Anglican Church prescribed. Presumably Berkeley was serving as a model for how the Church wanted other colonists to treat slaves.

In Rhode Island he met Samuel Johnson, an American philosopher educated at Yale. Johnson later became the first president of Kings College, New York, which in turn became Columbia University. They met several times and carried on a correspondence. Johnson is perhaps the first serious student of Berkeley's works. Upon hearing the grant would not be forthcoming, Berkeley gave the books and supplies for the new college to Yale College and returned to England. In 1732 Berkeley finished Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher critically examining the various forms of free-thinking in the age. Given its publication date, this work must have been written almost entirely in America.

On his return from America he took a house in London. Berkeley apparently feared that if he went to Derry he would be permanently forgotten and passed over. So, he remained in London. In 1734 his perserverence was rewarded and he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in the exteme south of Ireland. In 1734 he also published The Analyst, an attack on higher mathematics as leading to free-thinking. In 1735 Berkeley published first part of The Querist with part two published in 1736 and part three in 1737. This was a work which examined the reasons for the poor economic conditions in Ireland.

In 1744 Berkeley published Siris a work which begins with a discussion of the medicinal values of tar-water and goes on to expound on the metaphysical natures of the physical and spiritual universe as well as God. This is a much more rambling work than that of the early Berkeley.

In 1751 his eldest son died and in 1752 he retired to Oxford with his family for the sake of his son George who was studying there. In 1753, on Sunday, January 14, George Berkeley died suddenly while listening to his wife reading from the Bible. He wa s buried the next Saturday in the nave at Christ Church, Oxford.


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