Berkeley, Immaterialism and Skepticism

Readings for this part of your journey

  1. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous Dialogue 1
  2. Woolhouse The Empiricists, Ch. 7 optional


Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous<\EM>

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 1687. Locke was living in exile in Holland, working on completing the Essay Concerning Human Understanding which was to be published some three 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.



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 consider 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, and was contemporary with Congreve. 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 contemporary works of philosophy, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Berkeley got his B.A. in 1704, and stayed on a Trinity in the hope that a fellowship might become available. On June 9th, 1707 he was admitted as a fellow and ordained as an 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 1709 Berkeley was ordained as an Anglican deacon. He published his first major work: An Essay toward a New Theory of Vision. In 1710 he is ordained a priest. He 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 is presented to the English court by Jonathan Swift and he quickly becomes a court favorite. He publishes the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. This is the popular version of the doctrines presented in the Principles. This is the book you are reading.

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. In 1724 he was appointed Dean of Derry. 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. 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 spent three years in Rhode Island awaiting the promised grant from the government. In 1732 he finished Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher critically examining the various forms of free-thinking in the age. Upon hearing the grant would not be forthcoming, he gave the books and supplies for the new college to Yale college and returned to England.