George Berkeley (1685-1753)

"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

George Berkeley, trained in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, continues the tradition of the Cambridge Platonists and the 4th Earl of Shaftsbury, who find the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, Gassendi, Locke, Boyle and Newton as dangerous as the complete materialism of Hobbes and Spinoza. Berkeley raises many problems for this materialist tradition. He attacks the doctrine of abstract ideas; he makes great use of the implications of the representative theory of perception; and he gives strong arguments against the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Berkeley calls his alternative to the views he criticizes immaterialism. It is the doctrine that to be is to perceive or to be perceived. The universe, thus, has only two kinds of entities in it, spirits (which perceive) and ideas (which are perceived).

Berkeley Time Line

1685March 12, Born the eldest son to William Berkeley, an officer of customs, near Kilkenny in Ireland.
1700Having spent several years at Kilkenny College, the school of Congreve and Swift, enters Trinity College, Dublin.
1704Graduates from Trinity College and studies privately for the next three years.
1707Elected fellow at Trinity College. Publishes two short mathematical tracts.
1709Ordained deacon. Publishes An Essay toward a New Theory of Vision.
1710Ordained priest. Publishes A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
1711Delivers Discourse on Passive Obedience.
1712Visits England. Publishes De Motu [On Motion].
1713April, is presented to the English court by Jonathan Swift and he quickly becomes a court favorite. Publishes Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. November, becomes chaplain to Lord Peterborough.
Travels as tutor to the only son of Dr. St. George Ashe.
1721Returns to Ireland as chaplain to the Duke of Grafton. Receives Doctor of Divinity. Publishes anonymously An Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain.
1722Appointed Dean of Dromore.
1723Miss Vanhomrigh, Swift's Vanessa, dies leaving Berkeley half her property.
1724Appointed Dean of Derry. Devises scheme to found a college in the Bermudas. Is promised a grant from the government for 20,000 pounds.
1728August, Marries Anne Forster, the daughter of a Judge. September, after four years of preparation for the new college, sets sail for America and spends three years in Rhode Island awaiting the grant.
1732Writes Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher critically examining the various forms of free-thinking in the age. Upon hearing the grant would not be forthcoming, gives the books and supplies for the new college to Yale college and returns to England.
1734Appointed Bishop of Cloyne. Publishes The Analyst, an attack on higher mathematics as leading to free-thinking.
1735Publishes first part of The Querist with part two published in 1736 and part three in 1737; a work which examined the reasons for the poor economic conditions in Ireland.
1744Publishes 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.
1751His eldest son dies.
1752 He retires to Oxford with his family for the sake of his son George who is studying there.
1753 Sunday, January 14, dies suddenly while listening to his wife reading from the Bible. Buried the next Saturday in the nave at Christ Church, Oxford.

Berkeley Time Line Sources


Berkeley's Most Important Philosophical Works

  1. An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision.
  2. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
  3. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous.(Off site, no search engine)
  4. De Motu.
  5. Alciphron or the Minute Philosopher.
  6. The Theory of Vision, Vindicated and Explained.
  7. The Analyst.(Off site, no search engine).
  8. A Defense of Free-thinking in Mathematics. (Off site, no search engine).
  9. The Querist.
  10. Siris: a chain of Philosophical Reflections and Enquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar-water.

Berkeley's Lesser Works

  1. Arithmetica and Miscellanea Mathematica.
  2. Passive Obedience.
  3. Advice to the Tories who have taken the Oaths.
  4. An Essay toward the preventing the Ruin of Great Britain.
  5. A Proposal for the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations.
  6. A Discourse Addressed to Magistrates.
  7. Letters on Tar-water, to Thomas Prior and Dr. Hales.
  8. A Miscellany.

Captain's Choice of Secondary Materials

There is a large literature on Berkeley. The suggestions below simply represent a few works which treat a variety of topics in Berkeley's philosophy.

  • Jonathan Bennett, Locke, Berkeley, Hume This work deals with a variety of themes from the philosophies of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. In particular it deals with issues related to ideas, meaning and abstraction, ideas and perception, substance and reality, primary and secondary qualities, Berkeley's critque of Locke, Berkeley on idealism, God and skepticism, and causality.
  • C.B. Martin and D.M.Armstrong, Locke and Berkeley, Anchor Books, 1968. An old and classic anthology of articles.
  • Colin Turbayne, Berkeley Critical and Interpretive Essays, University of Minnesota Press, 1982. This work contains essays on a variety of different topics including primary and secondary qualities, perception, meaning and abstraction, common sense and relativism, and Berkeley's account of mind.
  • J.O. Urmson, Berkeley, Oxford, 1982. This short volume, part of the Oxford Past Masters series, provides a fine short overview of Berkeley's philosophy.

You can click here for a commentary on Berkeley's First Dialogue Concerning Hylas and Philonou.

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