4 Berkeley's Life and Works

(from, George Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, edited, with an introduction by David Hilbert and John Perry, Arete Press, Claremont, CA, 1994.)

George Berkeley was born on March 12, 1685 in Kilkenny, Ireland. His family was of English origin and appears to have come to Ireland following the Restoration. Little is known of his early life except that his family was moderately prosperous and were Protestant, as were most Irish of English descent. Berkeley entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1700 at the age of 15. The education he received there was progressive in several respects and included a selection of modern philosophers. Especially important for the future philosopher was Locke's Essay, and works of other New Philosophers including Descartes and Malebranche. Berkeley received his B.A. in 1704 and was elected to a Junior Fellowship in 1707. As his fellowship required, he was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1710. His official connection with the college continued until he was appointed Dean of Derry in 1724.

The central ideas of his immaterialist philosophy are clearly stated in notebooks he kept in the years immediately following his election as fellow; the most important of Berkeley's philosophical works were published while he was in still in his twenties. The first of Berkeley's philosophically significant publications was An essay towards a new theory of vision which was published in 1709. This was followed in 1710 by A treatise concerning the principle of human knowledge, Part I. The Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous which covers much of the same material as The Principles was published in 1713. These three books contain the essential elements of Berkeley's immaterialism, a view which he was to hold without major modification till the end of his life.

The first of these works, the NewTheory of Vision, contains Berkeley's attempt to provide a theory of the visual perception of depth. Berkeley argues that distance is not immediately perceived via sight, although it is immediately perceived using touch. All we can immediately perceive visually is the two-dimensional arrangement of objects and not their distance from us. This far, Berkeley agreed with many of his contemporaries. Berkeley goes further, arguing that the spatial properties perceived by sight are not even the same properties as those gained from touch. In an important metaphor Berkeley compares visual ideas to a language; they serve as the signs of the spatial ideas correlated with them. It is the regular connection between the two kinds of ideas that allows vision to provide us information about the distance of the objects we perceive, not any similarity between the ideas of vision and touch. Berkeley's theory of vision is, in several important respects, a special case of his general phenomenalism restricted to the analysis of visual perception of space.

The New Theory of Vision was the most successful of Berkeley's early works, going through two editions in its first year. It gained a reputation for Berkeley both in England and in the rest of Europe and was regarded as an important contribution to the study of vision. Berkeley's other early works were less favorably treated by the reading public. The principles of human knowledge is Berkeley's most complete and detailed statement of immaterialism. To say that it was unfavorably received would be to understate its complete failure. It seems to have been widely known but little read and was chiefly the object of ridicule. One of Berkeley's friends in describing the reaction to it in London reports that, "A physician of my acquaintance… argued you must needs be mad, and that you ought to take remedies."

Berkeley did not give up on a gaining an audience for his immaterialism. The Three Dialogues is Berkeley's attempt to express the fundamental ideas of immaterialism in a style more accessible to the general public. He also attempted to make clear in this work his complete opposition to the skepticism which was attributed to him on the basis of The principles. Although his second attempt at expressing his great philosophical insight was better received it still failed to generate any serious discussion. Not until well after his death was Berkeley's philosophy to receive any serious philosophical attention.

Berkeley himself, when he came to London to see The Dialogues through the press, received a much better reception than had his books. His friends and acquaintances included such leading literary figures of the time as Swift, Pope, Addison, and Steele. From 1713 till 1721 Berkeley spent his time either in London, where he was engaged in various literary enterprises, or in several tours of continental Europe. He was promoted to Senior Fellow at Trinity College in his absence. He published De Motu an application of his immaterialist principles to problems of motion in 1721. Berkeley also published An Essay towards preventing the ruine of Great Britain (1721) in which he expressed his disgust with the current state of culture and morality in England, an evaluation which was shortly to have important consequences. Late in 1721 Berkeley returned to Ireland with the hope of obtaining a position within the Irish Anglican church.

On his return to Ireland Berkeley resumed his active association with Trinity College and started the complicated political process of obtaining a preferment within the Irish church. After some false hopes and complicated negotiations Berkeley was appointed Dean of Derry in 1724. Berkeley's deanship carried no responsibilities and provided him with a large income. Both of these attributes were important since they together allowed Berkeley to embark seriously on a major project that he had been contemplating for several years, the founding of a college in America. Sometime soon after writing his essay on the deplorable state of British civilization Berkeley formed the plan of founding a college in Bermuda. With the decline of Europe, the only hope for the future of civilization lay in the British colonies in America. Berkeley proposed to do his part by moving to Bermuda and organizing a college for the education of both British colonists and Native Americans from the mainland. The spirit of the Bermuda project is nicely expressed in a poem Berkeley wrote at this time:

America or The Muse's Refuge
A Prophecy

The Muse, disgusted at an Age and Clime,
Barren of every glorious Theme,
In distant Lands now waits a better Time,
Producing subjects worthy Fame:

In happy Climes, where from the genial Sun
And virgin Earth such Scenes ensue,
The Force of Art by Nature seems outdone,
And fancied Beauties by the true:

There shall be sung another golden Age,
The rise of Empire and of Arts,
The Good and Great inspiring epic Rage,
The wisest Heads and noblest Hearts.

Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heav'nly Flame did animate her Clay,
By future Poets shall be sung.

Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way;
The four first Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the Day;
Time's noblest Offspring is the last.

In 1724 Berkeley published A Proposal For the better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations, and for Converting the Savage American to Christianity. In this tract he laid out in considerable detail the plans for St. Paul's College in Bermuda. Berkeley spent the next few years raising money and political support for his project. By 1726 Berkeley had succeeded in raising a substantial sum privately, the vote of parliament for a much larger amount, and a royal charter for his new college. He had also managed to secure the agreement in principle of a number of scholars, drawn disproportionately from his Trinity College colleagues, to form the nucleus of the faculty of the Bermuda college. By 1728, however, the Bermuda project had aroused considerable opposition and there were serious doubts about ever obtaining the funds from the parliamentary grant. Berkeley had also come to realize that Bermuda, located 600 miles from the mainland and lacking adequate supplies of food and water, was not an ideal location for an institution of higher learning. In hope of forcing parliament's hand and also of finding a better location for the college Berkeley set sail for Newport, Rhode Island in the fall of 1728. Shortly before leaving Berkeley married Anne Forster of Dublin who accompanied him to Newport.

Berkeley spent three years in Newport and although he never succeeded in founding his college the venture was not a total loss. At the time of Berkeley's visit there was no Anglican bishop in the colonies, the Bishop of London had jurisdiction, and Berkeley was the highest ranking ecclesiastic to venture to the British colonies. Berkeley was also the first philosopher and literary figure of any note to visit America. As such, he had a substantial impact on the philosophical life of the colonies. The first sustained and serious criticism of immaterialism was provided by a Connecticut clergyman and philosopher, Samuel Johnson, who met Berkeley in Newport and continued to correspond with him till his death. Johnson, who was one of the very few converts to immaterialism in Berkeley's lifetime, went on to become the first president of Columbia University in New York. Johnson also wrote the first American philosophy textbook, Elementa Philosophica, which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1752 and was dedicated to Berkeley.

While in Newport Berkeley wrote his first major philosophical work after the Three Dialogues, another set of dialogues titled, Alciphron. In it Berkeley attempted to refute what he saw as the irreligious views popular among literary figures of his time. Alciphron, published in 1732, touched on some of the same issues as Berkeley's earlier metaphysical books, but was primarily concerned with defending Christian doctrine. The setting for Alciphron is recognizably Newport and the book's impact was greater in the New World than it was in the Old. Jonathan Edwards read Alciphron within a year of its publication and the influence of immaterialism can be detected in many of his writings.

In spite of Berkeley's intellectual successes in America the project to found a college was dying. In 1731 he had the Bishop of London press the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, on whether the parliamentary grant would be paid. Walpole replied:

If you put the question to me as a Minister, I must and I can assure you that the money shall most undoubtedly be paid as soon as suits with public convenience; but if you ask me as a friend whether Dean Berkeley should continue in America, expecting the payment of £20,000, I advise him by all means to return home to Europe.

Later in 1731 Berkeley returned to England by way of Boston, his grand dream a failure.

Berkeley's connection with the American colonies did not end with his return to Europe. Before leaving Berkeley donated the house and farm he had purchased in Newport to Yale University. On his return he used the funds he had raised privately for the Bermuda project to purchase books for the Yale and Harvard libraries. The donation of books to Yale was particularly large, approximately 1000 volumes, and at the time represented a 50% increase in the library's holdings. He also arranged for an organ to be purchased for Trinity Church, Newport. Berkeley, California, the home of the University of California, was named after Berkeley, although not primarily because of his philosophical accomplishments. Berkeley's views on the westward flow of civilization were known to the developers of America's western frontier, and it was a railroad magnate, Frederick Billings who received the inspiration to name the new university town after Berkeley.

On his return to England Berkeley busied himself with seeing Alciphron through publication and the composition of a short tract defending his theory of vision, The Theory of Vision. . . Vindicated and Explained (1733). He also published an attack on the coherence of Newton's version of the calculus, The Analyst or a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician (1734). This tract aroused a great deal of discussion and was the occasion of several polemics on both sides. In addition to his literary endeavors he was also engaged in attempting to secure a promotion within the church hierarchy. In 1734, Berkeley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, a somewhat obscure bishopric in the south of Ireland near Cork. Berkeley was to spend the rest of his life in Cloyne, except for a few months shortly before his death.

With his arrival in Cloyne the great events of Berkeley's life were over. Although he continued to maintain an active correspondence, with two notable exceptions, Berkeley's career as a public figure was largely finished. Most of his time he devoted to his pastoral duties and to his family life. His writings of this period are primarily addressed more to practical issues than to metaphysical ones. Berkeley's circle of friends included a group who promoted a form of moderate Irish nationalism and he was sympathetic to their cause. Berkeley published The Querist (1735-37) as his contribution to the attempt to persuade the English to change their policy towards Ireland. The Querist is rather peculiar in form, consisting entirely of questions. In spite of its interrogative nature Berkeley's diagnosis of the causes of Irish poverty comes through clearly: an unhealthy combination of English greed and Irish sloth.

Berkeley's last significant appearance on the public scene involved both his concern with practical affairs and his bent for philosophical speculation. In 1744 he published Siris, Philosophical Reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising from one another. The early 1740's were a period of famine and epidemic in Ireland and there were no physicians in Berkeley's diocese. Berkeley took it upon himself to do what he could for the sick and settled upon tar-water as the best malady for the various ailments that he treated. Berkeley prepared tar-water by mixing pine tar with water, allowing it to settle, and then draining off the clear fluid for medicinal use. Siris, which starts with a discussion of the virtues of tar-water for curing most diseases, was the most popular of his books during his lifetime. It was widely read on the continent and in America and quickly went through several editions. Most of its readers, however, read it for its medical discussions and ignored the main subject of the book, a chain of philosophical reflections that start with tar and end with the Trinity. In Siris Berkeley restated many of the tenets of the immaterialism of his youth but mixed them with even more speculative ideas, drawing heavily on classical works. The end result is the most difficult of Berkeley's works to read although one with significant philosophical content. This poem captures the spirit of the work as a whole:

On tar 

Hail vulgar juice of never-fading pine!
Cheap as thou art, thy virtues are divine.
To shew them and explain (such is thy store)
There needs much modern and much ancient lore.
While with slow pains we search the healing spell,
Those sparks of life, that in thy balsam dwell,
From lowest earth by gentle steps we rise
Through air, fire, æther to the highest skies.
Things gross and low present truth's sacred clue.
Sense, fancy reason, intellect pursue
Her winding mazes, and by Nature's laws
From plain effects trace out the mystic cause,
And principles explore, though wrapt in shades,
That spring of life which the great world pervades,
The spirit that moves, the Intellect that guides,
Th' eternal One that o'er the Whole presides.
Go learn'd mechanic, stare with stupid eyes,
Attribute to all figure, weight and size;
Nor look behind the moving scene to see
What gives each wondrous form its energy.
Vain images possess the sensual mind,
To real agents and true causes blind.
But soon as intellect's bright sun displays
O'er the benighted orb his fulgent rays,
Delusive phantoms fly before the light,
Nature and truth lie open at the sight:
Causes connect with effects supply
A golden chain, whose radiant links on high
Fix'd to the sovereign throne from thence depend
And reach e'en down to tar the nether end.


The rest of Berkeley's life was uneventful. There was talk from time to time of promoting Berkeley to a better diocese but he never pursued these opportunities. In 1752 Berkeley traveled to Oxford to oversee the education of his son George. He was in poor health when he left Ireland and after five months in Oxford he died, apparently of a stroke. His will specified that he be buried in the churchyard of the parish in which he died; he was buried in Christ Church, Oxford on January 20, 1753.