Berkeley, George (1685–1753), philosopher and Church of Ireland bishop of Cloyne, was born 12 March 1685 in or near Kilkenny city, and spent his childhood at Dysart Castle, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. Little is known of his parents other than that his father, William Berkeley, came to Ireland from Staffordshire, and that his mother may have been Elisabeth Southerne, daughter of a Dublin brewer and a descendant through her maternal line of James Ussher (qv). Though often subsequently described as one of the great British empiricist philosophers, George robustly affirmed his own Irishness in his writings. He was the eldest of six brothers; the others in order of age were Rowland, Ralph, William, Robert, and Thomas.
Education and early career
Berkeley entered Kilkenny College (also the school of Jonathan Swift (qv) and William Congreve (qv)) on 17 July 1696, placed in the second highest class on entry. He entered TCD on 21 March 1700. There he was influenced by a thriving intellectual group, including William Molyneux (qv), William King (qv), and Peter Browne (qv). Berkeley studied maths, logic, philosophy, Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew. John Locke's Essay concerning human understanding (1690) was a central part of the philosophy course, introduced to the curriculum by Locke's friend Molyneux within two years of publication. Berkeley received his BA degree on 24 February 1704. As was customary for students of distinction, he stayed at college after graduating to study for a fellowship, which was to be achieved after a competitive examination for a very limited number of places. Fellows were obliged to take holy orders and abstain from marriage during their tenure. He became a fellow in June 1707 and subsequently held a number of college offices including librarian (1709), junior dean (1710), junior Greek lecturer (1712), senior Greek lecturer (1721), divinity lecturer and preacher (1721), senior proctor (1722), and Hebrew lecturer (1723), before relinquishing his fellowship on 18 May 1724. He was ordained priest in the Church of Ireland by St George Ashe (qv), bishop of Clogher and former provost of Trinity, in spring 1710, which led to a controversy with William King, now archbishop of Dublin, whose permission had not been sought for the ordination of Berkeley by another bishop in his diocese. This perceived affront led to King prosecuting Berkeley in the diocesan court and to Berkeley writing an apology. In form, this was a trial of jurisdiction between TCD and the archbishop of Dublin – but Berkeley and King had also differed on political and theological issues. Berkeley was a tory, King a whig who was present when Berkeley preached the sermon articulating tory doctrine that was to become Passive obedience (1712). Having such a powerful adversary would feature in Berkeley's quest for preferment in the Church of Ireland, depending as it did primarily on the grace and favour of powerful elements in that church.
Philosophical idealism: A treatise and Three dialogues
Berkeley's career can be divided into three phases, usefully labelled by David Berman as ‘philosophical idealism’, ‘social idealism’, and ‘medical idealism’ respectively. In the first he develops a unique philosophical system, in the second he is one of the foremost influences on American education, and in the third he reveals himself as a kindly and humane pastor, concerned with the practical and spiritual concerns of the people for whom he was responsible. His philosophical fame rests primarily on three books published between 1709 and 1713. In the first, An essay towards a new theory of vision (Dublin, 1709), he developed an account of vision that would later support his more famous immaterialist hypothesis. The philosophical problems raised by Locke and Molyneux required an accurate account of vision, and vision is often appealed to by those who want to defend the existence of mind-independent matter: they maintain you just see it. In the Essay Berkeley investigated the nature of the object perceived, distinguishing between what is immediately perceived and what is subsequently inferred. He also distinguished sharply between objects yielded by the sense modality of sight and those yielded by touch. However, he did not as yet expound the view with which he is most associated – immaterialism.
A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge (1710) is Berkeley's masterpiece. In it he articulates and defends the full-blown philosophy of immaterialism. This doctrine, also known as subjective idealism, denies the existence of matter and goes on to argue that the very idea of matter is nonsensical. The view was as startling and counterintuitive in Berkeley's time as it is now. However, his greatness lies in the power and subtlety of the arguments that lead to this conclusion. The introduction deals with the doctrine of abstract ideas, which claims that there are special kinds of ideas that refer to universal general concepts (e.g. the abstract idea of ‘dog’ in general rather than of this or that specific dog). Berkeley rejects this claim, arguing that all ideas are of individuals, that the purported general ideas do not exist, and that we refer to general features of reality using only individual ideas (e.g. we use the idea of a specific dog, with specific qualities, to stand for dogs in general). The rejected doctrine had been extensively used in scholastic thought and by those supporting the view that matter exists. In the body of the Principles Berkeley uses the rejection of abstract ideas to argue against the existence of matter. He begins the main text with the account of mind and knowledge that was accepted by most of his contemporaries, and shows how it led inevitably to idealistic conclusions. What are known immediately are ideas. Some ideas come from sources other than the mind; they are not under the control of the will. Others are the products of memory or imagination and can be summoned up at will. There are therefore two kinds of thing whose existence is certain: ideas and minds. Ideas have no power in themselves to cause anything else, whereas minds have causal powers. According to Berkeley, the truth of all this can be verified through introspection. He then notes that there is a strange doctrine that asserts that there is such a thing as matter which is totally independent of minds and ideas. It is important to note that the doctrine of matter that Berkeley rejects is a metaphysical doctrine: it holds that the fundamental nature of reality is such that there exist things that have no relationship whatsoever to any mind whatsoever. It is not the commonsense doctrine that there exist tables and chairs and rocks in the world; rather, it is a more subtle doctrine about how to interpret the reality of such commonsense objects. The materialist argues that these things can exist without any mind whatsoever thinking of them. Berkeley rejects that view. However, he is not claiming that the world depends on human minds for its existence; rather, he holds the view that reality consists of ideas in the mind of God. What is perceived as reality is constituted by ideas directly produced by the will of God. Human minds perceive these ideas and in so doing understand the world. It makes no sense to talk of inert matter existing independently of God's mind.
Berkeley's arguments against the metaphysical notion of matter are of most importance to philosophers. He trenchantly criticised the various moves the materialist might make to uphold such a position, and furthermore showed how his position refuted scepticism, upheld religion, explained scientific knowledge, and produced a coherent picture of reality, all resting on what were regarded as indisputable premises about the nature of thought and the mind. However, the wits of Dublin and London were quick to pick on the apparently absurd aspect of Berkeley's doctrine; various negative opinions were offered as to his state of sanity, his seriousness, and his presumptuousness. Despite his patient attempts to convince opponents on dialectical points, the entire literary establishment ridiculed the young Irishman's bizarre views. Just as Hume's subsequent magnum opus was disappointingly received, ‘falling deadborn from the press’ (David Fate Norton (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Hume (1993), app. II, 352), Berkeley's was met with waves of mirth and witticism at its author's expense. Discouraging as this might be to such a sober author, he set to presenting his ideas in a form that would convince the intellectual leaders of his day. The result was his second great work, The three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713). As much a work of literature as philosophy, it set out to defend immaterialism in a way compelling to its readers. Philonous is the proponent of Berkeley's position, while Hylas defends the materialist position. The detailed accounts of the Principles are left out, but certain issues are treated in greater detail; for example, the discussion of the relativity of perception to the perceiver.
Berkeley took London by storm this time. He was fêted by Pope, Swift, Addison, and Steele, was invited to write for the Guardian, visited court, dined at Oxford, and had coffee with the wits. Contacts were forged at this period that would bear fruit in later stages of his career, especially in connection with preferment in the Church of Ireland and funding his Bermuda project.
A final piece of writing from this period is worth noting: Passive obedience (Dublin, 1712) a pamphlet consisting of three sermons delivered in TCD chapel. It deals with the question of what sort of allegiance is due to government, and in what circumstances – a burning question only two decades after the Glorious Revolution and just before renewed Jacobite unrest. Berkeley threaded a delicate line between supporting the revolution that led to the Williamite regime, and opposing Jacobite claims of the justice of displacing it in turn. He argued the tory doctrine that revolution is allowable only in extremis and that the Jacobites could not establish that such circumstances prevailed; hence the de facto government is owed passive obedience.
The Continent, America and social idealism
The period 1713–35 contrasted with both the preceding and subsequent periods in Berkeley's career in the activism he displayed and the travel he undertook. First, he engaged in two tours of Italy: October 1713–August 1714 and autumn 1716–autumn 1720. During this time he still held his fellowship at TCD, but absence due to travel explains the nine-year gap between being junior and senior Greek lecturer. On the first tour he was secretary and chaplain to Lord Peterborough, ambassador to the king of Sicily. As he passed through France, it seems likely that he met with the philosopher Malebranche in Paris. He left the group, its mission accomplished, in June 1714 and returned to London. Writing to his friend Percival on complaints about his absence from college, he wondered why he should be singled out, given the number of fellows absent and he the only one with royal authority for it! The second tour was as tutor to the bishop of Clogher's son, George Ashe, an agreeable but sickly travelling companion. During these four years, Berkeley developed a love for painting and architecture. His admiration of Italian art was not uncritical: he observed that the ancients had indifferent statuaries as well as the moderns. He attended religious ceremonies in Rome with, as he noted, fine singing, much incensing and carrying about with dressing and undressing of the pope. He visited Naples, Sicily, Florence, and planned to travel home in 1719, but delayed until August 1720 for unknown reasons – possibly the health of his companion. In that year he wrote a treatise called De motu for a competition on motion organised by the Royal Academy of Science at Paris. It did not win, but was published the following year in London. In it he developed in greater detail the criticisms of Newtonian science adumbrated in the Principles. Twentieth-century philosophers of science have seen anticipations of modern instrumentalist theories of science in it. The other literary event of note during this Italian sojourn was his losing the manuscript of the planned second part of the Principles. He never rewrote it, and it has never been recovered.
On his return to Ireland in 1721, Berkeley resumed duties at TCD, but as was normal for one in his position he began to seek preferment in the Church of Ireland. As a senior fellow he earned about £80 a year, sufficient to keep him in continual debt to the college. During this time he conceived the idea of establishing a college in the American colonies, where sons of the planters and Native Americans would be educated to MA standard. In 1724 Berkeley became dean of Derry and severed his connection with Trinity. The deanship was worth £1,250 a year, and it was normal for the incumbent to be an absentee with curates in his stead. Such financial security allowed Berkeley to pursue his project with renewed vigour. He raised subscriptions, acquired pledges from fellows of Trinity to accompany him, and gained a royal charter for the college and a promise from the British parliament of a grant of £20,000. The college, called St Paul's, would be founded in the Bermudas, a location chosen because he believed it was equidistant from all the other colonies, with fertile soil and fair climate. He sailed for America in September 1728. Just before this he married Anne, daughter of John Forster (qv), former speaker of the Irish house of commons and chief justice of the common pleas (1714–20). She accompanied Berkeley on the voyage with three others, the most notable of these being John Smibert, the portraitist.
They arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, on 23 January 1729. Berkeley had decided not to go directly to Bermuda, and it is possible that he had begun to have doubts about the proposed location of the college even at that stage. (Maps were not very reliable and he was not to know that his ‘ideal location’ was in actuality some 600 miles from the mainland). He bought a farm in Middletown, Rhode Island, and waited there for the parliamentary grant for his college to come through. In the meantime he preached at Trinity church in Newport and made contact with Samuel Johnson, who was to become president of King's College, New York (subsequently Columbia University). Johnson's letters provide acute commentary on Berkeley's thought. Two children were born to George and Anne in Newport: Henry and Lucia, the latter of whom died and is buried in the grounds of Trinity church. While at his farm, Whitehall (since preserved as a Berkeley museum), he wrote Alciphron, or The minute philosopher (London, 1732), a defence of Christianity against atheists and free-thinkers, written in seven dialogues. By 1731 it had become clear that the Bermuda project was impracticable, and funding was consequently withheld by parliament. Berkeley returned to Europe. However, even though St Paul's, Bermuda, was never established, Berkeley had made an impact on American higher education. He was the foremost European intellectual of his era to visit the colonies. Johnson was to found King's College on principles expressed by Berkeley to him in correspondence, collections of books were granted to Yale and Harvard, and his farm was also granted to Yale, which named its divinity school after him. The state of California was subsequently to establish its university in a town named after George Berkeley.
Bishop of Cloyne: medical idealism and social concern
Berkeley and his family waited in London (1731–4) while he sought ecclesiastical advancement from the royal court. It finally came (January 1734) in the form of the bishopric of Cloyne. In the meantime he had published Alciphron. He followed its line of argument again in the Analyst (London, 1734), defending Christian mysteries against free-thinkers. He argued that certain mathematical doctrines, accepted by the leading mathematicians of the time, were as mysterious as anything articulated in Christian doctrine. He engaged in controversy with various printed objections to his views in A defence of free-thinking in mathematics (London, 1735). This was to be his last book dealing with purely speculative issues. His subsequent writings reflected the practical concern of a bishop in a poor, rural, Irish diocese.
Berkeley regarded his task in Cloyne as both spiritual and practical. He fulfilled the standard episcopal duties, including directing his clergy to use the Irish language when possible and appropriate. However, the temporal vicissitudes of his people exercised much of his time and occasioned his forays into print. Rural Ireland was grindingly poor. Berkeley's reflections on the economic situation led him to advocate self-sufficiency, rousing the poor from their passive acceptance of poverty and chastising the powerful for allowing such a state. He presented his views on the economy, the theory of money, banking, and credit in the Querist, published anonymously in three parts (1735–7) and subsequently in abridged form under his name (1750). He encouraged local producers in Cloyne, establishing a spinning-school and a workhouse for vagrants, introducing flax and hemp, and wearing only home-produced products. In the severe winter of 1739–40 and the famine that followed, he distributed £20 every Monday among the poor of Cloyne until the next crops could be gathered. Widespread sickness following the famine led to his investigations of the medicinal powers of tar-water. In a situation where no medical infrastructure whatsoever existed for most of the population and infant mortality was extremely prevalent, he advocated this substance as a cure. Inspired by reports of its usage by Native Americans during his Bermuda expedition, he produced a treatise, Siris (1744), extolling its virtues. Sales of the reported panacea were enormous, once again provoking mirth at his expense by wits sceptical of the whole enterprise. However, his claims for the substance were modest; he found it good for alleviating his own health problems, and found that others reported similar results. Moreover he was moved to take some form of action in the face of widespread ill health in Ireland. In his own family, enjoying a standard of living far above most people, the infant mortality rate was high. His Newport-born son Henry lived in Cloyne, along with George, born in London in 1733. Of the four children born in Cloyne, John and Sarah died in infancy, William died at 15 in 1751, and it seems likely that his daughter Julia did not long survive her father.
As well as his social activism, his treatise-writing, and his voluminous correspondence with friends, British and American contacts, and fellow churchmen, Berkeley enjoyed a cultured existence at Cloyne. Many visitors sought him out. He regularly held concerts at his house, often as an alternative to card-playing, which he despised. A famous Italian virtuoso, Pasquilino, spent four years at his house as music tutor and concert giver at £200 a year. The house was adorned with paintings, which included a Rubens and a Van Dyck.
Death and legacy
Berkeley had personally supervised the tuition of his children in Cloyne. Henry had gone to France due to ill health. His son George went to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1752 and instantly began to spend large sums of money. Berkeley travelled to Oxford to supervise his son's education, taking a house in Holywell St. There his own ill health intensified (he had long complained of an ulcer on his kidney), and he died on 14 January 1753. George subsequently pursued a career in the Church of England, becoming a canon of Canterbury. Berkeley was buried in Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, where a large monument in the nave commemorates him, appropriately enough close to a plaque commemorating John Locke, who is buried nearby. Contemporary portraits of Berkeley are in TCD; Yale; the National Portrait Gallery, London; and the NGI.
Berkeley is unarguably Ireland's greatest philosopher, and his work is part of every standard undergraduate philosophy curriculum. It directly influenced Hume, Kant, and the positivists, and indirectly many more. However, his contribution to theology, mathematics, economics, and education has also been great. His ideas on national identity and self-sufficiency struck a chord with those otherwise so widely separated as W. B. Yeats (qv) and Éamon de Valera (qv). A less tangible but no less real aspect of the man is the respect and love he generated among those who knew him. Pope ascribed to him ‘ev'ry virtue under heav'n’ in a famous quatrain. Swift, Johnson, Percival, Prior and many others showed their regard for him in their letters. His widow Anne wrote a fine account of his character to their son George after the bishop's death. Perhaps the best summing up of Berkeley's life and thought is in the words of the great Berkeley scholar A. A. Luce (qv), who remarked that one initially thinks on reading him that Berkeley is building a house, but subsequently discovers that he has built a church.