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Key Concepts of the Philosophy of George Berkley

Updated on September 30, 2011

George Berkley was an 18th century Irish philosopher and Catholic Bishop who was the second great empiricist of the early modern era. Berkley was interested in the epistemological argument that had been established by René Descartes and John Locke and formed his own system of epistemology and metaphysics in order to respond to it. Berkley rejected the rationalist ideas of a priori concepts being the basis of all real knowledge but was also a critic of Locke’s version of empiricism, which he thought failed to really respond to the rationalist arguments effectively. Berkley is less known today, primarily because his contributions have been overshadowed by Hume, but some contemporary philosophers, such as David Chalmers, have been influenced by Berkley in their evaluation of concepts having to do with artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Critique of Materialism

Berkley found the ideas of Descartes, Locke and Hobbes to be unconvincing when it comes to ideas about the material world. Berkley thought that the human brain has the ability to only perceive ideas. The implication of such a claim is that all representations of matter are representations of ideas within the human mind. Berkley takes the radical stance that not only are there nonmaterial things in the world, in contrast to Hobbes, and that we have a faculty that can assess knowledge independent of the blank slate being shaped by sense perception that Locke favors, but he contends that all matter is in fact not real at all.

What he means by this is that matter had no real existence beyond the ideas within our minds that matter is a representation. This seems to be completely counter intuitive to how we perceive reality but Berkley’s ideas seem a little more clear when we look at what we know about the brain now and the idea of artificial realities that can be created from a computer. Any sense perception can be duplicated by the stimulation of certain parts of the brain. In the case of a virtual world, a human being would not be able to tell the difference between a world that existed outside a computer and inside a computer. They would both seem equally real because in both cases the representations of such matter and sensations are created from within the brain.

Berkley argues that we cannot conceive of mind independent objects because we must conceive of any object for it to have any real representation within the physical world. Berkley also points out the subjectivity of certain sense judgments like hot and cold. What may be hot to one person might be cold to another and Berkley asks how this can be true if such a distinction exists independently of the mind? If we accept that such distinctions as hot or cold, or pain or pleasure, are subjectively determined by the mind then how can we have any justification for any kind of matter to exist independent of the mind’s ability to conceive it.


The question then remains, what exactly does Berkley think that the physical world is composed of? Berkley claims that all the physical world is consists of a collection of ideas and this would serve the basis for what would later be established by David Hume, “bundle theory.” Berkley does not believe in a material world, meaning that he does not believe in a world that is mind independent but he does believe in a physical world that is dependent on the ideas that a mind perceives. Berkley thinks that ideas are passive and have no casual power so he then makes an argument about the existence of God.

Since sensory ideas cannot be caused by other ideas they must be caused by something else and that is God. To Berkley, spirits are the perceivers of ideas within the human beings and God is an infinite spirit who is aware of all ideas and perceptions at once. This means that all beings and their ideas exist within the mind of God. God has created the world, not through the manipulating of material matter but through sheer thought and perception alone. So we are essentially living within the mind of God and when we die then we have exited from God’s perception because he has stopped thinking and perceiving us.

Berkley called his philosophy “common sense” philosophy but it baffled most of the readers of his work at the time. One argument that Berkley encountered, was that his philosophy made the distinction between real things and imaginary things completely non-existent. Berkley responded that the ideas that constitute real things are consistent and steady while dreams and hallucinations have no consistency with each other. This is also justified by his conception of God, since Berkley thinks that all real things are perceived in God’s mind, they would have a consistency since an all knowing thinker would perceive them. Imaginary things are dependent on the will of humans, and therefore do not have the consistency of ideas that are perceived through the mind of God.


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      cathy 5 years ago

      a good piece of work