Mar 122018

Today is the birthday (1685) of George Berkeley — generally known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne) — an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called “immaterialism” (later referred to as “subjective idealism” by others). This theory denies (in qualified form) the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

Berkeley was born at his family home, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. Little is known of his mother. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College, Dublin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1704 and completing a master’s degree in 1707. He remained at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer. His earliest publication was on mathematics, but the first that brought him notice was his An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, first published in 1709. In the essay, Berkeley examines visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. While this work raised much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics. The next publication to appear was the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, which had great success and gave him a lasting reputation, though few accepted his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This was followed in 1713 by Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounded his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived. One of his main objectives was to combat the prevailing materialism of his time. The theory was largely received with ridicule, while even those such as Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who did acknowledge his “extraordinary genius,” were nevertheless convinced that his first principles were false.

According to Berkeley there are only two kinds of things: spirits and ideas. Spirits are simple, active beings which produce and perceive ideas; ideas are passive beings which are produced and perceived. The use of the concepts of “spirit” and “idea” is central in Berkeley’s philosophy. As used by him, these concepts are difficult to translate into modern terminology. His concept of “spirit” is close to the concept of “conscious subject” or of “mind”, and the concept of “idea” is close to the concept of “sensation” or “state of mind” or “conscious experience”.

Thus, Berkeley denied the existence of matter as a metaphysical substance, but did not deny the existence of physical objects such as apples or mountains:

I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it. (Principles #35)

This basic claim of Berkeley’s thought, his “idealism”, is sometimes and somewhat derisively called “immaterialism” or, occasionally, subjective idealism. In Principles #3, he wrote, using a combination of Latin and English, esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived), most often if slightly inaccurately attributed to Berkeley as the pure Latin phrase esse est percipi.  Hence, human knowledge is reduced to two elements: that of spirits and of ideas (Principles #86). In contrast to ideas, a spirit cannot be perceived. A person’s spirit, which perceives ideas, is to be comprehended intuitively by inward feeling or reflection (Principles #89). For Berkeley, we have no direct ‘idea’ of spirits, albeit we have good reason to believe in the existence of other spirits, for their existence explains the purposeful regularities we find in experience. “It is plain that we cannot know the existence of other spirits otherwise than by their operations, or the ideas by them excited in us” (Dialogues #145). This is the solution that Berkeley offers to the problem of other minds. Finally, the order and purposefulness of the whole of our experience of the world and especially of nature overwhelms us into believing in the existence of an extremely powerful and intelligent spirit that causes that order. According to Berkeley, reflection on the attributes of that external spirit leads us to identify it with God. Thus, a material thing such as an apple consists of a collection of ideas (shape, color, taste, physical properties, etc.) which are caused in the spirits of humans by the spirit of God.

Other than philosophy, Berkeley also influenced modern psychology with his work on John Locke’s theory of association and how it could be used to explain how humans gain knowledge in the physical world. He also used the theory to explain perception, stating that all qualities where, as Locke would call them, secondary qualities therefore perception laid entirely in the perceiver and not in the object. These are both topics today studied in modern psychology.

In the period between 1714 and 1720, Berkeley interspersed his academic endeavors with periods of extensive travel in Europe, including one of the most extensive Grand Tours of the length and breadth of Italy ever undertaken. In 1721, he took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chose to remain at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing this time in Divinity and in Hebrew. In 1721/2 he was made Dean of Dromore and, in 1724, Dean of Derry. In 1725, he began the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries in the colony, in pursuit of which he gave up his deanery.

In 1728, he married Anne Forster, daughter of John Forster, Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, and his first wife Rebecca Monck. He then went to North America in pursuit of his goal to found a college. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation at Middletown – the famous “Whitehall.” In 1732 he left North America and returned to London. He and Anne had four children who survived infancy: Henry, George, William and Julia, and at least two other children who died in infancy. William’s death in 1751 was a great cause of grief to Berkeley.

While living in London’s Saville Street, he took part in efforts to create a home for the city’s abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors. In 1734, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, a position he held until his death. Soon afterwards, he published Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, directed against both Shaftesbury and Bernard de Mandeville; and in 1735–37 The Querist. His last two publications were Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tarwater, And divers other Subjects connected together and arising one from another (1744) and Further Thoughts on Tar-water (1752). Pine tar is an effective antiseptic and disinfectant when applied to cuts on the skin, but Berkeley argued for the use of pine tar as a broad panacea for diseases. His 1744 work on tar-water sold more copies than any of his other books during his lifetime. He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired. With his wife and daughter Julia he went to Oxford to live with his son George and supervise his education. He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

The University of California, Berkeley, was named after him, although the pronunciation has evolved to suit American English: (/ˈbərkliː/ BURK-lee). The naming was suggested in 1866 by Frederick Billings, a trustee of the then College of California.

The potato was the great staple of the Irish as early as the 17th century and was well established in Berkeley’s day. There are various Irish recipes for potatoes that I have given already. Champ, sometimes called poundies, is a common Irish country dish similar to colcannon. You don’t really need a recipe because it is basically mashed potatoes with additions. Cook diced potatoes in the usual way until they are soft enough to mash. Drain the cooking water and mash with the addition of butter, milk, cheese, and, most important, chopped green onions. In the past chopped nettles were sometimes used in place of the green onions. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.