George Berkeley (Philosophy Biographies)

E-mail Print PDF

George Berkeley


Berkeley, born in Ireland, was educated at Trinity college, Dublin. He eventually became an Anglican bishop. As a young man he published a number of philosophical works. In 1713, Berkeley came to London and from there, at the expense of a rich family who required a chaplain and a tutor, travelled to France and Italy; he spent the best part of seven years on the continent (shades of John Locke). By 1721, Berkeley had returned back to Ireland, and, in 1728, he sailed for America for the purpose "of founding a college at the Bermudas for the Christian civilization of America." He did not achieve his purpose. After having spent three years at Rhode Island he returned back to England.

Locke made a distinction between "primary" and "secondary" qualities of things that exist. Berkeley picked up on Locke's belief that all that exists is capable of being sensed or experienced, that there is no existence of matter independent of perception. But Berkeley went beyond Locke in holding that it is only because of "the observing mind of God makes possible the continued apparent existence of material objects." His views lead to some difficulty. "Berkeley's philosophy ends with the existence of spiritual substance as a substitute for material substance ..." [Henry Alphern, An Outline History of Philosophy (Forum House, 1969) p. 109.]

Among Berkeley's more important works are his Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713).

Alphern was of the view that Berkeley committed fallacies: "no one can reach beyond his own impressions, perceptions, and thoughts", and no one should define an object by calling it an idea. Berkeley "reasons in a circle ... he desires to conform to a conclusion reached by him in advance." William Hazlitt thought Berkeley's world to be a "fairy world.


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. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College, Dublin, 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 Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, first published in 1709. In the essay, Berkeley examined visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. Though giving rise to 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 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, as such, on being perceived.

Of this theory, the Principles gives the exposition and the Dialogues the defence. One of his main objectives was to combat the prevailing materialism of the 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 early principles were false.

Shortly afterwards, Berkeley visited England, and was received into the circle of Addison, Pope and Steele. In the period between 1714 and 1720, he 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 1724, he was made Dean of Derry.

In 1725, he formed 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 with its income of £1100.

In 1728, he married Anne Forster, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He then went to America on a salary of £100. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation in Middletown, Rhode Island – the famous "Whitehall". He lived at the plantation while he waited for funds for his college to arrive. The funds, however, were not forthcoming and, in 1732, he left America and returned to London. While living in London's Saville Street, he took part in the 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. 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: Philosophical reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising from one 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. It is said that his 1744 book on the medical benefits of pine tar was the best-selling book in his lifetime.

He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired and went to Oxford to live with his son. He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His affectionate disposition and genial manners made him much loved and held in warm regard by many of his contemporaries.

Comments (10)Add Comment

Write comment


Web Statistics