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Transcript
PHIL 305/POLS 370 Notes #5
Page 1
George Berkeley (1685-1753)
1. Berkeley (pr. BARK-lee) was an Irish bishop and philosopher


his best-known books are:

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), which presents his
epistemological and ontological theories

Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), three debates between a character
representing “matter” (in Greek, hyle) and a “lover of mind” (in Greek, philo + nous)
Berkeley’s philosophy is a combination of ontological idealism and epistemological empiricism

ontological idealism is the theory that reality consists of conceptual patterns rather than
material stuff

Berkeley’s ontological idealism is sometimes called immaterialism, which is the theory that
matter does not exist

he said matter cannot be the cause of anything because, if it existed, it would be passive, so it
cannot possibly be the cause of our perceptions

according to Berkeley, reality consists only of God’s perceptions, which have no material basis
but which do have causal power because creates things by perceiving them as real

Berkeley’s theory is captured in the slogan, “to be is to be perceived” (Latin: “esse est percipi”)
2. Berkeley rightly pointed out that we never directly experience material objects; what we directly
experience are only our subjective sensations

for example, if you perceive a red apple, your mind is never directly in contact with the apple

instead, your mind is only in direct contact with visual sensations like redness, and tactile
sensations like smoothness and coolness


Locke had called these sensations “secondary qualities,” because they exist only in the
interaction between objects and our sensory mechanisms

Locke also said that objects also have “primary qualities,” like extension and mass, which
exist in objects regardless of whether anyone is perceiving them
Berkeley rejected Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities and said that all
qualities exist only as perceptions
3. materialists say that material objects exist as the stable source of our sensations and that without
a material basis, our sensations would be arbitrary and unstable

for example, when you look at an apple and then look away, the apple does not disappear

because the apple is still there when we look at it again, most of us believe it has what
philosophers call a “mind-independent” basis of existence, which is the matter it is made of

but Berkeley said that God’s perception, rather than matter, is the basis of existence of the
apple: God perceives it; therefore it exists – but it does not exist as a material thing

in relation to our minds, the apple has a mind-independent existence – but nothing has a mindindependent existence in relation to God’s mind

things persist when we look away from them, not because they are made of matter, but
because they endure as the stable perceptions of God
PHIL 305/POLS 370 Notes #5
Page 2
4. according to Berkeley, the sensations we experience are not caused by matter; instead they are
caused directly by God

he said that according to materialists, matter has no casual power because it is purely passive
– so, even if it did exist, it could not be the cause of our perceptions

he said God does not create materials that cause our perceptions; instead, God creates the
patterns of reality directly, simply by perceiving them

so when we perceive something, we are directly sharing in the perceptions of God

God’s perceptions are stable and exist regardless of whether any humans are currently
sharing them

therefore, the existence of objective realities is stable: they remain in existence because God’s
perception of them continues, even when we turn our attention away
5. Berkeley believed in objective realities; that is, he did not believe that our realities are subjective
and belong only to us

he said we all share the same reality, which are the objectively real truths that God creates by
perceiving them

so Berkeley did believe in objective realities, but they consist of conceptual objects, not
material objects

these conceptual objects are the stable patterns of reality perceived by God

when we perceive the stable patterns of reality, we are participating directly in the true
perceptions of God

according to Berkeley, his theory changed nothing in terms of how the patterns of reality
operate or behave


red apples are still red; rain still feels wet; the sun is still warm and bright

all the laws of science still operate the same way
the patterns of reality are orderly and common to all, because they are the stable and orderly
perceptions of God
6. there are problems with Berkeley’s theory; for example, he misrepresents the materialism of those
like Hobbes, who said motion, and not just matter, is the cause of our sensations

but Berkeley was right that we never directly experience the existence of matter because we
can only ever directly experience our own sensations

the existence of matter is a hypothesis that helps us explain the stability of our perceptions, but
there may be other explanations for that stability

an alternative explanation is provided by Platonic realism, according to which the truest ideas
exist as independent realities in themselves

other possibilities are that everything that exists belongs to a universal consciousness, or that
everything exists as part of a computer program; these theories are analogous to Berkeley’s
PHIL 305/POLS 370 Notes #5
Page 3
7. the theoretical advantage of ontological idealism, including Berkeley’s, is that it avoids the
interaction problem that belongs to dualistic theories like those of Descartes

this problem is the difficulty of explaining how mental realities and physical realities interact

in ontological idealism, there is no interaction problem, because mental realities are the only
ones there are

Hobbes also avoided the interaction problem by saying there is only one kind of reality

however, his materialism does not easily explain the special quality that mental realities
seem to have

so ontological idealism, even though it may seem counter-intuitive to modern thinkers, does
avoid some of the problems of dualism and monistic materialism

idealism also has an advantage over materialism in beginning from that which we can directly
experience, which is our ideas, rather from matter which we never experience directly