A CRITICAL STUDY
George Berkeley was an Irish philosopher of the 18th century. He was most famous for his theory of immaterialism or subjective idealism. He was a stern critic o Locke and his representative realist ideas. The critical analysis shall discuss a few of the elements of the theory of immaterialism of Berkeley and evaluate its strengths and shortcomings. The method adopted to carry out the analysis is to pick a particular topic and critically examine it against the views of other thinkers and philosophers on his beliefs. Margaret Atherton found the theory of perception of objects as per Berkeley. Atherton found the theory to be completely valid and fail-proof if all the principles of Berkeley’s theory are taken as true. She also concludes that Berkeley is successful in presenting his theory as superior from the representative realist views. Dicker, through use of scientific methods, exposes the shortcomings in Berkeley’s theory and concludes then to be unsound. Roberts found the mental causal theories and the association of spirits with God to be an accurate If somewhat misinterpreted by some.
Berkeley and Immaterialism: A Critical Study
George Berkeley was an Irish philosopher born on 12 March 1685 to William Berkeley, a cadet of the English Noble Family. He was the eldest son and was educated at Kilkenny College and got his master’s degree from the Trinity College, Dublin in the year 1707. Most of the works by George Berkeley in philosophy were done in his younger years. His three most famous of all his works were ‘Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision’ in 1709, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in 1713 (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2011). He is most remembered for the advancement of the theory of Immaterialism or Subjective Idealism. His first book in 1707 had laid down the doctrines that were further developed in the consequent two books for the formulation of his theory.
The theory of immaterialism states that it is only minds and mental states that exist in physical form. It denies the existence of material things and contends that the objects that one sees or believes to exist in physical form are ideas in the minds of perceivers, and thus cannot exist without it being perceived. He had very famously quoted “esses est peercipi” which translates to “to be is to perceive/be perceived”. George Berkeley was also a stern critic of John Locke and his principles of empiricism. Locke believed that the information about the world and its objects is impossible to be obtained without sensing it. A theory he called Á posteri” that is nothing can be imagined until unless it is touched, seen heard or smelled. George Berkeley rejected this idea as that of being materialistic and gave rise to perceptual illusion and claimed that the only link there ever was, is between the perceiver and ideas, and everything else is false. He believed that it was the only way to safeguard the common sense, religion, science and technology against skepticism.
In this critical analysis, we shall look into a few of the ideas and thoughts that Berkeley had proposed, and try to study it through the ideas, beliefs and thoughts of some of the modern day thinkers and philosophers.
The first aspect immaterialism that we wish to analyze is the same as studied by Atherton (2008) which was “of our understanding of the nature of object perception and of the reality of objects with this approach to Berkeley’s views”. Here Atherton tries to decipher how Berkeley could distinguish between real objects and misperceptions, which were quite possible if his ideas of perception were held as true. She analyzes the passage about the cherry in Berkeley’s work Three Dialogues. Here Berkeley talks about objects and their perception in the very same way as everybody else believed. On the ability to distinguish between it and an imaginary object like god, he says that ideas that constitute of real things like the cherry are steady, distinct and vivacious, qualities which imaginary objects cannot display. He talks about the order and the “rerun natura” or the set rules of nature. “These set rules or established methods, wherein the mind we depend on excites in us the ideas of sense, are called the Laws of Nature” (Berkeley, 1710, p.30). Such ideas are coherent and regular and shall constitute of the real world. Atherton (2008) concludes her assessment of Berkeley’s theory as it allows one to respect the fact about senses and differentiate between a real and a non real object in the same way as by a representative realist. However Berkeley claimed his theory to be superior as he found the version of representative realist far from common sense and promoted skepticism towards the deliverance of senses.
Next we shall look into the criticism of the theories of Berkeley by George Dicker (2008). In his article title Anti-Berkeley, he goes about exposing the shortcomings of the Berkeley’s theory in 3 areas:
1. Argument against substance/substratum
2. Arguments against Representationalism
3. Primary and Secondary qualities
In well formulated and scientific responses, Dicker concludes that the Berkeley arguments cannot show that shape exists only in mind and his arguments are rather unsound (Dicker, 2008).
The causation thesis says that a mental state is a representation of an object only if it was caused by that object. On the subject of causation, Berkeley rejects physical causation because according to him, there exists no physical objects, thus they cannot cause an idea in one’s mind. He however believes that mental causation exists. This leads to an argument between the idealist and the materialist on the subject of spirits. According to Berkeley “A spirit is one simple, undivided, active being: as it perceives ideas, it is called the understanding, and as it produces or otherwise operates about them, it is called the will.” (Berkeley, 1710). Berkeley defines spirits as finite beings that require constant feedback of sensation. In a sense, what power a spirit has is the result of its lack of power (Roberts, 2010). Thus Roberts concludes that there exists a link between God and the spirits as defined by Berkeley himself.
A few of the theories of Berkeley were examined in context with his theory of immaterialism. While a few of the thinkers found his theories and ideologies to be relevant, others found it to be far from the truth. Be whatever may, Berkeley’s theories are important to the realms of philosophical studies and metaphysics. His theory of immaterialism is largely seen as being far from common sense and largely rejected by many philosophers. However a close examination of a few concepts reveals that his theories are indeed complete in many senses and without being contradictory or raising skepticism, if seen within the boundaries of the principles outlined.
Atherton, M. (2008). 'The books are in the study as before': Berkeley's claims about real physical objects. British Journal For The History Of Philosophy, 16(1), 85-100.
Berkeley. G. (1710). A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
Dicker, G. (2008). Anti-Berkeley. British Journal For The History Of Philosophy, 16(2), 335-350.
George Berkeley. (2011). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1.
Roberts, J. (2010). 'Strange impotence of men': Immaterialism, Anaemic Agents, and Immanent Causation. British Journal For The History Of Philosophy, 18(3), 411-431.