George Berkeley, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

George Berkeley, a perspective

Who was he? He was an Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne. He was known as the father of philosophical idealism. He was against the materialism of John Locke and Isaac Newton and believed it was not tenable.

Remember, Aristotle came up with the idea of form and matter. Locke also believed in form and matter. Being a man of religious affiliation, Berkeley avoided anything involving materialism. Does this mean he was a Platonist thinker, the answer is, not at all? What he had in common with Locke was the fact that he was an empiricist and didn’t believe in Plato’s Forms. Apparently he was a nominalist philosopher. He argued that Plato’s Forms were nothing but names. In other words, he went against Locke’s conceptualism and didn’t believe those concepts corresponded to the world out there. He is known for his famous adage, namely, ‘To be is to be perceived’ or ‘esse est percipi’. This was his way of proving the existence of God. Put it simply, when I leave my class I do not perceive my students. And since I don’t perceive them, they really don’t exist from my point of view, because there are others who perceive the students in the class. However, even though I do not perceive them, God perceives them and that would guarantee their existence. When a tree falls in the forest, I’m ignorant of this event. Thus, it just doesn’t exist for me. Nonetheless, God is always present, because He is omnipresent. So the existence of the falling tree is a reality. Just as the song has it: “you’re so beautiful, to me” I can say, you are existent to me. This is a subjective fact. But when God guarantees their existence, this is an objective reality and mine is only subjective as I just mentioned.

A question arises, can Berkeley deny the existence of Plato’s Forms while he tries to prove the existence of God? Aristotle’s pure Form corresponds to Plato’s highest Form, which is the Good. Can you reject the existence of Plato’s Forms on the one hand and accept the existence of God on the other hand? This has puzzled me and still makes me wonder as to how you can have your cake and eat it too.

 As we can see, there’s a logical gap between the subject and reality. This ‘the veil of perception’ as argued by thinkers, is produced in the following way. This theory maintains that objects in the external world have a causal effect on our senses, which in turn engender ideas in the mind of the observer. For instance, a regular vase or vessel starts a chain of causal events first in the retina of the seer, and as a result in the neural pathways of the seer which would direct him to observe ‘a vase’. However, the observing of the vase is a construct inside of a person’s mind. This is a fact, which seems backed by the existence of hallucination, and visual images in our dreams.

If the perception of the vessel is a construct- or ‘idea’ in our mind, then we can conclude that what we in reality observe is not the actual cause of the construct, or the actual vase, but it is only the idea itself. The cause of the idea in our mind is not necessarily like what we perceive. It is possible that ideas of vessels are caused by some reality totally unlike what a vase looks like. However, because all our perceptions of the world are produced inside the mind, there’s no way we can tell whether reality in fact is like our ideas or not. What Berkeley achieved here is that what Locke argued to tell us about primary and secondary qualities is absurd, because even his primary qualities are ideas. In reality we have no way of knowing what is behind this curtain. What if there’s no reality beyond our ideas?

According to Berkeley since we have never perceived anything named ‘matter’, except ideas, it is not tenable conjecture to assume that there is a material substance behind, supporting our perceptions.

Locke and other philosophers had argued against what Berkeley was presenting to us. They made a distinction between primary qualities like solidity, extension and figure, and secondary qualities, as color, taste and smell. They had argued that only the latter are mind-dependent. However, Berkeley argued that there’s in fact no valid distinction between primary and secondary qualities when we perceive things. Consequently, everything becomes mind-dependent. If something cannot be a construct in our mind, it simply doesn’t exist, therefore, ‘to be is to be perceived’. But if there were no material substance behind our constructs, then how is it that objects sustain when there’s no one perceiving them? If I close the door of my class, there’s no one in it unless someone perceives the students. When a tree falls in the jungle and I’m not there, then no such a thing is happening unless someone perceives it. Here existence becomes mind dependent.

Berkeley argued that our perceptions are constructs brought to existence for us by God. If I close the door of my bedroom, it would look to stop to exist, if there is no body inside to keep perceiving it. God perceives everything in the universe at all times, thus the closed room still sustains because it is perceived in the mind of God.

This idea of God’s mind started with Rene’ Descartes and apparently was unprecedented.

This reminds us of what we know as ‘anthropomorphism’. The Greek word ‘anthropos’ means ‘man’ and ‘morphe, means ‘form’. So the whole term mean giving the human characteristics to gods, objects, etc. (Webster’s new world Dictionary) this, I believe, has been the biggest mistake made in the history of philosophy. Once we change our perception about God and move up to the Ultimate reality, we’ll see the difference. However, we let the intellectual history of the West decide as to why we confronted so many problems, which they could have been resolved with some wisdom from the ancient Greek giants in philosophy.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)