Part V. THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE
Sect. 1. British Enlightenment
Development of Empiricism: Berkeley
The position at which Locke had arrived in his doctrine of knowledge was, as we
have seen, untenable, involving as it did an impassable gulf between the
external world and the mind. It was inevitable, therefore, that the consequences
which his theory suggested, but did not state, should be developed by his
Although Locke had assumed a real world outside our minds, he maintained that we could not know that world. Our knowledge could
reach no further than our sensations, and consisted not in the agreement of our
ideas with things, but simply of our ideas with one another. If this be so, it
is an obvious inconsistency to attribute to the external world a substantial
objective reality. If the mind is simply a piece of blank paper on which our
sensations are written, and we can know nothing beyond these sensations, then
the notion of an external substance must be declared to be a merely subjective
conception. This was the conclusion which Berkeley drew, and which Hume carried
out to its rigid consequences.
George Berkeley, the immediate disciple of Locke, was born in Kilcrin,
in Ireland, in 1684. He was a man of extraordinary intellectual ability,
and of exquisite purity and generosity of character. In his
twenty-fourth year he published his New Theory of Vision, and the year after, his Principles of
Human Knowledge, which, by their novelty of conception and lucidity of
style, made a profound impression.
In 1713 he went to London, where he became acquainted with the
brilliant literary circle of the age—Addison, Swift, Steele, Pope, and others.
His paradoxes with regard to the non-existence of matter, as popularly
understood, exposed him to the ridicule of the wits of the time. But though, as
Pope wrote, "coxcombs vanquish Berkeley with a grin," the lovableness and charm
of his personality disarmed hostility.
After some time spent in travel, during which he met Malebranche, he returned to
England and set about carrying out the great project of his life—the conversion
of the North American savages. On this expedition he actually set out, but the
promise which Parliament made was not fulfilled, and he had eventually to
relinquish an enterprise in which he had embarked his whole worldly means. He
was ultimately made Bishop of Cloyne, in Ireland, and he spent the remainder of
his days in the duties of his diocese and the pursuits of study.
Of his numerous writings, we may mention, besides those we have already
named, the Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous, a philosophical converse in which
Hylas represents the views of the materialists, while Philonous gives expression
to his own opinions.
The aim of Berkeley's writings was practical rather than theoretic. He wrote as
the champion of orthodox Christianity against the "mathematical atheism" of
his age. He found practical immorality excusing itself by a theory of
materialism which made the whole conscious experience
of man dependent upon "unperceiving matter." He thought, therefore, that
the doctrine of Locke had only to be made consistent with itself in
order to dispel the cloud which hid the spiritual world. Hence, in the interests of religion, he sought to
get rid of that "unknown something" which philosophers had assumed as the
cause of our sensations. His first task, therefore, was to expose the
self-contradictory supposition that ideas are either copies of matter or its
The philosophy of Berkeley takes thus a twofold form—a negative and a positive.
First, he seeks to prove that the material world does not exist independently of
the mind that perceives it; and then he proceeds to show that only ideas and the
percipient spirits to whom they belong have reality, and that, finally, God, the
supreme Spirit, is at once the cause and guarantee of our ideas and their
association with one another.
(1) Unreality of Material things. The opening words of his Principles of Human
Knowledge state the problem and sum up his whole position. "It is evident to
any one who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are
either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by
attending to the passions and operations of the mind; or, lastly, ideas formed
by help of memory and imagination. . . . But besides all that endless variety of
ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or
perceives them, and exercises diverse operations, as willing, imagining,
remembering, about them. This perceiving, active being is what I call Mind,
Spirit, Soul, or Myself. . . . That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor
ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind, is what everybody will
allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations, or ideas,
imprinted on the senses, however blended or combined together, cannot exist
otherwise than in a mind perceiving them."
Let us not blindly accept the current notions about existence. Let us ask what
we mean when we speak of something being "real," and when we apply such words as "exist," "external," "substantial," to what we see and
touch. It must not be assumed that Berkeley doubted the reality of the outward world, and
it was no refutation of his argument to challenge him to run his head against a
stone wall. What he did deny was the existence of that unknown substratum, that
abstract substance, which philosophers assume to underlie all phenomena and in
all accidents were supposed to adhere. He would have said, "I, not less than
you, believe in what I see and feel, but what I deny is, that there is anything
else than what I see and feel. This unknown something is a mere abstraction
which has no reality." Let us find out what matter really is. When we reflect on
what is given in experience, we can discover no independent substance or
originating power. All we know is our own sensations—certain sights, sounds,
tastes, etc. I am also conscious of my own identity. I know that it is I who
have these sensations. Beyond that we are not conscious of anything. When we say
we see or touch a material object, all we can mean is that we perceive ideas
which have for us a practical meaning in so far as pleasure or pain depends on
them. The table I write upon exists, while I see and feel it. If I were out of
my study I should still say it existed, meaning that if I were in my study I
might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it. A sound
is heard, a colour or figure is perceived that is all I can assert. As to what
is said as to the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation
to their being perceived—that is, Berkeley affirms, perfectly unintelligible. To
be is to be perceived,—'their esse is their percipi'; nor is it possible that
they should have any existence out of the minds of thinking things which
"All the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word, all these
bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence
without a mind— their being is to be perceived and known." The immaterialism of
the external world is the thesis of Berkeley.
The assumption that there is an actual world underlying our sensations is
based, Berkeley tells us, on the universal but equally false supposition that we
have such things as universal abstract ideas. We deceive ourselves by taking
words for ideas and assuming that general notions separate from actual concrete
facts exist. Abstract ideas
do not exist. They do not exist even in the mind, still less do they exist in
the nature of things.
But if it be suggested that though the ideas themselves do not exist without a
mind to think them, yet may there not be things like them, of which they are
copies or resemblances? But, answers Berkeley, an idea can only be like an
idea. A colour or figure is like nothing but another colour or another figure.
Outward material objects, if we could fancy such, could not create or shape
inner spiritual ideas, for that would be to imply that the mind was not only
passive, but material.
Again, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities which Locke
established, does not alter the case, for what is tine of extension and
impenetrability is also true of the secondary or inferred qualities of colour
and taste. The one kind of quality is not more real than the other; both exist
solely in the mind which perceives them.
But, once more, it may be said, the essence of matter is not the qualities but a
substratum which lies behind them and supports them. The qualities may, indeed,
be only subjective ideas, but surely there is a substantial existence which
these qualities imply. But, says Berkeley, if we abstract from a cherry all the
qualities which can be perceived through any of the senses, what is left ?
Nothing. Locke had already admitted that "substance" was "a something, we
know not what." This unknown something neither acts nor thinks, neither
perceives nor is perceived. What, then, is that which is entirely made up of
negatives? Surely a nonentity, a thing unthinkable, utterly useless, and
incapable of being known.
(2) Spiritual Beings alone real. But, now, it may be asked, do we know nothing
beyond our fleeting ideas? Yes, in addition to our ideas we know ourselves.
These ideas belong to Me. They are in my mind. I have a sense of distinction
between me and my ideas. They are fleeting, various; the mind possesses a sense
constancy, and coherence, which at once gives to my mind an independent
existence, and to my ideas, connection and orderliness. "Besides all that
endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something
which knows or perceives them, and exercises divers operations, as willing,
imagining, remembering about them." This substance which supports and perceives
ideas cannot itself be an idea; for while ideas are passive, this is active. "All the unthinking objects of the mind agree in that they are entirely passive,
and their existence consists only in their being perceived, whereas a soul or
spirit is an active being, whose existence consists, not in being perceived, but
in perceiving ideas and thinking." So then we know nothing but spirits and their
ideas, and their distinction is that the former are active, thinking substances,
while the latter are inert, fleeting, and dependent things, which subsist not by
themselves, but are supported by the mind or spiritual substance which thinks
(3) God the Author of Ideas. But now the further question arises, whence come
those ideas? We have seen that they are not caused by outward material things.
They are not copies or effects of some unknown material substance. Nor are they
the creations of our own mind. They are not the product of our will. They are
not the creations of our phantasy, nor are they objects of caprice or illusion.
They follow in an orderly train and succession. They are vivid, lively, and
clear. If, then, we do not produce these ideas ourselves, they must have a cause
outside of us. That cause must be a willing and thinking being, for without will
it could not be active and operative upon men, and without having ideas of its
own it would be incapable of communicating any to my mind. On account of the
variety and order of our sensations, this being must also possess infinite power
and intelligence, it must be able to control all spirits at the same time and
suggest the same ideas simultaneously to different and endless varieties of
minds. This being, then, must be
God. The connected whole of these God-created ideas we call nature, and the
constant sequence of their succession, the laws of nature. In the immutability
of the Divine working and in the uniform harmony and plan of creation we detect
the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty more surely than in sudden and
exceptional acts. When we hear a man speak we may infer his existence. How much
less should we doubt the being of God, who is speaking to us through the
manifold works of nature. Those ideas which God imprints upon our spirits are
the archetypes of His own eternal ideas.
In Berkeley's system it will be seen that everything is reduced to ideas and
their relations. But these relations are not necessary relations, they do not
flow from the nature of things. Berkeley eliminates all causality from the
external world, and only admits relation of co-existence, or of constant
succession, between phenomena, i.e. ideas. The laws of nature are merely rules
in accordance with which God excites ideas in us. The changes in the material
world form a kind of language which expresses the thoughts of the Divine Mind.
The relation of ideas is only learned by experience, which gives to us "a sort
of foresight which enables us to regulate our actions for the benefit of life."
The ultimate function of philosophy is the study of divine wisdom as revealed in
the laws of nature. Will is the sole form of activity. As motion is determined
by outward impulse, so will is determined by ends. In spite of his empiricism
and individualism Berkeley sees a teleological purpose in the world.
A large part of his two chief works is occupied with showing the simplicity of
his system and its fundamental agreement with religion, as well as with common
sense. As the "doctrine of matter has been the main pillar of scepticism," so
his theory of pure idealism is, he holds, the best safeguard against atheism.
It is true we can never know God as He is, for our
ideas, which are non-active, or, at best, but imperfectly active, can never
fully represent Him, who is pure activity. At the same time, we may know God as
we know our own and other spirits. We have no ideas of these, for we only know
an object through its manifestations. We have, however, what Berkeley calls a "notion" of them. The existence of God may likewise be deduced from His effects.
He produces the ideas He creates in us.
It will be seen that in his anxiety to be rid of the world of matter, Berkeley
ends by practically denying the world of spirits as well. For if all we know is
our isolated feelings or ideas, which are inactive, we naturally ask how we can
discover among them that permanent order and sequence which, according to
Berkeley, is the revelation of God? If we deny all constructive power to our
ideas, how can we bind our sensations together and refer them, as he does, to a
thinking subject? Wherein consists the connection between the Self and its ideas? How, in other words, can we ever reach any reality by such a theory, except
the existence of our fleeting sensations?
Still further, if the connection between the thinking subject and its ideas is
denied, or at least not provided for, how can we attain to the knowledge of any
other spirits or realities outside our own personality? In order to meet this
difficulty, Berkeley finds it necessary to state that though in a strict sense
the mind can possess nothing but ideas, "we may be said to have some knowledge
or notion of spirits and active beings." In other words, Berkeley has to resort
to an accommodation in order to supplement his theory—an external reference or "notion" to bridge over the difference between self and other spirits. The idea
of substance, from which Berkeley has freed himself on the material side, still
binds him on the other, the immaterial side, and forces him into illogical
conclusions. If true being consist only on being perceived, how can my
consciousness assume the existence of beings distinct from myself, but able like
me to think, imagine,
and will? How can I ascribe reality to them, or even to the Deity, since I have
no assurance of their existence save from my own thought? Like his predecessors,
Malebranche and others, Berkeley is obliged to bring in the
thought of the Deity as the true author of all our mental processes.
At the same time, we must recognise in Berkeley a keen opponent of materialism,
and his merit consists in being one of the earliest to give a clear utterance to
the fundamental truth of idealism, and to show that the world is, after all,
ours only as we can think it.