Berkeley, George (12 March 1685 - 14 January 1753)
Biography by Dr. Paul Edwards
Born in Kilkenny County, Ireland, Berkeley studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and there became first a tutor and later a lecturer in Greek and Theology. Berkeley wrote his three most important works very early in life. These are An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision (709), The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). A volume on ethics was never published. Berkeley lost the manuscript while travelling in Italy and did not return to the subject. Like Locke and Hume, Berkeley was a critic of the abstractions dominant in scholastic philosophy, but he was equally critical of the mathematical abstractions, especially infinitesimals, that helped Newtonian physics to such spectacular success. His epistemological idealism ( esse est percipi ) was motivated partly by his dissatisfaction with Locke's theory of knowledge and partly by the desire to find a new justification for belief in God. He considerably influenced the German tradition of idealistic metaphysics, but his manner of philosophizing was much more akin to contemporary British analysis.
One of Berkeley's pet ideas was the foundation of a college in the Bermudas which would train missionaries and clergymen for the American colonies. This project brought him to America where he spent three years at Newport, Rhode Island. The House of Commons, however, failed to carry out its promise of a substantial subsidy and the scheme was never carried into practice. Berkeley, who was a model of theological orthodoxy, eventually became a Bishop in the Church of England and in his later years he was more more occupied with his ecclesiastical duties than with philosophy.
Berkeley believed his body of writing completely disproved atheism:
- It is God who determines what is right and wrong: “Nothing is a [moral] law merely because it conduceth to the public good, but because it is decreed by the will of God, which alone can give the sanction of a law of nature to any precept; and there can be no solid morality without religion.”
According to Charles Hartshorne, Berkeley believed that
- ideas that are merely ours are under control of our wills, whereas what we perceive physically is forced upon us all according to a common system. The only force we know from the given is will. The only adequate will-cause of the orderly constraint we feel in perception is God. Thus all data are signs in a single vast language by which God communicates to us.
With Locke, Berkeley held that theoretical atheism must of necessity lead to moral chaos.