Some notes on George Berkeley

George Berkeley’s (hereafter GB) project is a lot like the ontological argument or some 48 step math problem that divided by zero: you know it is wrong somewhere but you aren’t sure how. Even if he is wrong, and I think he is, this book was fun to read.

Esse is percepi

argument: if something is not perceived by me, or does not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, or God himself, then it does not exist (para 6).
1. It is impossible to abstract the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.
2 there is no unthinking substance or substratum of ideas.

Primary qualities like extension, figure, etc., only make sense in their being perceived. We cannot imagine some object that has been abstracted from all other qualities. (Berkeley is correct up to a certain point: the more abstract we get, the less specific we get and the less we have to say of an object).

Ideas are inactive. It is impossible for an idea to “cause” anything (para 25). Therefore, as GB argues, “extension, figure, and motion cannot be the cause of our sensations.” GB has already ruled out the idea of a material/substratum cause. This leaves “spirit” as the only possible cause.

Berkeley’s Anthropology

*Spirit: the immaterial, simple subject that engages the faculties of will and understanding.
*will: the acting of spirit (27). Along with understanding, it is a power of spirit. He even calls it the “motion of the soul” (144).

GB now has a problem. If all we can know are ideas of sense impressions, yet it is the soul/spirit/I that does the knowing, how can I have an idea of spirit, since the latter is nonsensual? Berkeley introduces a new concept: notion. It saves his epistemology but it looks an awful lot like a deus ex machina.

GB wants to make clear that he is not doing away with the reality of the external world, but only with the philosophical notion of substance, which he defines as a substratum devoid of qualities and accidents (37).

Occasionalism: someone objects that GB’s philosophy commits him to the idea that things are being destroyed/created every minute (since they only exist in being perceived). He responds by referring his readers to sections 3 and 4. But that only strengthens the objection. It goes like this:

(1) If and only if [iff] an idea is perceived by the mind, then it exists.
(2) It is perceived by the mind.
(3) Therefore, it exists. [MP, 1, 2]
(4) Ideas can’t cause themselves.
(5) God/Mind causes them.
(5a) God/Mind creates ideas
(6) An idea is not perceived by the mind.
(7) Therefore, it does not exist [MT 3, 6, 7]

Berkeley responds by challenging his objector to imagine an archetypal idea not in its perception. But that’s not the point. We can fully grant that GB is correct. That is perfectly logical with P(7). Berkeley suspects as much. He clarifies his point in sec. 48:

(8) they could still exist because there “may be some other spirit that perceives them though we do not.”

Berkeley sees where his project is going and tries to stop it. If the above is correct, then it seems to say that my seeing the sun’s rising is the cause of the sun’s rising. Berkeley says no.

(8*) The connexion of ideas does not imply the relation of cause and effect, but only of a mark or sign of the thing signified (65).

Then what is the cause? Berkeley seems to say we should speak of mark or sign rather than cause (66).


GB is wrong and there is no use pretending otherwise. His importance for English-speaking philosophy and metaphysics cannot be denied. Moreover, he is a formidable thinker and deserves serious interaction.


3 thoughts on “Some notes on George Berkeley

  1. Do you think some of the new insights of quantum physics might bring a revival of Berkley’s idealism? It depends on how one construes the data, but it can definately be construed in a way that supports idealism.


  2. Do you think any of the findings of quantum physics may lead to a ‘revival’ of idealism? Obviously, I don’t think that the evidence necessitates such a conclusion; however, the data can be construe, and has been, to suggest that certain quantum phenomena only exist when they are observed.


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