Berkeleyan (Empirical/Subjective) Idealism

29Feb08

George Berkeley, an anglican Irish bishop, was another of the great philosophers of the early modern period. He was a critic of his predecessors, including Descartes, and advocated a rather extreme form of Idealism.Idealism is the view that everything that exists is either a mind or depends for its existence upon a mind. Berkeley took this as far as arguing that the external world and material objects cannot be considered ‘real’ in any meaningful sense. Berkeley theorised that we cannot know if an object is, we can only know if an object is perceived by a mind. We can’t think or talk about an object’s being. We can only think or talk about an object’s being perceived by someone. We can’t know any ‘real’ object ‘behind’ the object as we perceive it, which ‘causes’ our perceptions. All that we know about an object is our perception of it. Berkeley did not deny the existence of an external world as such, but did argue that it was impossible to have any knowledge of it, since our knowledge is limited to the contents of our own minds, which are ‘internal’ to us. Berkeley does not deny the existence of ordinary objects such as stones, trees, books, and apples. On the contrary, he holds that only an immaterialist account of such objects can avoid skepticism about their existence and nature. What such objects turn out to be, on his account, are bundles or collections of ideas. These ideas or impressions are all we know, and therefore are all that can be said to exist. Our experiences of apples do not represent anything ‘outside’ or external to us.For external objects, Berkeley argued esse est percipi (‘to be is to be percieved’). For minds, on the other hand, esse est percipere (‘to be is to perceive’). Objects that are not being percieved at a particular point in time by any person, Berkeley argues, continue to exist because they are witnessed by the mind of God, which is infinite.Why did Berkeley take such an odd view of the world? He thought that only this kind of ‘immaterialism’ could overcome the kind of skepticism that Descartes suggested could be applied to the external world. You can find Berkeley’s arguments for Empirical Idealism in A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). This book largely seeks to refute the claims made by his contemporary John Locke about the nature of human perception. Whilst, like all the empiricist philosophers, both Locke and Berkeley agreed that there was an outside world, and it was this world which caused the ideas one has within one’s mind; Berkeley attempts to prove that outside world was also composed solely of ideas. Berkeley did this by suggesting that “Ideas can only resemble Ideas” – the mental ideas that we possessed could only resemble other ideas (not physical objects) and thus the external world consisted not of physical form, but rather ideas. This world was given logic and regularity by some other force, which Berkeley does his best to prove is God. You can find a copy of the full text at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Treatise_concerning_the_principles_of_human_knowledge.

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