Written by Kirsten Macdonald
Welcome to Part 4 of Ponderings Nibble on the Soul, an unashamedly reductionalist peekaboo at one of the greats: Berkeley.
George Berkeley was a priest of the Church of Ireland and one of the three most famous British Empiricists.
Berkeley is best known for his early works on vision and metaphysics; a field of philosophy that is generally focused on how reality and the universe began.
In the Principles and the Three Dialogues Berkeley champions two metaphysical discourses: idealism (everything that exists either is a mind or needs a mind to exist) and immaterialism (matter does not exist).
If we do not see a tree if we do not use a tree, then does the tree exist? Or if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Our perception of what a tree is gives it form according to George.
Berkley’s argument that every physical object is actually a collection of ideas is reflected in his motto esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived).
If ideas are understood to be objects of knowledge, then there must be something that “knows or perceives them, and operates them, remembering them and willing.”
Berkeley calls this ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’. Minds (as knowers) are distinct from ideas (as things are known). For an idea, to be is to be perceived (known). Since this holds for ideas in general, it holds for “sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense” in particular.
This article, for example, doesn’t actually exist, it is a construction of your mind.
According to George, there is something indeed behind the thinktank, driving it and helping it to create form. Ordinary objects are nothing but collections of ideas, he proposed, and there are only two kinds of things: spirits and ideas. Spirits are simple active beings producing and perceiving thoughts, ideas are passive beings which are created and perceived by spirits.
The truth is perfect and eternal, but cannot found in the world of matter, only through the mind. The world of matter is imperfect and constantly changing.
If you smash a table to pieces, will it cease to exist? No, because the memory of it still exists in your mind so therefore it still exists in some way. The idea of it makes it so.
Incredibly complex, George’s thinking was nothing short of a gold winning Gymnast defying the laws of gravity and walking tiptoe on the roof holding a powder puff as walking stick. He liked backgammon. Imagine playing Cluedo wih him? Yikes.
(An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, 1709)
(A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710; Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, 1713).
Berkeley, George | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/berkeley/
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