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George Berkeley (1685–1753)

29 September, 2015 - 16:46

Born in Kilkenny, Ireland, George Berkeley was appointed Bishop of Cloyne (near Cork) in 1734. In 1709, he published An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, which lays the groundwork for his attack on the belief in material substance. His Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, the main work excerpted here, appeared in 1710 and was revised in 1734.

His views encountered resistance and sometimes mockery; in 1713, he restated his overall position and arguments again, this time in dialogue form, in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. In 1721, Berkeley published De Motu (On Motion), a work that presents the earliest version of instrumentalism in philosophy of science.

The Introduction to the Principles attacks abstract ideas. As you go, it is worth wondering why Berkeley is spending so much time on this issue, given his ultimate goal of establishing a world of only spirits and ideas. Part One of that work (there is no Part Two—Berkeley claims to have lost the manuscript in Italy) forms the main part of the work. Here is an outline, by section number, of the PHK, Part One. 1

Sections 1-24: Arguments against material substance Sections 25-33 Statement of Berkeley’s positive view Sections 34-84: Objections and replies

Sections 85-156: Attractive consequences of Berkeley’s view with regard to:

Sections 101-117: Natural science

Sections 118-132: Mathematics and geometry

Sections 135-156: Spirits/Minds, incl. God

(Textual note: The standard edition of Berkeley’s Works is that of Luce and Jessop. Modern editions are plentiful; Desmond Clarke’s anthology with Cambridge is especially useful. Berkeley’s Notebooks (sometimes called the ‘Philosophical Commentaries’), probably written in 1707–10, provide a fascinating insight into the development of Berkeley’s thought. These are available in Luce and Jessop and in Michael Ayers’s anthology of Berkeley’s works, though not in Clarke’s.)