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George Berkeley
Irish philosopher

Period of his major works

Berkeley’s golden period of authorship followed the revision. In An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), he examined visual distance, magnitude, position, and problems of sight and touch and concluded that “the proper (or real) objects of sight” are not without the mind, though “the contrary be supposed true of tangible objects.” In his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I (1710), he brought all objects of sense, including tangibles, within the mind; he rejected material substance, material causes, and abstract general ideas; he affirmed spiritual substance; and he answered many objections to his theory and drew the consequences, theological and epistemological. His Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), by its attractive literary form and its avoidance of technicalities, reinforced the main argument of the Principles. The two books speak with one voice about immaterialism.

Berkeley was made a deacon in 1709 and ordained a priest in 1710. He held his fellowship for 17 years, acting as librarian (1709), junior dean (1710–11), and tutor and lecturer in divinity, Greek, and Hebrew.

In politics Berkeley was a Hanoverian Tory (a Tory supporter of the British royal house of Hanover, which originated in Germany), and he defended the ethics of that position in three sermons, published as Passive Obedience (1712). Thus, with four major books in five years, the foundations of his fame were laid. When he first left Ireland in 1713 on a leave of absence, he was already a man of mark in the learned world; his books were reviewed on the Continent, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the wide-ranging author of the Monadology, knew of his immaterialism and commented upon it.

Among the London wits he was an immediate success. Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, presented him at court. For Sir Richard Steele, an essayist, he wrote essays in The Guardian against the freethinkers. He was in the theatre with Joseph Addison, essayist and poet, on the first night of Cato and left a spirited description of the experience. Alexander Pope credited him with “ev’ry virtue under heav’n.” In 1713–14 he went on an embassy to Sicily as chaplain with Charles Mordaunt, 3rd earl of Peterborough, whom Berkeley called an “ambassador extraordinary.” In 1715, during the Jacobite rebellion (on behalf of the exiled Stuarts), he proved his loyalty by publishing his Advice to the Tories Who Have Taken the Oaths. He was abroad again from 1716 to 1720 in Italy, acting as tutor to George Ashe, son of the bishop of Clogher (later of Derry); his four travel diaries give vivid pictures of sightseeing in Rome and of tours in southern Italy. On his return he published his De Motu (1721), which rejected Sir Isaac Newton’s absolute space, time, and motion, gave a veiled hint of his immaterialism, and in the 20th century earned him the title “precursor of Mach and Einstein.”

Resuming his work in Dublin, he took a full part in teaching and administration for more than three years. In 1724 he was appointed dean of Derry, and his 24 years’ connection with Trinity College ended.

His American venture and ensuing years

The deanery and legacy from Esther (or Hester) Vanhomrigh (Swift’s Vanessa) were seen by Berkeley as providences, furthering his “scheme of Bermuda,” in the New World. The frenzied speculation that preceded the bursting of the South Sea Bubble had shaken his faith in the Old World, and he looked in hope to the New. His Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great-Britain (1721) was soon succeeded by his prophetic verses on “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” Already by 1722 he had resolved to build a college in Bermuda for the education of young American Indians, publishing the plan in A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches… (1724). The scheme caught the public imagination; King George I granted a charter; the archbishop of Canterbury acted as trustee; subscriptions poured in; and Parliament passed a contingent grant of £20,000. But there was opposition; an alternative charity for Georgia was mooted; and the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, hesitated.

In 1728 Berkeley married Anne, daughter of Chief Justice Forster, a talented and well-educated woman, who defended her husband’s philosophy after his death. Soon after the wedding, they sailed for America, settling at Newport, R.I., where Berkeley bought land, built a house (Whitehall), and waited. Berkeley preached often in Newport and its neighbourhood, and a philosophical study group met at Whitehall. Eventually, word came that the grant would not be paid, and Berkeley returned to London in October 1731. Several American universities, Yale in particular, benefited by Berkeley’s visit; and his correspondence with Samuel Johnson, later president of King’s College (Columbia University), is of philosophical importance.

Alciphron; or, The Minute Philosopher (1732) was written at Newport, and the setting of the dialogues reflects local scenes and scenery. It is a massive defense of theism and Christianity with attacks on deists and freethinkers and discussions of visual language and analogical knowledge and of the functions of words in religious argument.

Upon his return to London in 1731, Berkeley’s pen, never idle for long, became active. A writer in the Daily Post-Boy commended Alciphron but attacked the appended Essay on vision. Berkeley replied with The Theory of Vision, or Visual Language…Vindicated and Explained (1733). This fine work brought the metaphysics of the Essay into line with the Principles and added his doctrine of cause, admitting defects in the premises of the original Essay. Alciphron provoked replies from the satirist Bernard de Mandeville; John Hervey, Baron Hervey of Ickworth; the statesman Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke; and Peter Browne, Berkeley’s former teacher and provost. A long private letter to Browne on analogy, an unsigned version of which was published in a Dublin journal in 1745, was rediscovered in 1969 and attributed to Berkeley; it was thereafter considered an important supplement to his fourth dialogue. Later scholarship, however, indicated that the letter’s real author was probably the English clergyman John Jackson (1686–1763).

In 1734 Berkeley published The Analyst; or, A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician, which Florian Cajori, a historian of mathematics, called “the most spectacular event of the century in the history of British mathematics.” Besides being a contribution to mathematics, it was an argument ad hominem for religion. “He who can digest a second or third fluxion,” wrote Berkeley, “need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in divinity.” A long and fruitful controversy followed. James Jurin, a Cambridge physician and scientist, John Walton of Dublin, and Colin Maclaurin, a Scottish mathematician, took part. Berkeley answered Jurin in his lively satire A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics (1735) and answered Walton in an appendix to that work and again in his Reasons for Not Replying (1735).

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