George Berkeley (1685-1753)

George Berkeley was born in 1685 near Kilkenny, Ireland, to a family of English descent. In 1700 he entered Trinity College in Dublin where he studied languages, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1707 he became a fellow of the college, and in 1710 he was ordained into the Anglican Church. During the time of his studies Berkeley also traveled a great deal, and became acquainted with the work of René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, and John Locke. He was immediately impressed with these philosophers, but also deeply disturbed by their ideas. He found in the scientific views they put forth a lurking threat of skepticism and atheism, two forces that his life's work combated.

Berkeley published his first important philosophical work at the age of twenty-four, in 1709. This was his Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision. The book was well-received and a second edition came out later that same year. Encouraged by the success, Berkeley published A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge the following year, though to much less critical acclaim. The work was an attempt to lay out a complete philosophical system, on which the only existing entities in the world are ideas and the minds that conceive them. (He called his view "immaterialism," but it was later termed "idealism.") He considered this view to be the perfect antidote to skepticism and atheism. Very few people took these ideas seriously.

Despite the mockery he endured, Berkeley did not scrap his radical ideas. In 1713 he made another attempt to convince the world of the truth of his philosophical system, by putting his ideas into a more popularized form. The result of this effort, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, was published in 1713 while Berkeley was living in London. Also while in London, Berkeley became acquainted with leading intellectual figures such as Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. Ever-vigilant against the forces of skepticism and atheism he wrote several scathing articles attacking the theories of "freethinkers."

From 1713 to 1714 Berkeley traveled the continent, and probably met and spoke with Nicolas Malebranche. He took another traveling tour from 1716 to 1720. It was during this trip that he lost the manuscript for his second volume of the Principles of Human Knowledge. Unfortunately, he never rewrote it. He did, however, find the time to write a short Latin Essay entitled De Motu during this journey. In it, he criticizes Newton's philosophy of nature and Locke's theory of force, and he presents his own account of motion to supplant these.

In 1724 Berkeley was made dean of Derry, but he was already becoming disillusioned with the moral and spiritual decline he perceived in European culture, and had begun plans to found a new college in Bermuda. His intent was to establish an institution that would provide a solid education for the sons of American colonists, indigenous people, and Negroes (both from Bermuda and the mainland) in order to train these young men for the Christian ministry. In 1728 he departed for Rhode Island, with his new wife, in order to establish farms that would supply food to the college. He settled in Newport while awaiting the grant that he had secured from Parliament, but the grant never arrived. By 1731 it was clear that the money had been diverted to other purposes and Berkeley returned home. While in Newport, though, Berkeley carried on an interesting correspondence with the American clergyman Samuel Johnson, who was one of Berkeley's first defenders, as well as the future first president of King's College (later renamed Columbia University). Berkeley also wrote the Alciphron during this period, his meditation on religious conviction and attack on freethinkers.

Berkeley spent the years between 1732 and 1734 in London, primarily criticizing Newton, whom he called "an infidel mathematician" (though Newton himself was highly religious). In The Analyst and A Defense of Free-thinking in Mathematics Berkeley tried to undermine the authority of the mathematicians so admired by freethinkers, by revealing that the concepts they used were basically incoherent. In 1734 he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, in Ireland. In this role he turned his attention to the health and wellbeing of his parishioners, mostly struggling country folk. He began to reflect on economic issues (giving rise to The Querist published in 1735) and, in the field of medicine, became convinced of the healing properties of tar water, to which he devoted his last philosophical work (entitled A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water, and published in 1744). He died in 1753 in Oxford.

Popular pages: Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous