George Berkeley

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Truth is the cry of all, but the game of the few.

George Berkeley (12 March 168514 January 1753), also known as Bishop Berkeley, was an influential Irish philosopher whose primary philosophical achievement is the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others).


  • Westward the course of empire takes its way;
    The four first acts already past,
    A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
    Time's noblest offspring is the last.
    • On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America (written in 1726), reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919); comparable to: "Westward the star of empire takes its way", Epigraph to Bancroft's History of the United States; "What worlds in the yet unformed Occident / May come refin'd with th' accents that are ours?", Samuel Daniel, Musophilus (1599), Stanza 163
    • According to W. Cleon Skousen, the first four empires are the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Macedonian Empire, and the (Western, Eastern, and Holy) Roman Empire (Gospel Diamond Dust, Volume Two, Verity Publishing, 1998)
  • Our youth we can have but to-day,
    We may always find time to grow old.
    • Can Love be controlled by Advice?, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).

De Motu (1721)

As translated by A. A. Luce
  • In the pursuit of truth we must beware of being misled by terms which we do not rightly understand. That is the chief point. Almost all philosophers utter the caution; few observe it.
    • Paragraph 1
  • For no one's authority ought to rank so high as to set a value on his words and terms even though nothing clear and determinate lies behind them.
    • Paragraph 1
  • Solicitation and effort or conation belong properly to animate beings alone. When they are attributed to other things, they must be taken in a metaphorical sense; but a philosopher should abstain from metaphor.
    • Paragraph 3
  • Abstract terms (however useful they may be in argument) should be discarded in meditation, and the mind should be fixed on the particular and the concrete, that is, on the things themselves.
    • Paragraph 4

Siris (1744)

Siris, a chain of philosophical reflections and inquiries, concerning the virtues of tar-water (1744)
  • [Tar water] is of a nature so mild and benign and proportioned to the human constitution, as to warm without heating, to cheer but not inebriate.
    • Paragraph 217; comparable to: "Cups / That cheer but not inebriate", William Cowper, The Task, book iv, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Truth is the cry of all, but the game of the few.
    • Paragraph 368
A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) at Wikisource
  • That we have first rais'd a Dust, and then complain, we cannot see.
Doth the reality of sensible things consist in being perceived? or, is it something distinct from their being perceived, and that bears no relation to the mind?
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) at Wikisource
  • I entirely agree with you, as to the ill tendency of the affected doubts of some philosophers, and fantastical conceit of others. I am even so far gone of late in this way of think, that I have quitted several of the sublime notions I had got in their schools for vulgar opinions. And I give it you on my word, since this revolt from metaphysical notions to the plain dictates of nature and common sense, I find my understanding strangely enlightened, so that I can now easily comprehend a great many thing which before were all mystery and riddle.
    • Said by Philonous (Berkeley) to Hylas in the opening of dialog 1 with reference to the recent surge philosophic endeavors (Locke, Newton, et al) that seemed to lead to skepticism about the existence of the world.
  • That there is no such thing as what philosophers call material substance, I am seriously persuaded: but if I were made to see any thing absurd or skeptical in this, I should then have the same reason to renounce this, that I imagine I have now to reject the contrary opinion.
    • Philonous to Hylas
  • Doth the reality of sensible things consist in being perceived? or, is it something distinct from their being perceived, and that bears no relation to the mind?
    • Philonous to Hylas
  • Seeing therefore they are both [heat and pain] immediately perceived at the same time, and the fire affects you only with one simple, or uncompounded idea, it follows that this same simple idea is both the intense heat immediately perceived, and the pain;and consequently, that the intense heat immediately perceived, is nothing distinct from a particular sort of pain.
    • Philonous to Hylas
  • Since therefore, as well those degrees of heat that are not painful, as those that are, can exist in a thinking substance; may we not conclude that external bodies are absolutely incapable of any degree of heat whatsoever?
    • Philonous to Hylas. Hylas replies with, "So it seems".
  • Few men think; yet all have opinions.
    • Philonous to Hylas. The Second Dialogue. This appears in a passage first added in the third edition, (1734)
  • We indeed, who are beings of finite powers, are forced to make use of instruments. And the use of an instrument sheweth the agent to be limited by rules of another’s prescription, and that he cannot obtain his end but in such a way, and by such conditions. Whence it seems a clear consequence, that the supreme unlimited agent useth no tool or instrument at all. The will of an Omnipotent Spirit is no sooner exerted than executed, without the application of means; which, if they are employed by inferior agents, it is not upon account of any real efficacy that is in them, or necessary aptitude to produce any effect, but merely in compliance with the laws of nature, or those conditions prescribed to them by the First Cause, who is Himself above all limitation or prescription whatsoever.
    • Philonous to Hylas. The Second Dialogue

Quotes about Berkeley

  • We stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus!"
    • James Boswell, anecdote of an event of 6 August 1763, in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Vol. I
  • When Bishop Berkeley said 'there was no matter,'
    And proved it—'twas no matter what he said.
  • When men follow this blind and powerful instinct of nature, they always suppose the very images, presented by the senses, to be the external objects, and never entertain any suspicion, that the one are nothing but representations of the other. ...This argument is drawn from Dr. Berkeley; and indeed most of the writings of that very ingenious author form the best lessons of scepticism which are to be found either among the ancient or modern philosophers, Bayle not excepted. He professes, however, in his title page (and undoubtedly with great truth) to have composed his book against the sceptics as well as against the atheists and free-thinkers. But that all his arguments, though otherwise intended, are, in reality, merely sceptical, appears from this, that they admit of no answer and produce no conviction. Their only effect is to cause that momentary amazement and irresolution and confusion, which is the result of scepticism.
  • There once was a man who said, 'God
    Must think it exceedingly odd
    If he finds that this tree
    Continues to be
    When there's no one about in the Quad.'
    • Ronald Knox, quoted in The Complete Limerick Book (1924)
  • Berkeley Bishop of Cloyne was a man of first-rate talents, distinguished as a metaphysician, a philosopher, and a divine. His geometrical knowledge, however, which, for an attack on the method of fluxions, was more essential than all his other accomplishments, seems to have been little more than elementary. The motive which induced him to enter on discussions so remotely connected with his usual pursuits has been variously represented; but whatever it was, it gave rise to the Analyst, in which the author professes to demonstrate, that the new analysis is inaccurate in its principles, and that, if it ever lead to true conclusions, it is from an accidental compensation of errors that cannot be supposed always to take place. The argument is ingeniously and plausibly conducted, and the author sometimes attempts ridicule with better success than could be expected from the subject; thus when he calls ultimate ratios the ghosts of departed quantities, it is not easy to conceive a witty saying more happily fastened on a mere mathematical abstraction.
    • John Playfair, The Works of John Playfair Esq. Vol. 2, Dissertation, exhibiting a general view of the progress of mathematical and physical science since the revival of letters in Europe (1822) pp. 321-322
  • Berkeley, after abolishing matter, is only saved from complete subjectivism by a use of God which most subsequent philosophers have regarded as illegitimate.
  • George Berkeley … is important in philosophy through his denial of the existence of matter—a denial which he supported by a number of ingenious arguments. He maintained that material objects only exist through being perceived. To the objection that, in that case, a tree, for instance, would cease to exist if no one was looking at it, he replied that God always perceives everything; if there were no God, what we take to be material objects would have a jerky life, suddenly leaping into being when we look at them; but as it is, owing to God’s perceptions, trees and rocks and stones have an existence as continuous as common sense supposes. This is, in his opinion, a weighty argument for the existence of God.
  • Berkeley advances valid arguments in favour of a certain important conclusion, though not quite in favour of the conclusion that he thinks he is proving. He thinks he is proving that all reality is mental; what he is proving is that we perceive qualities, not things, and that qualities are relative to the percipient.
  • Berkeley’s argument consists of two parts. On the one hand, he argues that we do not perceive material things, but only colours, sounds, etc., and that these are “mental” or “in the mind.” His reasoning is completely cogent as to the first point, but as to the second it suffers from the absence of any definition of the word “mental.” He relies, in fact, upon the received view that everything must be either material or mental, and that nothing is both.
  • Berkeley discusses the view that we must distinguish the act of perceiving from the object perceived, and that the former is mental while the latter is not. His argument against this view is obscure, and necessarily so, since, for one who believes in mental substance, as Berkeley does, there is no valid means of refuting it. He says: “That any immediate object of the senses should exist in an unthinking substance, or exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction.” There is here a fallacy, analogous to the following: “It is impossible for a nephew to exist without an uncle; now Mr. A is a nephew; therefore it is logically necessary for Mr. A to have an uncle.” It is, of course, logically necessary given that Mr. A is a nephew, but not from anything to be discovered by analysis of Mr. A. So, if something is an object of the senses, some mind is concerned with it; but it does not follow that the same thing could not have existed without being an object of the senses.
  • Schematically, the argument is as follows. Berkeley says: “Sensible objects must be sensible. A is a sensible object. Therefore A must be sensible.” But if “must” indicates logical necessity, the argument is only valid if A must be a sensible object. The argument does not prove that, from the properties of A other than its being sensible, it can be deduced that A is sensible. It does not prove, for example, that colours intrinsically indistinguishable from those that we see may not exist unseen. We may believe on physiological grounds that this does not occur, but such grounds are empirical; so far as logic is concerned, there is no reason why there should not be colours where there is no eye or brain.
  • I come now to Berkeley’s empirical arguments. To begin with, it is a sign of weakness to combine empirical and logical arguments, for the latter, if valid, make the former superfluous. [Footnote: E.g., "I was not drunk last night. I had only had two glasses; besides, it is well known that I am a teetotaller."] If I am contending that a square cannot be round, I shall not appeal to the fact that no Square in any known city is round. But as we have rejected the logical arguments, it becomes necessary to consider the empirical arguments on their merits.
  • In the second Dialogue Philonous sums up the discussion, so far as it has gone, in the words: “Besides spirits, all that we know or conceive are our own ideas.” He ought not, of course, to make an exception for spirits, since it is just as impossible to know spirit as to know matter. The arguments, in fact, are almost identical in both cases.
  • Berkeley, as we have seen, thinks that there are logical reasons proving that only minds and mental events can exist. This view, on other grounds, is also held by Hegel and his followers. I believe this to be a complete mistake. Such a statement as “there was a time before life existed on this planet,” whether true or false, cannot be condemned on grounds of logic, any more than “there are multiplication sums which no one will have ever worked out.” To be observed, or to be a percept, is merely to have effects of certain kinds, and there is no logical reason why all events should have effects of these kinds.
  • Berkeley was... the first to treat the subjective starting-point really seriously and to demonstrate irrefutably its absolute necessity. He is the father of idealism.
    • Arthur Schopenhauer, in Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy"
  • Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained after his time, but mind—which experienced a similar fate from the hand of Mr. Hume, in 1737.
    • Sydney Smith, Sketches of Moral Philosophy (1850), Introduction
  • And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
    That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
    Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme
    • W.B. Yeats, from 'Blood and the Moon' in The Winding Stair (1929)
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