“A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” by George Berkeley

The Meaning of Reality

I was taught from a very young age that reality is what exists independently of human perception and knowledge, and we gain knowledge of reality if and only if our ideas correspond to it. Fantasy is that which has no correspondence in reality, and exists only in the mind of an individual — unless he communicates his fantasy, others have no way of knowing it.

George Berkeley, after whom University of California at Berkeley was named, shows a different way of interpreting reality. He reasons that ideas in the mind can only be derived from ideas in the mind, and not what exists independently of the mind. Therefore, our sense perceptions are signs, not of material substances existing outside the mind, instead, they are signs of ideas which subsist in the mind of God and are communicated to us directly and individually, without “nature” as an intermediary. The “laws of nature” are not attributes of material substances, but attributes of the inter-relations of the divine ideas communicated to us, like the rules of syntax and semantics in the study of language.

Descartes and Berkeley

Descartes is known for the dictum, “I think therefore I am”. Berkeley’s philosophy can be simplified as, “I think thereby the world exists”. Both philosophers converge on one point: “I think therefore God is”.

Like Descartes, Berkeley started from meditating within his own mind, and saw that the mind is different in nature from the object it perceives — the former is active and immortal whereas the latter is not. They both inferred the existence of God, by acknowledging the limitation of their mind — they can only effect and perceive a very small portion of reality, of which a far superior Mind must be the Author.

Unlike Descartes, Berkeley denies the reality of matter as an inert substrate with the potential to come into existence by participating in forms. To his mind, matter is inconceivable, and what is inconceivable is non-existent by definition. However, he can’t explain the fact that others can conceive it. In addition, he admits that he doesn’t perceive other minds from the senses, and must infer their existence indirectly by logic. An argument can be made that the existence of matter is inferred indirectly by logic apart from the senses. Personally I think Descartes is the more logically consistent of the two.

Denying Abstract Matter and Abstract Universal

An idea which, considered in itself, is particular, becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort. Universality does not consist in the absolute, positive nature or conception of anything, but in the relation it bears to the particulars signified or represented by it.

Besides ideas or objects of knowledge, there is something which knows or perceives them, and exercises divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering. This perceiving, active being is mind, spirit, soul, or myself, which is entirely distinct from my ideas, wherein they exist, or, whereby they are perceived–for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

There are only ideas existing in the mind, and an idea can be like nothing but another idea. Consequently neither ideas nor their archetypes (which supposedly exist outside myself) can exist in an unperceiving substance.

Laws of Nature

Ideas of sensation differ from those of reflection or memory. Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. The ideas of Sense are more strong, lively, and distinct than those of the imagination; they have likewise a steadiness, order, and coherence, and are not excited at random, as those which are the effects of human wills often are, but in a regular train or series, the admirable connexion whereof sufficiently testifies the wisdom and benevolence of its Author. Now the set rules or established methods wherein the mind we depend on excites in us the ideas of sense, are called the laws of nature, and these we learn by experience.

Ideas of Time and Space

The ideas of sight, when we apprehend by them distance and things placed at a distance, do not suggest or mark out to us things actually existing at a distance, but only admonish us what ideas of touch will be imprinted in our minds at such and such distances of time, and in consequence of such or such actions. Visible ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit on whom we depend informs us what tangible ideas he is about to imprint upon us.


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