I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Against the Tide

Adam Coleman

George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life, by Tom Jones, Princeton University Press, ISBN: 9780691159805.

Perhaps the most famous of the many caustic fulminations directed against Bishop George Berkeley’s (1685-1753) philosophical doctrine of “immaterialism” is to be found in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), where Boswell relates the following discussion he shared with Dr Johnson in 1763:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing [sic] 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 shall never 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.’

Berkeley’s doctrine was counter-intuitive. To challenge it, to demonstrate the existence of matter, one need only reach out and touch the screen presenting this article. And yet, one cannot conclusively refute Berkeley’s argument. Regardless of how evidently untrue it may be, it rests on a sound logic. In this respect, Johnson held Berkeley’s philosophy to be the clear work of genius. But genius in service to what end?

On his first reading of Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), the two texts in which Berkeley expounded his doctrine of “immaterialism”, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791), expressed the following in a letter: “Mr Berkeley’s reasonings, on a second reading, I found to be mere fallacy, though very artfully disguised.” Was Berkeley committed to the propagation of an obscurantist sophistry or to an enlightened philosophy? Was he on the side of humanity or the side of party, in this case the Anglican Church and the Tory establishment? Convinced that his friend, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), had sold out his prodigious literary talent and personal convictions to the Whig party, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) penned the following couplet in 1774: “Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his mind, / and to party gave up, what was meant for mankind.” Such an accusation does not rest easily with Burke, who never obviously abandoned the principles he adopted in his youth. But might it be applied more readily to Berkeley?

Had Berkeley sacrificed his convictions and subordinated his talents in service to the forces of conservative reaction? Was he swimming against the modern tide of post-Newtonian science, free commercial exchange, individualism, and “free thinking” which together threatened to disrupt the static social order on which his Christian world view depended? Johnson seems to have thought so; as did many contemporaries, presenting views of Berkeley which were to enjoy long afterlives. Some called him “enthusiastic”, as having fallen into the depts of religion-fuelled acrimony and intolerance, as a fundamentally anti-Enlightenment thinker whose thought and pursuits were incompatible with that movement’s general trends. Others labelled him “mad”, providing a convenient explanation for his myriad of differing pursuits – such as his propagation of the “whimsical” doctrine of “immaterialism”, regarded by himself as constituting his most significant contribution to philosophical discourse; his unfruitful efforts in the 1720s to establish a university in the British trading colony of Bermuda, a secluded island located 1,035 km off the coast of North Carolina, for the purpose of training indigenous Americans to act as Anglican missionaries to their own people; or his famous advocacy of “tar water” towards the end of his life as a medicinal remedy for almost any ailment. “Madness” was also invoked as the root cause of Burke’s apparent eccentricity and inconsistency; as for Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), a contemporary and friend of Berkeley’s.

On a closer reading of each figure, a more complicated picture comes into view. This is the achievement of Tom Jones’s accomplished new biography of Berkeley. It is the most substantial book-length treatment of the philosopher’s life and thought since the publication of AA Luce’s The Life of George Berkeley in 1949. Luce, probably the most prolific and influential Berkeley scholar of the twentieth century, was more concerned in this work with the events of Berkeley’s life than with the intricacies of his thought. In refusing to integrate biographical and philosophical discussion into his study, he declined to recognise the reciprocal relationship between the two: how the life shapes the thought and how the thought shapes the life. This is a common issue affecting many of the philosophical biographies published around this time, reflecting how the task of the “intellectual biographer” was generally understood for much of the twentieth century. Published originally in 1954, Ernest C Mossner’s magisterial The Life of David Hume was explicitly written “for a reader less interested in the ideas than in the man”. This provided interpretative free reign insofar as the content of Hume’s philosophy was concerned, invariably leading to misinterpretation. These quickly accumulate and ossify, depositing the thinker’s actual intentions beneath a thick overgrowth. It was the task of James A Harris, with his Hume: An Intellectual Biography (2014), to cut-away at this overgrowth by resituating Hume’s thought within the intellectual context out of which it arose and by considering the totality of his literary output rather than prioritising one text or period of the author’s career. In this, Harris laid down the parameters of a more faithful rendition of Hume’s philosophy, measured sympathetically against the various political, social and religious currents that informed his views, writings and life commitments. In his Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (2015), Richard Bourke undertakes the same endeavour with his subject, although on a comparatively grander scale. It is into this lineage that Tom Jones situates his biography of Berkeley. Marshalling the totality of his extant writings, Jones presents a rich, stimulating and nuanced portrait of arguably the most profound and original philosopher Ireland has so far managed to produce; one who roved ceaselessly between seemingly antithetical realms of speculation, guided all the while by a set of moral and intellectual principles formulated in his youth to which he seems to have adhered consistently, providing one interpretative key to his thought as well as to his life.

Berkeley was born near Kilkenny on March 12th, 1685. He attended Kilkenny College before matriculating at Trinity College Dublin in 1700, where he received his BA Degree in 1704 and was elected a fellow in 1707, lecturing in Greek and Hebrew and acting as the college librarian for a time. He would remain at Trinity for the next twenty-four years, living a “monkish existence”, as he would later describe this period of fervid intellectual activity. Out of this period would arise several precocious works; among them his major contribution to the psychology of vision, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709); his “immaterialist” writings, the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713); and his collection of political sermons, Passive Obedience, Or, The Christian Doctrine of Not Resisting the Supreme Power, Proved and Vindicated upon the Principles of the Law of Nature (1713). Berkeley spent several years outside Ireland while based at Trinity. Between 1713 and 1721 he made numerous prolonged journeys to Britain and to continental Europe. In Paris in 1713, he met Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), one of the most renowned Cartesian Idealists of his day. In London, he grew close to Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope (1688-1744); and during the spring and summer of 1713 he was employed by Richard Steele (1672-1729) to compose a series of fifteen essays for Steele’s short-lived literary journal, The Guardian. For most of the subsequent decade, until his return to his post at Trinity in 1724, he lived a peripatetic life, spent between Ireland, the continent and Britain. In 1720, while completing a four-year grand tour of Europe as tutor to a young nobleman, George Ashe Jr, he composed De Motu (1721), an anti-Newtonian tract which applies to physics and mechanics the basic assumptions of Berkeley’s earlier philosophical writings: we can have ideas of what we experience only through the senses. In addition, while traversing the length of the Italian peninsula, he compiled extensive notes on a variety of themes, such as on the relationship between architecture, custom, and modes of political organisation; the aesthetic value of high art and classical antiquities; and volcanology and natural history. Berkeley was vitally interested in practical knowledge, as befitting a thinker whose philosophy was designed to be applied to the practical questions of life in a world governed by an intimate and benevolent deity.

Berkeley had been ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1710 and made a Doctor of Divinity in 1721. On returning to Dublin in 1724, he was appointed Dean of Derry. Berkeley only visited the city once and seems to have been interested in the deanery only insofar as it stood to contribute towards his campaign of raising interest and funding for his scheme to establish a college in Bermuda, “by its prestige if not financially”. Having secured a charter and promises of funding from the British parliament, Berkeley set sail for the American Colonies in 1728, in the company of his new wife, Anne Forster, and a small group of missionaries. The quixotic scheme quickly disintegrated. Berkeley spent three years in Newport, Rhode Island, awaiting the promised money. As he wrote to a friend in March 1730: ‘I wait here with all the anxiety that attends suspense till I know what I can depend upon or what course I am to take. On the one hand, I have no notions that the Court would put what men call a bite upon poor clergymen, who depended upon charters, grants, votes, and the like encouragements. On the other hand, I see nothing done towards payment of the money.” A year later, with his support in parliament having collapsed, the project was finished before it had properly started. As he wrote, in dejection: “I have received such accounts on all hands both from England and Ireland that I now give up all hopes of executing the design which brought me into these parts. I am fairly given to understand that the money will never be paid.”

Berkeley returned to London in 1731, bringing with him the completed Alciphron (1732), a work of Christian apologetics directed against the “free thinkers” which also contains his influential treatment of language – now recognised by many as having prefigured  the theories of language developed in the twentieth century by analytic philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and JL Austin (1911-1960). From there, he proceeded to compose The Theory of Vision, Vindicated and Explained (1733), a defence of his earlier work on the psychological basis of vision, and the Analyst; Or, A Discourse Addressed an Infidel Mathematician (1734), a critique of Newtonian calculus and argument against the possibility of mathematical abstraction. Berkeley returned to Ireland in 1734, on his election to the bishopric of Cloyne, Co Cork, where he would spend the next nineteen years endeavouring to convert the district’s Catholic population to the Church of Ireland, promoting local industry through agricultural improvement and the establishment of a linen manufacture, and writing his most popular (in his lifetime) philosophical work, Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of TarWater and Diverse Other Subjects Connected Together and Arising One from Another (1744). The aims of this work were threefold: to establish the virtues of tar-water (a liquid created by letting pine tar stand in water) as a medicinal panacea; to provide a scientific account of tar-water, proving its efficacy; and to heal the mind of the reader by encouraging reflection on the ordering of causes and the subordination of the phenomenal world to the will of the creator: Berkeley regards himself as providing a medium by which to interpret the mysterious language of a benevolent God. The Querist (1736-7) was also written at this time. The culmination of Berkeley’s economic thinking, The Querist also signified a major contribution to the developing discourse on Irish economic patriotism. He condemned English exploitation of the Irish economy, arguing for the full integration of the Catholic population into the economy so that Ireland could achieve self-sufficiency. On this basis, he also advocated for the establishment of an Irish national bank and currency. He died in 1753, shortly after moving to Oxford to oversee the education of his eldest son, George Jr, one of three of his seven children to survive to adulthood.

In university studies, Berkeley is usually relegated to an obscure corner of the philosophical curriculum, such as in specialised courses on “British Empiricism”, placing him in the company of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), David Hume (1711-1776) and John Locke (1632-1704). There is no debate as to whether he warrants inclusion in this company. He does, but at the same his life and philosophy should neither be reduced or restricted to this narrow and presumptuous category that eschews individuality for similitude. It was only in the nineteenth century that the term “empiricist” was coined in order to group together a disparate set of thinkers spread across a broad historical timeframe, all supposedly united in their adherence to a basic philosophical principle (empiricism: the belief that all human knowledge arises out of experience) and opposition to another retrospectively designated group of thinkers, the “rationalists” – thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and René Descartes (1596-1650), who were anti-empiricist insofar as they believed in the possibility of innate knowledge and proceeded to build their philosophical systems around this premise. Taken in themselves, the five canonical empiricist philosophers – Bacon, Berkeley, Hobbes, Hume, Locke – share little in the way of intellectual affinity: empiricists were associated retrospectively; they would not have regarded themselves as constituting a homogenous group, or of formulating their philosophy within an empiricist tradition.

This applies especially to Berkeley, who for several reasons stands apart from this tradition. Indeed, for the most part, his philosophical contemporaries in Britain did not regard him as presenting a doctrine comparable to theirs; not least because he was explicit in taking the material dualism espoused by Locke and the absolute materialism advanced by Hobbes as his two main philosophical targets. Had he lived long enough to witness Hume’s obliteration of the foundations of metaphysics – a feat achieved by, ironically, pushing Berkeley’s “immaterialist” arguments to their logical conclusions, beyond anything he himself was willing to countenance –he would have set himself against Hume as another “godless” proponent of atheism and scepticism. Isolated remarks in one of his early notebooks refer to “all the sciences” as “false for the most part” and made up of “useless labour”. Within this category, Berkeley would have situated most if not all of the British “empiricist” thinkers with whom we have come to associate his own philosophy. Hence the danger of reading interpretations into his writings which might be more appropriately applied to a philosopher such as Hume.

Berkeley’s speculations were “directed to practice and morality, as appears first from making manifest the nearness and omnipresence of God”, as he stated in an early notebook. In challenging what was a foundational principle of the “new science”, Berkeley imagined that “a mighty sect of men will oppose me”. He was confident in the support of “moralists, divines, politicians, in a word all but [Newtonian] mathematicians & natural philosophers”, who advanced a materialistic or “atomistic” account of reality that relegated God to an exterior position, as Berkeley saw it. His stated objective in the Principles of Human Knowledge was to “inspire my readers with a pious sense of the presence of God”, as “the consideration of God and our duty”, he claims, “deserves the first place in our studies”. The purpose of the work was to demonstrate to the reader that God is the unifying force standing behind reality, causing every particular phenomenon found in the universe, bestowing a celestial harmony on what first appears little more than chaos: when the reader discovers “the general laws of nature”, Berkeley wrote, they are not uncovering “immutable habitudes, or relations between things themselves, but only […] God’s goodness and kindness to men, in the administration of the world”. Twenty-four years later, with his The Theory of Vision, Vindicated and Explained, Berkeley was writing with the same objective in mind; namely, that in the age of enlightened “freethinking”, “the notion of a watchful, active, intelligent, free spirit, with whom we have to do, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being, is not the most prevailing in the books and conversations ever of those who are called deists”. Therefore, he concluded, “I cannot employ myself more usefully than in contributing to awaken and possess men with a thorough sense of the deity inspecting, concurring, and interesting itself in human actions and affairs.”

Unlike most of his philosophical contemporaries in Britain, Berkeley was first and foremost a religious thinker. He was driven by his dual commitments to the propagation of God’s word and to the preservation of the Anglican Church of Ireland. A sympathetic appreciation of Berkeley’s religiosity is vital if we are to render a faithful portrait of his life and thought. Hence the importance of placing him within his proper intellectual context, and the danger of examining his philosophy through a retrospective “empiricist” lens. As Jones rightfully notes:

The personal, present, active discoursing God of Berkeley’s philosophical world, early and late, is not a concept or belief that many of his recent students have shared […] and yet the presence of this God is so essential to Berkeley’s philosophical, and indeed, personal, enterprise that it must be admitted if we are accurately to infer anything about the person or spirit ‘Berkeley’ behind the various concomitant signs which the documents associated with his life provide us.

Good human life requires full participation in the divine, according to Berkeley. It is not only in consideration of his metaphysical and theological writings that his religious commitment should be invoked, as has commonly been the case in Berkeley scholarship, but in relation to all dimensions of his life and thought, as the basic principle guiding his interests, opinions and pursuits. One cannot properly understand Berkeley’s doctrine of “immaterialism”, and how it coheres with his broader philosophical enterprise, without acknowledging this fact. In line with the Aristotelian metaphysics then being supplanted by the steady encroachment of modern science, Berkeley saw the human as a combination of the intellectual substance of the divine and the corporeal substance of the animal. It was the task of philosophy, therefore, to act as a handmaiden to theology, providing the individual with the means of becoming more consubstantial with the divine; of learning to decode the mysterious language of God so as to reveal the intricacies of his creation. In this sense, Berkeley was more of a scholastic philosopher than he was an “empiricist” and owed more to continental thinkers and traditions than to his philosophical contemporaries in Britain. This was first emphasised by Luce in his Berkeley and Malebranche: A study of The Origins of Berkeley’s Thought (1934), in which Luce reveals Malebranche and his brand of Cartesian idealism as providing the intellectual framework around which Berkeley constructed his own philosophical architecture. It was later pursed by Harry Bracken, who argued that “[o]ne stands a better chance of understanding Berkeley if one reads him as an Irish Cartesian than as a ‘British Empiricist’.” Jones’s biography provides the definitive statement, while also emphasising the Irishness of his thought.

Through his doctrine of “immaterialism”, Berkeley was endeavouring to re-conceptualise the relationship between man and God in reaction to the advent of modern science. As Jones expresses it succinctly: “Without reference to mystery or faith or the authority of scripture, Berkeley had undertaken, in a way unlike anyone before him or any of his contemporaries, and according to the standards of advanced philosophical science and philosophy of the time, to demonstrate that we live and move and have our being in God.” Berkeley was, in effect, deploying the language and methods of modern philosophy to challenge the pretensions of modern empirical science and to firmly re-establish what post-Newtonian natural philosophers generally sought to refute as outmoded: that an immanent God is the single immutable source of harmony in world of disparate phenomena. Berkeley’s agenda was conservative; he understood the doctrine of materialism as constituting a radical affront to established society, morality and revealed religion. Materialism provided incentive to “free thinking”, encouraging some to propound critiques of established religion and temporal authority quickly characterised by contemporaries as “deistic”. “Free thinkers” advocated the use of independent reason in religious matters, opposed the predetermination of religious disputes by established authorities and imagined a social order that was not threatened by diversity of belief or opinion. The most notorious exponent of this line of thinking in Ireland was John Toland (1670-1722), who in his Christianity not Mysterious (1696) provided a rationalistic treatment of faith, arguing that the individual should not be under compulsion to believe something that was not understood. They should be able to think freely on the question of faith, rather than depending on the pretentions of clerics to a “higher knowledge”. In reality, for Toland, this knowledge amounted to little more than pretentious artifice, as the priest used his authority to throw a veil of sublime mystery over a tradition that was essentially intelligible. Deism was repugnant to Berkeley for several reasons: as a clarion-call to anti-clericalism and profound challenge to the Irish confessional state system, he saw it leading directly to atheism and the dissolution of established authority and social order. In opposing the “free thinkers”, “Berkeley was opposing the radical or modernising tendency of the Enlightenment”, as noted by Jones. If so, he was hardly the only Irish thinker from the “great flowering” of Irish thought between the years 1692 and 1757 to do so.

“George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness,” Terry Eagleton wrote, adding that “Berkeley’s sense of the world as essentially spiritual has a venerable Irish pedigree”. When he is removed from his context and held aloft as a “British empiricist” by modern philosophers, the fact of his Irishness is usually discounted or ignored completely. One of his most famous assertions is likewise one of his most equivocal. In an early notebook, when considering the idea of mathematical extension, he wrote that: “We Irish men cannot attest to these truths.” What he meant by this has consistently vexed commentators. Some see it as a snide rhetorical gesture – the vulgar Irishman of the mob is more in tune with common sense than the educated Englishman, making him more capable of appreciating the common-sense philosophy Berkeley is expounding. This seems unlikely, partly because he acknowledged himself as Irish throughout his life; and then because he consistently referred to members of the Irish Catholic community as the “native”, “poor”, or “lower” Irish. As in the following: “Indolence in dirt is a terrible symptom, which shews itself in our lower Irish more, perhaps, than in any people on this side of the Cape of Good Hope. … I do verily believe, that the familiarity with dirt, contracted and nourished from their infancy, is one great cause of that sloth which attends them in every stage of life.” Whether Berkeley evinces a colonial state of mind in this passage, or one reflecting the mentalité of the ruling elite of an ancien régime confessional state, is debatable. The separation between the “upper” and “lower” parts of the Irish population is nevertheless evident. Berkeley undoubtedly aligned himself with the former, as a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish ruling elite.

When he wrote that “[w]e Irish men cannot attest to these truths”, Berkeley might have been referring to the Anglo-Irish propertied class, as the only legitimate “Irish nation”, in a way comparable to that of William Molyneux (1656-1698) in his influential pamphlet from 1698, The Case of Ireland being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated. Towards the end of his life, as he began to revitalise the idea of a “Protestant Ascendancy” as a potential counter or antidote to the upsurgence of a Catholic moral ethos and the concomitant decline of the Protestant community in the Irish Free State, WB Yeats hailed Berkeley’s statement as signifying the “birth of the national intellect”. On this reading, Berkeley inaugurated a tradition that would stretch through Swift, Burke, Goldsmith and the Young Irelanders and culminate in Yeats himself. The product of Yeats’s retrospective invocation of an Irish Protestant intellectual tradition to satisfy his own “Ascendancy conservatism”, this bestows upon Berkeley the status of an “Anglo-Irish nationalist”. But it is doubtful if in calling himself Irish Berkeley would have been thinking in this fashion. He may have been an economic “patriot”, in so far as he was committed to advancing the economic interests of Ireland within a developing imperial system: while at Cloyne he is said to have contributed to the “buy Irish” movement of the 1720s by “promoting [local] industry by purchasing nothing for himself or family from any remoter place, which was manufactured however imperfectly in his own little town” – but Berkeley was not a nationalist. It is more plausible to suggest that he was referring to the cluster of Irish clerics who, like himself, endeavoured to apply Enlightenment methodologies of empirical analysis and rational deduction to counter the influence of “free thinkers” and “godless” materialists on the one hand, and on the other to justify and legitimise the outcome of the Williamite wars in Ireland (1688-91), which left an Anglican church establishment to rule with tenuous authority over a population which was predominantly Catholic in affiliation. Including such thinkers as Peter Browne (1665-1735), Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), William King (1650-1729) and Berkeley, David Berman has described this group as representing the “Irish Counter-Enlightenment”. They all sought, in John Milton’s phrase, “to justify the ways of God to men” through offering an analysis of the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the earthly and the supernatural, that was predicated on an analogy between the human and the divine. Berkeley’s philosophy might be seen as the culminating expression of this line of counter-Enlightenment critique.

Berkeley’s attack on materialism was radical, and arises out of the following argument presented in the fourth section of his Principles of Human Knowledge:

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?
If a tree were to fall in a forest, and if no one was in the vicinity to hear it fall, would it still make a sound? One might suppose that it ought to make a sound, based on prior experience: how in every case of a glass falling somewhere near you, you register the sound of it smashing as it touches the hardwood floor. But does each sound not require the presence of an audial faculty to hear it and then a mind to register it? A sound cannot be said to occur when there is no ‘understanding’ in the vicinity to perceive it.

This is precisely Berkeley’s logic. He held that ideas cannot exist independently without a mind to perceive them. John Locke identified two kinds of substances which cohere together to form the universe: cognitive (“spirits”; minds) and incognitive beings (matter). It is the task of philosophy, in the face of this dualist world, to demonstrate how cognitive beings (principally God; but also “lower spirits”, or conscious minds) affect incognitive matter to produce the regular phenomena we perceive via our senses – from the bursting of a chrysalis to the movement of the planets. Berkeley opposes this view of the world, saying that “[w]e have been led into very dangerous errors, by supposing a two-fold existence of the objects of sense, the one intelligible, or in the mind, the other real and without the mind: whereby unthinking things are thought to have a natural subsistence of their own, distinct from being perceived by spirits.” We can never know material objects in-themselves, distinguished from how they are mediated to us via our senses: I will never know the table in-itself, only the “idea” of the table that I derive from looking at the twirling knots on its wooden surface, knocking it with my hand, and shaking it to test its stability. We can only know an object insofar as our senses permit us to know the object. This raises an obvious question. Berkeley takes the example of a cherry:

I see this cherry, I feel it, I taste it: and I am sure nothing cannot be seen, or felt, or tasted: it is therefore real. Take away the sensation of softness, moisture, redness, tartness, and you take away the cherry. Since it is not a being distinct from sensations; a cherry, I say, is nothing but a congeries of sensible impressions or ideas perceived by various senses: which ideas are united into one thing (or have one name given only) by the mind. [the emphases are Berkeley’s own]

When we inquire into the essence of an external object – such as a table or cherry – we may only become acquainted with our own idea of it, rather than with the abstract essence of the object itself. Furthermore, when we perceive law-like regularity in nature, we are perceiving the “ideas imprinted on the sense by the author of nature […] called real things”. In Berkeley’s “immaterialism”, ideas are granted the status of real things. Rather than being provoked by a material substratum, these ideas are imprinted on the senses by God. Hence, Berkeley’s belief that “there is not any other substance than spirit or that which perceives”, expressed in his famous dictum: esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived. God was the all-powerful perceiver in Berkeley’s philosophy, the guarantor of the continued and persistent existence of the external world. The universe was essential spiritual; God was its single substance and causal power: all of the disparate phenomena we encounter in nature are in fact held together and mediated to us though the divine “language” of the creator, as Berkeley put it. The phenomenal world was a language, a set of “signs” infinitely combined, varied and articulated by God. In the dialogue Alciphron, Berkeley has Euphranor speak of the possibility of the human mind “being united in the Divine, in a manner incomprehensible by Reason”. Prefiguring an argument later deployed by Burke to differing ends in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Berkeley is suggesting that we grow closer to God through the contemplation of his sublime power, in awe of his creation. In Alciphron, he presents several demonstrable ways in which God encourages “lesser spirits” (human minds) to unite themselves with the divine nature, such as through the communication of “signs”. “The real presence of another, more perfect spirit, communicating to us through copious signs expressing a conceived good, intending the reform of our conduct: that is the God known to the ‘right-thinkers’ of Alciphron,” as Jones puts it. Berkeley saw himself as dissolving the separation between God and man engendered by modern science, restoring the foundations of a truly Christian morality. He was attempting in his metaphysical and theological writings to reveal the true path to reconciliation with God, confounding the pretensions of “free thinkers” and materialists, and showing how the “good life” might be realised. It is in this light that his subsequent writings should be read, as elaborations on this conclusion.

Berkeley seems never to have altered the immaterialist doctrine he formulated in his youth; nor did he abandon it when it failed to garner the acceptance and popularity he expected it to. It was simply too important to abandon, as a defence of Christianity in the face of those who would defile it; and a vindication of established social order against the threat posed by “free thinkers”. Too much hung in the balance; Berkeley’s philosophy (at least in his own view) provided the solution. Much like David Hume, whose revolutionary A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) famously fell “dead-born from the press”, Berkeley set about disseminating his doctrine through a variety of different literary forms, methods and pursuits. Whereas Hume embraced the essay to infiltrate the world of polite literature, Berkeley turned, in the words of Jones, “to alternative means of pursuing his chief aim of inspiring a pious sense of the presence of God: political discourse and practice, journalism, anthology-making, and preaching”. It also led him to engage in missionary activity in the New World. What might initially seem as though a radical, if not senseless, change of direction for Berkeley, his decision to move to Bermuda to establish an Anglican college. may be reconciled with his motivating principles.

In Ireland today, Berkeley’s name is most commonly evoked in reference to the seething controversy surrounding the Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin, named for Berkeley in 1967. There is an ongoing campaign led by Trinity students to have the library renamed on account of Berkeley’s active engagement with British colonialism in the Atlantic during his ill-fated Bermuda expedition, the profits he made through exploiting the slave trade, and his written justifications of slavery. Over the course of a chapter entitled “Others”, dealing with Berkeley’s writings and engagements with external cultures and populations (“The Native Irish”; “The Italians”’; “Americans and Enslaved People”), Jones presents a damning verdict.

The purpose of establishing the college on Bermuda was to instil a zealous Christianity into a new generation of Native American missionaries, and to train them in the great historical examples of “publick spirit and virtue, to rescue their countrymen from their savage manners to a life of civility and religion”. Berkeley held the “savage American” as existing in a “purely natural” state, “unencumbered with all that superstition and prejudice of” culture and religion, making them “less conceited, and more teachable. … And not being violently attached to any false system of their own, [they] are so much the fitter to receive that which is true.” These views take no account of readily available texts that describe the life and culture of Native American people, nor of the proliferating number of travel accounts available in London at this time. There is no mention of personal contact with Native American people in Berkeley’s letters from America. Whereas some Christian thinkers at this time sought to reconcile Native American cultures, social organisations and belief systems with Christianity, Berkeley exhibited no particular sense that Native Americans “have their own religion or religions sufficient for their purposes”. “He has even less sense that enslaved black people might have their own cult or culture that predates and endures beyond their arrival in the colonies,” as Jones notes. The contempt with which Berkeley held those he had come to emancipate is evidenced in his response to the question of where the recruits to his new seminary would come from? They will “be procured, either by peaceful methods from those savage nations, which border on our colonies, and are in friendship with us, or by taking captive the children of our enemies”. The prospect of inflicting extreme violence on Native American communities did not perturb him. The end would justify the means: existing in a state of natural society, unaware of God’s benevolence and sublime majesty, they would be brought into Christian civilisation and shown the road to spiritual deliverance. Their souls would be saved in the next world, and they would enjoy the benefits of knowing “true” religion and culture in this world. We may now look upon this as colonialism in its barest, most egregious form.

Berkeley’s ostensible purpose was to save the souls of the natives by introducing them to the light of divinity. In reality, the introduction of Anglican Christianity to Britain’s North American colonies marked the establishment of a new social order that would benefit the coloniser and subordinate the colonised. On this basis, Berkeley advocated the compatibility of baptism and slavery. Whereas most slaveholders feared that a successful conversion campaign would remove an essential marker of difference between Christians and those they considered subhuman, Berkeley thought it far from a threat to the social order. To the contrary, for Christianity restrained independent thought and obliged its communicants to submission. “Gospel liberty consists with temporal servitude,” he wrote, “and slaves would only become better slaves by being Christian” – so long as slaves from one community were prevented from intermingling with those from another, lest they conspire on modes of dissent. The injunctions to love one’s neighbour as oneself and for servants to obey their masters were compatible, for Berkeley. Christian slaves would be treated more leniently, in his view, because they would not resist; the threat of eternal damnation for revolting against the masters would be too great. This, he reasoned, would allow for the flourishing of a more sustainable institution.

Berkeley praised the benefits of slavery as a social and economic institution, as clearly articulated in The Querist. He was an apologist for the institution, presenting it as penal and temporary, “the best cure for idleness and beggary” and “all those who cannot, or will not, find employment for themselves”. It was a social good, and a positive moral example to broader society. Berkeley refrained from detailing the reality of the system, a reality he knew too well. Slavery was without judicial or moral justification; it was intergenerational; and it was extremely violent. For Jones: “The incorporation of slavery into the social and moral vision of The Querist requires that its violence and injustice as an institution Berkeley knew intimately be hidden in plain sight.” As an apologist who presented slavery as a benign system that was beneficial to society, Berkeley should be held accountable for the historical crimes in which he was complicit. One response to this charge would be to say that Berkeley merely reflected the prevailing attitudes of his time and should be exonerated on this basis: he was living before a time when generational enslavement was considered wrong and morally unjustifiable. In 1733, having presented a discourse to a meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, (where Berkeley had lived between 1728 and 1731), Elihu Coleman (1699-1789), a Quaker, published a Testimony Against that Antichristian Practice of Making Slaves of Men. There was already in Britain a burgeoning discourse on the immorality of chattel slavery before Berkeley departed for the American Colonies. “These debates were ongoing in the town he inhabited, at the time he inhabited it, amongst a religious group with which he had extended and significant contact,” according to Jones. Berkeley should be held as a hostile antagonist to these arguments against slavery, not least because he was a slaveholder himself. Although Rhode Island was the most important American carrier of African slaves, there were fewer than ten slaving voyages a year during Berkeley’s residence in Newport; this had risen to fifty by the turn of the nineteenth century. Berkeley bought and baptised three slaves while living in Rhode Island. In October 1730, he bought “Edward aged twenty years or there abouts” for £86; “Philip aged fourteen years or thereabouts” for £80; and Agnes some time later. Nothing else is known of Berkeley’s slaves other than this. He might have brought them back to Ireland, as household servants, but we will never know. As with the vast majority of those bound to chattel slavery over the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their stories are lost to history.

“The writings and practices of Berkeley’s years at Cloyne,” for Jones, “can be understood as an attempt to help others bring their wills into conformity with God’s will.” As bishop, he expressed an unusual level of tolerance towards the Catholic community. His aim in this was to convert the Catholic and Christian “dissenter” populations of Cloyne (outnumbering the Anglican Protestant population by a ratio of eight to one) to the Church of Ireland, though not for their own sakes. Berkeley was not a humanitarian, and from what his writings reveal it would be difficult to see him expressing genuine sympathy with the “native” Irish. His tolerance of Catholics and “dissenters” did not extend to affording them equality of civic status; he showed no interest in accommodating the remnants of the vanquished Gaelic order. He sought to expand and strengthen the position of the Anglican Church of Ireland, as the one true church, to buttress it against two besieging forces: revanchist Catholicism and the “free thinkers”. This can be seen as cohering with the broader enterprise he pursued. Berkeley consistently articulated the view that the authority and privilege of the established church must be maintained in order to preserve morality and public order. All while attempting to convert the Irish Catholics and Native Americans, baptise the enslaved and disseminate his immaterialist philosophy, Berkeley was working towards the same end: that of conserving a Christian world against the threatening tide of modernity. His guiding objective was to undermine the claims advanced by “free thinkers” and materialists by vindicating and firmly re-establishing the truth of Christianity beyond any empirical doubt, while at the same time aiding its dissemination in Ireland and across the Atlantic. He was simultaneously an agent of God and of British colonialism. Although seemingly antithetical, these both cohere seamlessly in Berkeley’s life and thought, as they do for many of his contemporaries.

One will not emerge from this authoritative study with a rounded picture of Berkeley the man, who is almost impossible to reconstruct owning to a paucity of documentary evidence, allowing only occasional, tantalising glimpses provided by a few surviving letters. One will, however, emerge with a coherent view of his rich and diverse contributions to philosophical discourse in the eighteenth century, allowing one to chart his subsequent influence and personal legacy; from the American university system he did much to establish to the twentieth century philosophies of language he influenced. Jones’s biography arrives amidst a proliferation of Berkeley-related publications. The Oxford Handbook of Berkeley, a substantial volume edited by Samuel C Rickless, was published in 2022, in addition to several academic monographs. Jones’s biography is, and will surely remain, the first port of call for all perspective Berkeley students and for the interested general reader. The book should resonate with an Irish readership in particular. It is only really in the past few decades that Berkeley has come to be seen as an “Irish philosopher”, though this has hardly led to him becoming a household name, like Swift. He should be, of course; though with an asterisk attached.

To the extent that interest in Berkeley can be said to have increased in Ireland since 2020, it is largely in relation to the Trinity campaign to “de-commemorate” him on account of his participation in British colonialism and the slave trade. Jones’s biography could not have arrived at a better time, just as public debates on the active participation of Irish people in empire and the slave trade proliferate and intensify. Not only does Jones’s book vindicate the demands of those orchestrating the Trinity campaign, laying bare before the reader the extent of Berkeley’s complicity in these crimes of history, it also offers the reader a chance to acquaint themselves with Berkeley’s philosophy before they render judgment on him. It is almost a stereotype of recent campaigns to “de-commemorate” major Enlightenment figures that advocates fasten upon one particularly egregious charge and proceed to read the thinker’s philosophy through this distorting lens, assuming they engage with the thinker’s oeuvre at all. Berkeley’s writings still warrant our attention, for there is much to be learned from them, despite them being morally compromised in several respects. He should neither be dismissed nor effaced but appreciated critically and conscientiously. It is easy to “de-commemorate” a thinker, to dismiss them as nothing more than an archaic representative of their times; it is much more difficult to critically engage with their thought and to gauge their influence, all while remaining conscious of their shortcomings. In this, as in much else, Jones provides a model.


Adam Coleman will be starting a PhD. at the University of Oxford in 2023 on the topic of “Seamus Deane as Public Intellectual”.



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