George Berkeley: Subjective Idealism

The Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley once said “Esse est percipi,” which means “to be is to be perceived.” According to Berkeley, only minds and ideas exist; matter does not exist. He discusses this theory, which will later be referred to as subjective idealism, in his treatise titled, The Principles of Human Knowledge. In this video, we will explore Berkeley’s radical ontology, which, if accepted, resolves many philosophical paradoxes that have haunted mankind from time immemorial.

Berkeley begins the first part of his Treatise by attacking the notion of material substances. He asserts that all bodies are merely ideas. For example, we perceive a brown, four-legged table in the middle of a dining room. The qualities of the table – such as its brownness, its size, its shape, its number of legs, etc. – are ideas that only exist within the mind. The character Morpheus, in the 1999 film The Matrix, explains Berkeley’s argument very well in the following quote: “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Even if we grant that physical bodies exist outside of our minds, Berkeley concludes that we are incapable of knowing that such bodies exist. To illustrate this, let’s consider dreams. While dreaming, we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel external objects that are not actually there. If we perceive objects that are not actually there while we dream, then it follows that our sensations while awake are not necessarily produced by external physical objects. In that case, what produces the sensations we have of mountains, rivers, trees, etc., if there are no external bodies?

Berkeley answers this question by investigating the nature of the mind. He asserts that the mind can either actively create ideas, or passively perceive ideas. Thus, we can choose to recall past memories to our mind, dismiss them, and recall others. But when we open our eyes and view the world, we cannot choose to see or not see the brown, four-legged table in our dining room. At that moment, our mind passively perceives ideas. Because Berkeley claims that there are no physical bodies, he concludes that there must be another Spirit or Mind that produces the idea of the table that we perceive.

Being the Bishop of the Church of Ireland, Berkeley naturally identifies this supreme Spirit as the Christian God. Because God is infinitely wise, good, and powerful, He is able to produce Ideas that are more real than those that we are able to call forth in our own minds. Thus, Berkeley accounts for the difference between reality and our dreams, hallucinations, and thoughts. Reality, which is produced by God, is more regular, consistent, and vivid than the Ideas produced by us while dreaming, hallucinating, or reminiscing.

Berkeley believed that his theory had several beneficial consequences. It resolved many philosophical paradoxes. For example, if Berkeley is correct that only minds and ideas exist, then the questions of whether material bodies can think, whether matter is infinitely divisible, and whether material bodies and immaterial souls can interact are questions that must be dismissed as nonsense because matter does not exist.

Although Berkeley’s immaterialism is initially repugnant to common sense, after some reflection, one finds that his argument is more resilient than first anticipated. At the very least, Berkeley’s treatise deserves serious consideration rather than rash disregard. And I highly recommend this treatise to both believers and non-believers. One party will discover a strong ally, and the other party will discover a worthy opponent.

9 thoughts on “George Berkeley: Subjective Idealism

  1. I find Berkeley irrefutable. Too few understand the implications of what he said. His primary earth-shattering point is this: it is literally self-contradictory to posit the existence of an unobserved universe. A universe observed by no mind at all is a self-contradiction, for all the concepts we have necessarily have behind them a perceiving mind. There is no thought, no concept, not even a word (like ‘universe’) that can be stripped from its dependence on our mind (which is very different from ‘brain’). We simply have no notion of and could never possibly claim to have any notion of an ‘unobserved something’. To say that matter as we perceive it exists ‘in itself’ somehow removed from our perception is self-refuting, like saying something is a ‘unperceived perception’ or an ‘uncognized concept’. Whenever we use the word ‘universe’ we are talking about something we sense: therefore to say that same ‘universe’ exists somehow unsensed is contradictory, for the concept we’re speaking of exists only by being sensed itself.

    • I like to say, though no one will listen, that thought is not in the neurons, but the neurons are in thought. And the post about “real” being simply electrical impulses interpreted by one’s brain suggests that the poster should first read Berkeley, then comment. As you say, I have yet to have read a logical refutation from someone who understood his arguments.

  2. There are actually a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That could be a nice point to bring up. I provide the ideas above as normal inspiration but clearly there are questions just like the one you bring up where the most important factor might be working in sincere good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged round issues like that, however I am positive that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both girls and boys really feel the impression of just a second’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

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