I studied George Berkeley as an undergraduate, and though I absolutely loved his work and his philosophy, many of my peers, and even some of my professors, found his philosophy wholly unappealing, even worth mocking. My school offered full classes on Kant, Nietzsche, the Greeks, and even Wittgenstein. Berkeley on the other hand received some attention in a larger Metaphysics course, and a cursory mention in a course on Modern Philosophy that lead quickly into Hume, and little discussion beyond that. This despite two out of four professors calling themselves fans of Berkeley's work.

Now for some time therefore I thought he was a somewhat of a second-rate philosopher, worthy of mention but simply not as valuable or interesting a contribution to philosophy as people like Kant. I personally continued to appreciated Berkeley, and didn't concern myself too much with what other people thought of him. However while working on my senior thesis on Berkeley, I read The two-hundredth birthday of Bishop George Berkeley, a discourse given at Yale college on the 12th of March, 1885, by Noah Porter. This work, in addition to being an insight into Berkeley's life and work is a fascinating snapshot of how (one) academic thought of Berkeley 130 years ago. Most notably, Porter writes:

The effect of Berkeley's idealism was no nine days' wonder. It became the problem of the century which followed; we should rather say it has continued to be the problem nearly two centuries since. ~P17

This seems to me a drastic change from the way things are now. It is a heavy claim to say a man's work has been the problem of an entire discipline for nearly two hundred years - one would not be remiss in saying such about Einstein's work in Physics, and he is a household name, perhaps the most famous scientist today.

And so my question is, what changed? Why was Berkeley the talk of the town less than 150 years ago, yet today my peers and professors consider him worthy of mention, but not serious consideration or exploration?

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    While I'm interested in the Berkeley's case, a general answer would be as interesting: "What makes a philosopher to fall out from the favor of the academia?" Are there some similarities? – Jari Keinänen Jun 23 '11 at 10:22
  • I don't know enough about Berkeley to know for sure, but I did read a book about the way Aristotle fell out and back into favor in the West: books.google.com/books/about/… In The Philosopher's case, Platonism became fashionable and then doctrine, which left Aristotle unstudied. Aristotle came back into fashion 1000 or so years later when his books were newly translated and scattered into ready philosophical soil. Berkeley probably suffered the same fate and may enjoy a similar revival. – Jon Ericson Jun 23 '11 at 17:54
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    @koiyu I agree, the general case is also interesting, but I decided to narrow my question to one specific case in order to perhaps discuss the specifics of it. Perhaps you would like to pose the general question? – dimo414 Jun 24 '11 at 1:26
  • For those interested in following up a comment I made to @Lennart below, see here. This is regarding Berkeley being a precursor to Einstein. I've always found the essay De Motu hard to come by so if anyone knows a good link it'd be much appreciated. Basically, everyone should read this guy. He may be 'out of fashion', he may be wrong, he may be insane. But the guy could write and reason like few others. Highly recommended. – boehj Jun 24 '11 at 15:57

Speaking very generally, materialism has been waxing sharply, and idealism has been waning for a good long time.

Berkeley studies have definitely suffered on account of this, but he would seem to be least among the "Idealist idols" also relegated to the "dustbin" of history by modern philosophy. In particular, a rancorous anti-Platonism has been one of the more consistent characteristics of the last century's major philosophers, as well as the more prescient thinkers of the century previous to that -- with exceptions of course.

So sadly, Berkeleyan immaterialism is quite commonly held to be some kind of insane absurdity, mostly on a misunderstanding of the central premise "to be is to be perceived." Recall that matter and other abstractions don't properly exist for Berkeley; one way to put it is that they are "philosophically-constructed," but this isn't quite right -- in a way they are purely virtual, real without being actual, like a memory or dream -- incorporeal and not directly perceived, in a way similar to Forms. But true existence or 'actuality' belongs solely to perceptions and perceivers, not to abstractions.

In a way there would seem to be something incredibly modern and forward-looking in this immaterialism; and indeed taken seriously it is incredibly rewarding work. I too lament the decline of serious work on idealism as opposed to the endless and trivial critiques which tend not to address crucial distinctions involved.

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    Great answer. Just to add to your comment about there being "something modern" in immaterialism, I hazard that the recent invention of virtual reality and computer simulations makes it all that much more plausible, since we now have direct evidence of how easily a material reality can be faked. – Chris Sunami Nov 6 '13 at 4:44
  • It's been a little while since this was written, and there is now something of a resurgence of interest in some of the themes -- as a start, Harman's Immaterialism might be worth looking at – Joseph Weissman Oct 16 '16 at 15:36

It’s ironic that Locke’s commonsense approach to philosophy should have influenced Berkeley to formulate a philosophical position that at first seems so much at variance with common sense. He became the object of severe criticism and ridicule for denying what seemed most obvious to anyone. Berkeley had set out to deny the existence of matter.

Since the science of his day, particularly physics, relied so heavily on the notion of matter, Berkeley had to come to terms with its assumptions and methods. Science had assumed that we can, and must, distinguish appearance and reality. Locke had said that substance, or matter, supports or acts a substitute for the qualities we sense.

In Berkeley’s “First Dialogue between Hylas and Philonus”, Hylas expresses Locke’s view: “I find it necessary to suppose a material substratum, without which [qualities] cannot be conceived to exist.” Philonus replies that the word substratum has no clear meaning for him and that he would want to “know any sense, literal or not literal, that you understand in it.” But Hylas admits that he cannot assign any definite meaning to the term substratum, saying “I declare I know not what to say.”

From this the conclusion is drawn that “the absolute existence of unthinking things [matter] are words without meaning.” This is not to say that sensible things do not possess reality but only that sensible things exist only insofar as they are perceived. This, of course, implies that only ideas exist, but Berkeley adds that “I hope that to call a thing ‘idea’ makes it no less real.”

His influence was nevertheless significant, but it was his empiricism and not his idealism that had a lasting influence. Building on Locke’s empiricism, Berkeley made the decisive point that the human mind reasons only and always about particular sense experiences – that abstract ideas refer to no equivalent reality.

Hume, who was to carry empiricism to its fullest expression, spoke of Berkeley as:

“a great philosopher [who] has disputed the received opinion in this particular, and has asserted that all general ideas are nothing but particular ones. […] I look upon this to be one of the greatest and most valuable discoveries that has been made of late years in the republic of letters.”

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    The Hume quote alone shows how important George Berkeley was to Western thought. Not only is Berkeley a giant of Western philosophy, but he also wrote in a way that it is extremely accessible to modern readers. I think of him as the Hemingway of early 18th century philosophy for his clarity of exposition and incisiveness. – boehj Jun 24 '11 at 15:06

I would challenge the claim that Berkeley has fallen out of favour; rather, he continues to be one of the most referenced philosophers of all time. I don't mean to say that the views as expressed in his classic works are wholly accepted these days; in general, he comes too close to empiricism to be fully acceptable, empiricism having been dealt crippling blows by Kant (who addressed Berkeley directly in the first Critique) and in the 20th century when it took the form of logical positivism (Sellars, Quine and Hempel's views on that have lessons for Berkeley).

Nevertheless, take any book of contemporary philosophy, and check the index for mention of Berkeley. He is more referenced, I think, than Locke. Some very famous contemporary papers which invoke Berkelely that spring to mind include Kripke's 'On Rules and Private Language', Cora Diamond's 'Realism and Realistic Spirit' and Putnam's passage 'Berkeley's Tour de Force' in his Reason, History and Truth. Berkeley is always cited in all these places as as an example of someone who, though not wholly successful, made one of the greatest and most influential attempts to address matters which remain central philosophical concerns to this day.

I think if Berekely somehow travelled through time and turned up at a convention of contemporary philosophers, he would not be shunned as someone out of favour, but welcomed with open arms and feted with ecstatic praise, and everyone would want to talk to him!


I think there are two main reasons Berkeley's philosophy is under-appreciated, first, because positivism (aka scientism, "the dominant paradigm") is all the rage (and has powerful sponsorship), and second, because it takes insight that today's academic philosophers have shown they don't have much of, to appreciate Berkeley's idealism. Last I checked, academic philosophers still couldn't see the connection between Berkeley's critique of abstract ideas and his immaterialism (for Berkeley the material object is itself no more than an abstract idea, something undefined like Wittgenstein's private language or a doughnut hole without any doughnut). When one explains to the academics that on obvious evidential (epistemological) grounds, the supposedly objectively real space behind the space we perceive with our senses either collapses into the latter or is itself another abstract idea, they don't comprehend. Even if you explain that the colors one sees all around one--that is to say one's visual field and everything one perceives with the eyes--are (obviously) qualitative colors and that therefore what one perceives with one's eyes as beyond one's skin is necessarily in fact an extension of one's own mind (as asserted by Hindu epistemology), they just shake their heads, it makes no sense even though it follows logically (even on the materialist view it is vibrations that exist out there, actual colors in the mind only). It is nice of you to ask, but it is hopeless. Almost all academic philosophers are in the academic system because they jump through hoops and believe and understand the right things, corporate funding and all. Forgive if this seems cynical (and do see the chapter entitled The Illusion Of Wisdom in Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion).


I would answer this by placing it in the context of what I believe should be the most important question in philosophy. Can we improve our understanding of the world and use it to make a better world for everyone? Otherwise, what's the point? I have no interest in navel gazing.

I can't find the source, but I'll paraphrase from memory: Berkeley used the desk in his study as an example of something that didn't exist unless he was in his study perceiving it and thus concluding that it only existed in his mind. But the problem with his argument is that his perceiving is actually connected with something. By which I mean, he could not perceive a piano in his study without someone building it first and then placing it there.

Admittedly, he could argue that the building and delivering of the piano was something he perceived and is thus also in his mind but you can't just sit there, perceiving new things instantly into reality. What happens to make reality change is the something I'm referring to, even if we can't nail it down precisely.

We demonstrate the voracity of our ideas in practice and in accordance with my italicised question I am opposed to any philosophy that would sap the will of anyone interested in grabbing a hold of the world and changing it for the better.

That doesn't mean that I believe this is all clear cut. I'm not an "ends justify any means" philosopher. Morality is still a tricky area that needs careful handling and so on. For example, what do I even mean by "better"?

For the record, comparing Berkeley with Einstein in terms of Einstein's theory of relativity is a stretch. It's easy to have the idea of denying absoluteness, but quite another to discover the physics that proves it. But, in terms of Einstein's idealism and his insistence that mathematics was purely a product of the mind, I agree that Berkeley was probably right up his alley.

  • I didn't mean to compare Berkeley's theories with Einstein's, merely their impact - the claim Porter makes about Berkeley's impact would apply to someone like Einstein today. This suggests something rather fundamental changed, as I think few would agree with Porter's assessment now. – dimo414 Nov 6 '13 at 4:00
  • @dimo414 I wasn't having a go, my point was more to contrast the fact that Einstein became more and more idealistic as he got older. I read a biography of his and up until the age where he started courting Zionism it was unputdownable but after that I got bored with it. I'll remove the superlative, I didn't set out to offend. – Geoff Pointer Nov 6 '13 at 4:23

Denying the existence of reality in various ways (of which Berkeley's way is only one of many) has fallen out of fashion as it is a useless position.

You end up saying that although we perceive reality it doesn't "really" exist. Well, what do we do with that statement? It can't be proven right. It can't be proven wrong. It is just an opinion. It has no actual effect on anything else, as even if what we perceive has no existence except in our perceptions, the perceptions are still there and still seem real.

So the outcome of this position is that although you can proclaim reality to be unreal, you will in the end have to treat it as real anyway. Hence all forms of idealism are interesting mind bending experiments of ideas that help you open your mind to philosophical issues, but in the end they are dead-ends.

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    None of us think this way once we've stopped doing philosophy for the day, it's true. But Berkeley was the most outspoken critic of Newton. He criticized Newton because his ideas of space & time were absolute. Bishop Berkeley 'beat Einstein to relativity' by about 200 years. No mean feat. I can't explain in 500 words how Berkeley's theories concerning vision and Immaterialism effectively ruled out absolutist mechanical physics. But they did. Berkeley is a major figure in empiricism, even though his theory has some nasty consequences. Einstein is certainly indebted to him academically. – boehj Jun 24 '11 at 14:21
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    @boehj: That he WAS important is different from why he isn't important anymore, which was the question. – Lennart Regebro Jun 24 '11 at 16:49
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    First up, that's not my -1 there. I generally find myself agreeing with you, but I think you're being very harsh on old, washed up philosophers. And by all accounts, Berkeley was a nice guy to boot! I do agree that the popularity of Phenomenalism comes and goes as quickly as any of the various positions in philosophy. But has Aristotle "fallen out of favor" because we have better logic than he had? Is Descartes out of fashion because he made a huge misstep regarding the existence of God? Etc.? – boehj Jun 24 '11 at 17:11
  • @boehj: Yeah, I am very hard on old washed up philosophers, you are right. :-) I don't find Descartes washed up though. You can't be right in everything, of course, and I admittedly know nothing about Berkeley outside his idealism. – Lennart Regebro Jun 24 '11 at 17:15
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    Berkeley did not deny the existence of reality. – adrianos Jan 6 '12 at 23:22

Berkeley's philosophy was settled by Dr Johnson's stubbed toe. That it persisted at all is a phenomenon on a par with the present revival of creationism in the United States.

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    I'm afraid that's not really an answer to the question. It's sort of a rephrasing of it. We'd really like to get reasoned responses, not score debate points. – Jon Ericson Jun 23 '11 at 17:47
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    Not only did Jr. Johnson's stubbed toe not settle the debate, it indicated his complete lack of understanding of Berkeley's philosophy, and even coined the name of a logical fallacy: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_lapidem - to call something absurd without providing any proof or evidence. – dimo414 Jun 24 '11 at 4:14
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    Johnson's stubbed toe settled the matter for Johnson. And anyone else can do the same for himself. Not all philosophical questions need to be decided by weaving webs of words. – John Bentin Jun 24 '11 at 8:38
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    I'd claim it indicated a more fundamental understanding of Berkeley's philosophy than Berkeley had himself. By kicking a stone and feeling it you show that reality either is real, or seems real. Claims that it then isn't, become pointless. It is as such a neat shortcut of the whole problem. – Lennart Regebro Jun 24 '11 at 12:11
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    @Cody: The verbal criticism---in full, "I refute it thus"---is less to the point than the action. A compact citation can be found at samueljohnson.com/refutati.html#57 – John Bentin Jul 3 '11 at 20:34

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