Bishop Berkeley

In Our Time this week (Thursday 20th March) was on the subject of George (Bishop) Berkeley. He was, of course, one of the great British empiricists of the 17th and 18th centuries – Locke and Hume being the other two giants of the era. Berkeley’s big idea was, literally, idealism, that is that the world consists of ideas formed in the mind rather than material objects. Locke felt that these ideas must be based on something rooted in reality but Berkeley’s view that this could not be proven and therefore remained a belief. He sought, through this logic, to prove – what Descartes had failed to do 100 years previously – the existence of God. Idealism far from being a dead end, however, is still very much with us (although God is invoked less than hitherto) and formed a fundamental plank of Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’

Dr Johnson’s famous act of kicking a rock and saying, ‘I refute it thus,’ when Boswell said that it (idealism) was difficult to refute, is not really a refutation. I am with Boswell on this. Everything we experience comes to us through the brain – we cannot stand outside our nature and view the world objectively, so how can we possibly know whether our thoughts and feelings relate to a ‘Real’ world or not?

Berkeley, incidentally, visited the USA and was the inspiration for the naming of Berkeley college, now part of the University of California.

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