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Mar 12 George Berkley, Philosophy and America


Today in Ireland in 1685 Anglican bishop and philosopher George Berkeley was born. His philosophy is sometimes referred to as idealism or immaterialism, holds that reality consists only of minds and their ideas. Berkley posited that everything exists only insofar as it is perceived by the senses, and this has led him to being called the father of empiricism. A talented metaphysician he became famous for defending idealism, which struck many as counter-intuitive, but was strong and flexible enough to counter most objections. He was a big influence on both Hume and Kant, and is still taught today in Western philosophy classes. A wide-ranging thinker with interests in religion, mathematics, physics, morals, economics, and medicine. Interest in Berkeley's work increased after World War II because he tackled many of the issues of paramount interest to philosophy in the 20th century, such as the problems of perception, the difference between primary and secondary qualities, and the importance of language.



Berkley College, Yale

The eldest son of a commissioned officer for the British Crown, he was born in Kilkenny, Ireland and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a B.A. degree in 1704. While awaiting a fellowship vacancy, he made a critical study of time, vision, and the hypothesis that there is no material substance, this would become the central philosophical concern for the rest of his life. He argued against Isaac Newton's doctrine of absolute space, time and motion and is seen as a crucial precursor to Einstein. His persuasive powers and personality meant that he was well received in frequent visits to London, making important connections before embarking on a grand tour of Italy. With his influential connections back in London promising to support him, he began the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries. At 43 he married Anne Forster, gave up his benefice in Ireland and went to America on a salary of £100 per annum. He bought a plantation at Middletown and brought to New England John Smibert, a British artist he "discovered" in Italy, who is generally regarded as the founding father of American portrait painting. He busied himself by drawing up plans for the ideal city he planned to build on Bermuda and lived at the plantation while he waited for funds for his college to arrive. The funds, however, were not forthcoming. It seemed that distant from London, scepticism and opposition had gathered force; and the Prime Minister, Walpole grew steadily more sceptical and lukewarm. Eventually it became clear that the essential Parliamentary grant would be not forthcoming.

Whilst Berkeley was in America, the educator Samuel Johnson visited him, and convinced Berkeley to establish a scholarship program at Yale College which had been founded about twenty years earlier.


When Berkley returned to England, he donated a large number of books as well as his plantation to the college. It was one of Yale's largest and most important donations; it doubled its library holdings, improved the college's financial position and brought Anglican religious ideas and English culture into New England. His ideas would also leave a significant legacy in North America, as Samuel Johnson took Berkeley's philosophy and used parts of it as a framework for his own American Practical Idealism school of philosophy. As Johnson's philosophy was taught to about half the graduates of American colleges between 1743 and 1776, including half of the contributors to the Declaration of Independence, it can be argued that Berkeley's ideas were indirectly a foundation of the American Identity. Both the University of California, Berkeley (Burkclee) and City of Berkeley Burkclee, were named after him, although the pronunciation has evolved to suit American English


Berkeley argued that the "natural" laws and processes are simply the mental phenomena of God and are not produced by an independent material reality like matter, force, space, and time. A convinced Christian Berkeley believed God was present as an immediate cause of all our experiences. Immanuel Kant later referred to it as mystical idealism because Berkley claimed that nothing separated man and God, since nature or matter did not exist as a reality independent of consciousness. His subtle grasp of the phenomena of self-consciousness has led him to be considered as one of the originators of British empiricism. A linear development is often traced from three great "British Empiricists", leading from Locke through Berkeley to Hume. Returning to Ireland, he was appointed as Bishop of Cloyne until he retired at the age of 67. With his wife and daughter he went to Oxford to supervise his son Georges education. He died soon afterward, it is said that his affectionate disposition and genial manners made him much loved and held in warm regard by many of his contemporaries.