George Berkeley was an Irish clergyman who argued that "Esse est percipi," or that to exist is to be perceived. In A Treatise concerning the Principles of Knowledge he argued that it is inconceivable for a material substance to exist independently of the thinking being that perceives it. He is one of the (if not the) most famous idealists.

See the tree in the forest question.

Berkeley was born in 1685 and died in 1753. He received his B.A. from Trinity College, Dublin in 1704, and remained at Trinity in various posts until 1713, when he moved to London.

He is one of Trinity's favourite alumni: the college boasts a statue of the man in the main square, and its main library is named after him.

A Limerick on Berkeley's Philosophy,
By Msgr. Ronald Knox

There was a young man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."


Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,

George Berkeley in Essence:

So, George Berkeley (pronounced "Barklee") was an Irish philosopher whose life spanned from 1685 to 1753. He is best known today for his theory of "immaterialism," or the nonexistence of matter. The poem above pretty accurately outlines Berkeley's theory, but for clarification's sake, suffice it to say that Berkeley thought matter as we think of it to be independent of perception, but that existence must be defined by perception (because that's the only way we know it at all -- an Occam's Razor sort of approach). He deducted from this that unless someone is looking at an object, it doesn't really exist, but that because God is omnipresent, what we think of as matter is constantly perceived, and therefore regular in existence. A sharp theory, which turned lots of Catholic philosophy on its side.


I won't bore you with a litany of bullshit referential critiques of Berkeley's philosophy. I have too much respect for you, and, quite frankly, for Berkeley, to do that. But just a couple of critical questions that might put chinks in his theory:

If perception defines existence, why doesn't our perception of matter make that perception reality -- in other words, why is there a difference between matter existing and "what people think of matter as" existing?

If God is omniscient, as Christian tradition generally insists, does God ever "perceive"? Is perception not a function of the fulfillment of sensation, which is a sort of personal realization?

I dunno. Maybe I'm just taking cheap shots at an outmoded philosophy, but I fell in love with it when I first read about it in Bertrand Russel's "The History of Western Philosophy", (the only source I used for this node), and thinking about it made me want to post my reflections on it, regardless of whether my critiques were contextually reasonable.

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