George Berkeley

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George Berkeley as bishop

George Berkeley [ ˈbɑrkli ] (born March 12, 1685 in County Kilkenny ( Ireland ), † January 14, 1753 in Oxford ) was an Anglican theologian , sensualist and philosopher of the Enlightenment . He came from a royalist-Protestant family of the Anglo-Irish upper class.

Berkeley can be seen as the link between Locke and Hume . He made his contributions from the point of view of a thinker who proceeded from the objects of his perception, drew his own conclusions from them and set them against theories which, from his point of view, were incorrect. As a result of his zetetic assumptions, he advocated a nominalistic philosophy. Many philosophers called him an immaterialist .


George Berkeley's Family, oil painting by John Smibert

George Berkeley studied since 1700 at Trinity College in Dublin , namely Ancient languages, philosophy, mathematics and theology. From 1707 to 1713 he taught as a fellow at Trinity College. In 1710 he was ordained a priest, which was compulsory for a fellow in Ireland at the time . The combination of research and religion seemed to suit Berkeley's inclinations. His belief in the effectiveness of God led him to view his writings as directed against skeptics, free thinkers and atheists . His major works include the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). He was friends with personalities like Joseph Addison , Alexander Pope , Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift .

In 1713 he went to London for ten months , then traveled to Italy via France . There he observed the eruption of Vesuvius in 1717 . In 1720 he returned to Ireland and taught Hebrew and theology at Trinity College. In 1724 he was appointed Dean of St. Columban's Cathedral in Derry .

Berkeley is also known for his plan to build a mission school in Bermuda , which was to have an impact on Europe through the example of a simple and natural life. From 1728 to 1731 he endeavored to realize this project: After his marriage in 1728, he traveled to Rhode Island , but waited in vain for the promised state support. There he wrote Alciphron (1732), a defense of Christianity against the free thinkers .

Upon his return, Berkeley became Bishop of Cloyne (near Cork in Ireland) in 1734 . In the same year he published The Analyst , a critical examination of the fundamentals of science that would subsequently influence the development of mathematics significantly. In his 18 years as Bishop of Cloyne, he devoted himself primarily to the tasks in his diocese; the time of long journeys was over.

George Berkeley died in Oxford on January 14, 1753.

The city and the University of Berkeley there in California are named after him.


George Berkeley published in 1710 - following the "attempt on a new theory of vision " (1709) - at the age of 25 his second philosophical work "A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge " In this work he explained the two basic principles of his sensualistic approach : “To be is to be perceived .” (Esse est percipi) and “To be is to perceive.” (Esse est percipere) Furthermore, with regard to the still prevalent Aristotelian-scholastic philosophy, he described his conclusions from these principles and criticized Locke , whose philosophy on Trinity College dominated the teaching canon. Human conceptions ('ideas') arise exclusively through sensory perception (a basic principle). That which perceives - the other basic principle - is what he called " subject ", " mind ", " spirit ", " soul " and, using a more modern expression, "myself". Berkeley thus made a contribution to the discourse of the scholarly republic of its time that was hardly appreciated by the public . It was then u. a. therefore to develop fundamentally new concepts that led out of the impasse of the body-soul dualism , as represented by the old scholastic philosophy, but also by Descartes and Cartesian- oriented philosophers. In particular, new research results in medicine showed that the dualistic way of thinking was unsuitable for explaining it in a comprehensible manner.

Berkeley claimed - more radically than Locke - that he did not consider either the substance " matter " or the substance "spirit" to be philosophically justifiable. “The existence of external things consists in their being perceived: esse est percipi. ... The mind as such is unknowable. Its essence consists ... in grasping: esse est percipere. ... he [Berkeley] is ... not an idealist. Laws of nature are only signs. Categories such as matter, causality, movement and substance are dispensable. ”This sensualistic approach was consistently thought through to the end in the course of the British Enlightenment by David Hume .

Berkeley was a devout man beyond his philosophical foundations. Francis Bacon had suggested decades before Berkeley that belief on the one hand and scientific assumptions on the other hand their own world. They should be judged, they extent to which the welfare of the community took advantage. In contrast to the scholastic habit, science should work without appealing to traditional authorities. Berkeley's religious conviction that - even if completely unprovable and imperceptible - God stood behind all human ideas and scientific knowledge as the guarantor of their reliability, was based on conclusions which he found useful and reasonable with regard to his faith. For Berkeley, belief was a way of life, comparable to a kind of wisdom rather than theology , is found in research. With the decision of his skeptical thinking to be distinct from belief, Berkeley, like others who held to her beliefs, remained in the mainstream of the Enlightenment. The majority of the European philosophers of the Enlightenment - like Locke and Malebranche - combined philosophically justifiable views with their religious views.

A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge

It is the title of the publication of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) to which this section refers. In the preface, Berkeley wrote: "I ask the reader to abstain from judgment until he has read the whole thing at least once as carefully and with every degree of thorough consideration that the subject appears to require."

Title page of the first edition of the treatise on the principles of human knowledge. Dublin 1710

Brief recap of Locke

Berkeley repeatedly makes critical references to Locke. He calls him 'a rightly respected philosopher' (§11, introduction) - Berkeley refers to his main work: An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding . According to Locke, there are only single things in the world that become general through a multi-step process of abstraction: words become general by becoming signs of general ideas, and ideas become general by abstracting them from space and time, creating general abstract ideas . With regard to universals theory, Locke advocates a nominalistic conceptualism (cf. problem of universals ). Locke also represents the epistemological dualism of matter and spirit or ideas that prevails in philosophy. The emergence of dualism is historically assigned to Plato. In contrast to Berkeley, matter is indispensable for Locke. It serves Locke as an 'anchor' to the outside world, which is represented (or 'doubled') as an idea in the mind:

“From this it can be concluded without any problems that our ideas of the first qualities resemble those of the body and that their forms are present in the bodies themselves. But the ideas that arise in us through the second qualities are not at all like those of the body. So there is nothing in the bodies that is comparable to our ideas of the second qualities. "

This shows that Locke - in contrast to Berkeley - is based on Aristotelian-scholastic assumptions. He mentions first and second qualities and uses image theory . You can also call him a realist . The first qualities of matter guarantee the reliability of human ideas . The role of causality and continuity in ideas complements Locke's basic notion that ideas gained through experience are to some extent objective or true. At Berkeley, the ideas have an exclusively individual character. What is objective and true cannot be shown philosophically. For Berkeley, his belief in God is the guarantee of the reliability of his ideas. '

Berkeley's point of view

One of Berkeley's main concerns is the refutation of the concept of matter in order to remove the ground from atheism:

"Just as the doctrine of matter or corporeal substance, as we have shown, forms the mainstay of skepticism , so on the same foundation all the impious systems of atheism and irreligion were built." - §92

Berkeley can be called a counter - enlightener , because for him the strengthening of the concept of God is certain from the start and forms a very personal petitio principii . He confesses: "I am sure that there is a God, although I do not perceive him." But it is part of the nature of the infinite that the finite cannot understand it. In order to carry out his philosophical project, Berkeley introduces Locke's image theory Kind of idealism 'over. His main objection to the image theory is that it makes no sense to talk about the thing in itself because it is not perceived. The other aspect of his contradiction to Locke is the hint that ideas can only be similar to ideas:

"... I reply that an idea can only be similar to another idea, just as a color or shape can only be similar to another color or another shape." - §8

But you can only get ideas through perception:

“Your food consists in being perceived. It is therefore not possible for them to have any existence outside of the human mind or to be perceived by something that does not think. ”- §3

It follows that Berkeley has overcome Locke's dualism of things as we perceive them and they really are. As a result, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and thus also the concept of matter is omitted (cf. §§ 8–11), which makes Berkeley an immaterialist under traditional philosophical categories . In other words: people have no other access to the world than through human conceptions or ideas. Besides human ideas, human knowledge can be traced back to ourselves or to our intellect, spirit ... There are therefore two pillars on which human knowledge is based: on something that perceives (esse est percipere) namely ourselves, and on something that is perceived , namely on our ideas, also called ideas:

“From the two axioms that I have set up, it follows directly that knowledge can be traced back to human ideas on the one hand and to spiritual activities on the other.” - §86

Under a human mind ( spirit ) understands Berkeley something active Unausgedehntes, indivisible, of substance , we only intuitively grasp (see. §3.). We cannot form an idea of ​​the mind because it is not perceived. This intuitive notion of ourselves is the only substance in his philosophy (cf. §§ 2.7 and 27.). One can have no idea of their own spirit have (because it is not perceived), but only an intuitive concept ( notion ) the ideas perceiving mind called Berkeley mind ( understanding ), the ideas of producing mind however, will ( want ). He also relates this to his image of God (cf. §27). Ideas are passive, without any activity of their own, which cannot achieve anything and which can only exist in the mind. Only the spirit, or each person himself, can generate and destroy ideas (cf. §§25–28).

“I notice that I can evoke ideas in myself at will and that the scene can be changed and changed whenever it seems appropriate to me. I just have to want to and this or that idea pops up in my imagination. It will be deleted by myself and another will take its place. "(§28)

To prove the existence of imperceptible things is not possible. Because something that is must be perceived. Berkeley explains:

It “... will be objected ... that things are being destroyed and recreated at every moment. ... I answer that by reminding the reader of the statements in §§ 3, 4 etc. and asking him to consider whether what he understands by the momentary existence of an idea is something different from its being perceived. " §45

But if he still claims that things exist even if he does not perceive them, he means the following:

"If I were outside my study, my claim that my desk exists would mean that if I were in my study, I could perceive it or that someone else is currently perceiving it." - §3

Nobody can determine whether and what he wants to perceive. It is a conclusion - not a perception - that all ideas of finite spirits come from the infinite spirit (God):

“If I open my eyes in broad daylight, it is not in my power to decide whether I will see or not, or which individual objects will be presented to my eyes. And it is the same with hearing and other sensory stimuli. The ideas according to them are not creations of my will. From this one can infer that there is another will or spirit that produces it. ”- §29

But this fact is not empirical evidence that what is imagined is present outside of us. Even if people cannot avoid sensory stimuli, they have nothing more than their ideas. One can only deduce from their properties that they are not human products, but are created by another spirit .

“The ideas impressed on the senses by the originator of nature are usually called real things : those that we ourselves imagine - they are less uniform, vivid, and persistent - are usually called ideas or images of things which they imitate or which they reflect . However vivid and determined our sensory perception may be, they are ideas ... it does not prove that they exist outside of us ... ”- §33


His contributions to mathematics and economics are also noteworthy . In his treatise The analyst: or a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician , he tries to show that the differential or integral calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz delivers correct results, but is based on logically dubious foundations.

In his writing Querist (1737) he dealt with economic and socio-political issues. Among other things, he made proposals for a reform of the monetary system. The font is also stylistically remarkable, as it consists exclusively of questioning considerations, which are introduced with "whether ..." or "whether not ...".


Berkeley repeatedly refers to the existence of God which he inferred, ie assumed and personally believed by him. Some therefore refer to him as an objective idealist . On the other hand, he is predominantly seen as the main representative of subjective idealism . With the concept of God Berkeley avoids complete solipsism and thus preserves the objectivity of the world, or as Hegel put it: "The inconsistency in this system has to be taken over by God again."

In relation to the problem of universals, Berkeley is certified to have extreme nominalism.


  • Hume begins the seventh chapter of his Treatise of Human Nature with an appreciation of Berkeley's contribution to the clarification of the question of how abstraction is possible:
" Whether abstract ideas are available to thought either as general or as specific individual ideas has become a very important question. A great philosopher (Berkeley) has put forward a view that I have largely accepted. He claimed that all general ideas, that is, Abstractions are nothing more than very specific ones. They are linked to a certain word that has a meaning that encompasses more ideas than the individual ones. If one encounters similar ideas, one will remember the word. I consider this to be one the greatest and most important philosophical discovery of the last few years and I will try to confirm it with the aid of some aspects, as unequivocally and contradictingly as possible . "
  • The title of Arthur Schopenhauer's main work , The World as Will and Idea , testifies to the influence of Berkeley. Both assumed that the world of every human being consists of individual ideas. Schopenhauer explicitly named Berkeley and praised it for its philosophy.
  • Wittgenstein's philosophy is in many ways similar to that of Berkeley - as Saul Kripke shows, although he does not explicitly mention Berkeley. Like Francis Bacon and Berkeley, Wittgenstein stated that people can only abstract if they have very concrete, sensualistic ideas.
  • Berkeley did not found a school of philosophy, but elements can be found in empirical criticism and later in constructivism .
  • The International Berkeley Society has been concerned with the Berkeley philosophy since 1975 .


  • Philosophical diary. Edited by Wolfgang Breidert . Philosophical Library, Volume 318. Meiner, Hamburg 1979, ISBN 978-3-7873-0476-9
  • A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge.
    • A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge. Newly edited after the translation by Friedrich Ueberweg with introduction, note and registers. by Alfred Klemmt . Meiner, Hamburg 1957 and 1979 (= Philosophical Library. Volume 20). New edition, ed. by Arend Kulenkampff, ibid 2004 (= Philosophical Library. Volume 532), ISBN 978-3-7873-1638-0 .
  • Alciphron and the little philosopher. Translated by Luise and Friedrich Raab. 2nd ed. Philosophical Library, Volume 502. Meiner, Hamburg 1996, ISBN 978-3-7873-1307-5
  • Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Edited by Arend Kulenkampff. Philosophical Library, Volume 556. Meiner, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 978-3-7873-1669-4
  • A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge . Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005. ISBN 3-15-018343-X
  • The Works of George Berkeley. Edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1871. Second edition 1901
    1. Vol. 1
    2. Vol. 2
    3. Vol. 3
    4. Vol. 4
  • The Works of George Berkeley . Edited by AA Luce & TE Jessop. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1948


  • Gottfried Gabriel: Basic problems of epistemology . UTB, Paderborn 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-1743-3
  • Richard Schantz: The sensual content of perception . Philosophy Verlag, Munich / Hamden / Vienna 1990, ISBN 3-88405-065-6
  • George Berkeley, George Sampson, Arthur James Balfour Balfour: The Works of George Berkeley, DD, Bishop of Cloyne, G. Bell and Sons 1898
  • Arend Kulenkampff: George Berkeley. Beck, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-406-32280-8
  • Rudolf Metz: George Berkeley: Life and Teaching. Frommann, Stuttgart 1968 (reprint of the Stuttgart 1925 edition)
  • Bruno Marciano, George Berkeley. Estetica e idealismo , Nova Scripta, Genova 2010
  • Katia Saporiti, The Reality of Things , Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2006
  • Wolfgang Breidert: George Berkeley 1685–1753. Basel / Boston / Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-7643-2236-5

Web links

Commons : George Berkeley  - Collection of Images, Videos, and Audio Files
Wikisource: George Berkeley  - Sources and full texts (English)


  1. Wolfgang Röd : The philosophy of the modern age 2: From Newton to Rousseau (= history of philosophy , vol. 8). CH Beck, Munich 1984, p. 111.
  2. Wolfgang Röd: The Philosophy of Modern Times 2: From Newton to Rousseau . CH Beck, Munich 1984, p. 112.
  3. Wolfgang Röd: The Philosophy of Modern Times 2: From Newton to Rousseau . CH Beck, Munich 1984, p. 113.
  4. George Berkeley: A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge. Hamburg 2004.
  5. Berkeley: Philosophical Diary. Hamburg 1979, 429. See a. Arend Kulenkampff: George Berkeley. Munich 1987, p. 101.
  6. A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge § 2.
  7. See John Sutton, Peter Anstey (ed): Soul and Body in Seventeenth-Century British Philosophy. In: The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century Oxford Press 2013, pp. 1f. - Since 1543 the first thoroughly researched anatomy book "De Fabrica" ​​by Andreas Vesalius was in circulation throughout Europe, which promoted new perspectives on the human body. Vesalius abstained from any statement on the mind-body problem for fear of distortion of his research results and the church censorship . See Robert Hanbury Brown: The Wisdom of Science: Its Relevance to Culture and Religion. New York (Cambridge Press) 1986, p. 3.
  8. ^ Ernst R. Sandvoss: History of Philosophy. Volume II. Wiesbaden 2004, p. 250. On the substance question of matter and spirit, cf. a. Lisa Downing: George Berkeley. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004, Section 2.
  9. ^ Silvia Parigi (Università di Cassino, Ed.): George Berkeley: Religion and Science in the Age of Enlightenment. Heidelberg / London / New York 2010, p. XVII f.
  10. See Robert Hanbury Brown: The Wisdom of Science: Its Relevance to Culture and Religion. New York (Cambridge Press) 1986, p. 6.
  11. See John Sutton, Peter Anstey (ed): Soul and Body in Seventeenth-Century British Philosophy. In: The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century Oxford Press 2013, pp. 18f.
  12. The following is quoted from the German edition of Meiner-Verlag: George Berkeley: A treatise on the principles of human knowledge. Hamburg 2004.
  13. Locke: Treatise on the Human Mind, Book II, Chapter viii, §15.
  14. George Berkeley: Philosophical Diary. Leipzig 1926, 803. - On the problem cf. also: Arend Kulenkampff: George Berkley. Munich 1987, pp. 43-45.
  15. § 2.
  16. "... the talk of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived seems to be absolutely incomprehensible." § 3. Compare all §3 to 5 inclusive.
  17. “But besides this endless variety of ideas or knowledge there is also something that they know or perceive and perform various activities such as wanting, imagining, remembering with them. This perceiving active being is what I call subject , mind , spirit , soul or myself . ”§2
  18. “The spirit or that which is active cannot be perceived by its nature through itself, but only through the effects it produces.” §27
  19. "And if you call him an idealist, in view of the role he assigns God, you should not, as is often the case, call him a subjective idealist." Gottfried Gabriel: Basic problems of epistemology . UTB, Paderborn 2008. p. 108
  20. Christoph Helferich: History of Philosophy: from the beginnings to the present and Eastern thinking . Metzler, 2001, ISBN 978-3-476-01522-8 , pp. 192 .
  21. “What is already in Locke, extreme nominalism, is carried out by Berkeley. Locke denies an objective correlate of general concepts and only recognizes general ideas as psychological structures. Berkeley also denies their psychological existence. ”Hans Meyer: Occidental Weltanschauung. In five volumes. Schöningh, Paderborn 1950. Volume 4, p. 219
  22. engl. Wikisource
  23. Jens Petersen: Schopenhauer's concept of justice . Berlin / Boston 2017, p. 11.
  24. ^ Saul A. Kripke: Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition, Harvard University Press 1982, 64
  25. See Ralf Goeres: The development of philosophy under Ludwig Wittgensteins: with special consideration of his logic conceptions . Würzburg 2000, p. 152f.
  26. Karl R. Popper : A remark about Berkeley as a forerunner of Mach and Einstein, in: Assumptions and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge, collected writings volume 10, ed. by Herbert Keuth , Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2009, 257–270
  27. Hans Joachim Störig : Small world history of philosophy, Kohlhammer, 17th edition Stuttgart 1999, 787