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Berkeley’s Philosophy Essay

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2021


George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, was a profound philosopher of the early modern period, who criticized Locke’s ideas of perception and nature of substances. He is a follower of the idealist theory claiming that reality exists only in people’s minds by perception. Two of his works, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (Principles) and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (Dialogues) are examined in the present paper to describe Berkeley’s philosophy and his arguments against materialism.

Locke’s Criticism

Before starting the points on which Berkeley criticized Locke and other materialists, one should refer to Locke’s “copy theory.” According to this theory, knowledge is the perception of connection or repugnancy of humans’ ideas (Ferguson 117). In simpler words, Locke claims that a person cannot percept an object directly; however, he or she refers only to the ideas or the copies of the objects that are created in their minds. The concept presupposes that material matters exist and have primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities, such as solidity, extension, mobility, and number form a simple idea inside minds, while secondary qualities, such as color, sound, and taste produce sensations. These concepts attracted much criticism from idealists, such as George Berkeley.

Berkeley’s critique of Locke’s theory is explicitly depicted in the Dialogues where Philonous, an idealist, explains his concepts to Hylas with materialistic views. Berkeley insists that sensible qualities must be ideal rather than belonging to a substance, as claimed by Locke. The first argument supporting the statement is that some qualities as heat, for example, are similar to pleasure or pain (Berkeley, Dialogues 4).

The second point mentioned by Philenous is the issue with relativity, as qualities may vary depending on the perceiver (Berkeley, Dialogues 6). For instance, if something is hot and bitter to one person, it may be cold and sweet to another. Furthermore, Berkeley gives an example of microscopes to undermine the “plausible thought that the true visual qualities of objects are revealed by close examination” (“George Berkeley” para. 34). In short, even though there are some flaws in Berkeley’s arguments, he effectively criticizes Locke’s theory on the ground of substance existence.

Even though the arguments presented above may seem appropriate, they can be contested by the idea of primary and secondary qualities. It may be assumed that primary qualities cannot be misperceived, while people can interpret the secondary ones, as in the example with substances tasting different depending on the perceiver. However, Berkeley denies the ability to abstract the primary qualities from the secondary ones, as it is impossible to conceive a material body that is extended but not colored (“George Berkeley”). In brief, Locke’s concept fails to stand against the critique provided by Berkeley in the Dialogues.

Implications to the Knowledge of External World

Berkeley offers an innovative concept of a human’s ability to know and understand the outside world. Even though Berkeley does not directly deny the existence of objects, he considers the objects to be the collection of ideas (Berkeley, Principles 11). In simple words, an apple is a compilation of its color, taste, and shape and it cannot exist independent of a person conceiving it. This leads to an understanding that one cannot immediately get knowledge about an external object. Instead, a person can perceive ordinary objects only indirectly or mediately, while immediately perceiving only ideas. Therefore, it can be stated that Berkeley denies the existence of a material world, but creates another dualism of a physical world, or the world of ordinary objects, and the mind.

Reasons for Subjective Idealism

The primary reason for Berkeley not becoming a radical skeptic to materialists is the problem with the inability to wish things into or out of existence. Berkeley answers this question by introducing the greater mind, the mind of God that controls the universe all the ideas. As objects do not depend on people’s wishes, there must be a kind of existence outside of their minds. However, these ideas cannot be without a mind perceiving them; therefore, there must be a greater mind that is independent and greater than ordinary people possess.

Thus, the world of physical objects is the result of God perceiving them. Berkeley was a Bishop of Cloyne and manifested the goal of his Principles as “consideration of God and of our duty” (Berkeley, Principles 55). These factors contributed to him avoiding critical skepticism and leaning to subjective idealism.


Berkeley is one of the most remarkable philosophers, who greatly influenced the evolution of thought of the XVIII century. Even though his readers greeted him with incomprehension, his works are well written and filled with relative arguments that delight contemporary philosophers (“George Berkeley”). While not becoming a radical skeptic, Berkeley began to describe limitations to empiricism by stating that to be is to be perceived. Berkeley found evident flaws in Locke’s “copy theory” and shaped his views into a cohesive philosophy that could hardly be criticized by the thinkers of his time.

Works Cited

Berkeley, George. “The Principles of Human Knowledge.” EarlyModernTexts, 2017. Web.

—. “Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists.” EarlyModernTexts, 2017. Web.

Ferguson, Henry H. “Locke’s Theory of Knowledge.” Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 2, 1934, pp. 107-118.

“George Berkeley.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2011. Web.

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