Bishop Berkeley and His Message

TWO hundred years ago there landed on American shores George Berkeley; a man whose publications, while he was yet in the twenties, had placed him among the world's first philosophers; a man so charming and so admirable in human relations that men as pessimistic of human nature and as caustic in their expression as Dean Swift and Alexander Pope could say nothing but good of him; a man so generous in his enthusiasms that he could resign what was at the time a princely preferment of the Church to accept the position of headship of a College which he hoped to found in the Bermudas at the yearly salary of a hundred pounds, and a man so unpractical in his enthusiasms as to believe that he would find human nature fresh and unspoiled in the North American Indian and could train it into perfection in the College in the Bermuda Islands, from which should go out missionaries of light and virtue to all the Indians of the American continents, and to believe that in Tar Water he had found a panacea for all human diseases.

He put into verse his hopes, verses which should certainly be read on this occasion:


The muse disgusted at an age and clime
Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time
Producing subjects worthy fame.

In happier climes where from the genial sun
And virgin earth such scenes ensue
The force of art by nature seems outdone,
And fancied beauties by the true.

In happy climes, the scene of innocence,
Where nature guides and virtue rules,
Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
The pedantry of courts and schools;

There shall be sang another golden age,
The rise of Empire and the arts
The good and great inspiring epic sage,
The wisest heads and noblest hearts.


Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
By future poets shall be sung.

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last.

The twenty thousand pounds which Parliament had voted for Berkeley's Bermuda College never reached him, though he waited for it five years in Newport, Rhode Island. It was spent for other purposes by an unidealistic Prime Minister. One might speculate on what would have been Berkeley's disappointments upon the inevitable bursting of this South Sea bubble, if the appropriation had been put into his hands, but it is better to congratulate him upon this minor disappointment, which left his enthusiasm still vivid and uncrushed, and that his name has in the course of time been associated with a great American University which, though so distant from the Bermudas, does embody his hopes and aspirations.

It is better to consider what there is more than fortunate chance in the association of the name of the great Bishop with this place and hence with the University of which it is the geographical locus. This means disentangling the purport of Berkeley's philosophy from the current ideas and language of his own time, and clothing the message he was so profoundly eager to proclaim in our own ideas and vernacular. For Berkeley had a message which ran through the thought and writings of all his years, for which the ideology of his earlier years and the Neo-Platonism of latter years, the scheme for his Bermuda College, and his advertisements of Tar Water were but the carriers, largely dictated by his own times.

Berkeley belonged to the eighteenth century, the eighteenth century of England, the century of Addison and the Spectator, of Steele and his Sentimental Journey, of Samuel Johnson and his Rasselas, of Alexander Pope and The Rape of the Lock, of Dean Swift and Gulliver's Travels, of Butler's Analogy, of Isaac Newton and his Principia and his Fluxions, of Mandeville and his Fable of the Bees, of Shaftesbury and his Characteristics, of Mathew Tindal and his The Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature, of Defoe and Robinson Crusoe, of Richardson, Smollett, and Fielding, of the Free Thinkers, the Rakes, and Beau Brummel, and of John Locke's New Way of Ideas. It was an age in which corruption was systematized into a political system, and public pilfering was a profession. In all this medley there was a common characteristic, a fastening on what was there, an intrenchment in the given, a determination to enjoy what was within the reach of the eyes and the ears

(423) and the hands, a distrust of theories, and a wary avoidance of critical issues. England had gone through a revolution and had succeeded in avoiding a civil war. She was rid of the regiment of the Puritan Saints and the autocracy of the Stuart dynasty. She had muddled through to an illogical dominance of Parliament, and profoundly distrusted all high-flown loyalties. It was an age of materialism, if we mean by materialism a concentrated interest in what we have and a determination not to sacrifice it to any theories, however logical.

And Berkeley, the youthful philosopher, was more thoroughgoing in restricting reality to what we get through direct experience than was John Locke, along whose New Way of Ideas Berkeley travelled; and he was more logical. Locke said that all our knowledge was of our sensations -- he called them ideas -- and the impressions of the mind's inner activities; but he admitted that our sensations of solid extension gave to us experience of an external extended matter. To this Berkeley replied that our sensations of touch and contact are in the same boat with the sensations of color and odor and sound and warmth. They are just our sensations. Their reality is just our sensing of them. Esse est percipi. It is all very simple. The world is after all only what we experience and we experience only our sensations. So far this is sound eighteenth-century materialism, but it is not eighteenth-century common-sense. It was too logical to appeal to the English mind. Dr. Johnson refuted this Berkeleyan idealism by stamping on the ground. He entirely agreed with John Locke that we had experience of external solid matter, not simply experience of our own sensations of extended hardness. Of course, Berkeley could ask, in reply, what more there could be in experiencing outside matter than having sensations of hardness and of extension, provided one always experienced the sensation when he had the visual sensation of it, and anyone who had travelled along Locke's new way of ideas was hard put to it to find any difference. If he stubbed his toe the painful sensation of extended hardness was all there was to it. Externality was only another phase of sensation and it was a sensation of the individual, and lay in his mind quite as much as colors or sounds or odors. What indeed did call for explanation was the regularity of these physical sensations. The mind was not responsible for their happening, even if they did happen to the mind. The mind was passive over against them. It was a common-sense answer to say that the cause of them was a world outside of mind. It was regular, uniform in its operations, and thus accounted for the occurrence of the sensations. Now, Dr. Johnson was as pious as was Bishop Berkeley and believed as profoundly as did the Bishop that the

(424) physical world, if it existed, must be itself the effect of divine creation and control. If he went along the way of ideas, Berkeley could ask him why he should introduce this unnecessary world? The ultimate cause was the action of God. Why, then, should God create a world to produce a sensation of external matter, when he could so much more simply cause immediately this sensation of external matter in men's minds? It was not only unnecessary, a fifth wheel in the universe, but it introduced further incomprehensibilities. How can an external matter affect a spiritual mind? We know, from our experience, that our minds can affect themselves. Every action of the will in directing our thoughts and actions is evidence of this. There is, then, no difficulty in believing that God, who is an all-powerful spirit, can produce any effects he chooses in the minds of his creatures, who are also spirits, but to assume that God creates something that is not mind to act on our minds, is not only to assume a superfluity, but assume something which we can not understand. Assume, for the sake of argument, that God has created a physical world to produce these hard, colorful, sounding sensations in our minds, and that his intelligent direction sees to it that this matter always uniformly produces these sensations. Now again, let us assume that he annihilates this world, that lies between him and his creatures, and that he directly produces in these minds these same sensations; should we ever know it? Could we ever know it, unless God saw fit to make a revelation of what he had done? If you start with Berkeley along this new way of ideas there is no point at which you can stop him. No, the only way in which to bring Berkeley to a pause along this new way of ideas, was to follow it just a little further, as David Hume did, and ask the further question, How by following associations within our minds can we get to the existence of a God outside of our minds? For, after all, the idea of causation, along this new way of ideas, is only an association of ideas and memories within the mind. And with this step one reaches complete skepticism. One wonders what the logical Berkeley would have done if this logical step had occurred to him. But this step belonged to the next generation and does not concern Berkeley.

But until this further step was taken along the way of John Locke's ideas, Berkeley was entirely logical. There was no material universe to stand between him and his God, the cause, the creator, and the ruler of a spiritual universe. By being consistent in the presuppositions of a materialistic age, Berkeley swept the whole material universe away. The order and structure of our sensations was but the language by which God conversed with us, indicating to us what experiences we were to expect. Berkeley analysed

(425) with exquisite neatness our visual sensations into the symbols which God imprints on our minds of the tactual sensations we shall have if we move in certain ways. His Theory of Vision is as convincing today as it was when it was written, though we interpret it behavioristically rather than theologically. Perhaps I can illustrate what Berkeley's philosophy undertook to do by an economist's fable. Unlike Berkeley, the economist was not entirely orthodox. But this was the fable he told his class, who were studying banking and the gold reserve. A certain bank had its gold reserve stored in its vaults. The bank issued its paper according to legal ratio, and remained therefore entirely sound. No one wanted the gold as long as he knew he could get it. But one day it was discovered that a burglar had burrowed under the vault and into it, and had carried the whole gold reserve away. The directors met and adjourned without deciding what steps to take. This indecision lasted for some time, while the banking business went on, no one else being the wiser and therefore no one else caring at all whether there was any gold reserve or not. It is not necessary to consider the later action of the bank directors, but I think the application is evident. Here we move about in the world of our sensations, with their extension and solidity. Our distance sensations indicate to us what we must do to attain contact sensations, but we never get away from sensations, we only pass from certain sensations to other sensations, and they are all of them ordered in a law-abiding world of sensations. To be sure, we assume there are physical things answering to these sensations, but our only interest in them is our belief that they insure our getting other experiences if we act intelligently. Now comes Berkeley the burglar, burrows underneath our presuppositions and takes the material universe away, and lo! all goes on as before. The same divine intelligence that was supposed to have created this physical universe is directly responsible for the meanings which our experiences have for us, and we never discover that the physical backing of our ideas is gone. And, unlike the bank directors, we discover that we have no way of finding out whether it is gone or not, because we never could experience it anyway; all we could get would be some more sensations.

Berkeley walked with God even more intimately than Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and "The fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe," had left him in constant converse with his Maker, not only in hours of meditation and worship, but in every glance of the eye and in every contact of foot or hand. He possessed a proof of God's existence before which Paley's watch slinks away abashed. Read it in Alciphron and wonder,-- that is, until the specter of David Hume rises above

(426) the northern horizon. He had turned the flank of materialism by carrying the tenets of its philosophy to their logical conclusion. But when he undertook to convince the Free Thinkers and libertines of his generation, he had to confess that their unbelief was not an affair of the reason, but of the will, and their untoward impulses. And, after all, the doctrine suffered for practical purposes by its own virtuosity. Even if we find that we have been unnecessarily assuming a physical world outside of experience, we can go on doing so without in any way interfering with our conduct. We are, most of us, Dr. Johnsons rather than Berkeleys, we stamp our feet heartily on the pavement and thus dissipate the subtle vapors of the brain. Alciphron probably had less effect than Butler's Analogy, they both being written in the same attempt, to meet the ratiocinations of the Free Thinkers.

Berkeley's important philosophical treatises were written with astonishing precocity in his early years, and he had given them a more popular form in dialogues beautifully fashioned. The Alciphron he wrote while at Newport, Rhode Island, and took it back with him for publication. The Bishopric of Cloyne in Ireland was conferred upon him, and there he spent his later years in the most admirable execution of his office. He, in some degree, confessed the inadequacy of his doctrine as a final philosophy by wandering into the field of Neo-Platonism in later life. He got out of the New Way of Ideas. But he brought back with him from America tar-impregnated water, a harmless panacea for all ailments, which he supported by learned quotations from the ancients, and mingled with his later writings.

We may leave Berkeley's treatises to their secure place among the classics of the world's philosophies, but we have still the task of lifting his undertaking out of the vernacular and current conceptions of his time and restating it in terms of our own way of ideas. What Berkeley said was that our experiences, as we live them in our inner and outer lives, are parts of the reality that stretches out infinitely beyond us. They are the same stuff and have the same inner nature. For Berkeley that which stretched out beyond, was the God whom he conceived in the terms of the theology of his time and his church. We may not conceive it in these terms. But however we. conceive that reality, our experience may, be continuous with it. All the world that is revealed to our senses in our imagination and thought may be the very stuff of reality, the perspective of the universe that appears in the experience of each one of us, and in each moment of that experience may be an integral part of the world which science presents. In other words, Berkeley's message was this: that the nature of our experience is the same as the

(427) nature of the universe that is responsible for it. It makes short work of Descartes' dualism of mind and matter, by abrogating matter. Berkeley annihilated matter, but he left the entire reality of the material world in the mind of God and in our minds, as God produces there the impressions which are the world of our experience. Hume, travelling still more logically along the way of Locke's ideas, wiped out any knowable connection between these impressions and anything outside of them, and wiped out the mind also as a spiritual substance. In the face of this debacle, men, such as James and John Stuart Mill, who still travelled along Locke's way of ideas, reverted, in practice, to Dr. Johnson's common-sense attitude. The physical world was assumed to be there, in some way paralleling our sensations and ideas. The dualism of Descartes was reestablished, and materialism flourished. But it was a different materialism from that which Berkeley fought. It was the materialism of the extraordinary growth of recent physical science.

Now theoretically, science might have accepted Berkeley's doctrine, and have gone on investigating the universe as it lay in the mind of God, but if it had done so it would have accepted also the trammels of Berkeley's theological metaphysics. Science must be free to accept the physical world without any presupposition as to the purposes of a Creator. Berkeley, in the Alciphron, was as really undertaking to justify the ways of God to men as was Milton, and made man the center of creation. Science can give no preferred position to mankind in its universe, not even to solve the epistemological problem. So we witness the extraordinary and stately structure of nineteenth-century science, that was entirely indifferent to any philosophical problems involved in our experience or in our experiencing. Newtonian mechanics triumphed, with Newton's dictum, Non Fingo Hypotheses, which did not mean, I do not make hypotheses, but that I do not make any theoretical presuppositions.

If it was wisdom to leave the sciences free to go their own way and to follow their own method, wisdom has certainly been justified of her children. For not only have the sciences flourished mightily, maintaining inviolate the experimental method, but the world which they have made has evidenced notable progress in filling in the Cartesian chasm between matter and mind. In the nineteenth century this approach of matter to mind, was found in the biological sciences. Fixed species disappear and we see them arise in the struggle for existence and in physiological mutations. Thus we witness not only the origin of the human species, but also the evolution of intelligence. We can not put living and intelligent organisms into the realm of nature, and watch their develop-

(428) -ment in accordance with natural law, without putting there also the purposiveness of life and the intelligent attainment of the ends of the living organisms. But while the demand is inevitably made, it seems impossible to gear it up with the Newtonian mechanics of the physical sciences. However, it must be noted that the problem now lies in the scientific world. It is no offensive projection of philosophic speculation. And then psychology enrolls itself among the natural sciences, and accepts its experimental method and struggles to free itself from its philosophic inheritances. It has been chiefly occupied in trying so to state our experiences that they can retain their concrete content and still become data for scientific observation and experiment. The conflicts between parallelism and interactionism, between structural, functional, objective, and behavioristic psychologies all turn, upon what it is that we actually observe and can make the subject-matter of our experiments. The psychologists are agreed that they will be scientific, and that they will bring with them no metaphysical presuppositions. What they are not agreed upon is the identification of what they observe. Mind, the psychologist has brought within the method and scope of science. If the bifurcation of nature into mind and matter persists, that bifurcation lies within the field of science. Philosophy is not responsible for it.

In the twentieth century the physicists made the extraordinary discovery that if exact measurements were to be made, it was necessary to take into account the relative motion of the measurer and that which is measured; that as this varies the actual length of the spatial and temporal standards of measurement change. There is no constant unit of measurement, nor can there be. It goes with this, of course, that there is no absolute space nor absolute time. They vary with the perspective or frame of reference of the observer. The exact scientist always had previously assumed that different estimates which different observers made were due to differences in their perceptions, and existed only in their consciousnesses, not in nature. This holds not only for extents of space and time, but also for mass and any form of so-called energy. What had been considered as belonging to mind now has to be recognized as belonging to the measurable nature with which the most exact sciences are occupied. What a thing is in nature depends not simply on what it is in itself, but also upon the observer, in this case on his motion relative to the object. Now this sort of relativity of the known to the knower has played a great part in the philosophy of mind, but here is this relativity of the thing to the observer brought in by science to determine what is the nature of the thing itself. If this is true of the motion of the observer,

(429) why may it not also be true of his sensitivity? Why can not an object in nature have color because it stands in relation to an organism endowed with vision? If the triadic relation of the thing and its quality and the observer determines the nature of the thing in exact measurement, why may it not be true down the whole line of observation? One of the most considerable problems of the relation of mind to material nature appears most unexpectedly within science itself.

Thus in scientific biology, in the study of the relation of the intelligent organism to its environment; in scientific psychology, in the study of the perceiving organism to its environment; and in relativistic physics, in the study of the relation of the observer to the observed environment, we find science doing yeoman's service in struggling with the problem of mind and nature. In this new landscape Berkeley's old principle of orientation, that mind and nature are of the same stuff, that nature exists in our perception of it, can be affirmed again with better chance of its being accepted. The scientist may, with professional pride, insist that he is not philosophizing, but as he imports more and more of that which was considered mental into his material world he has also taken over the problem of relating the two to each other, and the philosopher can only wish him Godspeed in his undertaking.

No man is wholly responsible for his own metaphysics; a large part of the structure of it he inevitably takes over from the period and the community of which he is a part. The insight, which his genius gives him, must play upon the landscape which surrounds him, but it may be an insight which illuminates more significantly other landscapes than his own. And that I think is true of Berkeley's insight that the world of our perception is the real world. When Berkeley sought to counteract the materialism of his time, by presenting perception as daily converse with God, he was met by Dr. Johnson's stamp of his foot on the pavement, by the Free Thinker's shrug of his shoulder, and by the indifference of the scientist. Today the affirmation that the real world is the world of our experience comes to us in no such bizarre form. Berkeley saw the real world partially in our perceptions, but completely in the mind of God. From this he drew the moral that we should govern our conduct by the meaning and purpose of the world, which God had revealed to us through many channels. We can not draw any such moral from the identification of our experience with reality. We possess no vision given in the mount which completes our perspectives. The moral that we can draw is of a frankly opposite sort. Just in so far as we can control our experience we can control the world, just in so far we can be creative in our own experi-

(430) -ences, we can be creative in the world. We can be thus intelligently creative only in so far as we conform to the order which is revealed in our past experience. We control nature by obeying her. And we have been doing it at a great rate. The world in which humanity lives today, especially in the western world, is as different from that of the eighteenth century as were two geologic epochs. We can determine what plant life and what animal life shall surround us; and to a large extent we do. We can determine what shall be the immediate incidence of cold and heat upon our bodies. We can determine what sort of a human race shall be bred, and how many of them. All the conditions which we believe, in large measure, determined the origin of species are within our power. We can do all of this, but we have not accepted the responsibility for it. And, I take it, this is the moral that we should draw from the identity of the world of our experience and the real world. If we can control the means we become responsible for the new ends which they enable us to form. And we have come far short of accepting that responsibility. We fashioned the marvellous world of the twentieth century, and then undertook within it to fight an eighteenth-century war. The hands were the hands of Esau, but the voice was the voice of Jacob.

Now I am no prophet to spread before you the forms which this responsibility will take, nor can any man, for that matter. But I can see that it is within our great universities that there will arise that contact of the scientific comprehension and control of the world with the needs and hopes of human society, out of which must spring both the sense and the formulation of these responsibilities. It is for this reason that it seems to me singularly appropriate that the insight and vision of the great Bishop should be associated with a great university in that America where he looked for the dawn of a new day.



  1. An address delivered on the 200th anniversary of the. landing at Bishop Berkeley in this country, at a joint celebration by the University of California and the City of Berkeley, January 23, 1929.

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