Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, Culture, Philosophy

By Richard Kearney | Go to book overview

9

George Berkeley

We Irish think otherwise

My father introduced me to Berkeley’s philosophy at the age of ten. Before I was even able to read or write properly he taught me to think. He was a professor of psychology and every day after dinner he would give me a philosophy lesson. I remember very well how he first introduced me to Berkeley’s idealist metaphysics and particularly his doctrine that the material or empirical world is an invention of the creative mind: to be is to be perceived/esse est percipi. It was one day after a good lunch when my father took an orange in his hand and asked me: ‘What colour is this fruit?’ ‘Orange’, I replied. ‘Is this colour in the orange or in your perception of it?’ he continued: ‘And the taste of the sweetness—is that in the orange itself or is it the sensation on your tongue that makes it sweet?’ This was a revelation to me: that the outside world is as we perceive or imagine it to be. It does not exist independently of our minds. From that day forth, I realised that reality and fiction were betrothed to each other, that even our ideas are creative fictions. 1

The author of these words is not Irish, but the Argentine fiction writer Jorge-Luis Borges. There are, I suspect, few, if any, Irish citizens who could boast of assimilating Berkeley’s metaphysics with their father’s postprandial oranges. Berkeley is not a household name in Ireland as Descartes or Sartre are in France, Kant or Hegel in Germany, Locke or Mill in England, or Kierkegaard in Denmark. This is not altogether surprising when one considers that, even at university level, Berkeley’s philosophy has usually been relegated to specialized courses on ‘British Empiricism’ rather than included as a central component of any general course of Irish Studies. Although Berkeley is one of Ireland’s most distinguished philosophers, along with John Scotus Erigena and John Toland, his name adorns no major Irish institution (unlike the famous Berkeley college in California). In recent years, this conspicuous neglect

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