A Metaphysics for the Mob: The Philosophy of George Berkeley

A Metaphysics for the Mob: The Philosophy of George Berkeley

A Metaphysics for the Mob: The Philosophy of George Berkeley

A Metaphysics for the Mob: The Philosophy of George Berkeley


George Berkeley notoriously claimed that his immaterialist metaphysics was not only consistent with common sense but that it was also integral to its defense. Roberts argues that understanding the basic connection between Berkeley's philosophy and common sense requires that we develop a better understanding of the four principle components of Berkeley's positive metaphysics: The nature of being, the divine language thesis, the active/passive distinction, and the nature of spirits.

Roberts begins by focusing on Berkeley's view of the nature of being. He elucidates Berkeley's view on Locke and the Cartesians and by examining Berkeley's views about related concepts such asunityandsimplicity. From there he moves on to Berkeley's philosophy of language arguing that scrutiny of the famous "Introduction" to the Principles of Human Knowledge reveals that Berkeley identified the ideational theory of meaning and understanding as the root cause of some of the worst of man's intellectual errors, not "abstract ideas." Abstract ideas are, rather, the most debilitating symptom of this underlying ailment. In place of the ideational theory, Berkeley defends a rudimentary "use theory" of meaning. This understanding of Berkeley's approach to semantics is then applied to the divine language thesis and is shown to have important consequences for Berkeley's pragmatic approach to the ontology of natural objects and for his approach to our knowledge of, and relation to other minds, including God's. Turning next to Berkeley's much aligned account of spirits, the author defends the coherence of Berkeley's view of spirits by way of providing an interpretation of the active/passive distinction as marking a normative distinction and by focusing on the role that divine language plays in letting Berkeley identify the soul with the will. With these four principles of Berkeley's philosophy in hand, he then returns to the topic of common sense and offers a defense of Berkeley's philosophy as built upon and expressive of the deepest metaphysical commitments of mainstream Christianity.

Roberts' reappraisal of this important figure should appeal to all historians of philosophy as well as scholars in metaphysics and philosophy of language.


I side in all things with the Mob.


Some 130 years ago, the single most influential voice in English-language philosophy of the age, John Stuart Mill, thought that the time was ripe for a reappraisal of Berkeley’s work. In part buoyed by the publication of the first complete edition of Berkeley’s writings, Mill wrote, “[W]e think it will be recognized that [of] all who, from the earliest times, have applied the powers of their minds to metaphysical inquiries, he is the one of greatest philosophic genius.” But, after all these years, little has changed. While Berkeley’s works continue to be taught in Englishspeaking universities everywhere, they are presented, at best, as a challenge piece and, at worst, as a cautionary tale. To this day, our own philosophical identity remains both bound up with and strangely alienated from the Bishop’s philosophical legacy. We recognize Locke, Berkeley, and Hume as our founding fathers and their work as the original tilling that provided us with much of our common philosophical soil but, at the same time, we are unsure of Berkeley’s proper place and our connection to him. In what sense and to what extent are we the Bishop’s heirs? We remain partly grateful, while still partly wary. As one commentator memorably put it, “Berkeley’s metaphysics rises in the garden of British thought like some fantastic plant—beautiful and extravagant.” If that final ‘and’ were replaced with a ‘but,’ it would capture our sentiments toward Berkeley’s work perfectly.

The ultimate aim of this work is to make plain that the roots of Berkeley’s metaphysics are ancient and that the ground from which it grows is common to us all. But there are serious difficulties waiting for anyone who undertakes such a task. Standing in the way are two fundamental and interrelated problems of interpretation. Both were brought out by Hume’s work and continue to be associated with him. The first is succinctly captured in a well-known footnote in his An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

[Dr. Berkeley] professes … in his title-page (and undoubtedly with great truth) to
have composed his book against the sceptics as well as against the atheists and free
thinkers. But that all his arguments, though otherwise intended, are, in reality, merely
sceptical, appears from this, that they admit of no answer and produce no conviction.

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