The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

14
Philosophy Does Not Need Abstract Ideas

GEORGE BERKELEY

Born in Ireland, George Berkeley (1685–1753) studied theology at Trinity College
Dublin, where he remained until 1713, writing most of his philsophic work during
his tenure as a Fellow of the College. (1707–1713). The Essay Towards a New
Theory of Vision
(1709) was critical of both neo-Cartesian and Lockeian theories
of vision. Against Descartes, Berkeley argued that judging distance is learned
from experience rather than calculated. Against Locke, he argued that tactile
and visual ideas are distinct because their sensory origins are different. The
Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) develops the view that we learn about
physical objects from perception, and that the abstract ideas of absolute space,
time and motion are empty notions. Berkeley took his perceptual idealism ("to
be is to be perceived") to be a philosophical articulation and amplification of
common sense. The continuity of (what we think of as) physical objects is
assured in the mind of God. Berkeley's philosophical psychology led him to
theology, to writing Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) and
Alciphron (1732). He argued that far from being skeptical, his version of idealism
is consistent with Scripture and Christian doctrine.

Having developed a strong interest in education, Berkeley attempted to raise
funds to establish a college in Bermuda. While vainly waiting for Crown funds,
he lived in Rhode Island during 1728–1732. After he was made the Anglican
Bishop of Cloyne in 1734. He wrote numerous pamphlets on the poverty and
plight of Ireland. In his old age, Berkeley speculated on a variety ofmedical
therapies, analyzing the benefits of tar-water.


Principles of Human Knowledge

INTRODUCTION (DRAFT)

Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may seem strange that they who have spent much time and pains in it, do usually find themselves embarrass'd with more doubts and difficulties than they were before they came to that study. There is nothing these men can touch with their hands or behold with their eyes but has its inaccessible and dark sides. Something they imagine to be in every drop of water, every grain of sand which can puzzle "and confound the most clear and elevated understanding, and are often by their principles led into a necessity of admitting the most irreconcilable opinions for true, or (which is worse) of sitting down in a forlorn scepticism.

The cause of this is thought to be the obscurity of things, together with the natural weakness and imperfection of our understanding. It is said the senses we have are few, and these design'd by nature only for the support of life, and not to penetrate into the constitution and inward essence of things. Besides, the mind of man being finite when it treats of things which partake of infinity, it is not to

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