April 26, 2012
Bishop George Berkeley
“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Although this famous quote is not the exact wording used by the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley, he was the inspiration behind this idea along with many others. Throughout his life, Berkeley developed theories that laid the foundation for the study of modern philosophy. His life experiences and travels assisted him in becoming the esteemed philosopher that he is regarded as today. Bishop George Berkeley was born near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland to a noble family. After graduating from Kilkenny College, he attended Trinity College in Dublin where he completed his master’s degree in tutoring and Greek lecturing. After he completed his education, he wrote many essays on his own philosophical theories. In 1709 Berkeley’s “Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision” was published. In the essay, he examines visual distance, magnitude, position, and problems of sight and touch. At the time the theory raised much controversy, however it is now established as an accepted part of the theory of optics. Berkeley’s “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” was then published in 1710. This specific theory is what gave him a lasting reputation; though few accepted it. Finally in 1713, Berkeley’s “Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous” was published. This work advocated his system of philosophy where the leading principle is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived. His last two publications were “Siris: Philosophical reflections and inquiries concerning the virtues of tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising from one another” in 1744, then “Further Thoughts on Tar-water,” in 1752. Pine tar was known to be an effective antiseptic and disinfectant when applied to cuts on the skin, yet Berkeley argued that the pine tar could be used as a broad panacea for diseases. He states this in his book on the medical benefits of pine tar. It was the best-selling book of his life.
As well as having a big part in the development of philosophy, Berkeley made large contributions in the fields of physics and mathematics. It is said that much of his philosophy is shaped by his involvement in science. He was also very influential in the development of mathematics, although in a rather indirect sense. "Berkeley was concerned with mathematics and it’s philosophical interpretation from the earliest stages of his intellectual life (Berkeley’s ‘Philosophical Commentaries’ 1707–1708”. In 1734, he published “The Analyst, A DISCOURSE Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician (a critique of Calculus).” Florian Cajori called this treatise “the most spectacular event of the century in the history of British mathematics.”
After Berkeley developed his system of Philosophy, he traveled to England where he was received into the circle of Addison, Pope, and Steele. In 1725, he founded a college in Bermuda that specialized in training ministers and missionaries in the colony. Three short years later he married Anne Forster, daughter of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. During that same year, he traveled to the United States, where he settled in Rhode Island. However, funds ran short and he was forced to return to London in 1732. After he returned to London, Berkeley helped establish a home for the city’s abandoned children known as the Foundling Hospital in 1741. Here the children were taught music and art.
Along with his studies, travels, and philosophical endeavors, Berkeley had a deep understanding of religion and theology. As a Christian, he personally believed God to be an immediate cause of all our experiences. “Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight...