Berkeley’s Immaterialism

Topics: Perception, Mind, Metaphysics Pages: 9 (2636 words) Published: October 11, 2013
Berkeley’s Immaterialism

George Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism essentially denies the existence of mind-independent matter. That is, substance can only exist if it is being perceived. While this theory may seem extremely counter-intuitive, Berkeley developed it in an effort to promote common sense and deny scepticism. His belief was that the existence of ‘matter’ was in fact impossible, and “magnificently repulsive”. This theory was, and is, widely rejected by most philosophers and scholars, due to the apparent absurdity of the prospect. However, many of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism seem valid and hard to deny. Why then is this theory so refuted?

Within this paper I will outline and critically examine Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism and objections against it. I will argue that Berkeley’s theory is well applied. This is especially seen as scientific discovery continues and we see that many of our past assumptions are not true, and that the strength of perception is gaining much more acclaim. However, his theory is not completely sound, and that there are some failings of it that are fatal to the overall argument – this is his reliance on the existence of God for proof of immaterialism.

I will begin with an outline of the theory itself, followed by the objections against it and how they fail. I will then provide some modern day proofs of the theory. Finally I will present the case of the failings of this theory, and possible solutions to this.

1. Outline of Berkeley’s Theory of Immaterialism

If a tree falls in the middle of the woods with nobody around, does it make a sound? Does the refrigerator light stay on once the door is shut? While these questions are usually reserved for the incessant questioning of young children, they strike to the heart of Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism. Immaterialism holds that, if an object is not perceived, it does not exist. Furthermore, all that we perceive are ideas of sense. Matter itself then, according to immaterialism, does not truly exist1. Within this section I will expand on Berkeley’s immaterialism, and examine the motivations he had for producing such a theory.

Like Locke, Berkeley is considered one of ‘British Empiricists’, however, Berkeley denies Lockean representationalism – the belief that ideas perceived by the mind are just representations of the material objects which caused them. Berkeley believed that this did not take empiricism far enough, arguing that all that exists are the ideas themselves (the perceived) and minds (the perceivers). Immaterialism, therefore, claims that material objects, without the mind, cannot exist. To claim otherwise, Berkeley considers “repugnant” (Principles 5)2.

Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism has been greatly rejected both today and in his own time. The theory, Berkeley claims, is based upon and in favour of, common sense. Yet immaterialism seems to defy our every intuition. It is understandably hard to believe that the objects of our everyday life, in which we place so much faith and believed understanding, are naught more than perceived ideas.

However, when considered critically, in many respects the theory seems sound – or at least hard to refute. Indeed, immaterialism does help explain many aspects of the world, exceedingly so as our understanding of the sciences increases. For instance; Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ explains motion as dependent upon the position of perception. Similarly, our current understanding of solidity has vastly changed, and now modern science holds that a solid object is by majority empty space which is only perceived as solid. Not to mention advances in psychology, which reveal that we process only a small fraction of the sensory data to enter our mind, meaning that the world may be perceived in many different ways depending on where you focus. What then are Berkeley’s main arguments in support of immaterialism?

1. Berkeley’s Main Arguments


References: Atherton, M. (1987). Berkeley 's Anti-Abstractionism.”In Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley. Sosa E. (ed.). Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 85–102
Bennet, J., (1965) Berkeley and God. Philosophy 40: 207–221.
Berkeley, G. (1948–1957). The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. Luce A.A. & Jessop T.E. (eds.). London: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
Berman , B., (1969) An Early Essay Concerning Berkeley 's Immaterialism. Hermathena, 109: 37-43
Botterill, G., (2007). God and First Person in Berkeley. Philosophy 82; 87-114
Fogelin, R. J., (1996). The Intuitive Basis of Berkeley 's Immaterialism. History of Philosophy Quarterly. 13: 331-344
Gallois, A. (1974). Berkeley 's Master Argument. The Philosophical Review, 83: 55–69.
Rickless, S.C., (2012) The Relation between Anti-Abstractionism and Idealism in Berkeley’s Metaphysics. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20; 723-40
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