Front Page Titles (by Subject) BERKELEY'S LIFE AND WRITINGS 1871 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
BERKELEY’S LIFE AND WRITINGS 1871 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XI - Essays on Philosophy and the Classics, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E. Sparshott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
About Liberty Fund:
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
BERKELEY’S LIFE AND WRITINGS
Fortnightly Review, n.s. X (Nov., 1871), 505-24, where the title is footnoted: “ ‘The Works of George Berkeley, D.D., formerly Bishop of Cloyne, including many of his writings hitherto unpublished. With Prefaces, Annotations, his Life and Letters, and an Account of his Philosophy.’ By Alexander Campbell Fraser, M.A., Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in the University of Edinburgh. In four vols., 8vo. Oxford, at the Clarendon Press. 1871.” Signed “J. S. Mill.” The essay was reprinted in the posthumous 4th vol. of Dissertations and Discussions (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1875), 154-87. Identified in JSM’s bibliography as “An article on Berkeley’s Life and Writings, in the Fortnightly Review for November 1871” (MacMinn, 101). There is no copy of the essay in JSM’s library, Somerville College.
For comment on the composition of the essay and related matters, see the Introduction and the Textual Introduction, xlv-xlviii and xcii above.
Berkeley’s Life and Writings
professor fraser, and the University of Oxford, have done a good service to philosophy, in recalling the attention of students to the writings of a great man, by the publication of a new, and the first complete, edition of his works. Every tiro in metaphysics is familiar with the name of Berkeley, and thinks himself perfectly well acquainted with the Berkeleian doctrines: but they are known, in most cases, so far as known at all, not from what their author, but from what other people, have said of them, and are consequently, by the majority of those who think they know them, crudely conceived, and their most characteristic features misunderstood. Though he was excelled by none who ever wrote on philosophy in the clear expression of his meaning, and discrimination of it from what he did not mean, scarcely any thinker has been more perseveringly misapprehended, or has been the victim of such persistent ignoratio elenchi; his numerous adversaries having generally occupied themselves in proving what he never denied, and denying what he never asserted. If the facilities afforded by Professor Fraser’s labours induce those who are interested in philosophy or in the history of philosophy to study Berkeley’s speculations as they issued from his own mind, we think it will be recognised 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: though among these are included Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Hartley, and Hume; Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Kant. For, greatly as all these have helped the progress of philosophy, and important as are the contributions of several of them to its positive truths, of no one of them can it be said as of Berkeley, that we owe to him three first-rate philosophical discoveries, each sufficient to have constituted a revolution in psychology, and which by their combination have determined the whole course of subsequent philosophical speculation; discoveries, too, which were not, like the achievements of many other distinguished thinkers, merely refutations of error, and removal of obstacles to sound thinking, but were this and much more also, being all of them entitled to a permanent place among positive truths. These discoveries are—
1. The doctrine of the acquired perceptions of sight: that the most important part of what our eyes inform us of, and in particular externality, distance, and magnitude, are not direct perceptions of the sense of sight, but judgments or inferences, arrived at by a rapid interpretation of natural signs; the signification of which signs is taught to us neither by instinct nor reason, but by experience.
2. The non-existence of abstract ideas; and the fact that all the general or class notions by means of which we think or reason, are really, whether we know it or not, concrete ideas of individual objects.
3. The true nature and meaning of the externality which we attribute to the objects of our senses: that it does not consist in a substratum supporting a set of sensible qualities, or an unknown somewhat, which, not being itself a sensation, gives us our sensations, but consists in the fact that our sensations occur in groups, held together by a permanent law, and which come and go independently of our volitions or mental processes.
The first-mentioned of these three speculations was the earliest great triumph of analytic psychology over first appearances (dignified in some systems by the name of Natural Beliefs); and at once afforded a model and set an example to subsequent analysts.
The second corrected a misconception which darkened the whole theory of the higher operations of intellect, making impossible any real progress in the analysis of those operations until the error had been got rid of. The Conceptualists stopped the way in philosophy, as at an earlier period the Realists had done. Berkeley refuted them, and, while adopting what was true in the doctrines of Nominalism, laid the foundation of a theory of the action of the mind in general reasoning, far ahead of anything which the Nominalists had arrived at.
Thirdly and lastly, the speculations of Berkeley concerning our notion of the external world, besides their psychological importance as an analysis of perception, were the most memorable lesson ever given to mankind in the great intellectual attainment of not believing without evidence. From that time a new canon of belief, and standard of proof, were given to thinkers, on all the abstruser subjects of philosophical inquiry.
The three together have made Berkeley the turning-point of the higher philosophy in modern times. As a matter of historical fact, this admits of no dispute. Psychology and metaphysics before and after Berkeley differ almost like ancient and modern history, or ancient and modern physics. His first two discoveries have been the starting-point of the true analytic method of studying the human mind, of which they alone have rendered possible the subsequent developments; while his reasonings on Matter have confessedly decided the direction of all succeeding metaphysical thought, alike in those who accepted, wholly or partially, the doctrine of Berkeley, and in those who fought against it.
When to all this it is added that, in mere literary style, he can take rank among the best writers of an age not unjustly regarded as in that respect the great age of English prose literature, there is reason enough that a knowledge of his doctrines should be sought in his own works, and that the present edition of them should not rest idly on library shelves, but should be part of the familiar reading of all serious students of the philosophy or history of the human mind.
In reading Berkeley’s writings as a connected whole, one is forcibly struck with the completeness with which all his characteristic doctrines had been wrought out in his mind, before he gave publicity to any of them. In the very interesting common-place book (or rather note-book) kept by Berkeley when a student at the University of Dublin, and which Professor Fraser has had the good fortune and merit of bringing to light,[*] every opinion distinctive of Berkeley is already found, even down to his points of dispute with the mathematicians; and found, not in germ merely, but almost as complete in point of mere thought, as in any of his subsequent writings. What is called his idealism, or disbelief in Matter, had not only been reached by him, but had become a fixed habit of thought at that early age. This fact is not without psychological interest, as explaining the sincere astonishment manifested in many passages of his writings, that his interpretation of sensible phenomena should not, as soon as understood, be seen to be the self-evident and common-sense view of them. Such examples of the mental law—that a mode of representing things to ourselves with which we have grown familiar, however opposed it may be to common opinion, tends to become, in our own minds, apparently self-evident—should not, when they come before us, be dismissed as the eccentricities of an individual, but should make us reflect how much more likely it is that the common opinion itself may also be indebted for its apparent self-evidence to its still greater degree of familiarity, often unbroken by the suggestion, even to fancy, of anything contradictory to it.
The doctrine of Berkeley’s first psychological work, the Essay towards a New Theory of Vision,[†] seems, and indeed is, quite independent of immaterialism; and has been accepted by the great majority of subsequent psychologists, most of whom have adopted a hostile attitude towards his idealism. But, though he published the theory of the acquired perceptions of sight before his main doctrine (which it only preceded by a year), in his own mind there was an intimate connection between them. For, the form in which he liked to represent to himself those visual appearances of linear and aërial perpective, and those muscular sensations attending movements of the globes of the eyes, which, being interpreted, inform us of tangible distance and magnitude, was that of a language in which God speaks to us, and the meaning of which, derived solely from his will, is taught to us, not by direct instruction, but by experience. Now, Berkeley’s idealism was an extension of this notion to the whole of our bodily sensations. As considered by him, all these are the direct act of God, who by his divine power impresses them on our minds without the intervention of any passive external substance, and who has established among them those constant relations of co-existence and successions required for our guidance in life, which suggest to us the unfounded idea of objects external to us, other than minds or spirits. The doctrine of the Essay on Vision might be conceived as a first step towards this system, and derived, no doubt, an additional recommendation to Berkeley from fitting so well into it; but in itself it rests on evidence strictly its own, and is equally compatible with either opinion as to the externality and substantiality of physical nature. Accordingly, it received almost unanimous assent from philosophers of both opinions, until, in our time, some unsuccessful attempts have been made to overthrow it. Among physiologists, indeed, many have remained strangers to it; for physiologists have had in full measure the failing common to specialists of all classes: they have been bent upon finding the entire theory of the phenomena they investigate within their own speciality, and have too often turned a deaf ear to any explanation of them drawn from other sources.
And here, since the question of the acquired perceptions of sight has of late been called up for rehearing, it is pertinent to remark, that the evidence of the doctrine is of that positive and irrefragable character which cannot often be obtained in psychology; it amounts to a complete induction. In general, the analytic argument by which states of consciousness, supposed to be original, are proved to be acquired, is of the nature of negative evidence. It is shown that mental laws exist which would account for their being acquired; that the known facts are consistent with the supposition of their having been so acquired; and it is maintained, with reason, that when a phenomenon may have been, and was even antecedently likely to be, produced by known causes, there is no warrant for ascribing their existence to a distinct principle in nature. But the case of the acquired perceptions of sight does not require this negative argument. It rests on positive experiment. It did so, even before its corroboration by the direct evidence of Cheselden’s and Nunneley’s patients.[*] The signs by which, according to the theory, we judge of distance and magnitude, are the proportion of the visual field which the image occupies, the clearness or indistinctness of its outline, the brightness or faintness of its colours, the number of visible objects which seem to intervene, and the amount of muscular sensation experienced in making the eyes converge so that they both point to the object. Now the connection of all these things with our perceptions of distance and magnitude by the eye, is proved by the same evidence which proves the connection between other causes and their effects: viz., when the causes are present, the effects follow; when the causes are absent, the effects do not take place; and when the causes are altered, the effects are altered. Thus, when we look at a terrestrial object through a telescope, the merely optical effect of the instrument is, that the image occupies a larger portion of the field of vision than when we look at the object with the naked eye; and because of this, we cannot help thinking that we see it larger, and because larger, therefore nearer, than with the unassisted sight. In a hazy atmosphere, when the image of a mountain reaches us fainter in colour and with a less definite outline than at other times, we seem to see it farther off, and therefore (since the size of the image is the same as usual) more lofty, than we know it to be. The reverse takes place in a peculiarly clear atmosphere, when all distant objects appear nearer and smaller than at other times. When none of the criteria supposed in the theory are present, we do not see distance from us at all; as in the case of the heavenly bodies, of the distances of which we have no perception, and all of which, therefore, appear equally distant. We are also without perception of their magnitude, saving that those which produce the largest image in the eye appear the largest, and that all of them appear larger when near the horizon than when at a greater elevation, partly because the images are less bright, and partly because they are seen across a multitude of objects, while in the more elevated position no object of known distance intervenes between us and them.* In all these cases, the difference is not in our conscious judgments, but in our apparent perceptions. The conscious judgment often does not share in the illusion. The man or the tree that we look at through the telescope is of a size and distance which may be accurately, and is always approximately, known; and the knowledge is not in the least shaken by any number of observations with the telescope. Yet we cannot express what we know to be an untrue appearance, in any less strong terms than by saying that we seem to see the things as we know them not to be. These experiments fulfil the conditions of a true induction. That what seems perception is a rapid interpretation of signs, is not a matter of doubtful argument, but rests on the same evidence, both in kind and in degree, as the truths of physical science.
The only part of this subject which is still really open to discussion, is the precise nature of the visual signs by which we discern extension in two dimensions, and plane figures, and of the relation between those signs and the facts which they signify. Much argument has been expended, we are far from saying uselessly, in maintaining that we must certainly have, by the mere sense of sight, some perception of superficial extension and figure. But these arguments in no way touch Berkeley’s theory; since he admits that we have distinctive impressions of sight corresponding to differences of tactual extension and figure, which impressions we may call, if we please, and he himself often does call (for want of a better designation), visible extension and figure. We could not be made aware by the sign, of differences in the things signified, unless there were concomitant differences in the sign itself. But Berkeley’s position is, that visible extension and figure, or what we choose to call by those names, have nothing in common with the tactual, or what we consider as the real, extension and figure which they serve to indicate; that the tie between them is entirely arbitrary, derived from the appointment of God; and that, far from visible extension and tactual extension being the same quality, we never should have suspected that there was any connection between them if experience had not disclosed it. In his opinion, a person born blind, and afterwards, when grown up, made to see, would not at first, on being shown a cube and a sphere, know whether the one or the other is the cube or sphere already known to him by touch. And this opinion is borne out by the best recorded instances. But the theory does not need this extreme conclusion; for though visible extension or figure may have, and indeed can have, no positive resemblance to tactual, there may be between them an analogy, or resemblance of relations—that is, the parts of the one may have mutual relations resembling those between the parts of the other. For example, both the visible and the tangible cube have corners; a sort of singular points, which do not exist in either the visible or the tangible sphere; and this similarity of relations might cause a person born blind, and afterwards couched, to suspect (though he could not at first know) that the visible cube, if it corresponds to anything tangible, corresponds to a tangible cube rather than to a tangible sphere. This analogy, however, does not seem to have afforded any guidance either to Cheselden’s patient or to Nunneley’s.
The originality of Berkeley is not so complete in this, the first of his three distinctive doctrines, as in the other two. The doctrine has been, by all who followed him, traced up to his Essay, in which it was for the first time pressed home, and defended against objections, so as to gain it admission among established truths.[*] But he was not the first thinker to whom the idea had presented itself. As pointed out by Professor Fraser,[†] not only had Malebranche, with whose philosophy Berkeley was familiar, made considerable approaches to it, but the fundamental doctrine is stated, in terms which Berkeley himself might have subscribed to, in a passage of Locke’s essay, first inserted in the fourth edition, and a part of which is quoted by Berkeley in his treatise. Locke himself not improbably received the idea from his friend Molyneux, to whom is due even the illustration from the sphere and cube.[‡] Berkeley, therefore, has not the merit of the conception; but he has that of raising it from a surmise to a scientific truth.
It also deserves remark, that the impossibility of seeing distance from the eye (inasmuch as, whether great or small, it projects but one point on the retina)—though often supposed to be one of the principal novelties in Berkeley’s theory—neither was, nor professed to be, a novelty, but was assumed by him, in the very beginning of his Essay, as an admitted truth. The writers on optics had already discerned thus much; but the error into which they had fallen, and which it was the aim of Berkeley to correct, was, that we judge of distances by a necessary inference of reason, from geometrical considerations which, as Berkeley says with truth, we are totally unconscious of, and which the great majority of mankind know nothing about. The whole stress of his argument is directed to showing that the inference is not one of reason, but of empirical association, and that the connection between our impressions of sight and the facts they indicate can be discovered only by direct experience. It is this which makes Berkeley’s analysis of vision the leading and model example of the analytic psychology. The power of the law of association in giving to artificial combinations the appearance of ultimate facts was then for the first time made manifest.
The second of Berkeley’s great contributions to philosophy—his theory of general thought—is, that it is carried on, not, as even Locke imagined, by means of general or abstract ideas, but by ideas of individuals, serving as representatives of classes. All ideas, it was maintained by Berkeley, are concrete and individual, which yet is no hindrance to our arriving, by means of them, at truths which are general. When, for example, we prove the properties of triangles, the idea in our mind is not, as Locke supposed, the abstract idea of a triangle which is nothing but a triangle—which is neither equilateral, isosceles, nor scalene—but the concrete idea of some particular triangle, from which, nevertheless, we may conclude to all other triangles, if we have taken care to use no premises but such as are true of any triangle whatever. This doctrine, which is now generally received, though perhaps not always thoroughly comprehended, was undoubtedly, like that of the acquired perceptions of sight, intimately connected in Berkeley’s mind with his ideal theory; for he regarded the notion of matter, apart from sensations in a mind, as the supreme instance of that absurdity, an abstract idea. As in the theory of vision, so in this, Berkeley broke the neck of the problem. He for the first time saw to the bottom of the Nominalist and Realist controversy, and established the fact that all our ideas are of individuals; though he left it to his successors to point out the exact nature of the psychological machinery (if the expression may be allowed) by which general names do their work without the help of general ideas. The solution of this, as of so many other difficulties, lies in the connotation of general names. A name, though common to an indefinite multitude of individual objects, is not, like a proper name, devoid of meaning; it is a mark for the properties, or for some of the properties, which belong alike to all these objects, and with these common properties it is associated in a peculiarly close and intimate manner. Now—though the name calls up, and cannot help calling up, in addition to these properties, others in greater or smaller number which do not belong to the whole class, but to the one or more individual members of it which, for the time being, are serving as mental types of the class—these other ingredients are accidental and changeable; so that the idea actually called up by the class name, though always that of some individual, is an idea in which the properties that the name is a mark of are made artificially prominent, while the others, varying from time to time, and not being attended to, are thrown into the shade. What had been mistaken for an abstract idea, was a concrete image, with certain parts of it fluctuating (within given limits) and others fixed, these last forming the signification of the general name; and the name, by concentrating attention on the class-attributes, prevents the intrusion into our reasoning of anything special to the individual object which in the particular case is pictured in the mind.*
The third of Berkeley’s distinctive doctrines, and that by which his name is best known, is his denial of Matter, or rather of Matter as defined by philosophers; for he always maintained that his own opinion is nearer to the common belief of mankind than the doctrine of philosophers is. Philosophers, he says, consider matter to be one thing, and our sensible impressions, called ideas of sense, another: they believe that what we perceive are only our ideas, while the Matter which lies under them and impresses them upon us is the real thing. The vulgar, on the contrary, believe that the things they perceive are the real things, and do not believe in any hidden thing lying underneath them. And in this I, Berkeley, differ with the philosophers, and agree with the vulgar, for I believe that the things we perceive are the real things, and the only things, except minds, that are real. But then he held with the philosophers, and not with the vulgar, that what we directly perceive are not external objects, but our own ideas; a notion which the generality of mankind never dreamed of. Accordingly, at the conclusion of his fullest and clearest exposition of his own doctrine (the Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous), Berkeley says that the truth is at present “shared between the vulgar and philosophers: the former being of opinion that those things they immediately perceive are the real things; and the latter, that the things immediately perceived are ideas which exist only in the mind.”*
It was enough for Berkeley to say, and this he was fully justified in saying, that he did not deny the validity of perception, nor of consciousness; that he affirmed the reality of all that either the vulgar or philosophers really perceive by their senses, and denied only what was not a perception, but a rapid and unconscious inference, like the inference which is mistaken for perception when we judge of externality and distance by the eye; with the difference, however, that in this last case the inference is legitimate, having experience to rest upon, while in the case of matter there is no ground in experience or in anything else for regarding the sensations we are conscious of as signs of the presence of anything, except potentialities of other sensations. Berkeley might say with truth, and in his own language he did say, that he agreed with the common opinion of mankind in all that they distinctly realise to themselves under the notion of matter. For he agreed in recognising in the impressions of sense a permanent element, which does not cease to exist in the intervals between our sensations, and which is entirely independent of our own individual mind (though not of all mind). And he was quite right in maintaining that this is all that goes to make up the positive notion which mankind have of material objects. The point at which he diverged from them was where they add to this positive notion a negative one—viz., that these objects are not mental, or such as can only exist in a mind. Without including this, it is impossible to give a correct account of the common notion of matter; and on this point an unmistakeable difference existed between Berkeley and the common mind. It was competent to Berkeley to maintain that this part of the common notion is an illusion; and he did maintain this, in our opinion successfully. He was not equally successful in showing how the illusion is produced, and in what manner it grows into a delusion. He gives as a sufficient explanation “that men knowing they perceived several ideas, whereof they themselves were not the authors—as not being excited from within, nor depending on the operation of their wills—this made them maintain those ideas or objects of perception had an existence independent of and without the mind, without ever dreaming that a contradiction was involved in those words.”* It is not surprising that this explanation should not be accepted as sufficient. For our thoughts, also, do not always depend on our own will; and therefore, on this theory, our thoughts, as well as our sense-perceptions, should sometimes be considered to be external to us. Berkeley escapes from this difficulty by greatly exaggerating the dependence of the thoughts upon the will.† He also adds, as another distinction between sensations and thoughts, that the former are “not excited from within.” But the very notions of without and within, in reference to our mind, involve belief in externality, and cannot, therefore, serve to account for the belief. Berkeley left this part of his theory to be completed by his successors. It remained for them to show how easily and naturally, when a single sensation of sight or sound indicates the potential presence, at our option, of all the other sensations of a complex group, this latent though present possibility of a host of sensations not felt, but guaranteed by experience, comes to be mistaken for a latent cause of the sensations we actually feel; especially when the possibilities, unlike the actual sensations, are found to be common to us with other minds. This has been shown, perhaps more fully and explicitly than ever before, in the present generation. That it could not be so distinctly pointed out by Berkeley, was partly because he had not thoroughly realised the fact, that the permanent element in our perceptions is only a potentiality of sensations not actually felt. He saw indeed, quite clearly, that to us the external object is nothing but such a potentiality. “The table I write on,” he says in the Principles of Human Knowledge, “I say exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed—meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit does perceive it.”* But in itself the object was, in his theory, not merely a present potentiality, but a present actual existence, only its existence was in a mind—in the Divine Mind. This is the positive side of his theory, not so generally known or attended to as the negative side, and which involves, we think, some serious logical errors.
It must here be observed, that Berkeley was not content with maintaining that the existence of a material substratum is neither perceived by the senses, nor proved by reason, nor necessary to account for the phenomena, and is therefore, by the rules of sound logic, to be rejected. He thought that it could be disproved. He considered the notion of matter to involve a contradiction: and it was true that the notion as defined by many philosophers did so. For their definition of matter affirmed it to be purely passive and inert; yet they regarded material objects as the exciting causes of our sensations. There was no refuting Berkeley when he said that what is passive and inert cannot cause or excite anything. To the notion of philosophers that the causes of our sensations might be “the configuration, number, motion, and size of corpuscles,” he replied by an appeal to consciousness. Extension, figure, and motion, he said, are ideas, existing only in the mind; “but whoever shall attend to his ideas, whether of sense or reflection, will not perceive in them any power or activity; there is, therefore, no such thing contained in them. A little attention will discover to us that the very being of an idea implies passiveness and inertness in it, insomuch that it is impossible for an idea to do anything, or, strictly speaking, to be the cause of anything. Whence it plainly follows that extension, figure, and motion cannot be the cause of our sensations.”† From this he deduces that as our sensations must have a cause, and as this cannot be other sensations (or ideas), and as there exists no physical thing except sensations (or ideas), the cause of our sensations must be a spirit. He thus anticipates the doctrine of which so much use has been made by later philosophers of a school opposed to his own; that nothing can be a cause, or exert power, but a mind.
It would have been well if the thinker who was almost the founder and creator of the Experience philosophy of mind, had contented himself with (in the language of Kant) a criticism of experience—with distinguishing what is and what is not a subject of it: instead of, as we find him here, dispensing with experience, by an à priori argument from intuitive consciousness. For it is in vain to consult consciousness about the existence of a power. Powers are not objects of consciousness. A power is not a concrete entity, which we can perceive or feel, but an abstract name for a possibility; and can only be ascertained by seeing the possibility realised. Intuitive perception tells us the colour, texture, &c., of gunpowder, but what intuition have we that it can blow up a house? True it is that all we can observe of physical phenomena is their constancies of co-existence, succession, and similitude. Berkeley had the merit of clearly discerning this fundamental truth, and handing down to his successors the true conception of that which alone the study of physical nature can consist in. He saw that the causation we think we see in nature is but uniformity of sequence. But this is not what he considers real causation to be. No physical phenomenon, he says, can be an efficient cause; but our daily experience proves to us that minds, by their volitions, can be, and are, efficient causes. Let us be thankful to Berkeley for the half of the truth which he saw, though the remainder was hidden from him by that mist of natural prejudice from which he had cleared so many other mental phenomena. No one, before Hume, ventured to think that this supposed experience of efficient causation by volitions is as mere an illusion as any of those which Berkeley exploded, and that what we really know of the power of our own volitions is only that certain facts (reducible, when analysed, to muscular movements) immediately follow them. Berkeley proceeded to argue, that since our sensations must be caused by a mind, they must be given to us by the direct action of the Divine Mind, without the employment of an unintelligible inert substance as an intermediate link. Having no efficacy as a means, this passive substance could only intervene, if at all, not as a cause, but as an occasion, determining the Divine Being to give us the sensations: a doctrine actually held by Malebranche and other Cartesians, but to Berkeley inadmissible, since what need can the Deity have of such a reminder? Indeed, Malebranche admitted that on his theory there would be no necessity for believing in this superfluous wheel in the machinery, if its existence had not been, as he supposed it to be, expressly affirmed in Scripture. Therefore, thought Berkeley, all that is termed perception of material objects is the direct action of God upon our minds, and no substance but spirit has any concern in it.
But Berkeley did not stop here. That which is the immediate object of perception according to previous philosophers, and the sole object according to Berkeley, was our ideas—a much-abused term, never more unhappily applied than when it was given as a name to sensations and possibilities of sensation. These ideas (argued Berkeley) are admitted to have a permanent existence, contrasted with the intermittence of actual sensations; and an idea can have no existence except in a mind. They exist in our own minds only while we perceive them, and in the minds of other men only while those other men perceive them; how then is their existence sustained when no man perceives them? By their permanently existing in the mind of God. This appeared to Berkeley so conclusive an argument for the existence of a Supreme Mind, that it might well take the place of all the other evidences of natural theology. There must be a Deity, because, if there were not, there would be no permanent lodging-place for physical nature; since it has no existence out of a mind, and does not constantly and continuously exist in any finite mind. And he sincerely believed that this argument put a final extinguisher upon “atheism and scepticism.”[*] All that we perceive must be in a mind, and when no finite being is perceiving it, there is only the Divine Mind for it to abide in. This quaint theory presents a distant and superficial resemblance to Plato’s doctrine of ideas; and in Siris,[†] which in its metaphysical part contains the latest of Berkeley’s statements of his opinion, he presses Plato and the Platonists (who, as Coleridge says, should rather be called the Plotinists)[‡] into the service of his theory; leading Professor Fraser to believe that the theory itself had undergone modifications, and had been developed in his later years into something more nearly akin to Realism.[§] To our mind the passages in Siris do not convey this impression. There is a wide chasm between Berkeley’s doctrine and Plato’s, and we do not believe that Berkeley ever stepped over it. The Platonic Ideas were self-existent and immaterial, but were as much external to the Divine Mind as to the human. The gods, in their celestial circuits, so imaginatively depicted in the Phædrus, lived in the perpetual contemplation of these Ideas, but were neither the authors, nor were their minds the seat and habitation of them; their sole privilege above mankind was that of never losing sight of them. Moreover Plato’s Ideas were not, like Berkeley’s, identified with the common objects of sense, but were studiously and most broadly distinguished from them, as being the imperishable prototypes of those great and glorious attributes—beauty, justice, knowledge, &c.—of which some distant and faint likeness may be perceived in the noblest only of terrestrial things. We see no signs that Berkeley ever drew nearer to these opinions; and it seems to us that his citations of the Platonists were not an adoption of their doctrines, but an attempt to show that they had, in a certain sense, made an approximation to his, at least to the extent of throwing off the vulgar opinions.
The part of Berkeley’s theory on which he grounded what he deemed the most cogent argument for a Deity, is obviously the weak and illogical part of it. While showing that our sensations, equally with our thoughts, are but phenomena of our own mind, he recognised, with the rest of the world, a permanent element in the sensations which does not exist in the thoughts; but he had an imperfect apprehension of what that permanent element is. He supposed that the actual object of a sensible perception, though, on his own showing, only a group of sensations, and suspended so far as we are concerned when we cease to perceive it, comes back literally the same the next time it is perceived by us; and, being the same, must have been kept in existence in another mind. He did not see clearly that the sensations I have to-day are not the same as those I had yesterday, which are gone, never to return; but are only exactly similar; and that what has been kept in continuous existence is but a potentiality of having such sensations, or, to express it in other words, a law of uniformity in nature, by virtue of which similar sensations might and would have recurred, at any intermediate time, under similar conditions. These sensations, which I did not have, but which experience teaches me that I might have had at any time during the intermission of my actual sensations, are not a positive entity subsisting through that time: they did not exist as sensations, but as a guaranteed belief; implying constancy in the order of phenomena, but not a spiritual substance for the phenomena to dwell in when not present to my own mind. Professor Fraser, in several of his annotations, expresses the opinion that Berkeley did not mean, when a sensation comes back after an interval, that it is numerically the same, but only that it is the same in kind. But if the same only in kind, how can it require to be kept individually in existence during the interval? When the momentary sensation has passed away, the occurrence, after a time, of another and exactly similar sensation, does not imply any permanent object, mental any more than material, to keep up an identity which does not really exist. If Berkeley thought that what we feel is retained in actual, as distinguished from potential, existence, when we are no longer feeling it, he cannot have thought that it is nothing more than a sensation. And in truth, by giving it the ambiguous and misleading name Idea, he does leave an opening for supposing it to be more than a sensation. His Ideas, which he supposes to be what we perceive by our senses, are nothing different, and are not represented by him as anything different, from our sensations: he frequently uses the words as synonymous: yet he doubtless would have seen the absurdity of maintaining that the sensation of to-day can be really the same as the sensation of yesterday, but he saw no absurdity in affirming this of the idea. By means of this word he gives a kind of double existence to the objects of sense: they are, according to him, sensations, and contingencies, or permanent possibilities, of sensation, and yet they are also something else; they are our purely mental perceptions, and yet they are independent objects of perception as well; though immaterial, they exist detached from the individual mind which perceives them, and are laid up in the Divine Mind as a kind of repository, from which it almost seems that God must be supposed to detach them when it is his will to impress them on us, since Berkeley rejects the doctrine of Malebranche, that we actually contemplate them in the Divine Mind. This illogical side of Berkeley’s theory was the part of it to which he himself attached the greatest value; and he would have been much grieved if he had foreseen the utter neglect of his favourite argument for Theism. For it was for this, above all, that he prized his immaterial theory. Indeed, the war against freethinkers was the leading purpose of Berkeley’s career as a philosopher.*
Besides Berkeley’s properly metaphysical writings, some notice must be taken of his strictly polemical performances—his attacks on the freethinkers, and on the mathematicians. The former controversy pervades more or less all his writings, and is the special object of the longest of them, the series of dialogues entitled Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher.[*] Of this it may be said with truth, that were it not the production of so eminent a man, it would have little claim to serious attention. As a composition, indeed, it has great merit; and, together with the dialogues on Matter, entitle Berkeley to be regarded as the writer who, after Plato, has best managed the instrument of controversial dialogue. The opinions, however, which he puts into the mouths of freethinkers are mostly such as no one would now think worth refuting, for the excellent reason that nobody holds them; it may be permitted to doubt whether they were even then held by any one worth answering. The freethinkers in the dialogues are two in number—Alciphron, who is intended to represent a disciple of Shaftesbury; and Lysicles, a follower of Mandeville, or rather a man of pleasure who avails himself of Mandeville in defending his own way of life. Alciphron stands for sentimental, Lysicles for sensual infidelity; the latter (with whom Alciphron also at first seemed to agree) denying all moral distinctions, and professing a doctrine of pure selfishness. Now Mandeville himself did neither of these, nor are such doctrines known to have been ever openly professed, even by those who, so far as they dared, acted on them.* It is most likely that Berkeley painted freethinkers from no actual acquaintance with them, and in the case of “sceptics and atheists”[*] without any authentic knowledge of their arguments; for few, if any, writers in his time avowed either scepticism or atheism, and, before Hume, nobody of note had attempted, even as an intellectual exercise, to set out the case on the atheistical side. Like most other defenders of religion in his day, though we regret to have it to say of a man of his genius and virtues, Berkeley made no scruple of imputing atheism on mere surmise—to Hobbes, for example, who never speaks otherwise than as a believer in God, and even in Christianity; and to the “god-intoxicated” Spinoza.[†] We may judge that he replied to what he supposed to be in the minds of infidels, rather than to what they anywhere said; and, in consequence, his replies generally miss the mark. Indeed, with the exception of his own special argument for Theism, already commented upon, he has much more to say for the usefulness of religion than for its truth; and even on that he says little more than what is obvious on the surface. A noticeable thing, not only in his controversy with the freethinkers, but through all his miscellaneous writings, is the firm persuasion he expresses of the spread and growth not only of religious unbelief, but, in addition to that, of immorality of all kinds, from the dissipations and profligacies of men about town, to robberies on the highway; and in particular he held that political corruption had surpassed all previous bounds, and that the very idea of public spirit, or regard for the public interest, was treated with contempt. No doubt, the settlement of the old questions which had strongly interested the multitude—while the new ones, which date from the American and French revolutions, had not yet come in—made the reigns of the two first Georges a time of political indifference, always favourable to the venality of politicians. Yet, when we carry back our thoughts to the courts and parliaments of the last two Stuarts, or further off, to those of James I, or earlier still, of Henry VIII, we shall not easily believe that such change as had taken place was in any direction but that of improvement. However this be, Berkeley was under a strong belief, more frequent than well-founded in the case of many good men at all periods, that the nation was degenerating; and he felt it his peremptory duty to do what in him lay towards checking that degeneration, by reasserting and fortifying with new arguments the old doctrines of religion and morals. It would have greatly astonished him to be told that, as a philosopher, he would in a future age be accounted the father of all subsequent scepticism; while, as a moralist, he would be under the ban of the next spiritualist revival, since, like nearly all the theologians of his time, he was distinctly and absolutely an utilitarian—one of Paley’s sort, who believed that God’s revealed Word is the safest guide to utility.
Berkeley’s controversy with the mathematicians has far more pith and substance, and may even now be read with considerable profit. This, too, was conceived by himself as part of his warfare against freethinkers, being an argument ad hominem addressed to “an infidel mathematician,” to the effect that as he, in mathematics, believed mysteries, and things contrary to reason, it was not open to him to reject Christianity because it contained mysteries above reason. The mathematical mysteries in question were the doctrines relating to infinites, and specially those on which the differential or infinitesimal calculus was grounded. The conclusions arrived at by this process Berkeley did not dispute, inasmuch as they were often confirmed by experience, and had not, in any case, been contradicted by it; but he maintained that the rational grounds of the theory were quite untenable, and at variance with the boasted exactness and demonstrative character of mathematical reasoning. And it is difficult to read, without parti pris, The Analyst,[*] and the admirable rejoinder to its assailants, entitled A Defence of Free-thinking in Mathematics[†] (the latter one of the finest pieces of philosophic style in the English language), and not to admit that Berkeley made out his case. It was not until later that the differential calculus was placed on the foundation it now stands on—the conception of a limit; which is the true basis of all reasoning respecting infinitely small quantities, and, properly apprehended, frees the doctrine from Berkeley’s objections. Nevertheless, so deeply did those objections go into the heart of the subject, that even after the false theory had been given up, the true one was not (so far as we are aware) worked out completely, in language open to no philosophical objection, by any one* who preceded the late eminent Professor De Morgan, who combined, with the attainments of a mathematician, those of a philosophic logician and psychologist. Though whoever had mastered the idea of a limit could see, in a general way, that it was adequate to the solution of all difficulties, the puzzle arising from the conception of different orders of differentials—quantities infinitely small, yet infinitely greater than other infinitely small quantities—had not (to our knowledge) been thoroughly cleared up, and the meaning that lies under those mysterious expressions brought into the full light of reason, by any one before Mr. De Morgan.
Berkeley was not solely a speculative philosopher and theologian; he also wrote on things directly practical, as was to be expected from his keen interest in the welfare of mankind, and specially of his own Ireland. The labours and the years of life which he devoted to the attempt to found a college at Bermuda, chiefly for the education of missionaries—a scheme which, solely through the influence of his personal character, got so far as to obtain a (for the time) large subscription list, and an address from the House of Commons, followed by the grant of a charter and a promise of £20,000 from the minister, but which, when the fascination of his presence had been removed, was quietly let drop—need not here be further dwelt upon. In his writings on practical subjects there is much to commend, and a good deal to criticise. One of them is a vindication of Passive Obedience, or the Christian doctrine of not resisting the Supreme Power.[*] It is an impressive lesson of tolerance, to find so great a man as Berkeley a thoroughly convinced adherent and defender of a doctrine not only so pernicious, but by that time so thoroughly gone by. The reader of the tract perceives that the writer was misled by an exaggerated application of that cardinal doctrine of morality, the importance of general rules. As it was acknowledged that the cases in which it is right to disobey the laws or rebel against the Government are not the rule but the exception, Berkeley threw them out altogether, for his moral rules admitted of no exceptions. The most considerable and best known of his writings on practical interests is the Querist, wherein opinions are propounded in a form to which Berkeley was partial, that of queries. It is in this that we find his celebrated query, “Whether, if there was a wall of brass a thousand cubits high round this kingdom, our natives might not nevertheless live cleanly and comfortably, till the land, and reap the fruits of it.”* The majority of the queries, like this, are on subjects of political economy. Their chief merits are the strong hold which the author has of the fundamental truths, that the industry of the people is the true source of national wealth, and luxurious expenditure a detriment to it; and the distinctness with which he perceived, being therein much in advance of his age, that money is not in itself wealth, but a set of counters for computing and exchanging wealth, and, in his own words, “a ticket entitling to power, and fitted to record and transfer this power.”[*] Had he followed up this idea, he might have anticipated the work of Adam Smith; but he held, apparently, to the conclusions of what is called the mercantile system, while rejecting its premises, and seems to have thought the consumption of foreign luxuries vastly more injurious to the national wealth than that of luxuries produced at home.
Few of Berkeley’s writings have been so much heard of, though in our days none, probably, so little read, as Siris—originally published under the title of Philosophical Reflections and Inquiries concerning the virtues of Tar-Water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising one from another—a work which begins with tar-water and ends with the Trinity, the intermediate space being filled up with the most recondite speculations, physical and metaphysical. It may surprise some persons when we say that the part of this which is best worth reading is that which treats of tar-water. Berkeley adduces a mass of evidence, from much experience of his own and of others, to the powers of tar-water both in promoting health and in curing many diseases, and thinks it probable, though without venturing to affirm, that it is an universal medicine. All this is often supposed to be a mere delusion of the philosopher, by those who do not know that the efficacy he ascribes to his remedy is in part real, since creosote, one of the ingredients of tar-water, is used with success both as a tonic and for the relief of pain, not to mention the disinfecting and other virtues of another ingredient, the now much talked-of carbolic acid. In any case, it is a valuable lesson to see how great, and seemingly conclusive, a mass of positive evidence can be produced in support of a medical opinion which yet is not borne out, except to a very limited extent, by subsequent experience. Having, as he thought, established à posteriori the restorative virtues of tar-water, Berkeley, like a philosopher as he was, endeavoured to investigate the cause, or general principle of these virtues; but he sought for evidence both of the possibility of a panacea, and of the probability of this being such, in the doctrines of an erroneous, and now thoroughly exploded, chemistry, and through them, in the mixed physical and metaphysical theories of the ancient philosophers. One of the points he strove to make out was, that fire is the vital force, or principle of life; having first, as he thought, established, from his antiquated chemistry, a peculiar connection between tar and the element of fire. But as it was not consistent with Berkeley’s philosophy to let it be supposed that fire, or anything except mind, could be a real agent, he ascends through this apparently humble subject to his own highest speculations. “It is neither acid, nor salt, nor sulphur, nor air, nor æther, nor visible corporeal fire—much less the phantom fate or necessity—that is the real agent, but, by a certain analysis, a regular connection or climax, we ascend through all those mediums to a glimpse of the First Mover, invisible, incorporeal, unextended, intellectual source of life and being.”* And the ancient philosophers, whom he had already cited in confirmation of his physics, are now invoked to give what support they can to his theology, very unsuccessfully in our opinion. Professor Fraser attaches great value to Siris, saying, that “the scanty speculative literature of these islands in last century contains no other work nearly so remarkable,” and that “every time we open its pages we find fresh seeds of thought. It breathes the spirit of Plato and the Neoplatonists in the least Platonic generation of English history since the revival of letters.”† We confess we see in it no connection but with what is least valuable in Plato, his mystical cosmogony, that which is really common to him with the Neoplatonists; and while we do not think it adds anything of the smallest value to Berkeley’s thoughts elsewhere expressed, it overloads them with a heap of useless and mostly unintelligible jargon, not of his own but of the Plotinists.
Professor Fraser has fulfilled the duties of an editor with intelligence and fidelity. He has in general contented himself with explaining and elucidating his author, and has been more sparing in comment of his own, even in the way of defence, than might perhaps have been expected from the valuable services of this kind which he has rendered to the Berkeleian doctrines in other writings. The chapter, however, which he has devoted to “The Philosophy of Berkeley,”‡ contains much useful matter in explanation and recommendation of Berkeley’s main thoughts, with some hints at what he deems shortcomings, which, to be properly judged, would require much more expansion. The biography which he has contributed, incorporating a great number of letters of Berkeley not previously known, is a work both of labour and of love, for which thanks are due to Professor Fraser. Unhappily the letters, being mostly to his man of business, Mr. Thomas Prior, do not bring to light anything very novel in the life or character of the philosopher; but both they and the biography will be always welcome to his admirers, by admitting them to such imperfect acquaintance as is still obtainable with the daily life of so excellent and eminent a man.
[[*] ]Commonplace Book, in Works, Vol. IV, pp. 419-502.
[[†] ]In Works, Vol. I, pp. 25-112.
[[*] ]See William Cheselden, “An Account,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, XXXV (1728), 447-50; and Thomas Nunneley, On the Organs of Vision (London: Churchill, 1858), pp. 31 ff.
[* ]Berkeley, by the way, does not admit this last element in our judgment—the number of interjacent objects; though this is certainly one of the criteria by which we estimate the comparative distances of different terrestrial objects. The reason given by Berkeley is that the illusion by which the moon, for instance, seems larger when near the horizon, is equally experienced when the intervening things are concealed from sight. [See Works, Vol. I, p. 65.] This does not accord with the experience of the present writer, who has found, on many trials, that the concealment of the interjacent objects greatly diminishes the apparent size of the horizontal moon. Doubtless it does not always reduce it to the apparent dimensions of the moon when at its greatest height; but that is because the other cause of the illusive appearance, the only cause acknowledged by Berkeley, still remains; the diminution of brightness caused by the greater extent of intervening atmosphere, and by the variable amount of untransparent vapour with which it is loaded.
[[*] ]See Works, Vol. I, pp. 35, 38.
[[†] ]“Editor’s Preface,” Berkeley’s Works, Vol. I, p. 15. The following reference is to Nicolas Malebranche, Recherche de la vérité, in Œuvres, ed. Jules Simon, 2 vols. (Paris: Charpentier, 1842), Vol. II, pp. 45-53 (Bk. I, Chap. ix).
[[‡] ]See Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Works, Vol. I, p. 132 (Bk. II, Chap. ix, §8).
[* ]This subject is more fully elucidated in Chap. xvii of An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy [London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865], and in the notes to the new edition of Mr. James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind [2nd ed., ed. J. S. Mill, 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869)].
[* ]Vol. I, p. 359 of Prof. Fraser’s edition.
[* ][A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in Works,] Vol. I, pp. 184-5.
[† ][Ibid.,] Vol. I, p. 170, and elsewhere.
[* ][Ibid.,] Vol. I, p. 157.
[† ][Ibid.,] Vol. I, p. 168.
[[*] ]See the full title of Berkeley’s Treatise.
[[†] ]Siris: A chain of Philosophical reflexions and inquiries concerning the virtues of Tar-water, and divers other subjects connected together and arising one from another, in Works, Vol. II, pp. 359-508.
[[‡] ]Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Notes on John Smith,” in The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge, 4 vols. (London: Pickering, 1836-39), Vol. III, pp. 415-16.
[[§] ]“Editor’s Preface,” Siris, in Works, Vol. II, pp. 343-4.
[* ]In a passage of the Third Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous (Vol. I, pp. 343-4), Berkeley seems for a moment to be aware of the ambiguity of the word “same.” Hylas, the believer in Matter, objects, “But the same idea which is in my mind cannot be in yours, or in any other mind. Doth it not therefore follow from your principles, that no two can see the same thing?” But the answer of Philonous to the objection is proof positive that Berkeley had never perceived the real gist of the ambiguity. He thought that those who are not willing “to apply the word same where no distinction or variety is perceived,” must be “philosophers who pretend to an abstracted notion of identity,” and that “all the dispute is about a word.” “Suppose,” says Philonous, “a house, whose walls or outward shell remaining unaltered, the chambers are all pulled down, and new ones built in their place, and that you should call this the same, and I should say it was not the same, house: would we not, for all this, perfectly agree in our thoughts of the house, considered in itself? and would not all the difference consist in a sound? If you should say, We differ in our notions, for that you superadded to your idea of the house the simple abstracted idea of identity, whereas I did not; I would tell you, I know not what you mean by the abstracted idea of identity; and should desire you to look into your own thoughts, and be sure you understood yourself.” Berkeley’s usual acuteness has here deserted him; for it is evident that he misses the real double meaning of “same”—that which is numerically identical, and that which is only exactly similar. In the illustration of the house, there is no question of anything but numerical identity, which does not even imply a close resemblance, for we hold a man to be the same person at ten years of age as at seventy. To make the parallel exact, the supposition should have been that some one built a house an exact copy of the former one, and demanded that it should be called the same house.
[[*] ]In Works, Vol. II, pp. 13-339.
[* ]A most powerful and discriminating discussion of the common imputations on Mandeville, and of the true scope and character of his book, will be found in Mr. James Mill’s Fragment on Mackintosh [London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1835], a book of rare vigour, and full of important materials for thought.
[[*] ]See the full title of Three Dialogues.
[[†] ]See Friedrich Leopold von Hardenburg, Novalis Schriften, 2 vols. (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1805); JSM undoubtedly got the reference from Thomas Carlyle, “Novalis,” Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 5 vols. (London: Fraser, 1840), Vol. II, p. 244.
[[*] ]The Analyst: A discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician, in Works, Vol. III, pp. 253-98.
[[†] ]In ibid., pp. 299-336.
[* ]Lagrange is no exception; for his rationalisation of the differential calculus consisted in detaching it from the conception of infinitesimals, not in rationalising that conception itself.
[[*] ]In Works, Vol. III, pp. 103-39.
[* ]Vol. III, p. 366 (134th query).
[[*] ]Ibid., p. 391.
[* ]Vol. II, p. 479.
[† ]Ibid., p. 343.
[‡ ]Chapter x of the Biography, Vol. IV, pp. 362-416.