The Reading Room

What “Irish Enlightenment”? The Case of George Berkeley

In earlier posts on John Toland and Jonathan Swift, I pointed out that champions of the Irish Enlightenment seem to elude being identified with specifically Irish aspects of that European movement. George Berkeley, born in Dysart Castle in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, in 1685, scion of a noble family, is the example par excellence of this misidentification. 
Unlike many intellectuals of the Irish Enlightenment, Berkeley  had no proximate English roots and did not spend his career in England or Scotland. He devoted himself to Irish issues and causes. The exception to this —and what might be called “the two Berkeley problem”—is that he also was a philosophical luminary of Western thought. 
In brief, Berkeley took on the epistemological theories of John Locke, and, in particular, the problem of how, given Locke’s view that sense perceptions mediate the mind’s connection with reality, we can be confident that we are perceiving reality, the “thing in itself.” He also made brilliant critiques of Réné Descartes and Nicolas Malebranche. 
Berkeley’s answer is radical. There is no “reality,” no material world; there are only our sense perceptions, which we create. There is no problem about the validity of sense perceptions; there is nothing but perception. Perceptions cannot be false because we create them. We are spirits and they are ideas; nothing else exists. Except that the consistency and reliability of our perceptions are guaranteed…by God. A famous limerick goes:
Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd I am always about in the Quad 
And that’s why the tree 
continues to be since observed by, Yours faithfully, God
Commentators have argued since then that Berkeley’s mission was to combat the materialism of his era; the point of his epistemological exercise was to make God our only reality. Although his ideas at the outset were ridiculed, they came to be viewed as one decisive riposte to Locke. 
 in “Berkeley and the Irish Enlightenment: How ‘Irish’ Are ‘We Irish’--A Reply to My Critics” Scott C. Breuninger writes:  “Between 1764 and 1784, Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid and James Beattie, surveying the history of philosophy…noticed the continuity between Locke, Berkeley, and Hume… [and] advanced the Locke-Berkeley-Hume sequence…” Later philosophers, tracing antecedents of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s skeptical denial of the possibility of knowledge, affirmed that insight. It forever snatched Berkeley from his parochial Irish context into the firmament of the successive stars of Western philosophy.
The Locke-Berkeley-Hume sequence is one of the pivotal logical progressions in the history of Western philosophical thought. That has become a thesis taught to every college undergraduate studying philosophy. Arguably, it is the most famous example of how philosophy’s structure evolves.
For our story, it explains why Berkeley’s work on Irish issues of Irish life have been cast in shadow. That is understandable, but Berkeley’s story should be told in an Irish context. Listen to his perspective on his own work expressed as early as 1707, as a student, rejecting the theories of Locke and Newton with the comment that “we Irish men cannot attain to these truths.”
Berkeley did not leave Ireland for his education. He attended his local Kilkenny College (contemporaneously with young Jonathan Swift) and then Trinity College, Dublin. There, he excelled academically (by contrast, Swift received his degree “by grace”), and took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Named a “scholar,” he stayed as a tutor and lecturer in Greek.
Berkeley’s earliest major work, in 1709, An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, foreshadowed his epistemological thesis; he argued that the proper objects of human sight are not material objects but light and color. Just three years later, at 45, came his work of genius, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. It flopped, and Berkeley, blaming his presentation, rewrote it as “Three Dialogues between Hylas [Greek for “lover of mind”] and Philonous [Greek for “matter” and probably targeting John Locke]. Berkeley also dissected Isaac Newton’s concepts of absolute space, time, and motion and now is viewed as a precursor of Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein. He influenced the development of mathematics with this skeptical look at the foundations of calculus.
During these years, Berkeley visited England, welcomed into the circle of Addison, Pope, and Steele. He traveled in Europe, his “Grand Tour” of Italy becoming known as among the most extensive on record.
Politics, economics, society, and morality all engaged Berkeley’s attention during his long career, and he addressed them in the context of Irish history. At Trinity College and later, his thought emphasized virtue, a generic theme of the Irish Enlightenment. He is credited today with bequeathing to Anglo-Irish thinkers a language to use in discussing how a shared perception of the “good” might bridge the confessional divides that plagued Ireland.
Among Berkeley best-known works, albeit a distant second, is known as Passive Obedience. (shortened, typically for books of the time, from Passive Obedience Or the Christian Doctrine of not resisting the Supreme Power, proved and vindicated upon the principles of the Law of Nature.) An analogy has been drawn with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, not on the basis of similar content but because Passive Obedience has been overshadowed by Berkeley’s work on epistemology as Smith’s work on morality has been overshadowed by The Wealth of Nations
Passive Obedience, published in 1712, comprises three sermons delivered to students at Trinity. Berkeley takes as he text: “Whosoever resisteth the Power, resisteth the Ordinance of God. (Romans 13:2)" He argues that morality is rooted in the laws of nature, which are divine; the validity of moral principles is comparable to the validity of geometry. Supreme among these natural laws is the requirement of categorical loyalty to the supreme political power. Rebellion is immoral and impermissible. We may be justified in withholding active support (“omission”) but must be ready to pay the price in punishment. As stated in brief, of course, this is close to our concept today of civil disobedience.
Are there no exceptions? We can withhold cooperation, if we accept the penalty, and can “sit still and pray for better times,” and console ourselves that a divine judgment day will come. There is much more, of course; typically, Berkeley mounts a sophisticated logical argument, addressing objections and competing theories.
Thus, Berkeley valorizes a cardinal moral principle that puts the kibosh (a word thought to originate in the late 1800s in an Irish neighborhood of London) on the uprisings and rebellions that in his day, and ours, plagued Ireland. If the Enlightenment at large erected its view of society on thought and action proceeding from the individual’s reason and will, Berkeley drew a bright red line at active defiance of constituted political authority. We discern here the influence of the Irish context.  
In 1725, Berkeley gave up his deanery and its substantial “living” to begin a 10-year project to found a college in the Bermuda colony for training ministers and missionaries. He hoped to improve on universities, of which he wrote: “The most ingenious men are now agreed, that [universities] are only nurseries of prejudice, corruption, barbarism, and pedantry.” (His own college, Trinity, had a curriculum notably modern, heavy in science and math.)
While he awaited the expected funding, he made his celebrated trip to America, taking along his new wife. (They bore four children who survived childhood.) In Newport, RI, he purchased a plantation, now famous as “Whitehall,” and several enslaved Africans to work it. He kept busy in part by planning a new “ideal city” that he would build in Bermuda. While traveling through America, he managed to leave his name in several places, including the City of Berkeley, CA, and, much later, of course, its university. In the end, in his absence, momentum for his project with Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and Parliament decayed. The funds did not materialize—so to speak. 
He undertook a less ambitious project in London, a home for abandoned children. This succeeded, the Foundling Hospital recognized by royal charter in 1739, with Berkeley one of its original governors.
In 1732, he lit out after what he called “free thinkers,” including John Toland, Lord Shaftsbury, and Bernard Mandeville, in his book Alciphron or The Minute Philosopher, another dialogue. He had earned his Doctor of Divinity at Trinity and two years later was consecrated Bishop of Cloyne. He is known to this day as Bishop Berkeley. 
He remained at Cloyne to the end of his career. By his death in 1753, however, he had retired, aged 88, and moved to Oxford with his wife and his daughter, Julia, to be near his son, George. There he died and is buried in Christ Church Cathedral.