Damien F. Mackey
Bishop George Berkeley is revealed by philosopher-scientist Gavin Ardley to have been a most poorly misunderstood, and wrongly classified, philosopher of science and mathematics.
Some decades ago, Gavin Ardley (RIP) very kindly posted me a copy of his marvellous book, Berkeley’s Renovation of Philosophy (Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), in which he turned upside down virtually everything that I had been taught about the Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher, George Berkeley (1685 -1753).
Traditionally, bishop George Berkeley – who is not highly regarded at all by champions of philosophia perennis – is placed alongside such Age of Enlightenment philosophers as Locke and Hume, albeit with his own unique brand of Empiricism.
For example (http://www.philosophybasics.com/philosophers_berkeley.html):
Bishop George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) was an Irish philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, best known for his theory of Immaterialism, a type of Idealism (he is sometimes considered the father of modern Idealism). Along with John Locke and David Hume, he is also a major figure in the British Empiricism movement, although his Empiricism is of a much more radical kind, arising from his mantra “to be is to be perceived”.
And again (http://www.iep.utm.edu/berkeley/):
George Berkeley was one of the three most famous British Empiricists. (The other two are John Locke and David Hume.) Berkeley is best known for his early works on vision (An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, 1709) and metaphysics (A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710; Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, 1713).
Berkeley claimed that abstract ideas are the source of all philosophical perplexity and illusion. In his Introduction to the Principles of Human Knowledge he argued that, as Locke described abstract ideas (Berkeley considered Locke’s the best account of abstraction), (1) they cannot, in fact, be formed, (2) they are not needed for communication or knowledge, and (3) they are inconsistent and therefore inconceivable.
In the Principles and the Three Dialogues Berkeley defends two metaphysical theses: idealism (the claim that everything that exists either is a mind or depends on a mind for its existence) and immaterialism (the claim that matter does not exist). His contention that all physical objects are composed of ideas is encapsulated in his motto esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived). ….
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According to Gavin Ardley
In Berkeley’s Renovation of Philosophy, Gavin Ardley paints an entirely different portrait of Berkeley as a most common sense and realist philosopher, “one who strove to seat philosophy once more on the broad human and common sense foundations laid by Plato and Aristotle”. Berkeley, Ardley explains, has been misread, causing his actual philosophical outlook to have been quite misunderstood due to a misinterpretation of his dialectical method. For often Berkeley’s antithesis has been taken for his final synthesis, with the inevitably catastrophic result: “… they select and abstract from the totality of Berkeley, and miss the robust simplicity and universality of Berkeley’s intentions”.
Ardley introduces his book as follows:
In this work I have endeavoured to see Berkeley in his contemporary setting. On the principle that philosophy is ultimately about men, not about abstract problems, I have tried to see Berkeley the philosopher as an expression of Berkeley the man. When this is done, what is perennial in the philosophy may be discerned in and through what is local and temporal. Berkeley then emerges as a pioneer reformer; not so much an innovator as a renovator; one who set out to rescue phi losophy from the enthusiasms of the preceding age; one who strove to seat philosophy once more on the broad human and common sense foundations laid by Plato and Aristotle. Critical studies of some of the more striking of Berkeley’s epistemological arguments are legion. They commenced with the young Berkeley’s first appearance in print, and have continued to this day. But whether they take the form of professions of support for Berkeley, or of bald refutations of Berkeley’s supposed fallacies, or whether, like the contemporary analytical studies of Moore, Warnock, and Austin, they are subtle exposures of alleged deeply concealed logical muddles, they all tend to share one common characteristic: they select and abstract from the totality of Berkeley, and miss the robust simplicity and universality of Berkeley’s intentions. It is the intentions which control the whole, and give the right perspective in which to view the various items.
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After that it is a roller coaster ride towards the discovery of an entirely new Berkeley and his vital contribution – not without Ardley’s points of criticism here and there – to the philosophy of modern science and mathematics.
Not least of Gavin Ardley’s achievements here is his re-interpretation of Berkeley’s supposed principle of immaterialism, esse est percipi, along the lines of realism and common sense. Earlier we read of the standard view of Berkeley in this regard: “[Berkeley’s] immaterialism (the claim that matter does not exist). His contention that all physical objects are composed of ideas is encapsulated in his motto esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived)”. Berkeley’s true view of this famous principle is well explained also in the following review: “… everything that is perceived is truly real and existing; it is, because it is perceived, esse est percipi”.