In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Berkeley sets up a Socratic dialogue between his own idealist views, in the person of Philonous (“lover of mind”), and the more Lockean views of Hylas (“matter”). Philonous argues that, while it is common sense to assume that the objects you perceive are real, it is against common sense to assume that those objects exist independent of perception. Through Philonous, Berkeley puts forward his “master argument.” The argument is essentially that it is impossible truly to conceive of an object outside of the mind because in the very act of trying to conceive of that object it is in the mind.
Berkeley also puts forward his theory that God is the perceptive mind that is always present and, therefore, is the mind that gives sensible qualities to objects. God groups various perceptions together. For example, humans experience the perception “touching water” and “feeling wet” at the same time. These patterns of perception are the subject of scientific study and described as laws of nature. However, they are not qualities which are inherent to an abstract material object. They are only assigned to objects by the mind of God.
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Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753) was born in Thomastown, County Killkenny, Ireland, and attended Trinity College in Dublin. He earned an MA in 1707 and a doctorate in divinity in 1721. He taught Greek, Hebrew, and divinity at Trinity College until 1724, when he was appointed Dean of Derry in the Church of Ireland. In 1728, he moved to Rhode Island with the hopes of starting a college in Bermuda. Funds for the new college did not arrive as expected, and Berkeley was forced to return to London. While in London, he worked at the Foundling Hospital and helped establish a home for abandoned children. He was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, living there until he retired in 1752.
Berkeley’s brand of empiricism is known as immaterialism (sometimes subjective idealism). Berkeley taught that matter, as an abstract entity, had no existence on its own. Rather, said Berkeley, objects only exist if they are perceived. An apple, for example, is made up of a number of different qualities (color, smell, taste, etc.). If there is no mind to perceive those qualities, taught Berkeley, the apple would not exist. His motto, “to be is to be perceived,” sums up this philosophy. Berkeley’s empiricism supports the Lockean idea that knowledge relies on observation. It departs from Locke in denying the existence of matter as an abstract entity.