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George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) was an Irish-born British Idealist, analyst of mind versus physical perceptions. Few men think; yet all have opinions,
Quotations of George Berkeley
All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth – in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world – have not any subsistence without a mind.
Truth is the cry of all, but the game of the few.
Our youth we can have but to-day; We may always find time to grow old.
Can Love be controlled by Advice?
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day:
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
I entirely agree with you, as to the ill tendency of the affected doubts of some philosophers, and fantastical conceit of others. I am even so far gone of late in this way of think, that I have quitted several of the sublime notions I had got in their schools for vulgar opinions. And I give it you on my word, since this revolt from metaphysical notions to the plain dictates of nature and common sense, I find my understanding strangely enlightened, so that I can now easily comprehend a great many thing which before were all mystery and riddle.
That there is no such thing as what philosophers call material substance, I am seriously persuaded: but if I were made to see any thing absurd or skeptical in this, I should then have the same reason to renounce this, that I imagine I have now to reject the contrary opinion.
Doth the reality of sensible things consist in being perceived? or, is it something distinct from their being perceived, and that bears no relation to the mind?
Seeing therefore they are both [heat and pain] immediately perceived at the same time, and the fire affects you only with one simple, or uncompounded idea, it follows that this same simple idea is both the intense heat immediately perceived, and the pain; and consequently, that the intense heat immediately perceived, is nothing distinct from a particular sort of pain.
Since therefore, as well those degrees of heat that are not painful, as those that are, can exist in a thinking substance; may we not conclude that external bodies are absolutely incapable of any degree of heat whatsoever? – Philonous to Hylas. Hylas replies with, “So it seems”.
…we ought to think with the learned, and speak with the vulgar.
I know what I mean by the term I and myself; and I know this immediately, or intuitively, though I do not perceive it as I perceive a triangle, a colour, or a sound.
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?’
From my own being, and from the dependency I find in myself and my ideas, I do, by an act of reason, necessarily infer the existence of a God, and of all created things in the mind of God.
If we admit a thing so extraordinary as the creation of this world, it should seem that we admit something strange, and odd, and new to human apprehension, beyond any other miracle whatsoever.
My design is to shew the manner wherein we perceive by sight the distance, magnitude, and situation of objects. Also to consider the difference there is betwixt the ideas of sight and touch, and whether there be any idea common to both senses.
It is, I think, agreed by all that distance, of itself and immediately, cannot be seen. For distance being a Line directed end-wise to the eye, it projects only one point in the fund of the eye, which point remains invariably the same, whether the distance be longer or shorter.
Betwixt which and the foregoing manner of estimating distance there is this remarkable difference: that whereas there was no apparent, necessary connexion between small distance and a large and strong appearance, or between great distance and a little and faint appearance, there appears a very necessary connexion between an obtuse angle and near distance, and an acute angle and farther distance. It does not in the least depend upon experience, but may be evidently known by anyone before he had experienced it, that the nearer the concurrence of the optic axes, the greater the angle, and the remoter their concurrence is, the lesser will be the angle comprehended by them.
All our ideas, sensations, notions, or the things which we perceive, by whatsoever names they may be distinguished, are visibly inactive- there is nothing of power or agency included in them. So that one idea or object of thought cannot produce or make any alteration in another.
To be satisfied of the truth of this, there is nothing else requisite but a bare observation of our ideas. For, since they and every part of them exist only in the mind, it follows that there is nothing in them but what is perceived: but whoever shall attend to his ideas, whether of sense or reflexion, 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: neither can it be the resemblance or pattern of any active being, as is evident from sect. 8. Whence it plainly follows that extension, figure, and motion cannot be the cause of our sensations. To say, therefore, that these are the effects of powers resulting from the configuration, number, motion, and size of corpuscles, must certainly be false.
That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas formed by the imagination, exist without the mind, is what everybody will allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense, however blended or combined together (that is, whatever objects they compose), cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them.- I think an intuitive knowledge may be obtained of this by any one that shall attend to what is meant by the term exists, when applied to sensible things. The table I write on 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 actually does perceive it. There was an odour, that is, it was smelt; there was a sound, that is, it was heard; a colour or figure, and it was perceived by sight or touch. This is all that I can understand by these and the like expressions. For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percepi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them.
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But, with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world, yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For, what are the fore-mentioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?
COMMENTS on George Berkeley
George Berkeley wrote, Few men think; yet all have opinions, and that is so obviously an extreme example of an over-generalization that it should be quoted as an example by Mark Twain for his famous line, “All generalizations are false, including this one.” Obviously, all normal men think, and just as obviously all men form opinions about reality as part of their thinking process. See Lev Vygotsky for the processes of generalization while thinking.
All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth – in a word, all those bodies which compose the frame of the world – have not any subsistence without a mind. Do physical objects have existence if I am not consciously there to observe them? Perhaps these types of questions have interest to Medieval-minded Scholastics living in a convoluted word-game world, but for everyone else they inhibit successful living in an empirically testable world.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? That is another of Berkeley’s supposed brain twisters, and yet what is it but a form of pun in which several thoughts are squeezed under one set of words? The seeming problem becomes simple once the words and concepts are isolated and clarified. The English language is replete with words that carry many meanings and sometimes very contradictory meanings, such as the word hope. Generally we find these humorous on some level, and we get a chuckle and then move on. It would be more apparent to me that a tree fell, observed by a person, when I saw the tree lying there, than I could trust a report of the man who claimed he saw the tree fall. Perhaps he did, or perhaps he didn’t, and I can’t rerun reality to know for certain that it fell when he said it did, but I can go and see, the tree is down, and it doesn’t take much mental power to realize it must have fallen at some time.
If you want to give George Berkeley a better chance at clarity, go to the European Graduate School site. It has longer quotes and it does make sense to some, but for me it was tedious. This following paragraph made a bit more sense to me than most.
As we see distance, so we see magnitude. And we see both in the same way that we see shame or anger in the looks of a man. Those passions are themselves invisible, they are nevertheless let in by the eye along with colours and alterations of countenance, which are the immediate object of vision: and which signify them for no other reason than barely because they have been observed to accompany them. Without which experience we should no more have taken blushing for a sign of shame than of gladness. That’s an easy one, but is it anything other than a convoluted word game?