George Berkeley’s Approach to the Philosophy of BeingJune 27, 2021
Have we ever wondered if the light really goes out when you close the refrigerator door and no one can see inside? How do you know when the light is really out? Maybe you could put on a camera. So what happens when you turn off the camera? Or what if a tree fell in the forest when no one could hear? Would it really make a noise? How do you know if your unobserved bedroom continues to exist when you’re not there? Maybe it disappears every time you go out. You could ask someone else to check this out. The difficult question to answer is: Does the bedroom continue to exist when no one is observing it?
It is not clear how we can answer these questions. Most of us think that objects continue to exist even when they are not seen, because that is the simplest explanation. Again, most of us believe that the world we observe is out there somewhere. The world doesn’t just exist in our minds. On the other hand, according to the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Bishop of Cloyne, things that are not observed cease to exist. If there is no mind that is directly aware of the page you are reading now, it will no longer exist. When you are looking at the page, you can see it, touch it; But for Berkeley, it all means you have the experience. It does not mean that there is something out there that is causing these experiences. The page is simply a collection of thoughts in your and other people’s minds (and perhaps God’s minds); It is not something outside of your mind.
For Berkeley, the concept of an outside world is completely meaningless. All these statements seem counterintuitive. Of course, we are surrounded by objects that continue to exist, whether we are aware of them or not, right? But Berkeley thought so. When Berkeley first began to articulate this theory, many people understandably thought he was insane. In fact, it was only after his death that philosophers began to take him seriously and realized what he was trying to do. When Berkeley’s contemporary, Samuel Johnson, first heard of his theory, he kicked a stone in the street with his foot and said, “So I disprove it.” Johnson was trying to explain that he was certain that material things exist and that they are not just thoughts. He could feel the hardness in his foot when he hit the stone, so Berkeley must have been wrong. But Berkeley was smarter than Johnson thought. Feeling the hardness of the stone on your feet could only prove the thought of a hard stone, not the existence of material objects; For Berkeley, what we call stone was nothing but the sensations it evoked. There was no “real” physical stone behind it that was causing the pain in the foot. In fact, there was no reality beyond the thoughts we had.
Berkeley is sometimes described as an idealist and sometimes as an immaterialist. He was an idealist because he believed that all that exists is thoughts; He was an immaterialist because he denied the existence of material things and physical objects. Like many philosophers discussed on this site, he was fascinated by the relationship between appearance and reality. According to him, most philosophers were wrong about what this relationship was. In particular, John Locke was wrong about how our thoughts relate to the world.
The easiest way to understand Berkeley’s approach is to compare it with Locke’s. When you see an elephant, Locke says, you don’t actually see the elephant itself. What you take as an elephant is actually a representation; In Locke’s words, an idea in your mind is like the design of an elephant. Locke used the word “ide” to encompass everything we can think or perceive. If you see a gray elephant, the gray simply cannot be an elephant thing because it will look different in different light. Grayness is what Locke calls a “secondary quality”. The grayness is the result of a combination of the features of the elephant and the features of our sense organ, in this example, our eyes. The color and texture of the elephant’s skin and the smell of its excrement are its secondary qualities. Primary qualities such as size and shape, according to Locke, are real properties of things in the world. Thoughts of primary qualities are like reality. For example, if you see a square object, the actual object that causes your thought of that object is also square. But if you saw a red square, the real object in the world that caused your perception is not red. Real objects are colorless. The sensations of color, according to Locke, come from the interaction between the microscopic textures of objects and our sense of sight. However, there is a serious problem here. Locke thinks that there is an outside world that scientists are trying to describe, but that we only have indirect access to.
Locke is a realist because he believes in the existence of a real world. This real world, cheating continues to exist if no one is aware of it. The difficulty for Locke is to know what the world is like. Considering primary qualities such as size and shape