George Berkeley, Irish philosopher whose primary achievement is the advancement of a theory he calls “immaterialism” (later referred to as “subjective idealism” by others), dies in Oxford, England, on January 14, 1753. His theory of immaterialism denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.
Berkeley is born at his family home, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. He is educated at Kilkenny College and attends Trinity College, Dublin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1704 and completing a master’s degree in 1707. He remains at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer.
In 1709, Berkeley publishes his first major work, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, in which he discusses the limitations of human vision and advances the theory that the proper objects of sight are not material objects, but light and colour. This foreshadows his chief philosophical work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in 1710, which, after its poor reception, he rewrites in dialogue form and publishes under the title Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in 1713.
In this book, Berkeley’s views are represented by Philonous, while Hylas embodies the Irish thinker’s opponents, in particular John Locke. Berkeley argues against Sir Isaac Newton‘s doctrine of absolute space, time, and motion in De Motu (On Motion), published in 1721. His arguments are a precursor to the views of Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein. In 1732, he publishes Alciphron, a Christian apologetic against the free-thinkers, and in 1734, he publishes The Analyst, a critique of the foundations of calculus, which is influential in the development of mathematics.
His last major philosophical work, Siris (1744), begins by advocating the medicinal use of tar water and then continues to discuss a wide range of topics, including science, philosophy, and theology. Interest in Berkeley’s work increases after World War II because he tackles many of the issues of paramount interest to philosophy in the 20th century, such as the problems of perception, the difference between primary and secondary qualities, and the importance of language. It sold more copies than any of his other books during his lifetime.
In 1734, Berkeley is appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, a position he holds until his death. He remains at Cloyne until 1752, when he retires and goes to Oxford to live with his son and supervise his education. He dies soon afterward and is buried in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
The Berkeley portion of the Yale University campus is named after George Berkeley.