George Berkeley (1685-1753) believed his mission to be the vigorous defense of theism and the affirmation of the primacy of the spirit over matter against the growing materialist trend among British intellectuals. He described his philosophical system as an immaterialism since it is aimed at responding to the errors of materialism. What exactly is immaterialism? Berkeley retains that matter does not exist in itself. When we say that something exists we mean that such a thing is perceived by us, that is, its entire being consists in its being perceived (esse est percipi).
The being of things is resolved into thought-of-being. Primary sensible qualities are judged to be merely subjective as they are known through secondary sensible qualities. Thus, bodies are, for Berkeley, nothing but sensible qualities and so one should not suppose that there be some sort of ‘substance’ holding up these qualities. “Their esse consists in their percipi (to be perceived), and it is not possible for them to have any existence outside the minds which perceives them.
We should not suppose a ‘substance’ underlying our ideas of the accidents of bodies since the true support of these ideas is, namely, our very own mind. For Berkeley, “things exist therefore only as objects of our senses, as phenomena (from the Greek, ‘what appears before me’). It may be that Berkeley did not want to deny the existence of the world of bodies but just to combat materialism by means of the immateriality of knowledge. Nevertheless, by virtue of the principle of immanence, which he follows, he turns the in-itself into a for-myself. There is no matter in itself: it exists only in my consciousness.
And my consciousness consists in perceiving ideas (in the Lockean sense) and in perceiving itself intuitively. (…) Kant would dismiss Berkeley’s philosophy as dogmatic idealism. ” Berkeleyan gnoseology dictates that the material world exists only as a cognitive act, produced and existing in a mental act; consequently this world is merely subjective, not objective. For Berkeley, there is no extra-mental world of matter, only spirits (finite spirits and the Infinite Spirit) and ideas and experiences. Finite spirits are capable of forming ideas and experiences of their own (i. e. the idea of a centaur or an elf), but what about the objects that we see, for example, when we gaze at a landscape outside our window, which we are unable to modify or change?
Berkeley teaches that these objects are caused by the Infinite Spirit, God, who imparts them to passive finite spirits in their process of knowledge. The passivity of our finite spirit, says Berkeley, is, in fact, a proof of the existence of the Infinite Spirit, who causes the ideas imposed on one’s finite spirit of which one is not the origin (i. e. , the various objects that we see when we look outside our window, like the trees, mountains, clouds, etc. . “While denying the existence of a material world and reducing it to a phenomenon of knowledge,” explains Mascia, “Berkeley believed that he had proved the existence of the subjective spirit from the very presence of ideas, for ideas can be produced only by a spirit. Having thus assured himself of the existence of his own spirit, Berkeley devoted himself to determining its nature: the spirit is both active, a producer of ideas, and passive, a receptacle for ideas. Its activity is revealed in the imagination and in the memory, with which we produce or recall ideas, but more still in the coordination of ideas.
Passivity, as we have said, is revealed in the fact that the spirit receives ideas that it has not produced. For example, it is not within my power to see or not to see the objects that are in my room. The passivity of the spirit gave Berkeley the means of proving the existence of other finite spirits, independent of his own, and the existence of God. In fact, he asked, what is the origin of these ideas that are imposed on my spirit and of which I am not the origin – for instance, the objects I mentioned before as being present in my room?
They are produced by the will of other spirits, since I perceive, besides my own spirit, other particular agents like myself, who participate with me in the production of many ideas. Besides, there are ideas that I perceive which are not only not produced by my spirit, but are not produced by any finite spirit – for instance, the regularity of natural phenomena. Fire always burns, independently of any will. Such ideas presuppose a cause superior to all finite spirits – God, who exists, whose infinite will produces the order and harmony and constancy of natural phenomena. Having thus demonstrated the existence of God, Berkeley believed that he had solved all the difficulties that could be raised against his idealistic phenomenalism. If, for example, one asks whether the objects in my room exist when I am outside and there is no one in my house, Berkeley answers in the affirmative; because if the objects are not perceived by a finite spirit they are perceived by God.
If one should inquire about the difference between real fire and painted fire, why one burns and the other does not, Berkeley would have answered that God, he producer and supreme ruler of all ideas, unites to the first (real fire) the idea of burning, and denies it to the second (fire depicted in a painting). In a word, the phenomenal world of Berkeley is not unlike the phenomenal world that everyone knows, with this difference: While commonly it is believed that natural phenomena are the product of a physical, material world, for Berkeley this material world does not exist. That which we attribute to matter, he says, must be referred to God, the exciter and revealer of ideas corresponding to material things.
We are on the ground of the occasionalism of Malebranche: God presents to our souls – produces in them – the ideas that impress us. The constant relationship with which God determines the ideas of our spirits are the so-called laws of nature. They are the language with which God reveals Himself and speaks to us. Thus Berkeley believed that he had carried out the work he had set for himself: to justify theism against the attacks of incredulity; and to point out the emptiness of materialism by proving that the world as conceived by the materialist does not exist. ”