Eighteenth-Century Interpreters


One of the early, notable misunderstandings of Berkeley was that of Samuel Johnson. A famous incident where Johnson took on Berkeley is described by Boswell, his biographer:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus." (1952: 129)

In another passage relating to Berkeley, Boswell writes:

Being in company with a gentleman who thought fit to maintain Dr. Berkeley's ingenious philosophy, that nothing exists but as perceived by some mind; when the gentleman was going away, Johnson said to him, "Pray, Sir, don"t leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think of you, and then you will cease to exist." (1952: 442)

Of course, both of these episodes egregiously misunderstand Berkeley's position. As we saw above in the passages where Berkeley discusses the importance of the body to our overall well-being, and where he touts the health benefits of tar water, he in no way denied the reality of bodily phenomena. It would not have been of any surprise to him that Johnson"s foot bounced off of a large stone, or that Johnson"s "refutation" hurt him more than it impacted Berkeley's actual views. The idea that other conscious beings would "cease to exist" if Johnson was not thinking of them is obviously an even sillier interpretation of Berkeley, because spiritual beings for him are minds and thus do not need to be "in mind" to exist.

Bruce Silver (1993) attempts to defend Boswell"s interpretation of this incident, but as his effort rests on the notion that Berkeley was a "subjective idealist", the conclusions of this paper (and numerous other Berkeley scholars) undermine this defense of Boswell.


Two towering philosophers are probably most responsible for the common misinterpretation of Berkeley among the philosophically educated: Kant and Hegel. Let us first turn to Kant, whose Berkeley is an idealist bogeyman having little to do with Berkeley's actual views. Kant claims that Berkeley is a "dogmatic idealist", by which he means:

Idealism—meaning thereby material idealism—is the theory which declares the existence of objects in space outside us either to be merely doubtful and indemonstrable or to be false and impossible... the latter is the dogmatic idealism of Berkeley. He maintains that space, with all the things of which it is the inseparable condition, is something which is in itself impossible; and he therefore regards the things in space as merely imaginary entities. (1965: 244)

Kant believes that idealism such as Berkeley's puts things perceived "inside the mind", whereas his critical philosophy corrects this by placing them outside it:

Thus perception of this permanent is possible only through a thing outside me; and consequently the determination of my existence in time is possible only through the existence of actual things which I perceive outside me...Idealism assumed that the only immediate experience is inner experience, and that from it we can only infer outer things... But in the above proof it has been shown that outer experience is really immediate... (1965: 245-246)

But Berkeley's understanding of the nature of our perceptions implies that they are not "inner experience" but publicly accessible; as Pappas writes:

I know of no reason to think that Berkeley is committed to holding that each idea is private in the sense described. After all, any idea immediately perceived by a finite perceiver is also immediately perceived by God. So, Berkeley is committed to the contrary line, viz., that ideas are publicly perceivable entities. (1982: 9)

Kant again attempts to differentiate himself from Berkeleyean idealism in that he does not doubt "the existence of things": "My idealism concerns not the existence of things (to doubting of which, however, constitutes idealism in the ordinary sense)..." (2001: 34). But here is what Berkeley actually says on this very point: "I might as well doubt of my own being as of the being of those things I actually see and feel" (1996: 173).

Or consider what Kant says about Berkeley and the senses:

The dictum of all genuine idealists, from the Eleatic school to Bishop Berkeley, is contained in the formula: "All cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion..." (2001: 107).

Or this:

experience, according to Berkeley, can have no criteria of truth because its appearances (according to him) have nothing a priori at their foundation, whence it follows that experience is nothing but sheer illusion... (2001: 108).

Once again, compare these to what Berkeley actually wrote: "Let me be represented as one who trusts his senses, who thinks he knows the things he sees and feels, and entertains no doubts of their existence..." (1996: 180)

It is hard to see how any description of Berkeley's views could be further from Berkeley's views than is Kant's. But what is the cause of this vast gulf between what Berkeley wrote and what Kant wrote about what Berkeley wrote? Some have concluded that Kant was almost completely unfamiliar with Berkeley's works and was relying on hearsay. (Colin Turbayne, 1955, in his first footnote, cites five prominent sources forwarding this view.)

In an intriguing alternate hypothesis, Turbayne first demonstrates that Kant and Berkeley are actually quite close in their critique of the Lockean concept of matter. Turbayne continues to note that, for both Berkeley and Kant:

The distinction between reality and illusion retains its full force. Its criterion is not the futile correspondence of our ideas with external archetypes, but merely their coherence within our experience. In effect, there are no illusions of sense, only delusions of the understanding, because the senses tell no lies. Kant declares, "It is not the senses, however, which must be charged with the illusion, but the understanding" (Proleg. 13). Error occurs on the level of judgment. (1955: 236)

The difference between the two in this respect is that for Berkeley the objective basis of what we term "reality" is its existence in the mind of God, whereas for Kant it lies in the transcendental object. (We might suspect that Kant's basis is not an improvement on Berkeley's, given the mysterious nature of "the thing in itself".)

Turbayne notes how Kant's main critique of Berkeley fails:

It is the existence of the things behind the appearances, causing these appearances in us, which makes Kant's doctrine 'the very contrary' of idealism. Berkeley's idealism fails because it denies, not the existence of bodies in space, but things-in-themselves. This recourse is completely out of line with the other 'refutations ', and indeed, with the Critical philosophy. The illegitimate appeal to this criterion, coming as it does, just after Kant had read the Garve-Feder review [which was critical of the first edition of The Critique of Pure Reason], gives the impression of desperation. (1955: 238)

Then he declares Berkeley and Kant to be the pre-eminent anti-sceptics:

Finally, in their refutation of dogmatic idealism (the deepest scepticism) with its attendant proof of an external world, they leave the whole field far behind. Berkeley's refutation of scepticism, with his parallel vindication of common-sense, was one of his main aims. (1955: 239)

What, then, are we to make of Kant's hostility to Berkeley's philosophy? Turbayne continues:

Clearly, Berkeley did not deny the reality of the sensible word; Kant says that he did. Such gross misinterpretation surely indicates profound mis-understanding. However, this first set of facts, when properly assessed and interpreted, yields a contrary view. (1955: 240)

This "gross misinterpretation" can be explained as follows:

Kant's official view does seem to arise from a misconception of Berkeley's doctrine, and therefore to stem from ignorance. This accords with the accepted theory. However, such a theory loses weight immediately, when it is pointed out that Kant rarely agrees with anyone, and that his customary procedure in discussing the views of other philosophers, is to present, not their real views, but rather the consequences he considers to be entailed by them. These Kantian consequences are then ascribed to the philosophers as their own views. (1955: 240)

There is a genuine difference between Kant's and Berkeley's view of the real basis of the sensory world, but it consists in a fine philosophical distinction as to the nature of space:

Here we see that Kant departs from Berkeley's view, not on the question of the ideality of space and its appearances, but on its a priori nature. The distinction between ideality and the a priori (often neglected by authorities) is clarified in this passage. Kant agrees with Berkeley that space is ideal, but whereas the latter holds that it is learned from experience, Kant holds he has proved that "it inheres in us as a pure form of our sensibility before all perception or experience". Because of this, it can afford the certain criterion for distinguishing truth from illusion therein. (1955: 242)

As a result of this difference, Kant concludes that Berkeley ought to believe that physical objects are illusory:

Kant thus holds that illusion is a necessary consequence of Berkeley's view, not that it is Berkeley's view. His highly significant admission makes it more than likely that Kant's repeated assertions elsewhere to the effect that Berkeley actually believes in dogmatic idealism are instances of Kant's habit of ascribing to other philosophers what are, in fact, consequences drawn by Kant himself. It follows that Kant's knowledge of Berkeley's philosophy is still more accurate than was previously thought. Since the misinterpretations stem from accurate knowledge, they are deliberate, and are, therefore, more properly called 'perversions '. The same analysis comprehends Kant's denial that his doctrine at all resembles Berkeley's. For this just is not so. We have Kant's own admission that it is not. (1955: 243)

So, in the end, does Kant really grapple with Berkeley? Turbayne says no:

This brings us to the question of Kant's promise, in the first edition of the Critique, to deal with Berkeley's doctrine, and his failure to do so. In the fourth Paralogism, Kant's position is made to resemble Berkeley's more closely than anywhere else. We now know that there is, not only resemblance, but Kant's awareness of it. If he had sought to refute Berkeley in the next section, he must have ended in hopeless confusion, for he would have been refuting himself. He therefore did not even try. A niggardly description of Berkeley's doctrine was his only recourse. (1955: 243)