Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Interpreters


"Descartes, Locke, and Newton, took away the world... Berkeley restored the world. Berkeley has brought us back to the world that only exist because it shines and sounds". -- W.B. Yeats


As Laird put it, '[Berkeley] gloried in being a realist because he affirmed and proved the full reality of what any sane man regards as real, just as he regards it before he allows himself to become debauched with learning' (1916: 309).


Bertrand Russell devotes a chapter of his History of Western Philosophy to Berkeley. After a generally accurate discussion of the role of God in Berkeley's metaphysics, he claims:

If there were no God, what we take to be material objects would have a jerky life, suddenly leaping into being when we look at them; but as it is, owing to God's perceptions, trees and rocks and stones have an existence as continuous as common sense supposes. (1945: 647)

But this is absurd: for Berkeley, without God, there would simply be no "material' objects (or other beings to see their jerky existence, for that matter). What characterizes something for Berkeley as being a part of the physical world is that it has existence not just in a human mind, but in the mind of God: it is God willing it to be so that gives it its solidity, its ineluctable character.

Russell goes on to discuss Berkeley's "argument against matter' (1945: 648), and, as with many others, ignores the fact that it is an argument against matter as conceived by Locke et al.

Russell then attempts to show various fallacies committed by Berkeley. First he takes up the nature of objects of the senses:

[Berkeley] says: "That any immediate object of the senses should existing in an unthinking substance, exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction.' This is here a fallacy, analogous to the following: "It is impossible for a nephew to exist without an uncle; now Mr. A is a nephew; therefore it is logically necessary for Mr. A to have an uncle.' It is, of course, logically necessary given that Mr. A is a nephew, but not from anything to be discovered by analysis of Mr. A. (1945: 652)

But what Berkeley is claiming is that "analysis' of objects of the senses does show that they cannot exist in an unthinking substance. Of course, this is not analysis in the sense recognized by analytical philosophers; instead it is an analysis of the metaphysical nature of these objects: if there really were such an unthinking substance as that posited by Locke et al., mind would have no way to establish any relationship with it, and thus it would remain forever beyond the reach of mind, along the lines of Kant's das Ding an sich It is one thing to contend that Berkeley is wrong in this contention, but Russell has seriously misunderstood what Berkeley is doing in thinking it is analogous to his nephew example. This is possibly due to the fact that Berkeley's "analysis' is not recognized as such by Russell, who only would admit logical deduction of analytical truths and induction from empirical regularities as possible sources of knowledge. But, as T.H. Green noted about an idealist argument similar to Berkeley's:

Proof of such a doctrine, in the ordinary sense of the word, from the nature of the case there cannot be. It is not a truth deducible from other established or conceded truths. It is not a statement of an event or matter of fact that can be the subject of experiment or observation. It represents a conception to which no perceivable or imaginable object can possibly correspond, but one that affords the only means by which, reflecting on our moral and intellectual experience conjointly, taking the world and ourselves into account, we can put the whole thing together and understand how... we are and do what we consciously are and do. (1986: 250)

Russell continues:

There is a somewhat analogous fallacy as regards what is conceived. Hylas maintains that he can conceive a house which no one perceives, and which is not in any mind. Philonus retorts that whatever Hylas conceives is in his mind, so that the supposed house is, after all, mental. Hylas should have answered: "I do not mean that I have in mind the image of a house; when I say that I can conceive the house which no one perceives, what I really mean is that I can understand the proposition 'there is a house which no one perceives', or, better still, 'there is a house which no one either perceives or conceives'. The proposition is composed entirely of intelligible words, and the words are correctly put together. Whether the proposition is true or false, I do not know; but I am sure that it cannot be shown to be self-contradictory. Some closely similar propositions can be proved. For instance: The number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite, therefore there are some that have never been thought of. Berkeley's argument, if valid, would prove that this is impossible. (1945: 652)

Berkeley would have benefited from the work of later idealists in making his argument more clear here. Of course one can formulate the propositions that Russell formulates without self-contradiction. But they are what later idealists would term "mere abstractions'. We can similarly formulate and even manipulate propositions about geometrical shapes lacking any color or texture, about infinitely thin lines extending forever, and points with no magnitude whatsoever. And forming such abstractions may be very useful, but we should never confuse them with concrete reality: we can never go out into our back garden and hope to discover lying there a dimensionless point, an infinitely thin line, or a colorless triangle.

And Berkeley's answer to Russell on the proposition about multiplications ought to have been clear to Russell himself, had he not completely lost track of the mind of God after his initial, brief discussion of it: Berkeley would answer that God's infinite mind certainly has thought of the infinity of possible multiplications of two integers.

In another unwarranted swipe at idealism in general, Russell notes that "G.E. Moore once accused idealists of holding the trains only have wheels while they are in stations, on the ground that passengers cannot see the wheels while they remain in the train' (1945: 657).

Once again, Russell ignores the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's philosophy, as he does yet again here: "Such a statement as "there was a time before life existed on this planet', whether true or false, cannot be condemned on grounds of logic...' (1945: 657) Nor would Berkeley have tried to do so. Again, if Russell simply recalled what he himself had written only a handful of pages previous about the mind of God, he would have seen that the possible truth of this statement would not have troubled Berkeley one wit.

Russell concludes by offering his own definition of matter, thinking that he is correcting Berkeley: "My own definition of "matter' may seem unsatisfactory; I should define it as what satisfies the equations of physics' (1945: 658). But Berkeley would not have objected at all to the idea of matter existing in the sense of there being entities which satisfy the laws of physics.

Russell also criticizes Berkeley for the mixed nature of his arguments: "To begin with, it is a sign of weakness to combine empirical and logical arguments, for the latter, if valid, make the former superfluous" (1945: 653). Here, Russell is presupposing an essentially unintelligible world where human knowledge is restricted to tautologies and empirical regularities. (How we could detect empirical regularities from a mass of themselves unintelligible "sense data' is a vexing question for this view that we will not delve into here.) But Berkeley does not share this presupposition: for him, the world is a world of ideas, in which "logical' and "empirical' arguments are complementary, and combine in revealing to us the true nature of reality. Once again, one may reject Berkeley's view after recognizing it for what it is, but I think it is clear that Russell, in fact, failed to see this difference, and so evaluated Berkeley as an incompetent analytical philosopher, rather than as a philosopher who did not share his presuppositions.


Here [in Galileo] the character of the mind-dependent or merely phenomenal character of secondary qualities, as taught by Locke, is already full-grown. English students of philosophy, finding this doctrine in Locke, do not always realize that it is by no means an invention of his, but had been long ago taught by Galileo as an important truth, and was in fact one of the leading principles of the whole scientific movement of the preceding two centuries; and that by the time it reaches Locke it is already somewhat out of date, and ready to collapse at the first touch of Berkeley's finger. (1960: 102)

Given this situation, Berkeley solved the problem he confronted ‘in the only possible way’:

Thus we get a wholly new metaphysical position. Taking the elements of the traditional seventeenth-century cosmology and simply rearranging them, Berkeley shows that, if substance means that which exists in its own right and depends on itself alone, only one substance need be asserted to exist, namely, mind. Nature as it exists empirically for our everyday perception is the work or creature of mind; nature in Galileo's sense, the purely quantitative material world of the physicist, is an abstraction from this, it is so to speak the skeleton or armature of the nature we perceive through our senses, and create in perceiving it. To sum up: we first, by the operation of our mental powers, create the warm, living, coloured, flesh-and-blood natural world which we know in our everyday experience; we then, by the operation of abstractive thinking, remove the flesh and blood from it and are left with the skeleton. This skeleton is the ‘material world’ of the physicist.
In the essence of Berkeley's argument as thus restated there is no flaw. He often expressed himself hastily, and often tried to support his contentions by argument that is far from sound; but no criticism of details touches his main position, and as soon as one understands the problem which confronted him one is bound to realize that he solved it in the only possible way. His conclusion may seem unconvincing, and the difficulties in which it places us are undeniable; but there is no way of escaping the admission that, if the conceptions of mind and matter are defined as they were defined by the cosmology of the seventeenth century, the problem of discovering an essential link between them can only be solved as Berkeley solved it. (1960: 114-115)


the material substance which Berkeley denied (a) is not sensible body or sensible parts of body, is not an actual or possible object of sense, is nothing that we see or touch (or hear or taste or smell), but (b)  is a "something we know not what", a guess-substance, a conjecture of the ancient Greeks, a something vaguely supposed to serve as invisible, intangible, non-spiritual support of all that we actually see and touch. (1945: 24)


David Stove, in his essay 'Idealism: a Victorian Horror Story (Part One)', begins by at least granting Berkeley his historical context, as we saw Hegel also did:

Berkeley is one of those philosophers who are always arguing, and he gave a number of arguments for abridging the Cartesian world-view to the exclusive benefit of its mental half.  Once he had done it, everyone could see, even if they had not seen before, that Cartesianism had begged for an idealist abridgement, and that it had got it from Berkeley. (1991: 102)

But what he gives with one hand he immediately takes away with the other: 'There was only one catch; but it was a rather serious one.  This was that no one could believe the world-view to which those arguments of Berkeley led.' (1991: 102) Stove is certainly correct here in so far as his depiction of Berkeley's world-view strains credulity, as it is as follows:

You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of Berkeley's philosophy, without contracting at least some tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or 'phenomenal kangaroos'.  But on the contrary, all sane use of language requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we speak.  Berkeley would persuade us that we lose nothing, and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose everything.  Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for murderers.  At least a suspected murderer may happen to be also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be also a kangaroo. (1991: 110)

Once again, we find Berkeley's case being badly misconstrued, in this instance in order to make it appear crazy. Berkeley certainly does not want us to 'give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos'. As he writes in the Dialogues, 'I do therefore assert that I am a certain as of my own being that there are bodies or corporeal substances...' (1996: 181) Or, as Doney contends, '[Berkeley believes] that when we perceive we are directly confronted with the real things and not be representations or effects of the real things' (1952: 382). In fact, the very view he is criticizing is the Lockean one that drives a wedge between the real world and the phenomenal world, that, indeed, creates the idea that there is a phenomenal world separate from the real world in the first place. Berkeley is insisting that the kangaroos you see in front of you are not 'phenomenal kangaroos' at all: no, the kangaroos you are perceiving are the real thing. For Berkeley, we directly perceive reality, and we can do so because reality is a world of ideas. It is by first adopting a view that idealists reject, that ideas are 'just in our heads', and then reading idealist metaphysics through this anti-idealist filter, that misunderstandings like Stove's are generated.

Stove goes on to attribute more denials of reality to Berkeley: '...his idealism... denies the existence of human beings.  Indeed, there are no land-mammals at all in Berkeley's world.  In fact there is not even any land' (1991: 111). Again, it is only necessary to point out that it is the very reality of all of these things that Berkeley set out to assert to see that Stove has seriously misinterpreted him.

To Stowe's credit, he does avoid one frequent error committed by Berkeley's critics:

People think, that is, that Berkeley maintained a causal dependence of physical objects on perception: that things go in and out of existence, depending on whether or not we are perceiving them... [this view] is certainly not Berkeley... The benevolence and steadiness of the Divine Will, and nothing else, ensure that the ideas produced in the various finite spirits are, on the whole, in harmony with one another. (1991: 108)

But as before, having gotten that much right, Stove immediately goes very wrong, claiming that it follows that 'there are no physical objects Berkeley's world' (1991: 109). Once again, we must point out that Berkeley never denies the existence of the physical world of common sense: the wall you see in front of you is really there in the exact way common sense thinks it is, as a solid, say red, flat surface, which, if you try to run through it, you will fail and be hurt in the process. What Berkeley is doing is trying to get at the source of why the common sense world is the way it is, and his answer is, 'Because God wills it'. One may not like that answer, but it is far from the nonsense Stove attributes to Berkeley: there certainly are physical objects in Berkeley's world, just as God wills there to be.

In part two of the 'Horror Story' essay, Stove accuses Berkeley of having reached a contingent conclusion from a tautological premise. As he puts it, one of Berkeley's central arguments for idealism, which he calls 'the Gem', runs: 'You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.' (1991: 139) This is basically a rehash of Russell's critique, discussed above, of this contention of Berkeley's, and it is flawed in a similar way, but let us address this particular formulation of it: Stove had to add a step to Berkeley's argument to make it appear so bad: 'without having them in mind'. The actual argument is that you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, period. What Berkeley is noting in the passage Stove cites is that when you attempt to have trees-without-the-mind in mind, you fail. And that failure is inevitable. 'Trees-without-the-mind' is a mere abstraction, and to mistake mere abstractions for things that actually exist is what Whitehead called 'the fallacy of misplaced concreteness' (1967: 51).


As Coleridge put it, matter is like an invisible pincushion that we suppose necessary to hold the various "pins" that are our sensations... Berkeley asked: is the pincushion needed? Dr. Johnson—no professional philosopher—hearing of Berkeley's critique of matter, kicked a large stone "with mighty force until he rebounded from it", and said, "I refute it thus". But Berkeley never denied that things were real, hard as stone and heavy as Dr. Johnson. He pointed out—and he has never been refuted—that matter is a notion added to what the senses actually report. (2000: 367)

Miscellaneous Contemporary Interpreters

Hugh Hunter: "Berkeley can rightly be called a direct realist" (2016).