scepticism Introduction


George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, wrote on an impressive variety of topics: the theory of vision, materialism, the foundations of calculus, the theory of political obligation, political economy, and human health, among others. But he is most famous for being the leading proponent of the idea that the world we see around us is "all in our heads." Given that that is precisely the view that Berkeley worked hardest to refute, this is a curious situation. How can it be that a thinker whose philosophical works were quite explicitly written to combat scepticism be understood as a leading sceptic?

According to his critics, Berkeley endorsed scepticism about the existence of an external world. There is the famous incident of Samuel Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a rock, proving that the external world is real; similarly, over a century later, G.E. Moore held up his hand during a lecture, and declared it to be real, in order to refute idealism.

But is this common impression correct? This work will look at many key figures in the long history of discussion on this question, and attempt to demonstrate that they have misread Berkeley. Firstly, Berkeley's own words, as we shall see, often directly contradict this interpretation. Furthermore, there is widespread agreement amongst many serious students of Berkeley's work that the answer to the above question is "no": Berkeley was not a subjective idealist, at least if the meaning of that term is that the world is "all in our (human) heads". (Indeed, some prominent Berkeley scholars have even denied that he was an idealist at all; instead, they contend, he was a common-sense realist, and at the same time an immaterialist.)

If that view prevalent amongst serious readers of Berkeley is correct, then it will also be interesting to investigate how the perception that he was a subjective idealist has persisted for so long. Therefore, this paper is, to some extent, an investigation as to how popular error can persist for centuries in the face of a great deal of evidence convicting the vulgar view of falsehood.