Philosophy: Berkeley's Idealism

Author's Note

Originally written for a History of Philosophy course at the University of Michigan, the following essay is a summary and objection to the work of 17th century philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley believed that all that existed, given the problems associated with perception and the incoherence of matter, were Minds and Ideas.

I decided to post this, along with most of my academic papers, in order to refresh myself and share the ideas that I found interesting during the semester. Enjoy.

Ideas, Within Minds, Within God


In George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues he says, “... if extension be once acknowledged to have no existence without the mind, the same must necessarily be granted of motion, solidity, and gravity” (p.27). He notes that if extension, the taking up of space, is mind-dependant, then all other primary qualities are also mind-dependant; and all things, therefore, reside in a mind. In order to address Berkeley’s view, I will begin with why all primary qualities are relative if extension is relative; then, I’ll explain his argument for why extension is relative, express my objection, and finally, present a possible response.

To understand why all primary qualities are relative matter must be defined; as it is the foundation on which all other primary qualities are built, and if matter fails then the objectivity of primary qualities fail with it. Matter is the underlying producer of our perceptions - the substratum of secondary qualities, as Hylas puts it on page 33. Berkeley says that matter is dependant on extension - if something takes up space, the pieces that make up that thing must also have extension. In other words, the constituent elements that underlie an object, or matter, take up space in order to produce the object, like bricks forming a wall. If a substratum has extension, then a secondary substratum must produce that extension, and its extension, and its extension, ad infinitum. So, if extension is mind-dependant, then matter and its extended stratum, are mind-dependant, and all primary qualities that rely on it, like motion, solidity, and gravity, are also mind-dependant.

Berkeley’s conclusion, that matter is incoherent, is reliant on his argument that extension is mind-dependant. He shows that extension is mind-dependant by examining size - the degree to which something takes up space or is extended. The argument is as follows: An object cannot be large and small at the same time. An object can appear large from one perspective and small from another - like a skyscraper up close verses one at a distance. Therefore, largeness and smallness cannot be in the object and must be in the mind of the beholder. This is Berkeley’s Relativity Argument. What makes something large or small is the perspective of the viewer. The space that it takes up is reliant on a relative measurement of the object. If all tools of measurement rely on their size relative to other things (like how a foot is relative to King Henry I), then no objective size exists. Berkeley goes on to demonstrate that all constituent elements that make up size are relative.

In order to present an objection against the relativity of extension, and thereby preserve the concept of objective matter, I must define two things: Finite minds - minds that are limited and are not connected directly to other finite minds - and imaginary ideas - ideas that are not imprinted, faint, and brought to mind voluntarily (e.g., a unicorn). The objection, in analogous form, goes as follows: An architect brings forth an imaginary idea of a building. He creates a drawing of that building. Then, overnight, he leaves the drawing to be retrieved by a builder in the morning. No one else sees the drawing between the architect leaving it and the builder seeing it. The builder then oversees its construction. Given Berkeley’s views on finite minds and the lack of a material world, how does the idea (the building) remain the same and continue to exist when not being perceived - when shifting across multiple substrates (i.e., imagined idea, the drawing perceived by the architect, the drawing perceived by the builder, and the constructed building) if there is no material intermediary? In other words, how is it that the building, when built, can be an accurate representation of the original idea given that there were points at which it was not perceived?

Berkeley’s strongest possible response rests within the concept of an infinite mind: God. An infinite mind, which contains and is constructed of all finite minds and all ideas, acts as a vehicle of transmission for the idea of the drawing. This is why a building is able to be constructed and function, despite the idea of the building moving across substrates. When the imagined idea emerges, it emerges as a product within God’s mind and within the finite mind that exists within God - like how a person standing on an island is also standing on the planet. So, when the idea is passed from the architect, to the table, to the builder, and constructed, at no point is it unperceived by God’s mind - since all ideas and minds exist within the one infinite mind, by definition of it being infinite. To state it in another way, all ideas are products of, and within, God’s mind - which contains all ideas and mind - and any transmission of ideas from one finite mind to another is only a movement of the idea from one corner of God’s mind to another. Though I would point out that Berkeley defines God in a considerably nontraditional way, I ultimately find his conclusion valid.