Berkeley's Theory of Immaterialism


As man progressed through the various stages of evolution, it 
is assumed that at a certain point he began to ponder the world around 
him. Of course, these first attempts fell short of being scholarly, 
probably consisting of a few grunts and snorts at best. As time passed 
on, though, these ideas persisted and were eventually tackled by the 
more intellectual, so-called philosophers. Thus, excavation of "the 
external world" began. As the authoritarinism of the ancients gave way 
to the more liberal views of the modernists, two main positions 
concerning epistemology and the nature of the world arose. The first 
view was exemplified by the empiricists, who stated that all knowledge 
comes from the senses. In opposition, the rationalists maintained that 
knowledge comes purely from deduction, and that this knowledge is 
processed by certain innate schema in the mind. Those that belonged to 
the empiricist school of thought developed quite separate and distinct 
ideas concerning the nature of the substratum of sensible objects. 
John Locke and David Hume upheld the belief that sensible things were 
composed of material substance, the basic framework for the 
materialist position. The main figure who believed that material 
substance did not exist is George Berkeley. In truth, it is the 
immaterialist position that seems the most logical when placed under 
close scrutiny.

 The initial groundwork for Berkeley's position is the truism 
that the materialist is a skeptic. In the writing of his three 
dialogues, Berkeley develops two characters: Hylas (the materialist) 
and Philonous (Berkeley himself). Philonous draws upon one central
supposition of the materialist to formulate his argument of skepticism 
against him; this idea is that one can never perceive the real essence 
of anything. In short, the materialist feels that the information 
received through sense experience gives a representative picture of 
the outside world (the representative theory of perception), and one 
can not penetrate to the true essece of an object. This makes logical 
sense, for the only way to perceive this real essence would be to 
become the object itself! Although the idea is logical, it does 
contain a certain grounding for agnosticism. Let the reader consider 
this: if there is no way to actually sense the true material essence 
of anything, and all knowledge in empiricism comes from the senses, 
then the real material essence can not be perceived and therefore it 
can not be posited. This deserves careful consideration, for the
materialist has been self-proclaimed a skeptic! If the believer in 
this theory were asked if a mythical beast such as a cyclops existed 
he would most certainly say no. As part of his reply he might add that 
because it can not be sensed it is not a piece of knowledge. After 
being enlightened by the above proposed argument, though, that same 
materialist is logically forced to agree that, because the "material 
substratum1" itself can not be sensed, its existence can not be 
treated as knowledge. The materialist belief has, in effect, become as 
futile as proving that the cyclops exists; his ideas have lead him 
into skepticism.

 Having proven that the materialist is, at best, a doubter, 
Berkeley goes on to offer the compelling argument that primary and
secondary qualities are, together, one thing. As the materialist 
believes, primary qualities of an object are those things that are
abstract (not sense oriented). Examples of these would be number, 
figure, motion, and extension. Secondary qualities are those things 
that are concrete (sense oriented), such as color, smell, sound, and 
taste. The materialist feels that these primary qualities persist even 
when the secondary ones are not there. Thus, if a person were blind, 
then that individual would not be able to hear or to touch items; yet 
the so-called real qualities such as figure would remain existent in 
the objects. As previously shown, the materialist is agnostic in his 
belief of these real (primary) qualities. It is here that Berkeley 
directs an alternate hypothesis: that the abstract primary qualities 
don't exist at all. In fact, the immaterialist position states that 
these qualities are merely secondary in nature, as they, too, can not 
be perceived as being separate from an object. For instance, if a 

person is asked to imagine a primary quality alone, as an abstraction, 
it is impossible. To illustrate this point, suppose that a person is 
asked to think simply of number alone. This person may reply that the 
idea he is formulating is that of three red spheres. In truth this is 
not an abstract idea, because when the qualities of color (red) and 
shape (sphere) are taken away, all that is left is three of nothing! 
Thus, it is impossible to think of the abstraction of number, given 
that an abstract quality can not focus on anything concrete (such as 
red spheres in the above mentioned example). Therefore, it follows 
that, since no primary, abstract quality can exist alone, it is the
same as a secondary quality in which an actual object must first be 

 Berkeley moves on to show that the perceived qualities of an 
object are ideas which exist only in a mind. To do this, he states
that a sensation is an idea. This is logical, for sensations can not 
be felt by mindless objects. However, it is this point which Berkeley 
scrutinizes in the materialist statement that an external object "is a 
material substance with the sensible qualities inhering in it.2" The 
materialist is proclaiming that sensible qualities, which exist in the 
mind only, are actually in the object. Logically, the only possible 
way for this to occur is if the external object had a mind for the 
qualities to be thought of and stored by. The notion that inanimate 
objects have minds is ridiculous, and thus the materialists' belief 
has been reduced to absurdity. Let the reader consider this example to 
reinforce the point. A ten-story building is erected, and a person who 
lives in a single-story house in the country sees the new building. To 
this person the structure may seem quite tall, as he has never seen
any building taller than three stories. However, a construction worker 
comes across the same building and perceives its height quite 
differently than the previous man. Since the second man usually works 
on buildings about thirty stories high, he thinks that the building is 
fairly short. Obviously, the new building can not be both tall and 
short at the same time; yet this is the outcome if one believes that 
the quality of tallness is inherent in the object. In fact, if the 
idealist (immaterialist) position is considered it seems logical that 
one person could view something differently than another. This is 
because the idea concerning that thing could be different in the two 
separate minds.

 At this point Berkeley explains that the so-called tertiary 
qualities of an external object are non-existent. The materialist 
defines these qualities as the ability in one object to produce change 
in another object. In the three dialogues, Hylas brings up the point
that these qualities are "perceive[d] by the sense... and exist in the 
object that occasions [them]3." An example of this quality would be a 
burning candle. Suppose that a person puts his finger in the flame 
long enough to feel the pain of a burn. The materialist would 
attribute this pain to the lit candle itself, stating that the ability 
to produce pain is inherent in it. However, this can not be the case. 
As previously discussed, the external objects are merely ideas which 
we perceive through sense experience. Just as these objects do not 
possess any primary or secondary qualities, they also can not have the 
ability to cause change in something else. In fact, these tertiary 
qualities are also ideas perceived only in the mind.

 Given that objects are ideas and humans possess minds to 
perceive them with, the nature of both ideas and minds deserves 
careful consideration. Berkeley assumes the view that ideas are 
passive and only perceivable in a mind. He goes on to state that these 
ideas are existent only when a mind is perceiving them. This is 
logical, for when something is not being ruminated upon it does not 
exist in the realm of knowledge at that particular time. As an 
example, if I were to move to another country and, after some time, 
forget about my old house in America, it would not exist to me 
anymore. In accordance with the immaterialists' view, my actively 
perceiving mind would be electing not to reflect back upon the past. 
Thus, only the active mind can create the purely passive idea.

 Since an idea only exists when it is being perceived or 
reflected upon, this brings into question the nature of reality. For
instance, assume that a person attends an art museum early on Sunday 
morning. As that person views the artwork, the paintings themselves 
are sensible things, or ideas, actively being perceived by a mind; in 
short, they exist. However, when the museum closes and the person goes 
home, does the artwork continue to exist? Obviously the person pursues 
other activities of the day, and he ceases to think about what he did 
earlier. However, at a certain time those paintings were part of what 
the person knew to be true through sensation; the artwork was part of 
the person's reality. Do the paintings therefore cease to exist since 
they are no longer being thought of?

 Berkley argues that such objects still exist because the mind 
of God is always perceiving them. Unlike the materialists' view, the
immaterialist puts God at the center of his views. In truth, God is 
the "omnipresent external mind which knows and comprehends all things, 
and exhibits them to our view in such a manner and according to such 
rules as He Himself has ordained and are by us termed the 'laws of 
nature.'4" It is important to stress the idea that God shows people 
the ideas in his mind, and these ideas make up the reality beheld by 
the human mind. Therefore, for any person to perceive something, the 
idea must be in the mind of God first.

 The fact that there are two distinct minds raises questions 
about the nature of these minds. The idealist proclaims that the human
mind is strictly finite in its ability to have sense experience. With 
this being the case, a person can only have a single sensation at a 
time. Since sensations are the same as ideas, humans can only have one 
idea at once. On the other hand, God's mind is infinite and is thus 
able to have multiple perceptions. These perceptions of God are also 
ideas, and it follows that these ideas comprise the reality beheld in 
the finite human mind. Instead of the materialists' belief in the 
representative theory of perception, where a material object has real 
(primary) qualities which humans perceive as sensible (secondary) 
qualities, Berkeley has posited an alternate theory. This is that God 
upholds all of the ideas which comprise human reality, and people 
perceive these ideas as sensations directly from God's infinite mind.

 It should also be noted that just as the finite mind is 
different from the infinite mind, the ideas in each mind have some 
certain distinctions. The finite mind can only contemplate a limited 
range of thoughts. To illustrate this, let the reader attempt to 
imagine an infinite number of stars. After some intellection, the 
reader will realize that it is an impossible task. This is because the 
human mind can only think in terms of bounded entities; thus, in the 
above mentioned case, the reader may have thought of a great many 
stars. However, the stars were finite in number and could therefore 
not represent the notion of infinity. In short, the finite mind can 
only conceive finite thoughts. Not only this, but, as previously 
disgussed, humans can perceive only one thought at a time. If the 
reader does not think this to be the case, then let her attempt to 
imagine a small boy and a thunderstorm as completely separate ideas. 
Although both ideas may be thought of, the only way for this to occur 
is when they are placed in the same mental picture. In summary, the 
human mind has important limits which can easily be observed.

 On the contrary, the infinite mind of God is limitless in its 
ability to perceive ideas. In God's mind, an infinite thought (a 
thought without boundaries) can exist. This infinite idea's existence 
in God's mind is more that possible; it must necessarily be the case.
This is because infinite concepts such as the number system and the 
universe must come from, as do all thoughts, a mind. However, since 
the human mind is finite and therefore incapable of conceiving 
boundless thoughts, then those infinite ideas must arise from the 
infinite mind of God. Not only does God's mind contain infinite 
thoughts, but it also must possess the ability to think of, in the 
least, many thoughts at once. This is necessarily the case for the 
collection of God's ideas which people call reality to exist; if God 
did not have this ability then external objects would not exist when 
the finite mind was not perceiving them.

 Thus far the immaterialist position has been considered in its 
parts; at this point it shall be viewed as one simple model. Let the
reader picture an isosceles triangle which is divided into three 
parts: the top, middle, and bottom. At the apex of the figure is God's 
infinite mind. The middle portion of the triangle is occupied by the 
finite minds of people. Lastly, the bottom section contains the ideas 
perceived by humans. Because God is at the pinnacle of the figure, He 
also perceives the ideas that people do. However, since the human mind 
is finite, it can not conceive of the infinite ideas in God's mind at 
the apex of the triangle. Now, the concepts of either perceiving or 
being perceived can be added to the picture. Both the top and middle 
portions of the figure are minds, so both of these sections are 
perceivers. At the bottom of the model are ideas, and since they do 
not act of their own volition, they are perceived. As previously 
shown, perceivers are active and the perceived is passive. Lastly, the
concept of existence can be applied to the triangle. Since existence 
is that which is either perceived or perceives5, and each part of the 
model has been shown to meet one of these criteria, then the entire 
triangle must be considered to exist. 

 In the final analysis, it is evident that Berkley's 
immaterialist position is logically feasible. From his definitions of 
minds and ideas to his careful attribution of their respective 
qualities, George Berkeley has produced a compelling argument for his 
views. However, this is not all that he has done; in fact, Berkeley 
has shown the necessary importance of God. In the materialist view,
a belief in God is not logically necessary to uphold the "material 
substratum2." Berkeley shows that God must exist, for He is at the 
heart of Berkeley's position. In short, the materialist view allows 
for atheism as a possible option. 

End Notes

1. George Berkeley. "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous."
Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg p. 175.

2. Berkeley, p. 165.

3. Berkeley, p. 165.

4. Berkeley, p. 191.

5. Berkeley, p. 179.


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