Berkeley’s Idealism


Berkeley was an Irish philosopher with some pretty interesting ideas that are worth revisiting now. Berkeley thought that the world and everything in it only exists when somebody is observing it. When we stop looking at something it no longer exists. This theory is called Idealism. Not to be confused with “being an idealist,” which usually means something else. And it’s neatly captured by the phrase “esse est percipi;” “to be is to be perceived.” That’s how my old textbooks used to explain it, I think that’s a little bit blunt: Berkeley’s point is actually a little subtler than that. I think the best way to get at what he’s saying is with a challenge. So, I want you try and imagine an apple. Okay: I’m imagining an apple. Now I want you to try imagining an apple without imagining how it looks. Okay: little bit more challenging, but I can imagine an apple that has weight and I can feel in my hand and I can smell it even if I can’t see it – an invisible apple – basically. Okay. Now try imagining an apple without imagining how it smells, how it tastes, how it looks, how it feels; an apple with no weight, no volume – nothing that could be detected by your senses. What have you got left? Nothing, right? That’s what “To be is to be perceived” means. For something to exist at all it must be, at least in principle, perceptible to us. That’s just what it means for something to exist. And the upshot of this for Berkeley is that something mental, namely our minds or God’s mind, is at the bottom layer of reality. Reality isn’t some objective, independently existing thing: it’s in here!

Berkeley isn’t the only person ever to have thought of this, but he is the philosopher that schools and universities like to talk about. Before we talk about how we can use this idea, let’s anticipate some common questions you might have. The first one is that it really, really seems like things exist when we aren’t looking at them. If you leave a tree in Spring and then you go away and come back to it in Autumn, it’s changed, and that would be really weird if it didn’t exist in the meantime to go through any changes at all. The English priest Robert Knox captured this question in the form of a limerick: “There was a young man who said, “God Must find it exceedingly odd To think that the tree Should continue to be When there’s no one about in the quad. Berkeley’s reply to this was that there is someone who is always perceiving everything, keeping it there even when we aren’t looking at it. “Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd: I am always about in the Quad. And that’s why the tree, Will continue to be, Since observed by, Yours Faithfully, God! One of the other questions you might have might be about things like subatomic particles, which are so small that we can’t observe them. Does that mean that they don’t exist then, according to Berkeley?

Well, it’s true that we can’t observe them directly, but by doing experiments with things like particle colliders we can observe the effects that they have in the world and from that deduce that they are there. So they are still perceptible, just not directly. Okay we’ve learned what Berkeley thought about existence and perception. That’s kinda cool, I guess. But who really cares about any of this? Well, here’s the really cool bit. Berkeley is actually making two points here: his first point is that nothing unless it is being perceived, that’s a point about metaphysics, about what exists. But his second point is that mental stuff, minds, is at the bottom layer of reality. That reality and everything we might say or know about it is inherently subjective. And that is a very interesting idea. Subjective here doesn’t mean that it’s all made up or that anything goes or that none of it really matters – the word ‘subjective’ gets kind of a bad rap like that – it just means what it says: that reality is grounded in the experience of a subject

This idea has pretty profound implications for the way we understand science. A lot of people have this idea that science is about trying to find objective, universal truth, but an idealist approach to it would be to say, “Ehh, not so much.” Science is about predicting experience. So much of the history of mysticism and religion was about prophecy, about foretelling the future, and science, if you do it right, is the tool that actually allows you to do that. To say that Halley’s Comet will return at this time on this date; these drugs will have this effect on the body; that the weather on Tuesday will be like this. What the ultimate, objective nature of reality is, who knows? If there even is such a thing. Science might not be able to tell you, but it can tell you what the weather will be like on Tuesday: it can predict human experience. There are also some profound political implications for this centring of subjectivity, political here means ‘to do with the distribution of power’ rather than meaning any specific political party. For the last several hundred years it was assumed that some people, mainly white men, were more objective and rational and saw things as they really are, in contrast to women, who were emotional and hysterical and blew things out of proportion.

It wasn’t just a gendered thing either, it was a race thing: Western European ideas of property and government were taken, by Western Europeans, to be universal and rationally grounded, whereas First Nation American and Canadian ideas were taken to be primitive and local, or just assumed to be absent. We talked about that kind of thing when we talked about the philosophy of John Locke a while ago? A lot of these ideas are still around today and are still being recreated in new forms. A lot of the time people might say that their political opponents don’t really care about “the facts” and don’t see things “as they really are;” we use words like “freedom fighter,” “terrorist,” “moderate,” “extremist,” – even “democracy” and “tyranny” – as if there really is some objective truth of the matter and, maybe more interestingly, as if we ourselves are in the best position to know that truth. People still get called out by women on their sexism, or by people of colour on their racism, and reply with things like, “I’m not sexist!” or, “I’m not racist,!” as if they are in the best position to know that, rather than those affected by their actions being in the better position to know. The centring of subjectivity in the form of lived experience might prompt us to re-evaluate who we listen to about what.

To maybe sometimes take a step back and say, “Maybe I don’t have a mainline straight to universal truth, maybe this is just the way I see it. So how do you see it then?” In particular, when we realise that historically certain types of people have been given license to push their way of seeing things on everyone else and to back it up with violence, well…

Idealism might seem like a neat little idea or a curiosity that’s never really gonna leave the classroom, but if to be is to be perceived and you change the way you perceive, you can literally change the world.

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