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Mind over 'matter'
on 6 July 2011
This is a good edition of Berkeley's most influential texts: the Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues. If you want his most widely discussed works, here they are well presented at a reasonable price.
The Principles starts by opposing John Locke's account of 'abstract ideas' and directs our attention to the nature of mental activity when we represent situations to ourselves. It then argues that 'matter' is one such abstract idea and thus does not represent anything real as it lacks sensuous content. The reality we directly know is always our sensations of touch, sight, etc that God gives us and 'matter' is merely a convenient way of talking about them. There is an earnest, youthful mind at work here that does not shy away from taking a radical line. The Three Dialogues presents the same doctrine in more popular terms. This gave rise to humour, as in Dr Johnson's "I refute him thus" as he kicked a stone and the story of someone slamming a door in his face, saying "Be not offended Sir, if your theory be true you may walk through it!" Interestingly, both these refer to the sense of touch. The theory of sight as a divine language led on in Britain to the scepticism of Hume, contrary to Berkeley's pious but naive hopes. He then wrote the more mature Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher, not included here.
As a critic said, the Principles is hard either to refute or to agree with. Nonetheless, it is widely used in courses on 'British empiricism' to stimulate argument. In addition, Woolhouse's new introduction discusses Berkeley in relation to earlier European and later British philosophers, including Descartes, Locke, Malebranche and John Stuart Mill.