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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Berkeley Questions 2

Aggiornamento: 11 apr 2023

I Does George Berkeley figure large in the history of philosophy?

I’m afraid so. He took a radical position that set brains spinning.

II Must we join the philosophers in the huffing and puffing?

Only to the extent that we have an answer as a Circle member if cornered by a question about our patron’s philosophy. A form of words uttered with a shrug will ward off blushes: “Our man was an immaterialist. He believed nothing existed but mind. He said each of us has his own patch, with our five senses sorting out the details of things that do not otherwise exist for us. A top mind called God guarantees that the things actually do exist tucked away—where else but—in the super mind”.

III Crazy?

Some thought so. Dr Johnson (1709-1784) famously kicked a stone and bruised his gouty foot, saying, “I refute you’. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) told him, when Berkeley knocked on his door, “Walk right through. It’s immaterial”. Others said, “What did you expect? He’s Irish.”

IV That shut him up?

Berkeley would not have been a philosopher if he hadn’t a comeback. It continues, still a fertile talking point among his ever voluble colleagues.

V Did this radical immaterialism make Berkeley a two-fisted iconoclast?

He was only a maverick on weekdays. Sundays he looked backward.

VI Like an expat, you mean? What did he see over his shoulder?

The desirability of slavery, blind obedience to superiors like kings and husbands, the awarding of full humanity only to members of the Anglican Church—I could go on, and warn you I shall.

VII But wasn't that simply the norm of his time and place?

Hardly. The Enlightenment was brewing up. Berkeley’s adult years saw Europe lurching toward our hotshot world.

VIII You make the patron of our Circle sound like my Uncle Ezra whom we scissor out of family photos. Should we recommend him for canceling?

Like the rest of us, he was no hero, no villain. I’m sure your uncle Ezra had his good points. Didn’t he visit Italy and praise Parmesan cheese?

IX I’m not clear on one thing. Why do we, a Circle devoted to the English language have an Irishman as patron?

He surely had a regional accent. But his linguistic compass was fixed on London. One biographer calls him “a writer of perfect grace and lucidity, and by temperament an enemy to all dullness, pedantry, and needless sophistication”. But as you may recall from ‘The Troubles’, 1960s-1998, there are all sorts of Irishmen. Berkeley was born in Ireland and never left it till he was twenty-eight. He called himself Irish and was always so considered. But he belonged to an elite that the English had installed in Ireland to facilitate control of the island colony. This Anglo-Irish minority of the Anglican faith held all wealth and power in Ireland, ruling the impoverished Roman Catholic majority that had no political representation.

X Careful! Remember it’s that nice old lady the Queen’s birthday.

Other times, other alibis. Berkeley considered the feckless majority the curse of Ireland. Embracing the superstitious fancies of their Church, they deserved to live like beasts. In Italy Berkeley sought to confirm that the Roman Church made for an unwashed and dissolute civil society. But he was often confronted with a hard-working population living in decent circumstances. He had to put away that particular pet idea. Immortality is not without brain strain.

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