This February, the OUP Philosophy team honours George Berkeley (1685-1753) as their Philosopher of the Month. An Irish-born philosopher, Berkeley is best known for his contention that the physical world is nothing but a compilation of ideas. This is represented by his famous aphorism esse est percipi (“to be is to be perceived”).
Born in Kilkenny, Berkeley studied at Trinity College in Dublin, graduating with his Master of Arts degree in 1707. In Berkeley’s early work, his focus was mostly on the natural world and mathematics; however, his move towards philosophy is marked with his first philosophical publication, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709). His philosophical work was somewhat controversial and his importance initially quite overlooked. Berkeley’s influence was scarcely recognized at Trinity College until W. A. Butler wrote about him in the Dublin University Magazine in 1836.
Although most scholarly work has focused on Berkeley’s idealism and immaterialism in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, his work was not solely limited to metaphysics. Berkeley’s works on vision have influenced discussions of visual perception from the 1700s to the present. He also wrote on ethics, natural law, mathematics, physics, economics, and monetary theory. At his death he was already recognised as one of Ireland’s leading men of letters but it wasn’t until A. A. Luce’s and David Berman’s twentieth-century scholarship that Berkeley’s true impact was fully appreciated.
For more on Berkeley’s life and work, browse our interactive timeline below:
Featured image credit: Kilkenny, Ireland. CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated via Wikimedia Commons.