George Berkeley on Empiricism & Idealism

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  • 0:01 Are Only Ideas Real?
  • 2:08 The Mind of God
  • 4:17 Arguments for Idealism
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

What if the objects around you are really just ideas and not physical matter? In this lesson, see how George Berkeley argued for this view and what motivated him to make such a claim.

Are Only Ideas Real?

When you see an object in front of you, like a tree, do you ever doubt whether it actually exists as physical matter? You might consider the objects you can see, touch, or feel to be separate from your ideas about them. From this point of view, objects exist and you use your senses to perceive them. What would you say to someone who suggests that only ideas exist? That only our ideas about objects can be said to be real? Perhaps you have some objections to this.

In this lesson, we'll look at how George Berkeley tackled this topic and why he rejected the views of many other philosophers.

Empiricism and Idealism

Some of Berkeley's views were aligned with the main idea of empiricism, which argues that what we know comes from sense experience. However, unlike some of the other empiricists of his time, such as John Locke, Berkeley did not see a separation between a physical world and a mental world. Instead, his perspective was idealism, the view that mind-independent things do not exist.

So you might wonder what that means. Does Berkeley think you're hallucinating when you see a tree in front of you, one you can touch? Does he think that when you hear leaves rustling in the breeze, this comes from your imagination? Berkeley is not saying that our experiences of objects are hallucinations.

He recognizes that we do experience sensations that appear to be connected to things like trees and their leaves. However, he doesn't think the cause of those sensations is physical matter, like a material tree that's totally separate from our minds. Instead, the tree, or other objects that we believe we are experiencing, are collections of ideas.

The Mind of God

You still might be scratching your head with confusion about how Berkeley can say that objects are just ideas. To better understand the context of his philosophy, let's first look at the other popular theories of his time. Scientific discoveries of the day were providing a view of a world that could exist without a supreme being, a god, as part of the plan.

There were also philosophers at this point in history who were looking at sensations in our body as responses to physical matter. In many cases, this view did not require a god to be part of the equation. From this point of view, perhaps the world could operate without the existence of a god guiding it.

Still another approach of the time was to strongly question whether we know anything at all. Berkeley's major motivations in making his claims were to incorporate God into explanations of how the world works and to confirm that there are some things we really can know about reality. Berkeley put God smack dab in the middle of the scene as a significant explanation for how the world can be explained.

According to Berkeley, it's God that has structured our experience in a specific way. He explains that the concept of objects exists in God's mind. When we experience the sensations of an object, like the color of a leaf for instance, we are perceiving an idea from within the mind of God. Ultimately, everything is made up of ideas and these ideas come from God.

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