George Berkeley's Idealist Theory: Radical Solipsism - psychology - 2023



When it comes to reflecting on what the mind is, it is very easy to start from the starting point of consciousness. We can doubt many things, but as the philosopher Descartes established, the undoubted thing is that we exist, at least as a mind aware of itself. Everything else, including our personality and behavior patterns, seems more uncertain.

This approach is solipsistic, that is, it starts from the starting point of the conscious ā€œIā€ of each one and questions everything that is not that. One of the most radical thinkers when it came to taking solipsism to its last consequences was the Englishman George Berkeley. In the following lines I will explain how George Berkeley saw the world through his idealistic theory.

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Who was George Berkeley?

The philosopher George Berkeley was born in Ireland, specifically in a town called Kilkenny, in the year 1685. After studying at Kilkeny College first and Trinity College in Dublin later, he became an Anglican priest and began to study and write essays.

In the year 1710 he wrote his first important work, the Treatise on the principles of human understanding, and three years later, Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonus. In them he captured a way of thinking deeply influenced by idealism, as we will see.

In 1714, after having written his major works, he moved to London and occasionally toured Europe. Later he moved to Rhode Island with his wife with the goal of creating a seminary. This project failed due to lack of funds, which made him return to London, and later to Dublin, place where he was appointed Bishop a few years later. There he lived the rest of his years until his death in 1753.

George Berkeley's Idealist Theory

The main aspects of the philosophical theory of Gerorge Berkeley are the following:

1. Strong idealism

Berkeley started from the presupposition that the essential thing is to analyze everything from the point of view of ideas, the immaterial. So that, was concerned with studying logical and formal systems, and his thought was focused on working with concepts, beyond empirical observations. This was relatively frequent in his time, since the influence of medieval scholastic philosophy, which was dedicated to justifying the existence of God through reflection, was still noticeable in Europe. However, as we shall see, Berkeley carried his idealism to its last consequences.

2. Monism

As we have seen, George Berkeley was essentially concerned with ideas, which he equated with the spiritual. However, unlike other idealists, he was not dualistic, in the sense that he did not believe that reality was composed of two fundamental elements such as matter and the spiritual. He was monistic in a sense that practically no one had been: he only believed in the existence of the spiritual.

3. Extreme solipsism

From the combination of the two previous characteristics arises this third. Berkeley believed that everything we think and perceive is actually part of the same thing: the spiritual. In his Christian conception of things, everything that surrounds us is the spiritual substance created by the Christian god for us to live in it. This has as its implication the following characteristic, the most striking of George Berkeley's theory.

4. Relativism

For Berkeley, when we see a mountain that appears tiny on the horizon, it really is tiny, and it will transform as we get closer to it. When we see as if the oar is bending when submerged in the water, the oar is actually bending. If it seems to us that a sound comes muffled through the wood of a door, that sound is really like that, not because it has passed through any material element.

Everything we perceive is really as we perceive itSince everything is spirit, there is nothing in it that must follow fixed rules. What happens is spiritual substance transforming before our gaze by the will of the Christian god. At the same time, he believed that what exists is what is perceived, so that everything that is not, disappears, literally and in every way.

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In conclusion

Although it was not his intention, George Berkeley's philosophy shows us to what extent we can fall into absurdities if we only look at our own ideas, if we reject the possibility that there is a material reality out there.

This is something you can fall for regardless of whether you believe in any religion or not. It is, basically, an extreme relativism that we sometimes use in some contexts and situations, but that if we continued in any situation it would lead us to fall into the absurd.