The limits of Berkeley’s idealism
Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound if no one is there to
hear it? This is one of the most quoted and least understood questions
in the history of ideas. Even a man of average intelligence would say
that it is a stupid question because a falling tree would make a sound
whether there is anyone to hear it or not. However, George Berkeley
(1685-1783) the Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne said a falling
tree would not make a sound if there is no one to hear it.
Ronald Knox in his limerick reproduced below took objection to
There was a young man who said, “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about it in the Quad.
Not to be outwitted, Berkeley wrote an
equally convincing limerick:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about it in the Quad,
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Dissatisfied with John Locke’s causal theory of perception, Berkeley
said it implied a logical gap between the subject and reality. The
logical gap is often called the “veil of perception.” According to the
causal theory, objects in the external world have a causal effect on our
senses and in the process they produce ideas in the observer’s mind.
For instance, when you look at a tree there begins a chain of causal
events starting with the observer’s retina and subsequently in the
neural pathways of the observer. The whole process leads the observer to
see a tree. However, according to Berkeley, the seeing of the tree is a
construct in one’s mind.
George Berkeley: Esse est percipi (To exist is to be
In Berkeley’s view, if the tree is a construct in the mind, then what
the observer actually sees is not the real cause of the idea but the
idea itself. Since the observer never perceives anything called
“matter”, but only ideas, there is no material substance supporting his
perception. For Berkeley everything was mind-dependent. If something
fails to be an idea in the observer’s mind, it does not exist. His most
famous adage is Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived).
Those who did not agree with Berkeley’s theory ask if there were no
material substance behind our ideas, how is it that things exist when no
one perceives them. Berkeley countered the criticism by saying that our
perceptions are ideas produced for us by God. According to him, God
produces everything for us.
Although we cannot deny the existence of the material world, Berkeley
defended his theory by saying that it makes more sense to deny the
existence of matter than it does to affirm it. In simple words, Berkeley
believed that the material world did not exist. According to him, only
ideas exist. As a result, he has been labelled an idealist. His
idealism, however, has been criticised because we can conceive of things
only in terms of the perceptions or ideas we have of them.
John Locke said that knowledge was derived from experience. However,
Berkeley said all knowledge was limited to ideas because we experienced
things only as ideas. The so-called material or physical states are
perceptions or mental states. He said that pain, the moon and his own
body were a series of perceptions.
Berkeley did not continue his argument to its logical conclusion. If
he had done so, we would have a different picture of reality. Probably
because of his religious background, Berkeley introduced God as a
guarantee that he had a continuing self that is all perceiving.
In Berkeley’s view, the physical universe does not exist. He
formulated two major structures of thought. One is that mental
substances exist in the form of finite minds and also as infinite mind.
He did not believe in the laws of nature. Most probably he knew the
limitations of his philosophical arguments. So, he called upon God to
solve his philosophical problems.
Berkeley’s philosophy can be summed up as a strict form of idealism.
As an idealist, he avoided some of the difficulties presented by
realism. Idealists argue that there is no external world or universe. To
most other philosophers this sounds absurd because there is enough
evidence to prove the existence of an external world. But an idealist
would say that the Taj Mahal or your own house exists so long as you
perceive it. Berkeley’s idealist theory leads to solipsism, the view
that all that exists is my mind and that everything else is a creation
of my own invention. The view that no physical objects do not exist is
untenable. If physical things do not exist, we ourselves do not exist. A
modern philosopher said solipsism is closer to a mental illness than a