George Berkeley (1685 – 1753)

Eamonn Kiely

It is likely that George Berkeley is the best known Kilkennyman ever. None other that I am aware of, has had a city called after him. Accepted among the top ten philosophers ever he was born at Dysart Castle near Thomastown. At ten years of age in 1695 he is in Kilkenny College, deemed the Eton of Ireland. Swift and Congreve were there before him and Thomas Prior who founded the Royal Dublin Society was a classmate and lifelong friend.

At fifteen years Berkeley is at Trinity College and took a BA in 1704. By 1707 he is a Junior Fellow of the College. A.A. Luce of Trinity published Berkeley’s notebooks as Philosophical Commentaries.

‘In Principles’ Berkeley makes his telling philosophical arguments which l don’t understand and you are unlikely to have a eureka moment either with my explanation. His theory is ‘immaterialism’, later referred to as subjective idealism. This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the mind of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. This proved controversial and elicited a witty limerick from Ronald Knox;

‘There once was a man who said ‘God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there is no one about it in the Quad

A reply came from an unusual source in another limerick;

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree Will continue to be Since observed by,
Yours faithfully God

He combined this with being Librarian in Trinity College Dublin. He became Protestant Minister and was quite expert in design, being with Burgh in designing Ireland’s longest room with the beautiful ceiling -Trinity Library. He helped in the design of Castletown House, the home of Speaker Connolly -‘The finest house Ireland ever saw’.

In 1709 he wrote an essay towards a New Theory of Vision. In 1710 he produced his chief philosophical work ‘A treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’. It wasn’t warmly received yet it is a precursor of Einstein and Mach. He wrote The Analyst which influenced the development of mathematics. His last work was Siris in 1744 where he advocates the medicinal use of tar water.

Berkeley travelled widely for a man of the early 18th century. He was in London, Paris, Genoa and Florence. He went to Flanders and Holland and back to England at the time of Queen Anne’s death 1712.

He tried to ameliorate the worst aspects of the South Sea Bubble, reminiscent of our own travails. His recipe was religion, industry, frugality and public spirit.

It is in America that Berkeley made his greatest impact. He bought a farm of 96 acres at Middletown near Newport Rhode Island. He built a house there which still stands to-day. Berkeley left his books to a struggling college at New Haven. It is now Yale. He visited Harvard and later gave it a library of the classics. He returned home in 1732. He was the most distinguished visitor from Europe to the New World. He founded no college of his own but gave an intellectual uplift to Columbia, Pennsylvania and William and Mary Colleges.

He was to get a grant from the British Government to set up a college in Bermuda and went to the USA in anticipation of this. It never materialised. Lord Townsend said Dependencies should be dependent and regretted the building of Trinity College in Ireland. Swift’s Vanessa (Hester van Homrigh) gave him £2000 in her will. She left Swift nothing.

He married Anne Foster, daughter of the Speaker of Irish House of Commons. He had three sons and a daughter. He was made Bishop of Cloyne and spent 17 years there before going to Oxford where he died shortly after. In the USA he is remembered by place names in California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Aside from being a World level philosopher he is remembered as a patriotic, if colonial nationalist.