What are the works of George Berkeley

Summary of A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge

Enlightenment and empiricism in England

A relatively peaceful and economically prosperous time began in England towards the end of the 17th century: the bloody civil war was over, the religious disputes ended, and the legislative power of parliament against the king was secured in the Bill of Rights (1689). With the internal pacification, trade also strengthened: England expanded its colonial power, a liberal bourgeoisie promoted technical innovations and industrialization.

All of this paved the way for enlightenment ideas that no longer saw God, but reason as the foundation of all thought and action. Unlike the Enlightenment in continental Europe, the English “Enlightenment” was particularly influenced by the scientific approach. This so-called empiricism began at Francis Bacon and turned against a purely metaphysical (metaphysics = "beyond the physical", that is, beyond the physical), speculative philosophizing. Outstanding representative of this direction was John Locke. He argued that all ideas and contents of consciousness could only come from experience. In addition to Berkeley, the third famous empiricist, David Hume, carried on these thoughts of Locke. Berkeley pursued the goal in particular of proving the existence of God - because like many other enlighteners, it was not about denying God or dismissing him as mere speculation, but just to justify his existence on the basis of human reason.

As a philosophical counterpart to empiricism, continental European rationalism appeared, represented in particular by René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. They argued that true statements about the world should not be based on experiences, since these are always prone to deception, but on pure thought activity.


As with many thinkers of his time, Berkeley's aim was to provide a comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon of how we perceive the world “out there”, how we think about it, and how perceptions and ideas arise in our heads. The ruling doctrine of the Middle Ages, scholasticism, had produced many contradicting theories on this; the Enlightenment wanted to clarify this thoroughly on the basis of reason and the incipient modern natural science. Berkeley was heavily influenced by the new thoughts while studying at Trinity College in Dublin: Both physics Isaac Newtons and new discoveries in mathematics as well as the discussions that John Locke had initiated with his proposals on epistemology caught the young student.

But Berkeley was not primarily a philosophy student, but embarked on a theological career. From the beginning he dealt with the conflict that the new ideas also fueled skepticism towards religion. He distanced himself from belief in science and also the incipient free-thinking, i.e. atheism. The Treatise on the principles of human knowledge reflects this: It is both the epistemological basic writing of a young (25-year-old) thinker and the religious manifesto of a prospective priest. The work remained fragment: the present book actually only contains the first part, parts II and III were never published. Berkeley lost the manuscript of the second part on a trip to Italy.

Impact history

When the work was published in 1710, it was initially met with incomprehension. Berkeley therefore rewrote the basic ideas in the form of dialogue that he mastered and published the in 1713 Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. With the help of epistemology, Berkeley found no successor for his struggle for true belief, while his empirical colleagues David Hume and John Locke had a greater influence on the discussions of the time. Hume's philosophy is far more skeptical than Berkeley's, since at times he doubted any form of certain knowledge; Berkeley, on the other hand, had found this security in the existence of God. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant later referred to English empiricism, but came to a completely different connection between empiricism and idealism than Berkeley: Some categories that, according to Kant, are fundamental to our intellectual activity - namely space, time and causality - are not to be derived from experience, but rather components our reason. In the 20th century empiricism had an influence on the philosophy of the Vienna Circle, which only accepted what was given in the world (Latin: the positive, hence “positivism”) as the basis of all knowledge: A statement is only meaningful if it can be checked empirically.