Abstract: Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A Study in Error

“Descartes, Locke, and Newton, took away the world... Berkeley restored the world. Berkeley has brought us back to the world that only exist because it shines and sounds.” – W.B. Yeats
“The vulgar view of Berkeley, then as now, was of a befooled enthusiast who sought notoriety by his paradoxes.” (Turbayne 1955: 244)
Bishop Berkeley is popularly held to have endorsed scepticism about the existence of an external world. We have the famous incident of Samuel Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a rock, proving that the external world is real; similarly, over a century later, G.E. Moore held up his hand during a lecture, and declared it to be real, in order to refute idealism.
But is this common impression correct? This paper will trace the long history of discussion on this question, and demonstrate that there is widespread agreement amongst Berkeley scholars that the answer is “no”: Berkeley did not reject the existence of the external world. Indeed, some prominent Berkeley scholars have even denied that he was an idealist at all; instead, they contend, he was a common-sense realist, and at the same time an immaterialist.
Since the view of Berkeley as someone who rejected the existence of an external world relies heavily on his rejection of the concept of matter, as understood before him by Galileo, Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke, we must be very clear about to what Berkeley denied existence and to what he didn’t deny it. Sometimes it is said that Berkeley denied the existence of “the physical world.” This is true only if we take “the physical world” in a special sense. Berkeley did not deny the real, independent existence of what any ordinary person before the 16th or 17th century would have called “the physical world”: the world that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, the world that has rocks in it that hurt us when we kick them. What he denied existed was, instead, a specialized and recently developed philosophical concept: the “matter” recently posited by a number of thinkers preceding him, such as those mentioned above.
If that consensus amongst serious readers of Berkeley is correct, then it will also be interesting to investigate how the perception that he is one has persisted for so long. Therefore, this paper is, to some extent, an examination of how popular error can persist for centuries in the face of overwhelming expert opinion convicting the vulgar view of falsehood.
How can we explain the persistence of this error? It will be our contention that the explanation is the persistent temptation to interpret thinkers in an ahistorical manner, as if their ideas can be lifted out of the contemporary conversation in which they were engaged and evaluated as if they had appeared in the pages of Philosophy Today. This error was the target of critiques by both R.G. Collingwood and the so-called “Cambridge School” of historians, most notably Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. The proposed work will serve as an illustration of the importance of their views.


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