Berkeley's Common Sense and Science

by Marek Tomecek (Author)
©2015 Monographs 177 Pages
Series: American University Studies, Volume 218


The topic of George Berkeley and common sense is challenging: Berkeley claims that matter does not exist and at the same time he writes a whole book (Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous) on how his system agrees with common sense. However, once we understand why he felt so confident that his immaterialism is not an affront to the plain man, we will get a better insight into the metaphysical system itself. The solution involves a more prominent role for science in immaterialism, which justifies the more revisionist aspects of the overall metaphysics, together with a new role of common sense in philosophy.
Berkeley was a successful scientist in his own right; his Theory of Vision defined the topic of psychology of vision for the next two centuries. His metaphysics grows naturally out of his science, the crucial term «idea” being a psychological entity anchored in his theory of vision. At the same time, immaterialism is friendlier to the plain man in not redefining key words of his vocabulary, such as «know», «real», and «certain», unlike the then-reigning representative realism harboring skeptical tendencies. Traditionally, common sense has been taken to include the belief that external objects exist. Once we get rid of this philosophical travesty of the plain man's beliefs identifying dualistic metaphysics with common sense, we will be able to appreciate the seminal importance of immaterialism and its twentieth-century analogies in the works of J. L. Austin, Wittgenstein, and others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Berkeley’s Optics
  • Chapter 2. Berkeley’s Common Sense
  • Chapter 3. The Hidden Metaphor
  • Chapter 4. Explicit and Implicit Common Sense
  • Chapter 5. Modern Analogies of Implicit Common Sense
  • Chapter 6. Epistemology in the Middle of the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 7. Idea and Thing
  • Chapter 8. Continuity of Unperceived Objects
  • Chapter 9. Continuity and God
  • Chapter 10. How Does Berkeley Prove God Then?
  • Chapter 11. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Quotations from Berkeley’s works are taken mainly from The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, edited by A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd, London, 1948–57. However, as this edition is not available in the Czech Republic where some of this book was written, not all quotes could be made to conform to the graphic layout of the standard edition. In referring to passages from individual works, the following abbreviations have been used:

ALC Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher
DHP Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
DM  De Motu
NTV An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision
PC  Philosophical Commentaries
PHK A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
TVV The Theory of Vision or Visual Language shewing the immediate Presence and Providence of a Deity Vindicated and Explained

The abbreviations are followed by the number of the section or entry, except in DHP where the number refers to the page in Luce and Jessop’s edition. ← IX | X →

← X | XI →


I would like to thank Prof David Berman for his guidance and encouragement.

The research published in this book has been funded by grant no. P401/11/0371 ‘Apriority, Syntheticity and Analyticity from Medieval Thought to Contemporary Philosophy’ provided by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic to the Institute of Philosophy for the years 2011–2015. ← XI | XII →

← XII | 1 →


Berkeley’s system has a reputation of an implausible philosophy among many modern commentators. They tend to look for a fatal flaw in his argument which brings down the whole structure. Muehlmann1 thinks he finds it in Berkeley’s extreme nominalism, Grayling2 in his theism. There is, however, another commentary tradition, exemplified by Winkler3 and Atherton,4 concentrating on elucidating Berkeley’s point without judging the whole project a failure. Such a sympathetic approach is less ambitious and perhaps also more alive to the danger of anachronism and the current book is an application of it. For how are we to assess a failure of a philosophical system? If Berkeley is wrong, what about, for example, Plato? Or Heraclitus? Where do they go wrong?

The task of classifying Berkeley is a difficult one—whether he was an idealist, subjective idealist, phenomenalist or solipsist—we will try to show there is something wrong with all these labels when applied to him, and perhaps ← 1 | 2 → even with the whole traditional epistemological frame. Moreover, these labels were applied ex post and some function more as a diagnosis—Berkeley is seen as a subjective idealist by Kant because the latter has a certain notion of the history of philosophy as seen from his own position, which includes, among other things, saying what is wrong with Berkeley’s system and identifying the flaw. Our task, on the other hand, is best served by the term immaterialism as a description of Berkeley’s thought, partly because it was used by Berkeley himself and partly because it applies uniquely to his system and no other. We feel our author should be indulged and allowed to name his own creation. It would be absurd to insist that for instance Husserl was not the founder of phenomenology, that the system he set up is in fact something else. Yet this is apparently what has been happening to Berkeley from the very beginning of the philosophical reception of his thought.

A few words are in order about the perspective of the whole project. The starting point is a realization that Berkeley was firstly a brilliant scientist in his own right. His first publication, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, came out in 1709 and ‘was undeniably successful’.5 Unlike his fellow empiricists Locke, Hume and Hobbes, Berkeley made important scientific discoveries and came to generalize his first-hand scientific knowledge in a metaphysical system. Never forgetting his roots, as late as 1730 he advises Johnson in his second letter to him to start with the New Theory if he wants to understand immaterialism. A fourth edition of the book was appended to Alciphron in 1732.

The first to insist on the importance of the optical programme was Atherton: ‘If the New Theory and the Principles are read as dedicated toward the same overall project, then the arguments of the New Theory, by means of which Berkeley brought about a revolution in the study of vision, can provide a useful tool for interpreting those claims of the Principles widely held to be incredible.’6 The following pages hopefully provide a fruitful application of this interpretative approach. ← 2 | 3 →


  1 Robert G. Muehlmann, Berkeley’s Ontology (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992).

  2 A. C. Grayling, Berkeley: The Central Arguments (London: Duckworth, 1987).

  3 Kenneth P. Winkler, Berkeley: An Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1989).

  4 Margaret Atherton, Berkeley’s Revolution in Vision (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990).

  5 Atherton, Berkeley’s Revolution in Vision, 3. My interpretation of Berkeley’s optical project as well as those of his predecessors is heavily indebted to this excellent book.

  6 Ibid., 218.

· 1 ·


A closer look at the geometric theory of vision prevailing in Berkeley’s times will illustrate the singular character of his contribution to the subject. According to Descartes, our space perception is facilitated by a ‘natural geometry’ which helps us deduce spatial properties of external things from our visible ideas. The sensory input contains secondary qualities such as colour that are subjective and shared with animals, while primary geometrical qualities of the objects outside us, the spatial location and extension, are captured by the intellect. Our sight gives us access to six qualities of objects: light, colour, position, distance, size and shape, but only light and colour belong solely to sight; the other four aspects are geometrical in nature and can be perceived by the other senses, too.

Malebranche shares with Descartes his opinion that it is the intellect that helps us gain knowledge of objects’ spatial properties but is slightly less sympathetic towards the senses. They generally deceive us as to the real objects outside us. The visive faculty has built into itself so called natural judgments which help process the visual information it interprets. They make us see a cube as equal-sided even though that is not how it appears on the retina. Another example of natural judgments at work would be the feeling of size constancy of approaching and receding objects—again this has to be read into ← 3 | 4 → the visual evidence for it varies, the picture on the retina gets larger or smaller as the object moves towards us or away from us.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
immaterialism philosophy psychology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 173 pp.

Biographical notes

Marek Tomecek (Author)

Marek Tomeček is Lecturer in the Department of Languages and Humanities, Faculty of Transportation Sciences at Czech Technical University, Prague. He earned his PhD in philosophy from Charles University, Prague.


Title: Berkeley's Common Sense and Science