Study Guide

George Berkeley Influences

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Nicolas Malebranche

You probably wouldn't think that this well-known rationalist philosopher would have all that much influence on me, given my strong empiricist tendencies. But one of the many impressive things about me is my ability to see past labels. If a guy has something important to say, who cares how he's tagged?

The fact is, the name "Malebranche" appears in my notebooks more often than any other name, with the exception of "Locke." For one thing, I agree with Malebranche's criticism of Descartes's claim that we can arrive at a clear idea of the mind itself. Rejecting that claim is central to my own distinction between a mind and a spirit.

Even more important is the role that Malebranche played in the development of my immaterialism. He argues that whatever we immediately perceive is an idea in the mind, and he even claims that these ideas are caused by God. Hmmm, who does that you remind you of? Me, perhaps? Smart man, that Malebranche.

So, it's true that Malebranche has some crazy theories, but they're still worth paying attention to.

Pierre Bayle

I know you've never heard of him—almost no one has. But he's important to me because he anticipated my attack on the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. That is, he showed that the same reasons used to demonstrate that qualities like color and smell are all in the mind could lead to the same conclusion about notions like extension and shape.

But like many of my predecessors, Bayle takes his arguments too far, supposing they imply a broad skeptical stance. I, by contrast, have always opposed skepticism. So he was influential on me in this way, too, making me clarify so that I would not be misunderstood as a skeptic.

Peter Browne

Here's another guy very few people have heard of. Peter was Provost of Trinity College during my time there. You need to pay attention to the little fish, I always say, as they sometimes have the most original things to say. Plus, you can easily steal their ideas, and no one will know the difference.

Anyhow, this guy has a great criticism of the notion of abstract ideas, a criticism that got me thinking. It's directed against Locke, in particular—which is a good start. Browne shows just how kooky it is to suppose we can have an idea of, say, a man in general, a man without any determinate color, height, weight, or what have you.

If you think that sounds exactly like what I said on this topic, you're right. Like I said, you can pretty much steal from unknown authors with impunity.

René Descartes

I know I said that Descartes was my rival, and I did make some pretty harsh criticisms of his ideas, no doubt. But I had to do that; I'd lose all my street cred if I didn't claim to just despise everything the man said.

But between you and me, Shmoopers, most of my most fundamental beliefs go back to old René. Take my key claim that all I perceive immediately and directly is ideas in the mind. I'll confess that pretty much comes straight from Descartes's Meditations. I know I credited Malebranche with influencing me there, but the truth is that he got it from Descartes as well.

Now, Descartes, of course, unlike me, argues for the existence of an external world of extended objects. But look how he gets there. He admits that things would look exactly the same if a world of objects were causing the ideas in his mind, or if God were causing those ideas. The only reason he thinks that material objects are the causal agents is that he supposes that denying this would make God a great deceiver.

I accept essentially the same picture as Descartes. The only difference is that I go with option #2: it is God who causes all my ideas. But that doesn't make him a deceiver. I'm a Bishop, after all; I know about these things. Yes, Descartes and I reach opposite conclusions here, but the truth is that we are not that far apart in our basic understanding of things.

So there you have the inside story, Shmoopers. But I'm trusting you not to spread this around.

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