Bishop Berkeley and America


THE MUSE, disgusted at an age and clime
  Barren of every glorious theme,
In distant lands now waits a better time,
  Producing subjects worthy fame.
In happy climes, where from the genial sun
  And virgin earth such scenes ensue,
The force of art by nature seems outdone,
  And fancied beauties by the true;
In happy climes, the seat of innocence,
  Where nature guides and virtue rules,
Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
  The pedantry of courts and schools:
There shall be sung another golden age,
  The rise of empire and of arts,
The good and great inspiring epic rage,
  The wisest heads and noblest hearts.
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
  Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heavenly flame did animate her clay,
  By future poets shall be sung.
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
  The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
  Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

These lines were on the minds of the early regents of the University of California when they selected the site for their new campus, and it was in honor of their author that they named the place Berkeley. It’s interesting that Bishop Berkeley holds such a revered place in the intellectual life of Anglo-America. In Europe, and especially in Britain, Berkeley has been viewed as an irrelevant distraction from the ineluctable march of materialism and the growth of the physical sciences. His writings were either ignored or ridiculed. In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson we have the famous “I refute it thus” scene where Johnson kicks a stone and jokingly claims that his stinging foot disproves Berkeley’s theory that the universe is immaterial and purely ideal instead.

Berkeley has received far better treatment in America. This may be due to his own interest in the New World. He lived in Rhode Island for several years and tried to establish an school in Barbados. As “On the Prospect of Planting Arts…” shows, Berkeley plainly saw great promise in the Americas. But more than this circumstantial affinity, I think there is quite a lot in Berkeley’s philosophy that corresponds to American thought. I see elements of Berkeleian metaphysics in American Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and the American spirit of exploration.

In addition to the excellent Youtube video above, my favorite explanation of Berkeleian metaphysics appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

“[Berkeley’s principle] may be expressed in the proposition that no existence is conceivable—and therefore possible—which is not either conscious spirit or the ideas (i.e. objects) of which such spirit is conscious…. Matter, as an abstract, unperceived substance or cause, is shown to be impossible, an unreal conception; true substance is affirmed to be conscious spirit, true causality the free activity of such a spirit, while physical substantiality and causality are held to be merely arbitrary, though constant, relations among phenomena connected subjectively by suggestion or association, objectively in the Universal Mind. In ultimate analysis, then, nature is conscious experience, and forms the sign or symbol of a divine, universal intelligence and will.”

The article is split between two different contributors, R. Ad. and J. M. M. The first, who seems to have written the original article, does a passable job of summarizing Berkeley’s works and his biography, but makes no attempt to hide his prejudice against his subject’s ideas. The second author offers a kind of addendum to the main article in which he weighs Berkeley’s contribution to early inquiries into empiricism and contextualizes him within the Western philosophical tradition. He restates Berkeley’s position in a more measured and altogether more elegant manner:

“External things are produced by the will of the divine intelligence; they are caused, and caused in a regular order; there exists in the divine mind archetypes, of which sense experience may be said to be the realization in our finite minds. Our belief in the permanence of something which corresponds to the association in our minds of actual and possible sensations means belief in the orderliness of nature; and that is merely assurance that the universe is pervaded and regulated by mind. Physical science is occupied in endeavouring to decipher the divine ideas which find realization in our limited experience, in trying to interpret the divine language of which natural things are the words and letters, and in striving to bring human conceptions into harmony with the divine thoughts. Instead, therefore, of fate or necessity, or matter, or the unknown, a living, active mind is looked upon as the centre and spring of the universe, and this is the essence of the Berkeleian metaphysics.”

This idea of trying to decipher the “divine mind” through experience I think is central to American thinking and the method by which American thinkers have sought to understand the world. When Emerson describes how nature provides symbol and meaning to our thought, what is this but a recognition of nature’s archetypes and their relationships with one another? When Thoreau insists that Nature has most to teach us when it is wild and undisturbed what he is advocating is unmediated access to the divine mind as expressed through being and causality. When Natty Bumpo in the Leather Stocking Tales observes that there is no better cathedral than the woods, he is not denigrating churches and organized religion as some have interpreted, but rather he is extolling the natural world as an expression of the divine that is no less significant or sacred than scripture. Charles Sanders Peirce saw little to no meaning in existence if it could not be proven through experience, thus his Pragmatic Maxim bears a good deal of resemblance to Berekeley’s New Theory of Vision: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”

If you look at a list of State mottos, except for those that pertain to armed rebellion, every one invokes the necessity of providence. The motto of my own state, Colorado, is Nil sine numine, which translates to “Nothing without God.” If you read this as an ontological proposition, it essentially corroborates Bishop’s idea of a the divine mind and enshrines the concept in the state’s very identity. But my favorite state motto, and the one I think that gets closest to what Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy really means to Americans, is California’s Eureka. “I have found it.” Supposedly uttered by the 49ers upon having struck gold, I think Eureka captures the elation and astonishment with which we are met in our encounters with this miraculous world. It implies discovery and startling revelation. It is an expression appreciation over faith rewarded. Faith that that which we do not perceive is still nonetheless existent and waiting for us to uncover it. The utterance of Eureka accompanies the ecstatic communion with the divine will, when we are permitted a glimpse into the universe’s true identity and made familiar with yet another of God’s infinite secrets.