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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XI. Berkeley and Contemporary Philosophy

§ 3. Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher; Essay towards a New Theory of Vision

Berkeley remained in London for more than two years after his return to England; and a new period of authorship began, during which he joined in the controversies of the age. In Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), written in the seclusion of his home in Rhode Island, he applied his general principles in defence of religion against the free-thinkers. In 1733 appeared his Theory of Vision, or Visual Language Vindicated and Explained; and, in the following year, he published The Analyst, in which he criticised the positions of the new mathematics which, in his view, were connected with a materialistic conception of the world. This bold attempt to carry the war into the enemy’s country called forth many pamphlets on the other side. In the same year, Berkeley returned to Ireland as bishop of Cloyne; and, henceforth, his literary work was divided between questions of social reform and religious reflection. The reform is represented by The Querist (1735), a work full of penetrating remarks; both subjects are combined in Siris: a Chain of Philosophical Reflexions (1744), which begins by expounding the medicinal virtues of tar-water and ends in an exposition of idealism in which the Lockean strain has given place to the Platonic. A Miscellany containing several tracts was published in October, 1752. Two months earlier he had left Cloyne, that he might spend the remainder of his days at Oxford; and there he died on 14 January, 1753.

When Berkeley launched-his idealism upon an unsympathetic world, he had read Descartes and Malebranche and been attracted by the philosophy of Plato; he was also acquainted with the works of the mathematicians and natural philosophers, and suspected a trend to materialism in their theories; but his thought had been formed under the influence of Locke, whose Essay found earlier recognition from the academic authorities at Dublin than from those of English universities. At the time when Berkeley entered Trinity college and for ten years afterwards, the provost was Peter Browne, afterwards bishop of Cork, a student and critic of the Essay. He had already attracted attention by an Answer to Toland (1697). His more original works followed after a long interval—The Procedure, extent and limits of human understanding, in 1728, and the work called, for short, Divine Analogy, in 1733. These two books are connected with Berkeley’s later work, for the theory of our knowledge of God propounded in the former is criticised in one of the dialogues of Alciphron, and the criticisms are replied to in Browne’s Divine Analogy. Browne could not accept Locke’s account of knowledge by means of ideas, when it came to be applied to mind. Mind and body, he held, are not known in the same way. We have, indeed, ideas of our mental operations as these are connected with the body; but minds or spirits—whether divine or human—can be known only by analogy. This view, Berkeley, in later life, attacked; but it points to a difficulty in his own theory also—a difficulty which he came to see, without fully resolving it. There is, however, no sufficient evidence for saying that Browne had any direct influence upon Berkeley’s early speculation.

Berkeley’s theory emerges full-grown, if not fully armed. Even in his Common-place Book, there is no hesitation in the references to “my doctrine,” “the immaterial hypothesis.” Only persons exist: “all other things are not so much existences as manners of the existence of persons.” He knows that “a mighty sect of men will oppose me,” that he will be called young, an upstart, a pretender, vain; but his confidence is not shaken: “Newton begs his principles; I demonstrate mine.” He did not, at first, reveal the whole truth to the world. An Essay towards a new theory of vision deals with one point only—the relation between the objects of sight and those of touch. Molyneux had once set the problem to Locke, whether a man born blind, if he recovered his sight, would be able by sight alone to distinguish from one another a cube and a sphere, with which he had been previously acquainted by touch. Molyneux answered his own question in the negative, and Locke expressed agreement with his solution and admiration for the insight which it showed. Berkeley was of one mind with them about the answer to the query, but for a more fundamental reason. If extension be an idea common to sight and touch (as Locke held), then visible squareness must be the same as, or have something in common with, tangible squareness. In virtue of this, the man born blind, so soon as he is made to see, should be able to distinguish between a visible square and a visible circle and to identify this distinction with the distinction between the square and the circle already known by touch. If he is unable to do so, it is because there is nothing in common between the visible object and the tangible. And this is Berkeley’s view.

  • The objects of sight and touch make, if I may so say, two sets of ideas which are widely different from each other. “A man born blind,” he says, “being made to see, would at first have no idea of distance by sight: the sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the nearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind.”
  • A great part of the Essay is devoted to an explanation of the apparent immediateness with which the distance of an object is seen. But the essence of the whole consists in two propositions—that the objects (or ideas) of sight have nothing in common with the objects of touch, and that the connection of sight and touch is “arbitrary” and learned by experience only. The connection is arbitrary; but it is regular and constant. What we see suggests to us what we may expect to touch and handle. The whole visible world—as was further enforced in his Theory of Vision or Visual Language—consists of a set of signs which, like a language, have for their purpose to convey a meaning; though they neither resemble nor cause that meaning, nor have any necessary connection with it. In using sight to guide our movements, we interpret the language of God.