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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

§ 7. His place in the History of Thought

Berkeley’s works, for the most part, are of the nature of introductions, vindications, and polemics. He explained his new principle and defended it and applied it to current controversies with wonderful resource of argument and beauty of language, and with the power that came from intense conviction. In Hylas and in Alciphron, he used the dialogue form, with a skill never excelled in English philosophical literature, to bring out the difficulties in his view and to set forth their triumphant solution. But he did not work out his spiritual interpretation of reality into a system. He would answer an objection without following out the bearing of his answer upon other portions of his philosophy. He began, like Locke, by asserting that all the objects of our knowledge are ideas; and he divided ideas into three classes: those of sense, those of mental operations and those of memory or imagination. To which class, then (we may ask), do knowledge of self, of other finite spirits, of God and of the laws of nature belong? The question does not seem to have occurred to Berkeley when, with all the ardour of a discoverer, he wrote his Principles. But he raises it in Hylas, and says that, in reflection, we have an immediate knowledge of self as an active being and, by inference therefrom, of other finite spirits and of God. This knowledge, as well as our knowledge of laws of nature, is not through ideas, and he calls it notion. We have, therefore, not merely ideas of sensible things and of mental operations and of remembered or imagined objects, but, also, notions of spirits and of laws. The terminology was used again when he came to issue the second edition of the Principles; but he did not see that it required a modification of the first sentence of that work which declares that all the objects of human knowledge are ideas. How idea and notion are related to one another in knowledge, we cannot gather from him. But this is clear: that ideas are inert and fleeting, and that it is through notion that we become acquainted with the permanent active forces of the real universe.