Did Berkeley accept or reject solipsism?
Answer by Tony Fahey
Isabel, whilst George Berkeley did attempt to avoid or reject accusations of solipsism by arguing that all things exist in the form of ‘ideas’ in the mind of God, in this response I will show that his theocentric world-view still falls under the rubric of solipsism – albeit it solipsism of a rather unique kind.
According to Berkeley there is no such entity as a physical world, or matter, in the sense of an independently existing object. Rather it is that all that we ordinarily call physical objects are actually collections of ideas in the mind. The appearances we experience are the very objects and the appearances are sensations or perceptions of a thinking being. His most famous saying is ‘esse est percipi’ – ‘to be is to be perceived’. According to the ‘esse is percipi’ thesis, all the things surrounding us are nothing but our ideas. Sensible things have no other existence distinct from their being perceived by us. This also applies to human bodies. When we see our bodies or move our limbs, we perceive only certain sensations in our consciousness. Using a series of arguments, often called by philosophers as the ‘veil of perception’, Berkeley argued that since we never perceive anything called ‘matter’, but only ideas, the view that there is a material substance lying behind and supporting these perceptions is untenable. For Berkeley everything was mind-dependent: if one cannot have an image of a something in the mind, then it fails to exist – hence his thesis ‘to be is to be perceived’. Berkeley’s response to those who argued that if there were no material substrate behind our ideas, how is it that things persist when no one perceives them, was to argue that all our perceptions are ideas produced for us by God. As he himself says,
‘Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other Will or Spirit that produces them’ (Berkeley Principles #29).
Thus, by arguing that things exist through God’s perception of them, and not merely through one’s individual perception, it seems that Berkeley succeeds in his attempt to avoid accusations of solipsism. However, because his thought falls into the category of what could be called divine solipsism: there is nothing much else than God himself in Berkeley’s universe, it seems that the esteemed Irish Bishop’s attempt to reject the said label may not have been as successful as he had wished. Ultimately, by presenting a concept of God in this way, Berkeley is in point of fact, creating within his own mind an idea of a God within whose mind all things exist as ideas: God as a solipsist. Moreover, because his concept of God is an idea formed within his own mind (effectively making him the God of God), and because, by his own admission, he agrees that all things are merely ideas which arise within the mind of the individual, we are forced to draw the conclusion that Berkeley was indeed a solipsist.