Monday, January 2, 2012

George Berkeley's "Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowledge": A Summary

Ideas are just the things that go on in our minds. Perceptions, imagination, thoughts. Everyone seems to be on board with the suggestion that, you know, ideas couldn't exist without minds. Right? That seems straightforward, right? If no minds existed to percieve things, then how could anyone have ideas? If minds didn't exist, what would feel the sensation of getting burned? Nothing.

Okay. So, uh, why do people think that shit exists outside the mind, too? How does that even fucking happen? That shit does not make sense. Here are the things that we know exist: the things we percieve. Here are the things we percieve: the things that there are. That's it! That's all there is! Want proof? Watch this: try to think of something that exists without existing in a mind somewhere. Got it? Good. Gotcha bitch. IT'S IN YOUR MIND oh snap you just got told.

There's no way to separate existence from being percieved by something. You just can't do it. It can't be done. So stop fucking trying. Hey. Cut it out. You're going to give yourself an aneurism. So, nothing exists without being some kinds of idea, but for some reason bros just won't give up.

This fucker John Locke, he's going on and on about "primary qualities" and shit that's supposed to not exist in the mind. Extension? Yeah, you only know the stairs are extended when you bang your fucking toe on them. Figure? Bro, just try to describe a figure of a thing without talking about ideas. Movement? "How do you know it moved?" "Well, I saw it over there. And now, I see it over in that other place." More ideas, jackass. Look, I'm sure John Locke is a perfectly nice guy, but he is super wrong on this one.

And what's all this bullshit about "matter"? Like there's some fucking thing that these ideas just kinda sit in? How does that even work? How am I supposed to know that's true? What grounds could there possibly be for believing in such shenanigans? "You know... feel this chair. Feels solid, right?" Yeah, but that's an idea, the idea of the solidity of the chair. That's a thing you percieve. But you can't percieve matter, that's the whole point about matter. Are... are you even paying attention?

But hey, since I'm such a nice guy, let's pretend this "matter" stuff exists, and it's not at all mental whatsoever. Then how the fuck is it supposed to put ideas in our heads? If it's completely-not-at-all percievable or an idea, if it has no mental qualities, then how does it interact with my mind? "Oh good question." Thanks, idiot-matter-believer-inner-I-just-made-up. It is a good point. So, this "matter" stuff, it doesn't really even get us anywhere, does it? If it doesn't even answer the questions it's supposed to help answer, then why bother? It's fucking useless. 

But still people cling to their silly ideas. "I just mean the thing itself! You know, not the sight or the feeling of the chair, the chair thing." Right, um, what could that word possibly be referring to? We're talking about a thing that's right in front of us, but you want me to believe you mean something that is not any of the obvious ways I know the chair exists? That's insane.

And yeah, we use words in weird ways sometimes. We talk about things causing other things, and things moving from one point to another, but, you know, that's just the way we talk, man. That's not necessarily how things are, that's just the system we've developed to discuss all this shit. It would be a pain in the ass to say, "Yeah, after the idea of that ball hitting the other ball will come the idea of the other ball moving away from the idea of the first ball." Go ahead and talk simply, as long as you know what's really going on.

So where do ideas come from? yeah, obviously there are some things that aren't ideas. For example, you're not an idea. You have ideas, butyou're a mind. So, you know, I'm not saying there aren't substances, I'm just saying, shit's not physical. Otherwise it couldn't cause us to have ideas. And since we don't decide what we can and can't percieve, there's got to be some mind out there who puts the ideas in our minds. That bro is... God. Obviously.

In fact, God does all kinds of shit for us. For example, he keeps things existing when no one else percieves them. maybe you're thinking, "What if no one is looking at the TV, and it's on mute? Does it just go away?"No, it's there, because it exists in the mind of God.

Plus, he keeps shit orderly for us. That's why we have the laws of nature. How did we get those? We fucking observed them, that's how. Kepler saw some weird shit go down in the heavens and was like, "I think we're wrong about this Circles thing..." so he fucking fixed the rules up. Totally observation, bro. That's how we get any of the laws. We just come up with ways to describe how ideas seem to proceed.

I'm not saying nothing is real. The ideas that you sense are very real. Super-duper real. Some ideas are stronger than others - stick your hand in a fire, that's a real idea of pain you got there. But, you know, that doesn't mean it's not an idea.

Look, people think, "I see a tree, but I didn't want to see a tree, it just happened! So there must be a thing outside my mind that is a tree!" And on the face of it, I mean, sure. I guess I could see how you'd make that mistake. But if you think about it for like two fucking seconds that shit just absolutely does not make any sense at all. We have no grounds to believe that anything other than minds and ideas exist, because ideas are all we've ever encountered and only minds can encounter ideas. That's it! Everything else is just some shit you pulled out of thin imagination because you're confused and didn't stop and think. So, if we could just stop asking shit about matter, now, that'd be great.

It turns out, everything is really simple. Descartes wanted to kno if anything he percieved is real, and it turns out, it's the only thing that's real. See? Problems solved. You're welcome everyone.


You can read the entire Treatise on Wikisource. 

Or, if you prefer hardcopy, get Principles of Human Knowledge from Amazon.


  1. Hey Bro, you should direct your readers to too, for some easier-to-read translations of the texts.

  2. The very first chapter (or is it the introduction?) to Henri Begrson's "Matter and Memory" builds a really good, sensible argument that things exist outside the mind, and aren't dependent on mind for their existence.

    And if you want to get more contemporary, Quentin Meillassoux's 'After Finitude' discusses the phenomenon of 'the arche fossil' and how (or if) a philosopher can take seriously scientific claims about events that happened prior to the emergence of minds or perception (or givenness in general). Highly recommended!

  3. "Okay. So, uh, why do people thing that shit exists outside the mind, too?"

  4. Don't take this the wrong way, broski, but I found the occasional typo or two just a bit distracting. Or at least, the /idea/ of a typo.

  5. At first I was all: "No disrespect, but how the hell is this not easy-to-dismiss solipsism?" And the I arrived at the last paragraph. Nicely done Berkeley, nicely done.

    @Ben Abraham: Much appreciated, i will have a look on both.

  6. I can normally deal with 'typos' without getting my shizzle in a twizzle. But consistently getting 'perceive' wrong in a blog about Berkeley is a bad one. Don't stop doing your thing, though, Philobro!

  7. First Anon: I'd be pretty wary of Bennett's "translations" on that site: I remember him managing to say some very silly things about Malebranche in his version of the "Dialogues". What's more, Berkeley is far and away one of the best prose stylists known to Anglophone philosophy, so why not go for the real thing?

    Incidentally, if anyone be interested in a modern defence of a broadly Berkeleyan idealism, I strongly recommend John Foster's The Case for Idealism.

    And thank you, Philosophy Bro, for finally getting to the delightful bishop of Cloyne. :)

  8. So glad you posted this. We're studying Berkeley in our Philosophy of Mind lectures and I had no shitting idea what was going on. I mean, I still don't, but now it's funny.

  9. Hey bro,
    I have a question about Decartes, as you said the only shit that's real is the stuff we perceive... But what if I am hallucinating, I am seeing and perceiving things/ideas that other people can't. Does it mean my hallucinations are real?

  10. "Plus, he keeps shit orderly for us. That's why we have the laws of nature." -unfalsifiable

    "there's got to be some mind out there who puts the ideas in our minds. That bro is... God. Obviously."

    "In fact, God does all kinds of shit for us. For example, he keeps things existing when no one else percieves them." -unfalsifiable

    Seriously? God? You have a site about philosophy/logic and discredit it all with unfalsifiable statements? I really hope you are trolling... and that I am your victim.

    I'm sure a lot of people benefit educationally from your site. So if you are serious, I guess that's good at any rate. If not, you are welcome for the LULZ on my behalf! Enjoy! (^_^)

    TL;DR Just found this site today. At first I thought it was cool. LOL! He uses cuss words and explains philosophy shit bro! Then I read this post about god being the reason for everything and decided to back away slowly.

  11. i might have missed the point completly,
    but if there's nothing that exists outside the mind, and if the ideas in ones mind define reality, how come you can prove minds wrong?
    just because someone has the idea that without gods existance australians would fall off the earth because he can't hold 'em up anymore doesn't mean this stupid fucker is right!
    it's gravity man! physics explains it! that's reality!
    and just because you don't know about stuff doesn't mean it's not there.

  12. I agree with nibbler. Final tomorrow and this is the first I have read of Berkeley of anything to do with him. Probably will be the last as well. I guess that means I'm going to fail.

  13. To the Anon who believes there's trolling going on,

    PhilosophyBro just summarizes philosophical texts. It's not his view, but George Berkeley's.