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George Berkeley: Perception, Empathy, and Reality

George Berkeley: Perception, Empathy, and Reality
Chris Reynolds, LCHS Assistant Principal

George Berkeley, the Bishop of Cloyne, is credited with the creation of “subjective idealism.” For the sake of everyone’s time and interest, his philosophy can be boiled down to his most famous phrase from Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, which is “esse est percipi,” or “to be is to be perceived.”  Like Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” this phrase can be easily misappropriated and misunderstood. 

Berkeley argued only ideas exist. He radically claimed there are no “mind-independent” objects. Instead, these objects are actually just ideas. The world is one of ideas about things, rather than the things themselves. This is possibly the most extreme version of empiricism ever formulated, and actually stands up to a fair amount of scrutiny–which is why he and his ideas are still well-renowned. He also solves the most important problem of idealism in the most Bishop-like way possible: The only way we can account for a shared perception of “mind-dependent” objects is that they (and we) exist as ideas in the mind of an all-perceiving God. 
Berkeley’s work is just one of many I was forced to read almost twenty years ago in Dr. McCullough’s 17th and 18th Century European Philosophy class, and it is one I still regularly think about. I ultimately disagree with his metaphysics, but his thinking intersects my life on a regular basis. In my work as LCHS assistant principal, parent, husband, teacher, and friend, all of my interactions and experiences of reality are mediated through my own experience of reality. Because of this, we can all be tempted to unintentionally become “subjective idealists” of the worst sort. We begin to believe our thoughts, ideas, and emotions about situations carry the weight of being reality itself. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to self-focused anxiety, greater conflict with others, and a lack of empathy.
The writings of this 18th-Century Irish philosopher help me daily, and in unexpected ways. Our understanding of philosophies, both classical and modern, is not valuable for only its practical use. One tenet of our commitment to classical, liberal education is that it is better to have a broad base of knowledge rather than choosing content most immediately and obviously “useable.”  This does not mean, though, that philosophy and the learning of seemingly esoteric subjects has no application to our daily work, life, and interactions.
Even as the creator of subjective-idealism, George Berkeley had the good sense to recognize that a purely “mind-dependent” reality would have disastrous consequences. As we contemplate our convictions and interact with others, it would serve us well to consider and act with Bishop Berkeley’s implications as part of our broad base of knowledge. Evaluate our own perception, empathize with others’ experiences, and ultimately realize that reality does not rely upon the way we feel about it. The flourishing life—both in the life of the mind and the life of a community—is one in which our understanding best aligns to reality itself.