Study Guide to George Berkeley’s “Three Dialogues, Part One” – Introduction
Title of the Text: “Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists”
Original Date: 1713
Purpose of this Study Guide: To help people wishing to use George Berkeley’s arguments in support of nondual inquiry. Berkeley offers powerful insights against the independent existence of physical substance as an inherently existent thing. I have personally found his arguments to be helpful. Maybe others will too. This is a practical commentary, not a scholarly one.
Edition We’ll Be Using: We’ll be using a free download posted on Jonathan Bennett’s Early Modern Texts website. This is a handy site that updates many philosophers to a more informal, contemporary English. These versions tend to be easier for modern readers to understand. Here is the URL for the first dialogue:
Author: George Berkeley (1685-1753), who became Bishop of Cloyne in the Church of Ireland in 1734.
Reason for Publication: Berkeley had two reasons for writing the “Three Dialogues.” One was his overall philosophical purpose, to refute the metaphysical materialism that was popular and authoritative at the time. (See “What Was Berkeley Arguing Against?” below.)
The other reason he published the “Dialogues” was to defend his non-materialist philosophy against the criticisms of his earlier work. In 1710, he had published Part One of his “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.” That work was not well received. So he rewrote it in dialog form and gave it the structure of objections and replies. This structure makes the “Dialogues” quite similar to the nondual dialogues we are all familiar with!
Who is Speaking? There are two speakers. The questioner is Hylas, whose name derives from the ancient Greek word for “matter.” Hylas is the materialist, who is intrigued by these new ideas. The one who answers is Philonous, whose name is a Greek compound meaning “Lover of wisdom.” Philonous is Berkeley’s stand-in. As we’ll see in my following post when we look at the text, Philonous is portrayed as happier, wiser, more grounded, and more in touch with the world than Hylas.
What Was Berkeley Arguing Against? Materialism. Berkeley was arguing against the idea that material substance could exist in a mind-independent way.
When Berkeley wrote, ideas about what is real tended to follow the sciences. Most scientists and philosophers of the time (such as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, René Descartes and John Locke) believed that the objects in the world were made of physical substance that existed independently of the mind. Some theories held that physical substance consisted of minute particles.
Physical Substance: Sometimes the idea about physical substance was that it was a generic essence with no character. It was present only as a ground or substratum of qualities, as if the qualities had to belong to something. Other times the idea was that physical substance was the special qualities inherent to the substance, with no generic ground underneath. Berkeley refutes both notions of physical substance.
In either case, what were the qualities that supposedly exist objectively, inherent in physical substance? They were called “primary qualities,” as you’ll see below.
Two Kinds of Qualities: Even though the 17th-Century scientists believed that physical substance existed independently of the mind, they also conceded that it could appear differently to different observers. This is an ancient philosophical problem – appearance vs. reality. In fact, one of the famous ancient Greek materialists wrote
…by convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color; but in reality atoms and void.”
–Democritus (born 460 BCE)
There had to be a way for philosophers to account for the belief that the same object can appear differently to different observers. In Berkeley’s time, they did it by distinguishing between different types of qualities.
- Inherent Qualities (a.k.a. Primary Qualities): In Berkeley’s time, material substance was thought to have certain inherent qualities that did not depend on an observer. These qualities were thought to be: size, shape, number, extension, motion and impenetrability. These were the basis of the reality of any object.
- Sensible Qualities (a.k.a. Secondary Qualities): Most of the other qualities of an object were thought of as experiences occurring to a mind, not something in the object itself. These qualities were thought to include colors, sounds, tastes, smells.
The Relationship Between the Two Sets of Qualities: The idea was that the primary qualities have the power to produce secondary qualities in us. Some philosophers argued that the qualities in the mind resemble or represent the qualities in material objects.
What’s so Bad About Materialism? In other words, why is Berkeley so much against it? Notice that the “Dialogues” title includes “in opposition to Sceptics and Atheists.” Materialism leads to skepticism because if all we have access to is secondary qualities, we can’t be really sure about the primary qualities. We never see the substance or its primary qualities. All we observe are the secondary qualities. The two kinds of qualities exist in different realms. This is a major metaphysical dualism. If the reality of the world is unseen material substance, then there would be no room for God. So for Berkeley, materialism led to atheism, which led to immoral behavior.
Berkeley’s Main CRITICAL Arguments: Berkeley argued against the idea that primary qualities exist apart from all observers. He argued that primary qualities are just like secondary qualities, appearing as ideas to the mind. Because an idea cannot exist apart from a mind that thinks it, the qualities of matter cannot exist apart from their appearance in minds.
He also argued that we have no idea of anything that is supposed to exist external to all minds. The very conception of such a mind-independent quality actually serves to bring it into the realm of the mind.
Also, ideas cannot serve as causes. Even ideas such as size, shape, number, extension, motion and impenetrability (the primary qualities) can’t make anything happen. Causality is a property of the mind. We can sense this when we think about our volition, which causes us to act. And of course our “actions” are merely more collections of ideas.
Berkeley’s Main POSITIVE Arguments: For Berkeley, minds and ideas are all that exist. Ideas come to my mind from the mind of God. The table is nothing other than the table-idea. This way, we have direct knowledge of the table. Because ideas are never apart from the mind, we are never separate from the world. Minds can also be causes. We can observe how our own volition seems to cause the thoughts and actions that follow.
Berkeley and Nondualism: Berkeley’s arguments are extremely helpful aids to nondual inquiry. But he wasn’t a nondualist. He retained minds and ideas and the idea of volition in his philosophy, and never attempted to refute them the way he refuted material substance. But this is OK. Berkeley’s work can still be of great service to the nondual inquirer. Berkeley was very interested in Christianity, and did not want to refute core Christian ideas. The mere fact that Berkeley officially retained minds and ideas shouldn’t be a problem if you wish to use his work in nondual inquiry. This is for three reasons.
One reason is this. Berkeley’s minds and ideas are not a problem because the heavy lifting in nondual inquiry is about physical stuff anyway. We see the world as physical and ourselves as physical bodies. These two beliefs tend to enforce each other. We even think of minds and other subtle objects as if they were shadowy physical objects. We think of them as having location, shape, size and edges or borders. These are physical qualities. But when we see with Berkeley’s help that it makes no sense to think of physical qualities as unseen stuff existing apart from the mind, this will be a very powerful insight. It will actually ripple through our later inquiries. When we inquire into subtle objects such as feelings, standards, concepts and selves that choose, we won’t visualize them existing apart from out “out there” somewhere.
Another reason that Berkeley’s minds and ideas are no problem for nondual inquiry is this. The things he accepts are quite congruent with the tools of nonduality. If you need to, you can make the following substitutions when reading Berkeley.
|mind||mind or awareness, depending on your nondual approach|
|ideas||ideas, appearances, arisings|
|cause/effect||awareness/arisings in awareness|
The third reason that you shouldn’t be deterred from using Berkeley just because he never argued against minds and ideas is this. There are hints that he had a private theory of minds and ideas that was much more nondual-like than his public statements would suggest. I will say more about this in a later post.
Next Post: In my next post, I will at least begin the coverage of Berkeley’s arguments in the first “Dialogue.”