In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in Opposition to
Skeptics and Atheists, Berkeley
formed a famous argument against the existence of matter.
However, the main purpose of his argument was not to refute
Locke, but to show the necessity of God.
Philonous Good morning, Hylas: I did not expect to find you
abroad so early.
Hylas It is indeed something unusual; but my thoughts were
so taken up with a subject I was discoursing of last night,
that finding I could not sleep, I resolved to rise and take
a turn in the garden.
Philonous It happened well, to let you see what innocent and
agreeable pleasures you lose every morning. Can there be a
pleasanter time of day, or a more delightful season of the
year? that purple sky, those wild but sweet notes of birds,
the fragrant bloom upon the trees and flowers, the gentle
influence of the rising sun, these and a thousand nameless
beauties of nature inspire the soul with secret transports;
its faculties too being at this time fresh and lively are
fit for these meditations, which the solitude of the garden
and tranquility of the morning naturally dispose us to. But
I am afraid I interrupt your thoughts: for you seemed very
intent on something.
Berkeley, who is about to use Philonous to prove that there is
more absurdity in maintaining that there is material, or in
philosophical terms an underlying substance or substratum behind
the things we sense, than maintaining there isn't, has, with this
soliloquy established beyond doubt that Philonous does indeed
experience the same things as everyone else.
Hylas It is true, I was, and shall be obliged to you if you
will permit me to go on in the same vein: not that I would
by any means deprive myself of your company, for my thoughts
always flow more evenly in conversation with a friend, than
when I am alone: but my request is this, that you would
suffer me to impart my reflections to you.
Philonous With all my heart, it is what I should have
requested myself if you had not prevented me.
Hylas I was considering the odd fate of those men who have
in all ages, through an affection of being distinguished
from the vulgar, or some unaccountable turn of thought,
pretended either to believe nothing at all or to believe the
most extravagant things in the world. This however might be
borne, if their paradoxes and skepticism did not draw after
them some consequences of general disadvantage to mankind.
But the mischief lieth here; that when men of less leisure
see them who are supposed to spent their whole time in the
pursuits of knowledge professing an entire ignorance of all
things, or advancing such notions as are repugnant to plain
and commonly received principles, they will be tempted to
entertain suspicions concerning the most important truths,
which they had hitherto held sacred and unquestionable.
Philonous I entirely agree with you, as to the ill tendency
of the affected doubts of some philosophers, and fantastical
conceits of others, I am even so far gone of late in this
way of thinking, that I have quitted several of the sublime
notions I had got in their schools for vulgar opinions. And
I give it to you on my word, since this revolt from
metaphysical notions, to the plain dictates of nature and
common sense, I find my understanding strangely enlightened,
so that I can now easily comprehend a great many things
which were before all mystery and riddle.
The major thrust of philosophical inquiry during the seventeenth
century was a revolt against both mature Scholasticism and the
more modern rationalism. These systems of thought required
involved technical arguments. These arguments usually revolved
around the meaning of technical terms invented by the
philosophers themselves and thus had little meaning for the
average person. From Bacon on, particularly in England, the
tendency was toward the use of terms that anyone could
Hylas I am glad to find that there was nothing in the accounts I
heard of you.
Philonous Pray, what were those?
Hylas You were represented in last night's conversation, as
one who maintained the most extravagant opinion that ever
entered into the mind of man, to wit, that there is no such
thing as material substance in the world.
Philonous That there is no such thing as what Philosophers
call material substance, I am seriously persuaded: but, if I
were made to see anything absurd or skeptical in this, I
should then have the same reason to renounce this that I
imagine I have now to reject the contrary opinion.
Hylas What, can anything be more fantastical, more repugnant
to common sense, or a more manifest piece of skepticism,
than to believe there is no such thing as matter?
Philonous Softly, good Hylas. What if it should prove, that
you, who hold there is, are, by virtue of that opinion, a
greater skeptic and hold more paradoxes and repugnance to
common sense, than I who believe no such thing?
Hylas You may as soon persuade me, the part is greater than
the whole, as that, in order to avoid absurdity and
skepticism, I should ever be obliged to give up my opinion
in this point.
Philonous Well, then you are content to admit that opinion
for true, which upon examination, shall appear most
agreeable to common sense, and remote from skepticism?
Hylas With all my heart. Since you are for raising disputes
about the plainest things in nature, I am content for once
to hear what you have to say.
Philonous Pray Hylas, what do you mean by a skeptic?
Hylas I mean what all men mean, one that doubts everything.
Philonous He, then, who entertains no doubt concerning some
particular point, with regard to that point cannot be
thought a skeptic.
Philonous Whether doth doubting consist in embracing the
affirmative or negative side of a question?
Hylas In neither; for whoever understands English cannot but
know that doubting signifies a suspense between both.
Philonous He then that denieth any point, can no more said
to doubt of it than he who affirmeth it with the same degree
Philonous And, consequently, for such his denial is no more
to be esteemed a skeptic than the other.
Philonous How cometh it to pass, then, Hylas, that you
pronounce me a skeptic because I deny what you confirm, to
wit, the existence of matter? Since, for aught you can
tell, I am as peremptory in my denial as you are in your
Hylas Hold, Philonous, I have been a little out in my
definition; but every false step a man takes in discourse is
not to be insisted on. I said indeed that a skeptic was one
who doubted of everything; but I should have added, or who
denies the reality and truth of things.
Philonous What things? Do you mean the principles and
theories of the sciences? But these you know are universal
intellectual notions, and consequently independent of
matter; the denial therefore of this doth not imply the
denying of them.
Hylas I grant it. But are there no other things? what
think you of distrusting the senses, of denying the real
existence of sensible things, or pretending to know nothing
to them. Is this not sufficient to denominate a man a
Philonous Shall we therefore examine which of us it is that
denies the reality of sensible things, of professes the
greatest ignorance of them; since, if I take you rightly, he
is to be esteemed the greatest skeptic?
Hylas That is what I desire.
Philonous What mean you by sensible things?
Hylas those things which are perceived by the senses. Can
you imagine that I mean anything else?
Philonous Pardon me, Hylas, If I am desirous clearly to
apprehend your notions, since this may much shorten our
enquiry. Suffer me to ask you this further question. Are
those things only perceived by the senses which are
perceived immediately? Or, may those things properly said
to be sensible which are perceived mediately, or not without
the intervention of others?
Hylas I do not sufficiently understand you.
Philonous In reading a book, what I immediately perceive are
the letters, but mediately, or by means of these, are
suggested to my mind the notions of God, Virtue, Truth, &c.
Now, that the letters are truly sensible things, or
perceived by the sense there is no doubt; but I would know
whether you take the things suggested by them to be so too.
Hylas No, certainly; it were absurd to think God, or Virtue
sensible things, though they may be signified and suggested
to the mind by sensible marks, with which they have an
Philonous It seems then, that by sensible things you mean
those only which can be perceived immediately by sense.
Philonous Doth it not follow from this that though I see one
part of the sky red, and another blue, and that my reason
doth evidently conclude there must be some cause of that
diversity of colors, yet that cause cannot be said to be a
sensible thing, or perceived by the sense of seeing?
Philonous In like manner, though i hear variety of sounds,
yet i cannot be said to hear the causes of those sounds?
Philonous And when by my touch I perceive a thing to be hot
and heavy, I cannot say, with any truth or propriety, that I
feel the cause of its heat or weight?
Hylas To prevent any more questions of this kind, I tell you
once and for all that by sensible things I mean those only
which are perceived by the sense, and that in truth the
senses perceive nothing that they do not perceive
immediately: for they make no inferences. the deducing
therefore of causes or occasions from effects and
appearances, which alone are perceived by sense, entirely
relates to reason.
Philonous This point then is agreed between us--that
sensible things are those only which are perceived by sense.
You will further inform me , whether we immediately perceive
by sight anything beside light, and colors and figures; or
by hearing anything but sounds; by the palate, anything
beside tastes; by the smell beside odors; or by the touch,
more than tangible qualities.
Philonous It seems, therefore, that if you take away all
sensible qualities, there remains nothing sensible?
Philonous Sensible things therefore are nothing but so many
sensible qualities. or combinations of sensible qualities.
Philonous Heat is then a sensible thing?
Philonous Doth the reality of sensible things consist in
being perceived? or, is it something distinct from their
being perceived, and that bears no relation to the mind?
Hylas To exist is one thing, and to be perceived is another.
Philonous I speak with regard to sensible things only; and
of these I ask, by their real existence you mean a
subsistence exterior to the mind and distinct from their
Hylas I mean a real absolute being, distinct from and
without any relation to their being perceived.
Philonous Heat therefore, if it be allowed a real being,
must exist without the mind?
Philonous Tell me, Hylas, is this real existence equally
compatible to all degrees of heat, which we perceive; or is
there any reason why we should attribute it to some and deny
it to others? and if there be pray let me know that reason.
Hylas Whatever degree of heat we perceive by sense, we may
be sure the same exists in the object that occasions it.
Philonous What! the greatest as well as the least?
Hylas I tell you the reason is plainly the same in respect
of both: they are both perceived by the sense; nay the
greater degree of heat is more sensibly perceived; and
consequently, if there is any difference, we are more
certain of its real existence than we can be of the reality
of the lesser degree.
Philonous But is not the most vehement and intense degree
heat a very great pain?
Hylas No one can deny it.
Philonous And is any unperceiving thing capable of pain or
Philonous Is your material substance a senseless being or a
being endowed with sense and perception?
Hylas It is senseless without doubt.
Philonous It cannot therefore be the subject of pain.
Philonous Nor consequently of the greatest heat perceived by
sense, since you acknowledge this to be no small pain?
Philonous What shall we say then of your external object; is
it a material substance or no?
Hylas It is a material substance with sensible qualities
inhering in it.
Philonous How then can heat exist in it, since you own it
cannot in a material substance? I desire you would clear
The undeniable consequence of this line of reasoning is that
sensible qualities cannot exist in material objects. They can
only exist in a perceiving being, a mind. Bishop Berkeley had a
very good reason for making this claim. According to Locke's
empiricism, we can know nothing about anything except through its
sensible qualities. Thus, despite his deep religious convictions
Locke has developed a way of knowing the world around us that is
completely devoid of God. But if, as Berkeley has pointed out,
the sensible qualities through which we obtain our knowledge of
the world around us cannot exist in anything material. And at
the same time we obviously sense objects around us, there must be
something else that causes these sensations to be there for us to
perceive. Many Christian philosophers including some Scholastics
and some Rationalists taught that God was not only the creator of
the world but he was responsible as well for the continued
existence of the world. In order that we can all experience the
same things in the same way, and in order that things did not pop
out of existence every time no one was around to perceive them,
Berkelian idealism required a constant mind. This was the major
purpose of Berkeley's philosophy, to show that in spite of
Locke's empiricism, God was still necessary for the world to
John Locke was the father of empiricism. He was also the
spiritual father of that period we call the "enlightenment." In
Europe many idealized England for its love of freedom and
religious tolerance. However, they were dismayed by the results
of this freedom. Leopold Mozart, father of the composer, brought
the young Wolfgang to London, but he refused to remain in spite
of tempting offers because, as he put it,
will not bring up my children in such a dangerous place."
What began as a peculiarly English aberration struck a nerve when
it crossed the channel and began what is referred to as the
"Enlightenment." Unfortunately the term as it is generally used
implies much more continuity than actually occurred. First, and
most universally, it represents a rejection of rationalism, or
the idea that knowledge can be derived purely through reasoning.
In France, the birthplace of rationalism, the attitude toward
rationalism turned particularly vitriolic. Voltaire's
Candide is a satirical denunciation of Leibniz' "Best of all
possible worlds." Paris was the home of the "Philosophes".
these were philosophers who followed in the Baconian tradition of
celebrating the accomplishments of science. Particularly Dennis
Diderot, who was the most instrumental of the group in producing
the first "Encyclopedia", or compendium of all scientific
But there was another side to this rejection of rationalism, and
this tended toward an rejection of science and reason along with
it. While this attitude had greater repercussion later, it
played a strong part in eighteenth century thought as well. In
his First Discourse, Rousseau, in the
outspoken manner of his day, called for a return to simplicity,
to the "noble savage".
The mind has its needs as does the body. The needs of the
body are the foundations of society, those of the mind make
it pleasant. While government and laws provide for the
safety and well-being of assembled men, the sciences,
letters, and arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful,
spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which
men are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original
liberty for which they seemed to have been born, make them
love their slavery, and turn them into what is called
civilized peoples. Need raised thrones; the sciences and
arts have strengthened them. Earthly powers. love talents
and protect those what cultivate them. Civilized peoples,
cultivate talents: happy slaves, you owe to them that
delicate and refined taste on which you pride yourselves;
that softness of character and urbanity of customs which
make relations among you so amiable and easy;; in a word,
the semblance of all the virtues without the possession of
We will have much more to say about Rousseau later, but I would
like to impress on you that this attitude against rationality
also was construed as a revolt against pretension. The
philosopher who did most in the eighteenth century to dispel the
fog of pretension implied in the language of philosophy was David