George Berkeley 1685-1753

American University system still honours George Berkeley

Who would you nominate as Kilkenny's greatest person? St Canice? DJ Carey? Most school children will not have heard of George Berkeley.

There is no plaque or a street name bearing his name in the city of his birth and yet there is an international society devoted to remembering him and studying his thoughts.

He is studied today in every philosophy department in every university throughout the world.
A major conference about him will be held this year in Texas.

He is considered to be founding father of the American education system. A university and town in America are called after him. He is regarded as one of the giants of western thought.
This year is the 250th anniversary of his death.

Berkeley was born at Kilcreene near Kilkenny on the 12th March 1685, although Dysart near Thomastown is also given as his birth place.

At the age of eleven he enrolled in Kilkenny College. In 1700 at fifteen he entered Trinity College Dublin, and graduated four years later with a B.A. degree.

He became a Fellow of the College in 1707, and was ordained as a priest of the Protestant Church in 1710.

In 1724 he was appointed Dean of Derry, and became Bishop of Cloyne Co. Cork ten years later. He served faithfully in that position for eighteen years, refusing an offer of the more prestigious Bishopric of Clogher, and retired in 1752.

He settled at Oxford with is wife and family, and died suddenly on 14th January, 1753.

George Berkeley was a brilliant 18th century philosopher, who shook the world with his theory of immaterialism.

This theory claims that everything around us in ultimately immaterial - it is generated wholly by consciousness.

Stated bluntly and out of context, this sounds absurd, but when its subtleties are correctly understand, it makes prefect sense. It is also fully consistent with modern science.

Relativity theory and quantum physics have dissolved the inert, material furniture of the world that John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton held to be fundamental reality in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Berkeley, in his penetrating insights, reached an understanding of the world as observer dependent - a conclusion that modern physics in only beginning to understand fully.

“Westward the course of empire takes its way”. Berkeley wrote these words and inspired Americans both as British colonists and later as citizens of a new nation.

He had a vision of the new world as offering the opportunity to make a new start and that education would be the key.

He persuaded King George and the British parliment to grant him a charter to establish a university in the new world.

In 1728 he sailed with his wife to America in the hope of founding a university in Bermuda and converting the Indians.

He never reached Bermuda Instead, he settled in Newport, Rhode Island,one of the few places in New England that was hospitable to Anglicans.

There, his lively mind and sympathetic spirit of involved him in a great variety of interest, though he stayed only thirty three months.

In spite of his disappointment over the failure of the promised funding for his university project , Berkeley never flagged in his concern for the spiritual and intellectual life of the new world.
He contributed generously to Harvard and when returning to Ireland left his house and ninety six acres of farm to Yale university.

The American university system has never forgotten his initiative and his patronage and continue to honour him to this day.Returning form America, Berkeley spent the next eighteen years as Bishop of Cloyne in Co. Cork.

Here he saw Ireland’s economic woes at first hand and did something about it. He built a spinning mill and gave local employment. He wrote a book on the Irish economic problem. Written in a question and answer style it challenged the way Ireland was being managed.

He argued in favour of a national Irish bank ( none came until 1783) and for more favourable treatment of Ireland’s exports such as wool, flax and hemp. He argued that work not land or money was the cure to Ireland’s ills.

In challenging our perception of our world, of ourselves, of time and of space, Berkeley’s ideas have a modern and lasting relevance.

His ideas are worth studying especially in an age when our perception of reality becomes more and more based on transmitted images and sounds rather than a first experience of our world.
In this the year of his anniversary the city of his birth is challenged to remember and honour one of its greatest sons.

* John Hogan is Freedom of Information Co-ordinator with the South Eastern Health Board, and is based at Kilcreene Hospital, Kilkenny.

Courtesy of the Kilkenny People and John Hogan
January 2003