Berkeley and the Infidel


George Berkeley, philosopher and Anglican bishop, is best known among mathematicians for "The Analyst" (1734), a critique of the principles of the calculus. This work was addressed to "the infidel mathematician", believed to have been Edmund Halley.  (Berkeley was upset because Halley had persuaded a mutual friend that Christianity was a myth.)


Even aside from his impressive foray into the foundations of mathematics, Berkeley was an interesting man. He was born in March of 1685, just seven months after Halley visited Cambridge to ask Newton if he knew how to prove the planets move in elliptical orbits, assuming an inverse square law of gravitation.  Berkeley became an Anglican bishop and a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, where he lectured on Greek, Hebrew, and divinity.  He spent time on the continent and also in London, where he associated with Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, etc.


At some point he got enthusiastic about founding a college in Bermuda to instruct the American colonists and the Indians. He traveled to Rhode Island and lived there for a few years, trying to find support for the project, but it never got off the ground.  For his encouragement of higher education in America during these years he became well enough known that, among other things, the university and town of Berkeley, CA was named after him. (He had written of America as "a shining city on a hill", serving to enlighten the world, and this image evidently seemed appropriate to the founders of the University of California, perhaps partly because of the geography of the site.)


He is most famous for his writings in philosophy; "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived) is his most famous doctrine. In other words, 


...that the very existence of the immediate objects of sensation consists in their being perceived. The whole corporeal world, then, can exist only as a set of objects of consciousness, as a system of ideas.


Samuel Johnson, when challenged to argue against Berkeley's proof that matter does not exist, impatiently kicked a large nearby rock, saying "I refute it thus!"


I find Berkeley's friendship with Swift and Pope interesting because of his obvious wit and deft touch for sarcasm. Who, after once reading it, ever forgets his phrase "the ghosts of departed quantities" or his remark that "he who can digest a second or third fluxion need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in divinity"?


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