What you see is what you get

Terry Eagleton

  • The Correspondence of George Berkeley edited by Marc Hight
    Cambridge, 674 pp, £75.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 00074 2

George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness. There are Irish people nowadays who cross the street when they see a priest approaching; but Ireland has traditionally been an intensely religious nation, and much of its thought, right down to questions of epistemology or political economy, has been influenced by this. Berkeley was a cleric, and saw the whole of Creation as the language of God, a discourse in which he communicated with his creatures. Things, he believed, exist as ideas in the mind of the Creator, and are conveyed to our minds by his power. What looks like an autonomous material world, then, is really the medium of a spiritual dialogue. Substance is really signification, a notion that crops up as late as Joyce’s sense of objects as signatures of the invisible. The idea is really eucharistic, though Berkeley would probably not have thought so: in the eucharist, the bread and wine cease to be material entities and become a medium of pure presence.

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