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.

Much of this is standard Neoplatonist stuff, by no means unique to Berkeley; it’s just that he drew some startling epistemological consequences from it. There had always been a certain aversion to materialism in Irish thought, and Berkeley simply presses it to a logical if implausible end-point, abolishing matter altogether. What replaces it, essentially, is God. In a letter in this volume, he entreats a friend to note not that his work denies the existence of matter, but that it is intended to promote ‘true knowledge and religion’. The two cases are closely linked, though modern philosophical commentators, not being much interested in religion, usually fail to register the fact.

Things in Berkeley’s view were really signs, eloquent expressions of the Almighty; and just as there is no meaning without an interpreter, so the world lives only in our response to it. On this view, the doctrine that reality exists independently of the mind is a kind of fetishism or reification. Theologically speaking, it is also a form of idolatry. It treats as an object in its own right what is really a piece of divine discourse, rather as one might mistake a poem for a piece of matter. Nature is to be seen not as an end in itself, but as centred on humanity. Perhaps it is significant that Irish poets before Heaney (Yeats, for example) do not typically portray the natural world with the rich specificity of Keats or Hopkins. It is meaning that counts, not materiality. The beauties of the Irish landscape could be left to the tourists.

Berkeley’s sense of the world as essentially spiritual has a venerable Irish pedigree. Reality is not thick and inert but dynamic and impalpable. The material world of Celtic mythology is so vital and animated that it is hard to distinguish it from the spiritual. The greatest of Irish medieval thinkers, the ninth-century philosopher John Scottus Eriugena, saw the cosmos as a self-delighting play of pure difference, in which subject and object, perceiver and perceived, were intimately allied. In some ways, his thought is a lot closer to Nietzsche and poststructuralism than it is to Leibniz or Locke. It certainly has more in common with Finnegans Wake than with Middlemarch. The Irish novel from Gulliver’s Travels and Melmoth the Wanderer to Dracula and The Third Policeman has generally preferred fantasy to reality, and much Irish thought is idealist in tendency, all the way from Eriugena and Berkeley to Yeats and Patrick Pearse. The real world is not the dingy, strife-torn island you see, but a higher spiritual or imaginative domain.

The Irish Dissenter John Toland fellow-travelled with pantheism, while Robert Clayton, a colleague of Berkeley, was convinced that Nature was secretly spirit. Even the great 19th-century Irish scientist John Tyndall, who discovered the reason the sky is blue, believed that matter was essentially mystical and transcendental. There is also a minor strain of Kantian thought in 19th-century Ireland, which fits well with this sense of the limits of reason.

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