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Mind over matter: the contradictions of George Berkeley

He did not believe in the existence of the material world. But the 17th-century philosopher’s arguments are less radical than they seem

By Alex Dean  

Portrait by John Smybert, 1727. GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

George Berkeley is one of the greatest philosophers of the early modern era. Along with John Locke and David Hume, he was a founder of Empiricism, which championed the role of experience and observation in the acquisition of knowledge. He influenced Kant and John Stuart Mill, and even pre-empted elements of Wittgenstein. His book The Principles of Human Knowledge is a masterwork still set on university philosophy courses the world over, and indeed there is a famous university named after him in California. The celebrated Irishman even inspired a limerick.

Yet Berkeley is also widely misunderstood. Different aspects…

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