- Recovering Bishop Berkeley: Virtue and Society in the Anglo-Irish Context
Who is George Berkeley? A common and widely-accepted answer to this question would be that he was an empiricist positioned midway between John Locke and David Hume. But the persuasive force of this typical answer has been gradually fading; the major turning point in critical thinking about Berkeley may be found in the pioneering works about Irish philosophy by David Berman. In Berkeley and Irish Philosophy, Berman points out that there was a so-called golden age of Irish philosophy in the eighteenth century, suggesting that Berkeley played an important role in the Irish philosophical tradition. Under the influence of Berman’s interpretation, some Berkeley scholars have tried to define the relationship between that tradition and Berkeley’s philosophy. For example, T. M. Bettcher focuses on Irish philosophy before Berkeley in her analysis, Berkeley’s Theory of Mind.
The increasing number of successors to Berman—like Bettcher and Richard Kearney—show that the trend begun by Berman has been very influential. And, it is true that the influence of particular Irish philosophers on Berkeley can be proved by textual evidence. Berkeley’s letter to John Percival dated 1709 shows that his theological concepts were influenced by a particular Irish philosopher, William King. But to situate Berkeley within the Irish philosophical tradition, there is still a crucial question to be answered: Is there such a thing as an Irish philosophical tradition in the eighteenth century? In Literature in English, 1691–1800, J. C. Beckett appears to answer in the negative, stating that it is dangerous to identify works by such authors as Jonathan Swift as “Anglo-Irish literature,” since during this period there is no Irish tradition of literature independent of the geographical, political, economic, and social influences of England (426). In Berkeley and Irish Philosophy, Berman reports that John Laird also suggests that there is no such thing as Ulster Philosophy. Moreover, Thomas Duddy confesses, in A History of Irish Thought, that he frequently met with the same sort of objections made by Beckett and Laird when he began his own study of Irish philosophy. [End Page 455]
To transcend these repeated criticisms and properly present the relationship between the Irish philosophical tradition and Berkeley’s philosophy, there are at least two goals that must be fulfilled. First, more wide-ranging histories of the academic and social situations in eighteenth-century Ireland are required. Without these studies, it is difficult to specify the Irish influences on Berkeley with precision. Second, Berkeley’s philosophy should be placed not only within the eighteenth-century Irish context, but also within the global one. By comparing Berkeley’s philosophy with contemporary non-Irish thought, it would be possible to delineate and describe more clearly the uniqueness of Berkeley’s work as having emerged from a specifically Irish philosophical tradition.
Although Scott Breuninger cites an insufficiency in Berman’s work—namely, that Berman pays too much attention to the philosophical aspect of Berkeley’s project—his book Recovering Bishop Berkeley explores a new field while following the trend started by Berman. The main focus of Breuninger’s book is the largely unnoticed development of Berkeley’s moral philosophy and his engagements with Irish social affairs; he analyzes Berkeley’s texts as a contextualist historian, locating them “within [their] social and linguistic contexts” (10). This choice of focus allows him to move beyond the interpretation of Berkeley as a strict “middle empiricist” philosopher (13).
Breuninger suggests that his analysis shows Berkeley not as an outlier, but as a “representative figure” of a “crucial moment in the formation of modern society” (12–13). This approach to the study of Berkeley fulfills the above-mentioned two goals needed for establishing the relationship between an Irish philosophical tradition and Berkeley’s own philosophy.
Using this contextualist approach, Breuninger closely analyzes Berkeley’s texts concerning moral philosophy and social affairs throughout the book. After presenting his main focus and method in his introduction, Breuninger confronts Passive Obedience in chapter two, locating it...