Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous

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George Berkeley

Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, or simply Three Dialogues, is a 1713 book on metaphysics and idealism written by George Berkeley. Taking the form of a dialogue, the book was written as a response to the criticism Berkeley experienced after publishing A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge . [1]

Metaphysics branch of philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among the [study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

In philosophy, Idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, Idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to Materialism, Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

George Berkeley Anglo-Irish philosopher

George Berkeley – known as Bishop Berkeley – was an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism". This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.


Three important concepts discussed in the Three Dialogues are perceptual relativity, the conceivability/master argument [lower-alpha 1] and Berkeley's phenomenalism. Perceptual relativity argues that the same object can appear to have different characteristics (e.g. shape) depending on the observer's perspective. Since objective features of objects cannot change without an inherent change in the object itself, shape must not be an objective feature.

Perception organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment

Perception is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information, or the environment.

The master argument is George Berkeley's argument that mind-independent objects do not exist because it is impossible to conceive of them. The argument is against intuition and has been widely challenged. The term "Berkeley's master argument" was introduced by Andre Gallois in 1974. His term has firmly become currency of contemporary Berkeley scholarship.

Phenomenalism is the view that physical objects cannot justifiably be said to exist in themselves, but only as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli situated in time and in space. In particular, some forms of phenomenalism reduce talk about physical objects in the external world to talk about bundles of sense-data.


In 1709, Berkeley published his first major work, An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision , in which he discussed the limitations of human vision and advanced the theory that the proper objects of sight are not material objects, but light and colour. [3] This foreshadowed his chief philosophical work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), which, after its poor reception, he rewrote into the Three Dialogues (1713). [1]

<i>A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge</i> 1710 philosophical work by George Berkeley

A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge is a 1710 work, in English, by Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley. This book largely seeks to refute the claims made by Berkeley's contemporary John Locke about the nature of human perception. Whilst, like all the Empiricist philosophers, both Locke and Berkeley agreed that we are having experiences, regardless of whether material objects exist, Berkeley sought to prove that the outside world is also composed solely of ideas. Berkeley did this by suggesting that "Ideas can only resemble Ideas" - the mental ideas that we possess can only resemble other ideas and thus the external world consists not of physical form, but rather of ideas. This world is given logic and regularity by some other force, which Berkeley concludes is God.

Hylas and Philonous

Berkeley's views are represented by Philonous (Greek: "lover of mind"), while Hylas (Greek: "matter") embodies the Irish thinker's opponents, in particular John Locke.

Hylas mythical character

In classical mythology, Hylas was a youth who served as Heracles' companion and servant, as well as lover. His abduction by water nymphs was a theme of ancient art, and has been an enduring subject for Western art in the classical tradition.

John Locke English philosopher and physician

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

In The First Dialogue, Hylas expresses his disdain for skepticism, adding that he has heard Philonous to have "maintained the most extravagant opinion... namely, that there is no such thing as material substance in the world." Philonous argues that it is actually Hylas who is the skeptic and that he can prove it. Thus, a philosophical battle of wit begins.

Skepticism or scepticism is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. It is often directed at domains, such as the supernatural, morality, religion, or knowledge. Formally, skepticism as a topic occurs in the context of philosophy, particularly epistemology, although it can be applied to any topic such as politics, religion, and pseudoscience.

Philonous questions Hylas systematically regarding what humans know of the world, first examining secondary qualities, such as heat, to show that such qualities do not exist outside the individual mind. He then moves on to primary qualities such as extension and shape, and likewise argues that they, too, are dependent entirely on one's perception (e.g., From a distance, a great mountain appears to be small, and the shape of a thing may change dramatically under a microscope).

Hylas's view of matter (which has its origin in the Platonic theory of forms , or abstract entities that exist outside of the sensible world)[ citation needed ] is systematically destroyed by Philonous (Berkeley). The basic argument is that because matter is only known to us by its sensible qualities, it is impossible to describe or even imagine matter without these qualities. For in the absence of sensible qualities, matter, by definition, loses its essential qualities.

Berkeley's argument goes further: sensible qualities are not inherent in matter. Rather, they are ascribed and understood by the mind. Color, sound, temperature and even shape are qualities entirely dependent on a mind. Indeed, without a "mind," it becomes impossible to imagine "matter." The answer to the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no mind is present, does it make a noise?" is answered by Berkeley's immaterialism: There is no tree. However, God is always perceiving everything. In other words, there is always a mind present. A human (and thus a human mind) need not be present for the tree to make a sound, for the mind of God is always present, or so Berkeley argues. It is this mind of God that gives sensible qualities to matter, not matter itself.

In his own time Berkeley faced opposition from many philosophers who held to the Platonic view. These philosophers thought Berkeley vulgar because his own view seemed to confirm the views held by the lower classes. Roughly speaking, the "common view" was that God created everything and that the things on earth were the real things. Some philosophers did not believe in God, and believed matter on earth was but an imitation of actual matter that existed in another dimension. Berkeley sided with the common view.

The philosophy presented is often misinterpreted. The criticism is that Berkeley claims that we live in an illusory world, when in fact, Berkeley advocates for the acceptance of ideas as real "things." When we refer to an object, we don't refer to a material form, but to the idea of the object that informs our senses. Berkeley doesn't propose that nothing is real; he proposes that ideas themselves compose reality.

See also


  1. "master argument" was coined by André Gallois [2]

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Thomas Reid Scottish philosopher

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Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.

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  1. 1 2 Turbayne, C. M. (September 1959). "Berkeley's Two Concepts of Mind". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research . 20 (1): 85–92. doi:10.2307/2104957. JSTOR   2104957.
    Repr. in Engle, Gale; Taylor, Gabriele (1968). Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge: Critical Studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 24–33. In this collection of essays, Turbayne's work comprised two papers that had been published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research:
  2. A. Gallois, "Berkeley's Master Argument." Archived 2012-07-14 at The Philosophical Review 83 (1974), pp. 55-69
  3. See Berkeley, George (1709). An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (2 ed.). Dublin: Jeremy Pepyat. Retrieved 12 July 2014. via Google Books

Further reading