Berkeley: Scepticism, Matter and Infinite Divisibility

  • José A. Robles
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


In rejecting the philosophical view that there was a material substance, Berkeley takes it that he can also get rid of some other problems he considered (at least at an early stage of his philosophical development) to be closely linked to the belief in the existence of such a substance: those of the infinite divisibility of matter and of the existence of an extended God. So in his PC he writes:

The Philosophers lose their Matter, The Mathematicians lose their insensible sensations, the Profane their extended Deity Pray wt do the Rest of Mankind lose, as for bodies &c we have them still. N.B. the future Philosophy: & Mathem: get vastly by ye bargain. (PC 391)


Perceptual Object Empirical Object Infinite Divisibility Philosophical Development Perceptual World 
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  1. 1.
    I argue for this in chapter 1, “El ataque al descriptivismo,” in José antonio Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos, Instituto de Investigaciones Filosoficas ( Mexico: UNAM, 1990 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    In J.A. Robles, “Malebranche, la infinitud y el argumento del microscopio” (unpublished).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos, Ch. 1, pp. 19–21.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I add here a passage by John Keill in which clearly appears the descriptivist fallacy to which I referred above: They [the Philosophers “who distinguish betwixt a Mathematical and a Physical Body”] readily allow that a Mathematical Body may be divisible in infinitum; but they deny that a Physical Body can be always resolved into still farther divisible Parts. But what, I would know, is a Mathematical Body, but something extended into a Triple Dimension. Does not Divisibility belong to a Mathematical Body, by the reason it is extended. But a Physical Body is Extended after the same manner: wherefore since Divisibility depends on the Nature and Essence of Extension itself, and owes to it is Origin, it is necessary that it must agree to all Extensions, whether Physical or Mathematical. For, to use a Logical Expression, whatever is predicated of any Genus, is predicated of all the Species contained under that Genus. An Introduction to natural philosophy; or Philosophical Lectures Read in the University of Oxford, Anno Dom. 1700 (London; 1726), pp. 30–31; quoted in Edward W. Strong, “Mathematical Reasoning and its Objects,” in George Berkeley Lectures delivered before the Philosophical Union of the University of California: In Honor of the Two Hundreth Anniversary of the Death of George Berkeley, ed. George P. Adams (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), p. 68, note 8.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cf. Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos,passim, esp. pp. 26–34.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cf. Galileo Galilei, Dialogues Concerning the New Sciences, trans. Henry Crew and Alfonso de Salvio (New York: Dover Publications, 1954), pp. 20–24 for what Galileo has to tell us about concentric circles and infinite points.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    On these points, see Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos, Ch. 2, “Minima sensibilia,” pp. 34–53.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See arguments for this view in Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos. Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    But it is worthwhile to consider two recent additions to the literature on this subject: Martha B. Bolton, “Berkeley’s Objections to Abstract Ideas and Unconceived Objects,” in Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley,ed. Ernest Sosa (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1987), pp. 61–81; and Kenneth P. Winkler, Berkeley: An Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), Ch. 1, and my conclusions at several points are quite similar to Winkler’s...Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    I have discussed this point in Robles, Estudios berkeleyanos,Ch. 2.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • José A. Robles

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