What to do about George Berkeley, Trinity figurehead and slave owner?

Unthinkable: Ireland’s most celebrated philosopher was ‘also extremely morally fallible’

As statues topple amid anti-racism protests, universities are looking at some of the hallowed names associated with their institutions with some nervousness. In Oxford, it's Cecil Rhodes. In Dublin, one figure stands out: George Berkeley.

The Anglican bishop of Cloyne (1685-1753) is Ireland's most celebrated philosopher. He has both a prestigious university and a city in the United States named after him. Domestically, he is synonymous with Trinity College Dublin (TCD), where his name is lent to a college library as well as the annual George Berkeley Gold Medals for top students and researchers.

Berkeley’s academic status is well earned; he is one of the few theologians of his time who is taken seriously by scientists and mathematicians. A pioneering student of perception, he is the man behind the old conundrum: if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

But he has a stain on his record, as documented in 2001 by a group of graduate students from Yale, another university with strong links to "the good bishop". In a report calling on Yale to face up to its troubled history, they describe in detail the Irish scholar's purchase of a plantation at Rhode Island, having travelled across the Atlantic to set up a missionary project.


On October 4th, 1730, Berkeley purchased “a negro man named Philip aged 14 years or thereabout”. A few days later he purchased “a negro man named Edward aged 20 years or thereabouts”. The following year, “Dean Berkeley baptised three of his negroes, ‘Philip, Anthony, and Agnes Berkeley’”, the records show.

Berkeley justified slavery as a path to Christian conversion, and while his views were relatively orthodox at the time, there were contemporaries of his who strongly condemned the slave trade (among them compatriot Francis Hutcheson, as documented on Cathy Barry's Irish Philosophy site).

‘Rhetorical nastiness’

You're unlikely to find much about this in any philosophy textbook. Indeed, this reporter was unaware of Berkeley's slave-owning past until a chance conversation with Clare Moriarty, an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at TCD.

Moriarty recently published a paper on Berkeley’s role in mathematical debates in the wake of Isaac Newton’s revolutionary discoveries. Noting his reputation for “philosophical saintliness”, she revealed how Berkeley was anything but charitable when engaging with rival thinkers, deploying at times “rhetorical nastiness that would make a seasoned internet troll blush”.

“Figures like Berkeley and his companions on history of philosophy courses deserve our serious moral scrutiny,” Moriarty says. “Berkeley was unquestionably a great metaphysical thinker and brilliant writer, but he was also extremely morally fallible.”

Aside from supporting slavery, “in his later political work, he is pretty grim on the Irish peasantry too. In both cases, I regard him as a serious enough thinker that he should have been capable of the kind of reflection on slavery and humanity that, even back then, should have troubled him.”

On the trolling charge, she says the rap sheet includes “intentionally misrepresenting his opponent, pretending to misunderstand motivations . . . publishing materials anonymously and secretly, and just being very rude”. An underlying motivation was “to sew discord and disagreement, and to make a usually solid and consensus-inclined group of practitioners look like a bunch of querulous bickerers”.

The debates on mathematics may seem rather esoteric from this distance, but they can help us to understand contradictions in Berkeley’s character.

“Maths has a tricky position in Berkeley’s philosophical system, because he’s so confident of the centrality of experience in any kind of knowledge, and maths is typically understood as a perfectly abstract formal discipline, totally independent of sensation and thought,” Moriarty explains.

The Irish philosopher launched himself into the debate on Newton’s fluxions – what we now call calculus – partly out of “opportunism”, she says. “He saw a chance to shed new light on certain arguments about the illogical nature of religious ideas like the Holy Trinity by using similar vulnerabilities in the treasured mathematical theory of the age.”

Berkeley’s argument is familiar today: Science has its contradictions, therefore we shouldn’t demand flawless reasoning from religion. Does the debating tactic work?

“Berkeley’s calculus argument is a kind of ad hominem argument about hypocrisy,” Moriarty says. He argues that those who love mathematics “don’t get to criticise religion on logical grounds while failing to ignore all of the bad logic happening in [their] own house... I think that’s a fair argument.

“Despite the bad reputation of ad hominem arguments in popular discussion today, often inconsistency and hypocrisy are perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of people and their arguments. My reading of Berkeley is that he’s a pragmatist on most issues, valuing practically valuable and instrumentally useful ideas. If calculus is really helpful in mechanics and science, then great-keep using it. Just don’t pretend it’s perfectly logical and immune to criticism.

“Berkeley thought mysterious religious ideas like the Trinity helped believers live good religious lives. That was the best way to understand the meaning of those ideas, and as such, they shouldn’t be used to discredit religion.”

Making amends

On the more serious charge against Berkeley, his support for slavery has been glossed over down the years. Is it time to make amends?

“I only discovered it after finishing a PhD about him, so that might give an indication of the level of finish on that gloss – and probably my own failures of inquiry,” Moriarty replies.

“I note that the International Berkeley Society has just donated to Rhode Island for Community and Justice [an anti-racism group] in recognition of this, and I hope it will be an ongoing commitment.

"We are all thinking about statues and named institutions this week. The Berkeley, California, case is particularly interesting. The university is named after philosophical Berkeley, and the naming is based on somebody liking the closing lines of a poem he wrote glorifying imperial expansion into America. So, that would seem to make it tainted in name and purpose.

“Yet, thinking about the normal associations with the word ‘Berkeley’ nowadays, I would guess it’s more likely to be with a legacy of radical student and community politics which has historically challenged war, racism and injustice. So, there are cases where names outgrow the associations of their initial baptisms.

Universities should be leading the charge in trying to make amends for ways they have benefited from oppressive histories

“With universities, I think we need to remember who they are for, and what they do. If the tacit veneration of certain figures contributes to a sense of white supremacy or reinforcement of discrimination that is obviously damaging to our students and prospective students, then of course, changes should be made.”

Moriarty adds: “The cases of Rhodes and [Edward] Colston are clearly troubling, and both have been the subject of serious engagement and challenge for years. The perfect response mightn’t always be clear, but that shouldn’t stop us from acting responsibly where our obligations are obvious.

“Universities should be leading the charge in trying to make amends for ways they have benefited from oppressive histories, and I hope Trinity will work seriously on this, both at a structural and symbolic level, because there is clearly far to go on both scores here.”

Clare Moriarty is giving a lecture on Irish mathematician Oliver Byrne, described as the "Matisse of mathematics", hosted online by Science Gallery Dublin and the Trinity Long Room Hub, at 6.30pm on Thursday, June 18th. To register and view online see: https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/