Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, Paperback

Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous Paperback

3 out of 5 (2 ratings)


A model of what an edition of a philosohic text for an introductory level should be.

Introduction does an admirable job of putting Berkeley's thought in the intellectual context of its time. --Gary C. Hatfield


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 137 pages
  • Publisher: Hackett Publishing Co, Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Literary essays
  • ISBN: 9780915144617


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Berkeley's Three Dialogues were written to present the author's philosophy in an easy to digest format, as his previous work containing these views did not have as big an impact as he had expected.The gist of his philosophy is that matter does not exist, and the the universe consists solely of ideas and minds. Included within the categories of ideas are thoughts and sensations, which to exist must be present in the mind. The reality of external objects is not denied, only their existence is transferred from being material to being ideas in God's mind, which exist independently of us just like matter does. He argues that the objects that we perceive really exist, and are not illusions, but are dependent for their existence on God.The dialogues are written in a similar way to Plato's Socratic dialogues, with one person trying to convince someone else of his opinions by using arguments such as thought experiments. The first dialogue aims to prove that all we receive in way of information from the outside world is sensations, and that sensations are only ideas, and that ideas can exist only in minds. This last part I contend: ideas can surely exist outside minds (in a manner such as the Platonic forms), and this is evident in the mathematics, where truths are universal and eternal, and not dependent on empirical information. These truths would exist in a universe whether there was a God or humans or minds or not. Going on his premise that ideas can only exist in minds, and that they are external and have a real existence, Berkeley claims that all ideas are created by God, which he can then put into our minds. Several of the arguments against matter involve the premise that matter is extended, which he believes is necessary to a materialist world view. Yet, the atom could be viewed as a point (ie not extended), or as energy, with extension being an emergent property, which he does not consider. Another faulty premise in this chapter is that we perceive objects directly, that what we see is exactly what is there. The eye and the parts of the brain that process visual information interpret it to make sense of it, and extrapolate upon and embellish the data the eye receives before it is presented to consciousness. Berkeley does not realise this, and uses the apparent contradictions in what we see as evidence for the impossibility of matter, while in truth the brain can be responsible for making these illusions. The second dialogue discusses the possibility of God using matter as an intermediate through which ideas are relayed, between being created by him and reaching us. This is argued against with the theory that God would not need to use matter as an instrument if he was omnipotent, and that matter could itself never be known to us except through sensations anyway, and so outside of sensations (which can only exist in the mind) there can be no evidence for it.The third dialogue considers objections to this system of Idealism, and provides counters to them. At the seat of it, this dialogue revolves around the mind body problem, which the author's philosophy would remove if it were right. We still do no know how and if mind emerges out of matter, how and if we have free will, and what the exact nature of matter is. If we deny the existence of matter, it solves these apparent problems, which Berkeley obviously thought about. There are no logical arguments to prove that the essentials of Berkeley's philosophy are wrong, but he fails to do what he sets out to do, to prove that his philosophy is right, that matter does not exist. There are multiple ways of interpreting what we see around us, one is Berkeley's way, another is the “materialist” way, where matter only exists, and mind and ideas are reduceable to matter. Another interpretation of reality, which I would favour, is that matter is real (Scientific realism), and that ideas are also real (Platonic realism), and of a separate category. Mind appears to be an emergent property of matter (though not reducible to it, as it comes about from an interaction of matter and the laws of the universe, which are themselves immaterial, and possibly mathematical, thus analogous to ideas), and that science and philosophy will discover how this all works more precisely in the future.

Review by

Read this for a college Phil course. Radical idealism definitely ain't my thing. I rebelled against it pretty strongly even then, when I didn't know enough to know why. My ultimate reaction to Berkeley and most other stuff in this philosophical vein is "Yeah... So?" I'm just too much of a throughgoing pragmatist to play along long enough to get much out of it.