From Three Dialogues between
Hylas and Philonous

By George Berkeley

Edited by Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University — Newark

The text — a reading text, not a critical one — comes from George Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713). This selection is a small part of the third dialogue. Please send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch.


[1] Hylas. I own myself satisfied in this Point. But do you in earnest think, the real Existence of sensible Things consists in their being actually perceived? If so; How comes it that all Mankind distinguish between them? Ask the first Man you meet, and he shall tell you, to be perceived is one thing, and to exist is another.

[2] Philonous. I am content, Hylas, to appeal to the common Sense of the World for the Truth of my notion. Ask the Gardiner, why he thinks yonder Cherry-Tree exists in the Garden, and he shall tell you, because he sees and feels it; in a word, because he perceives it by his Senses. Ask him, why he thinks an Orange-Tree not to be there, and he shall tell you, because he does not perceive it. What he perceives by Sense, that he terms a real Being, and saith it is, or exists; but that which is not perceivable, the same, he saith, hath no Being.

[3] Hylas. Yes, Philonous, I grant the Existence of a sensible Thing consists in being perceivable, but not in being actually perceived.

[4] Philonous. And what is perceivable but an Idea? And can an Idea exist without being actually perceived? These are Points long since agreed between us.

[5] Hylas. But, be your Opinion never so true: Yet, surely, you will not deny it is shocking, and contrary to the common Sense of Men. Ask the Fellow, whether yonder Tree has an existence out of his Mind: What Answer think you he would make?

[6] Philonous. The same that I should myself, viz., That it does exist out of his Mind. But then to a Christian, it cannot surely be shocking to say, The real Tree existing without his Mind is truly known and comprehended by (that is, exists in) the infinite Mind of God. Probably he may not at first Glance be aware of the direct and immediate Proof there is of this, inasmuch as the very Being of a Tree, or any other sensible Thing, implies a Mind wherein it is. But the Point itself he cannot deny. The Question between the Materialists and me is, not whether Things have a real Existence out of the Mind of this or that Person, but whether they have an absolute Existence, distinct from being perceived by God, and exterior to all Minds. This, indeed, some Heathens and Philosophers have affirmed, but whoever entertains Notions of the Deity suitable to the Holy Scriptures, will be of another opinion.

[7] Hylas. But, according to your Notions, what Difference is there between real Things, and Chimeras formed by the Imagination, or the Visions of a Dream, since they are all equally in the Mind?

[8] Philonous. The Ideas formed by the Imagination, are faint and indistinct; they have, besides, an entire Dependence on the Will. But the Ideas perceived by Sense, i.e., real Things, are more vivid and clear, and being imprinted on the Mind by a Spirit distinct from us, have not a like Dependence on our Will. There is, therefore, no Danger of confounding these with the foregoing; And there is as little of confounding them with the Visions of a Dream, which are dim, irregular, and confused. And tho they shou'd happen to be never so lively and natural, yet by their not being connected, and of a Piece, with the preceding and subsequent Transactions of our Lives, they might easily be distinguished from Realities. In short, by whatever Method you distinguish Things from Chimeras on your own Scheme, the same, it is evident, will hold also upon mine. For it must be, I presume, by some perceived Difference, and I am not for depriving you of any one thing that you perceive.

[9] Hylas. But still, Philonous, you hold, there is nothing in the World but Spirits and Ideas. And this, you must needs acknowledge, sounds very oddly.

[10] Philonous. I own the Word Idea, not being commonly used for Thing, sounds something out of the way. My Reason for using it was, because a necessary Relation to the Mind is understood to be implied by that Term; and it is now commonly used by Philosophers, to denote the immediate Objects of the Understanding. But however odly the Proposition may sound in words, yet it includes nothing so very strange or shocking in its Sense, which in effect amounts to no more than this, viz. that there are only Things perceiving, and Things perceived; or that every unthinking Being is necessarily, and from the very Nature of its Existence, perceived by some Mind; if not by a finite, created Mind, yet certainly by the infinite Mind of God, in whom we live, and move, and have our Being. Is this as strange as to say, The sensible Qualities are not on the Objects: Or, That we cannot be sure of the Existence of Things, or know any thing of their real Natures, though we both see and feel them, and perceive them by all our Senses?

[11] Hylas. And in Consequence of this, must we not think there are no such Things as Physical or Corporeal Causes: But that a Spirit is the immediate Cause of all the Phænomena in Nature? Can there be anything more extravagant than this?

[12] Philonous. Yes, it is infinitely more extravagant to say, A thing which is inert, operates on the Mind, and which is unperceiving, is the Cause of our Perceptions, without any regard either to Consistency, or the old known Axiom: Nothing can give to another that which it hath not itself. Besides, that which to you, I know not for what Reason, seems so extravagant, is no more than the Holy Scriptures assert in a hundred Places. In them God is represented as the sole and immediate Author of all those Effects, which some Heathens and Philosophers are wont to ascribe to Nature, Matter, Fate, or the like unthinking Principle. This is so much the constant Language of Scripture, that it were needless to confirm it by Citations.