York University philosophy professor named Berkeley Scholar in Residence

Whitehall residence
Whitehall featured image
Patrick J.J. Phillips
Patrick J.J. Phillips

Professor Patrick J. J. Phillips, from York University’s Department of Philosophy, has been selected to be a 2018 Berkeley Scholar in Residence at the Whitehall Museum House in Rhode Island, USA.

George Berkeley (1685 – 1753) was an Irish theologian, writer, philosopher, pamphleteer and bishop. Since 1975, the International Berkeley Society (IBS) has invited IBS scholars from around the globe to stay in Berkeley’s house, Whitehall and promote the study of Berkeley’s philosophy.

“It is a pleasure to be the recipient of this honor by the International Berkeley Society,” says Phillips, who will reside at Whitehall for August 2018. “I look forward to representing York University at Whitehall as well as the opportunity to continue my investigations into Berkeley’s philosophy.”

Berkeley was also a nascent university president and administrator. With a promise of funds from the British Government to set up a university college in the Americas, he arrived at Rhode Island in 1729. It was here that he modified an existing structure into his home, which he then named Whitehall

Berkeley was one of the first university administrators to be promised government funds, only for the funds never to arrive. Without funding, his venture collapsed and he returned to the British Isles in 1731 to take up the position of Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland.

While at Whitehall waiting for funding, Berkeley penned his work, Alciphron (first published in 1732), which is not only a great work of Christian apologetics but is regarded as a classic of literature of the same stature as the Platonic dialogues. Alciphron also anticipates the emphasis on language and meaning of the philosophy of the 20th Century and shares points of contact with, among others, the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899 -1951).

Perhaps most famous in Berkeley’s philosophy is his claim that “[t]o be is to be perceived,” one of the strongest statements of idealist metaphysics: that what is real is our ideas and minds and that there is nothing “beyond” or “outside” our experience. Though often viewed as an eccentric philosophical position or, as his contemporary Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) opined dismissively as “an ingenious sophistry,” Berkeley’s denial of the metaphysical concept of matter enjoyed a resurgence with the development of modern physics.

Berkeley was also one of the first philosophers to draw a connection between epistemology (what we know or think we know) and our moral and ethical lives.  Berkeley prognosticated that with the rise of materialism, propounded by what Berkeley described as the “abettors of impiety” (the materialist philosophers), we would experience a spiritual and ethical dissolution — a prognostication that many within academia would argue has already come to pass.

“It is a pleasure to support the worthy goals of the International Berkeley Society in preserving Whitehall, not just for scholars, but for the general public,” says Phillips.  “The eccentric character of this scholarship — to further the study of the Philosophy of Berkeley while living in his North American home and, at the same time, conduct tours of Whitehall for the general public in order to provide insight into the history of Berkeley’s home, his educational mission and his philosophy — is not only progressive, but is also a rare privilege.”