Westward the course of empire: how Berkeley’s namesake made his way

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William Pan/Staff

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“Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

On the strength of a single poetic stanza, George Berkeley, the namesake of our city and campus, forged his way into conversations at the forefront of race, politics, education and technology four centuries after his death.

The name of the Irish philosopher Berkeley (pronounced “Bark-lih”) was chosen one day in 1866 when a group of men from the College of California — the predecessor of the University of California — watched ships cut across the San Francisco harbor. One of the men, struck by the scene, recalled the famous verse that prefaced Berkeley’s book “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” and the name of the philosopher immediately stuck. In an ironic twist, the man who had entertained his own dreams of building an American institution got his wish, if only a century later than he’d intended.

His name, however, rings true today for a campus characterized by equal parts progressive thought and distaste for the status quo, reflecting the thinker’s reputation as one of philosophy’s greatest idealists. Berkeley was an 18th century thinker who ruffled feathers among European empiricists. His theory of “immaterialism” took the empiricism of John Locke to its logical extreme, premising reality on the interplay of ideas and perceptions rather than grounding it in the direct experiences of a material world. In developing his philosophy, he made important critical responses to contemporaries such as Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

A deeply religious man, Berkeley’s philosophy was informed by his position as an Anglican bishop. Deists of the time considered God the creator of a clock-like universe who then stepped back to watch from a distance. Berkeley, however, believed God played a much more active role in the human experience as the will that gives humans an involuntary ability to perceive sensation. In the context of his assertion that “esse is percipi” (being is perceiving), Berkeley argued that God acts like a stabilizing force for the universe — an infinite mind whose capacity for perception allows for the existence and continuity of all things.

His contributions as a thinker spanned a wide range of disciplines, among them mathematics, optics, the psychology of vision, economics and morality. His published works include progressive theories of vision and spatial reasoning, a critique of calculus, an endorsement of the medicinal use of pine tar and rallies against the school of “free thinkers” who sought to downplay the role of religion in daily life.

Although he wasn’t well-received by much of the philosophy world during his lifetime, the publication of his compiled works in the late 19th century led to a surge in popularity among more modern philosophers. Today, he’s regarded as one of the most influential empiricists of all time, notably in the works of Immanuel Kant and David Hume.

After an extensive tour of Europe as a young man in the early 1700s, Berkeley was convinced of the continent’s spiritual decay. Like the UC founders, he hoped to begin his own school in America, aiming for the Bermuda colony. He and his wife departed for the British colonies and stayed for years, but his political influence at home had since waned, and the funds never came. Although he would return to live the remainder of his life in Europe, his name — memorialized in various locales — lives on in scattered parts of the world: in a small town in Massachusetts, in the halls of Yale University and Trinity College, and, finally, in the name of our own campus.

Contact Alex Barreira at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that George Berkeley lived out the remainder of his life in Ireland. In fact, although he spent most of the last years of his life in Ireland, he moved to Oxford, England, in 1752, and died there in 1753.