George Berkeley (1685-1753) was an Irish philosopher who became the Bishop of Cloyne. He believes that anything that stops being observed ceases to exist – subjective idealism. However, this begs the question of what happens to it if no one is observing it. Berkeley had an answer to this – God continues to perceive the world and thus it continues to exist.

Of course, this is a contrary view to that most of us might believe. The majority of us believe there is a world out there and it continues to exist whether we are observing it directly or not. So if you read a book then you can view and touch the pages but for Berkeley this is simply a collection of ideas in our mind rather than being something beyond the mind. Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Berkeley refuted his claims by hitting his toe against a hard stone – however Berkeley argued that the sensation of pain from his toe hitting the stone does not prove the existence of material objects, but only confirms our idea of a hard stone that causes pain. Berkeley was an idealist, because in his view, all that exists is ideas.

John Locke divides what he called the ideas in our mind into primary and secondary qualities. These ideas cover what we can think about or perceive. So, according to Locke we do not see an elephant, we see our representation of an elephant. The primary qualities of an elephant, Locke considers to be shape and size and the secondary qualities colour and texture. However, Locke also believes, unlike Berkeley, that there is a world out there and it continues to exist even when no one is looking, although we can only access it indirectly. As an empiricist, Locke believes that experience is the source of our knowledge, but how can he know that the primary qualities he refers to are an accurate representation of the real world?

Berkeley on the other hand, was more consistent than Locke in that he believes we perceive the world directly as we only experience the world in our own minds.

Can Berkeley’s views have any bearing on my photographic practice or indeed my research? Although on first reading Berkeley’s views are somewhat fanciful, I found myself warming to the simplicity of his thinking. Everything is in our minds, we live our lives on the basis of representation, and God is the guarantor of permanence.



BLACKBURN, Simon.  1999.  Think.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

 WARBURTON, Nigel. 2011. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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