Each month, we ask a different member of our department to select a book on philosophy that has had a lasting impact on them and to share their thoughts and reflections on why it's such an important read.
May Pick | Selected by Dr. Alex Moran
In 1734, at 23 years old, Trinity graduate George Berkeley published his first major philosophical work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. In just 63 pages, Berkeley argued for the radical thesis that matter does not exist, and that reality comprises only minds and their ideas. The book was received poorly: many believed Berkeley to be a mere paradox-monger, and few were convinced by his arguments.
Berkeley meanwhile believed his work to be of tremendous importance, not only correcting important errors in metaphysics and epistemology but also offering a convincing proof of God’s existence. Two years later, therefore, Berkeley produced his second major work: Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, written in dialogue form and in a much more literary style, with a view to converting a wider readership to his idealist philosophy.
The dialogue form is not of course uncommon in philosophy. However, the Three Dialogues are distinctive for their literary brilliance: few philosophical texts are so easy and so enjoyable to read. Moreover, the book is fascinating for a further reason, in that it presents such compelling and lucid arguments for what is in the end a bizarre and paradoxical conclusion, namely that matter is unreal and that only minds and their ideas exist.
I first encountered the Three Dialogues at 16 years old, and read them over and over, feeling immense frustration at the sheer difficulty of refuting Berkeley’s arguments (despite feeling convinced that he was wrong). I’ve since figured out what I think the matter is with Berkeley’s arguments, but that in no way undermines the value of the book.
The Three Dialogues concerns some of the most fundamental problems in philosophy, concerning for example the nature of perception, our knowledge of external things, and the relationship between our minds and the world. It is a thoroughly pleasurable read, which anyone interested in philosophy can enjoy. I have returned to it again and again over the years, and it continues to inform my philosophical work even now. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in philosophy, especially in metaphysics and epistemology.