Berkeley’s Book of Nature

Costica Bradatan wants us to attend to The Other Bishop Berkeley. The Berkeley that is most often studied is the one who addresses issues of interest to contemporary philosophy. Bradatan looks instead at Berkeley’s sources and the uses he makes of them.

From this angle, it becomes apparent that Berkeley works within the medieval framework that sees the world as a liber mundi, a book of nature. Berkeley writes, “the phenomena of nature, which strike on the senses and are understood by the mind, form not only a magnificent spectacle, but also a most coherent, entertaining, and instructive Discourse; and to effect this, they are con- ducted, adjusted, and ranged by the greatest wisdom. The language or Discourse is studied with different attention, and interpreted with different degrees of skill” (quoted 73).

For Berkeley, creation is a natural rather than a conventional language: “A great number of arbitrary signs, various and opposite, do constitute a language. If such arbitrary connexion be instituted by men, it is an artificial language; if by the Author of Nature, it is a natural language. Infinitely various are the modifications of light and sound, whence they are each capable of supplying an endless variety of signs, and, accordingly, have been each employed to form languages; the one by the arbitrary appointment of man- kind, the other by that of God Himself. A connexion established by the Author of Nature, in the ordinary course of things, may surely be called natural; as that made by men will be named artificial” (quoted 74).

Bradatan observes that Berkeley modifies the medieval conception by emphasizing God’s immediate and active presence in the world: “Berkeley’s God speaks through every single thing we see around, whereas in the medieval context of liber mundi we are, as it were, reminded of God as its author, the sensible things pointing to God as their creator. This is probably one of the significant differences between Berkeley and those medieval authors who saw God as the author of the book of nature: properly speaking, in Berkeley the ‘world is not, as it was for the mediaevals, the book of God, since written words have only an indirect connection with their creator. Rather, it is the speech of God, so many immediate expressions of, and testaments to, His presence with us’” (75; quoting David E. Cooper).

Berkeley shares an ontology with medieval thinkers. Both see the world as “a system of signs, riddles, and symbols, and it is only through them that we learn something about the author of this world, about God himself, who is behind all these.” Yet “we come in Berkeley across a certain shift of emphasis, with the result that God is given an even more prominent role than in the medieval universe, he is seen now as more directly and immediately present in the world” (75).

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