Bishop Berkeley’s Theory of Abstraction

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears, Jul 22, 2019)

Kim Brown (                                        Sat 5 Jan 2019 11:50

To: Alex Brown (

Hi Dad,

We had a lecture the other day on an eighteenth century Idealist philosopher, Bishop Berkeley. He was a pretty cool dude – a co-founder of Yale University and of the London Foundling Hospital. I just googled him: he even has a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the US Episcopal Church (June 16th). Weird.

I thought you might be interested in what he had to say about John Locke’s writings on abstract ideas. Locke reckoned it was possible to have an abstract general idea of, say, a triangle, which was neither oblique, nor equilateral, or whatever. Berkeley quite rightly pointed out that this was nonsense: when we think of a triangle, we always picture it as having some specific properties. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible for two guys to be having an amicable conversation about triangles, without realising that they actually have in mind quite different specific ideas of a triangle.

So when I asked you for ‘a small loan’ last week and you subsequently sent me a cheque for twenty five pounds, it became clear to me that my specific idea of a small loan and your specific idea of a small loan differed by a factor of four.

Your loving daughter,

Kimberley x

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