The International Berkeley Society


by Ian C. Tipton, Raymond W. Houghton, and Maureen Lapan

The International Berkeley Society was founded in 1975 to promote interest in the life and work of the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley. It is unusual because its membership and leadership includes not only scholars and philosophers from many countries, but also residents of the State of Rhode Island who are interested in the history and culture of colonial New England.

Berkeley resided in what is now Middletown, Rhode Island, from January 1729 to September 1731 and it was with the 250th anniversary of his arrival in mind that the Society was first formed, sponsoring quite ambitious preparatory gatherings in 1977 and 1978 and, in 1979, its first major international conference. This hugely successful conference attracted many prominent scholars from numerous countries, and its proceedings were published in 1982 by the University of Minnesota Press (Colin Turbayne, ed.) as "Berkeley: Critical and Interpretive Essays". In 1985 the Society sponsored a second major conference, again held in Newport (Rhode Island) but now celebrating the 300th anniversary of Berkeley's birth, this with the welcome support of the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, the Whitehall (R.I.) Committee, the Irish American Cultural Committee, and Rhode Island College. This second conference was attended by more than fifty philosophers, again coming from various countries, and by a similar number of non-philosophers, most of them from Rhode Island. Once again, the proceedings were published, this time by the D. Reidel and as "Essays on the Philosophy of George Berkeley" (Ernest Sosa, ed.)

Because not all the members of the Society are philosophers, our conferences have always included special events addressed to the general public. The 1979 conference included a showing of "The Dean of Thin Air", a film about Berkeley. (The original idea and script for the film were generated by the then President of the Society, Raymond W. Houghton.) In both 1979 and 1985 events were scheduled throughout the Newport area in order to encourage the general public to attend. In 1992 the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, Rhode Island College, and the Rhode Island Philosophical Society funded a special general interest conference with such members in mind under the general title "Berkeley: The Old World and the New". Papers delivered on that occasion presented a rounded picture of Berkeley and his times, the role of religion in early 18th-century New England, relations between the colonists and Native Americans, and the economic challenges facing England and its colonies. There was also a concert of eighteenth century music and an original performance by William Hutchinson as Berkeley. "Images of Berkeley", a display of high-quality images shown previously at the National Gallery of Ireland, but never before seen in the United States, was also part of this conference.

It will be evident from the above that Rhode Island and the people of Rhode Island played a leading role in the formation of the Society and that they continue to support it very actively. However, it must now be stressed that its activities have by no means been restricted to Rhode Island. Our present President is British; our Vice President, Geneviève Brykman, is French. The Society has, over the years, been sponsors or co-sponsors of major conferences held in Dublin and in Oxford (1985), at the University of Iowa (1989), and in Paris (1996). (The Paris conference coincided with the 400th anniversary of Descartes' birth and was appropriately entitled "Berkeley et le cartésianisme". It attracted prominent Descartes scholars from France and scholars from five other countries. The proceedings were published in 1997, under the conference title, by the Presse de l'Université Paris X-Nanterre.)

A further major international conference had already been held at St. Anne's College in Oxford in 1993, this one attracting some eighty participants from eleven countries, with invited papers being presented by scholars travelling to Oxford from many countries -- Canada, Finland, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States. It was specially memorable for some of us that, not very long before his death, Sir Geoffrey Warnock, author of the well-known Penguin Book on Berkeley which, following its first publication in 1953, had been a formative influenced on students over many years, spoke at the conference banquet, addressing some very well established scholars but many younger philosophers too.

The successive Presidents of the Society, Ray Houghton, Phillip Cummins of the University of Iowa, Louis Alfonso of Rhode Island College, and currently Ian Tipton of the University of Wales Swansea, have all played substantial roles in organising the foregoing events and in supporting numerous other rather less ambitious events such as, and just as examples, an afternoon session at an annual conference of Cheiron, the International Society for the History of Behavioural and Social Sciences, held in 1982, a meeting at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1994 and 1995, and, in 1998, a successful Summer School held in the delightful Barnabrow House Hotel in Midleton, Eire, close to Cloyne where Berkeley was Bishop. And still, the Society continues to be very active. This was very evident when in April 1999 yet another major conference was organised in Newport. This was judged by the many of those attending to be well up to the standard of any we had held previously, and we were very grateful indeed to Galen Johnson and Andre Ariew of the University of Rhode Island for making the arrangements for us and thus making 1999 yet another memorable year. Inevitably, there have been quieter periods, but over the years the Society has done much to link Berkeley scholars and the promulgate interest in Berkeley.

Your interest in the Society is encouraged. In addition to the various conferences and other gatherings, our members receive a newsletter -- "Berkeley Briefs" -- which is currently edited for us by Virginia Ross and which is published once or twice each year. They have the opportunity to support and to visit the Berkeley Studies / Library Centre with its small but growing library which we are developing in the one "modern" room at Whitehall, the home Berkeley built back in 1729 in what is now Middletown Rhode Island. The house, now a museum house, is owned and run by the National Society of the Colonial Dames in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and it has been open to the public since 1900. The visitors book at the house contains the names not just of the many members of the public who have visited it over the years, often just out of casual curiosity, but also those of some of the leading scholars and philosophers of our time. Anyone interested in organising some conference or event on Berkeley, whether small or ambitious, in their own university or community would, where appropriate, receive our active support, but any and all who have an interest, however casual it may be, in Berkeley the man, the philosopher, the Bishop and religious thinker, the economist, the mathematician, or, maybe, as the idealist who planned to found a College in Bermuda to educate both the sons of colonists and young Native Americans as well would be most welcome to join. We now run this web site, which is kindly being organised and developed for us by Peter Lloyd. Other plans are afoot and you are warmly invited to join us in developing them and encouraging them in any way. General enquiries about this Society can be posted on this web site's bulletin board and will, where appropriate, be answered, although, whether a member or not, you are certainly encouraged to use the bulletin board for any (responsible) purpose you wish.

© International Berkeley Society, 2000.
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