Tuesday, November 30, 2010

People and places named Berkeley

When I visited London for the first time, in 1962, I had an account with an Australian bank whose offices were located on Berkeley Square, an elegant tree-shaded corner of Westminster.

At that time, I had no reason to be interested in the fact—if I had known it—that this square used to be the London address of an ancient family named Berkeley whose castle was located over in Gloucestershire, to the north of Bristol.

This was not the first time I had encountered the name Berkeley. As a philosophy student in Australia, I had been greatly intrigued by the weirdly imaginative ideas of the Anglo-Irish bishop George Berkeley [1685-1753].

He suggested that material objects might not really exist such as we commonly envisage them. When we perceive the presence of such an object, our perceptions of it are indeed quite real, but they don't necessarily prove that there exists, behind these perceptions, a material object that is constantly present, even when it's not being perceived. This way of looking at things raises a problem. If an object only exists when it is being perceived, then what becomes of it as soon as it is no longer being perceived? Imagine a tree in the forest. Does it cease to exist when it's no longer perceived, and then come back into existence as soon as there's somebody to perceive it once again? That doesn't sound like a very reassuring explanation of existence, to say the least. Berkeley appealed to magic to extricate himself from this puzzling situation. He suggested that the tree never really ceases to exist at any instant, no matter whether or not a human viewer is looking at it, since God is on hand permanently to perceive it. Funnily enough, in spite of the weird nature of Berkeley's theory, it receives an echo in modern physics, where commonsense notions of matter have been replaced by abstract constructs. As Bertrand Russell once said about matter: "I should define it as what satisfies the equations of physics."

George Berkeley (who wasn't yet a bishop) spent a few years in America, and he happens to be the author of a celebrated line of poetry: Westward the course of empire takes its way. These words inspired the famous mural painting by Emanuel Leutze representing the arrival of European Americans on the shores of the Pacific.

These words were also the reason why the name of the poet George Berkeley was given to the future university city in California.

It is said that George Berkeley was in fact a descendant of the above-mentioned ancient family from Gloucestershire. This idea amuses me greatly, for I too am a descendant of those folk. The patriarch of that family, Maurice Berkeley [1218-1281], married Isabel de Douvres, daughter of the Fitzroy chap—designated in the following chart as Richard Chilham, a bastard son of King John—after whom I have named my young Border Collie dog.

My findings in this ancient family-history domain are relatively recent (dating from the second half of 2009), and there are still many loose ends that I haven't got around to exploring. Among these loose ends, there have been these two men named Berkeley. I now realize that I shall only have to "plug myself into" the rich and well-documented history of the Berkeley family, and I shall surely be able to enhance rapidly and considerably my existing research results.

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