By James Merolla for Newport This Week July 16, 2015
George Berkeley was a renowned philosopher, mathematician and economist, Irish born and educated, whose ponderings paired him with such intellectual heavyweights as contemporaries John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. A man of great vision, Berkeley and his wife, Anne, arrived in Newport from London in January of 1729. Their plan was to establish a farm in Middletown, at a house named Whitehall, while awaiting funds to establish a college for ministers and missionaries in Bermuda. The money never materialized and the two returned to England in 1732. In 1734 Berkeley was named Bishop of Cloyne. Once back in England he continued his busy life, both as a respected man of ideas and as a humanitarian.
As obscure as he might appear today (except for the fact that the city of Berkeley, Calif. is named for him), it is quite remarkable not only that the house in which Berkeley and his wife briefly lived nearly 300 years ago remains standing—in all its simple splendor—but also that his teachings and the power of his intellect have been equally as well preserved; he has influenced scores of philosophers and countless students to this day. It is only fitting that Berkeley scholars are still available – dur- ing the summer months – for those who seek Berkeley at Whitehall in Middletown.
Currently, four philosophers from the Texas A&M-based International Berkeley Society – Alan Baker, Scott Breuninger, Richard Brook and Nancy Kendrick – will present guided tours of Whitehall through July and August. The scholars, all kindred spirits who have settled in at Whitehall for the summer, have interests which range from intellectual history and the 18th century, to feminist history of philosophy. Guests have the unique opportunity to learn more about Berkeley and his influence on the intellectual life of Colonial America and the architecture he shaped by introducing the first Palladian-style residence in New England.
The philosopher-guides are impressive in their own right. Alan Baker is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Swarthmore College (his special interest: the intersection between philosophy of math and science); Scott Breuninger is the Honors Program Director and Associate Professor of International Studies and History at the University of South Dakota (18th century intellectual history, Irish and British history); Richard Brook, Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at Bloomsberg University (theoretical ethics, early modern philosophy, philosophy of science); and Nancy Kendrick is Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (early modern philosophy, metaphysics, feminist history).
“If you take an introductory course in basic philosophy, you study Berkeley,” says Baker who, with wife Shelley Costa, a Newport native and 18th century historian in her own right, are at Whitehall through July 31—their fifth sojourn here. “The three big names in modern western philosophy,” he adds, “are John Locke, David Hume and George Berkeley. Berkeley is probably the canon of western philosophy.”
A quick primer: According to Baker, “Berkeley would adhere to the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forestand nobody-is-around-to-hearit does-it-make-any-noise school. His view was that physical objects don’t exist. A chair, for example is a bundle of perceptions. Each of us has an idea of what it is through these perceptions.” Baker also added that Berkeley’s ideas would be the antithesis of modern scientific principles, “which hold that all is material within material, or Descartes’ ideas that there is the physical world of tables and chairs and then a realm of the mind.”
Whitehall is a museum of magnificent 18th century bundles of perceptions – authentic desks, tables, lamps, all restored and lovingly replaced by the Colonial Dames who bought the house from Yale University which had purchased it from Berkeley (when it was Yale College) after three short years of his residence, with his wife, in Middletown (see sidebar).
“After he sold it to Yale, it began to fall apart,” said Baker. “It was a far cry from his arrival in 1729 when you could argue he was the most famous person in the world. He is not nearly as familiar to non-philosophers (now).”
The Bakers – Shelley and Alan – are thrilled to be back conducting tours on Berkeley Avenue. “I tell my students at Swarthmore that philosophy is an action,” said Baker. “You do philosophy by discussing it.”
After the house was restored, resident philosophers have resided within it each summer going back to the 1970s. “My wife Shelley and I bring a twist to this,” he says. “She is a Newport native who knows Berkeley’s century and this area, and I hail from England where he came from and where he died,” he said. Shelley Costa pointed out the often overlooked role of Anne Berkeley, who gave up a comfortable life to join her husband in the Colonies, and who had her first child here, lost her second (buried in Trinity Cemetery), then was forced to go back to England when funding could not sustain their lives.
“For her to give up everything, all the comforts, to support him, spoke volumes,” said Costa. “She is underappreciated. She certainly had Berkeley’s admiration. The two were inseparable companions. They were together reading the Bible when he died.”
Donations, which have sustained the museum under the auspices of the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, who have owned and maintained the property since 1900, are welcome. In September, the museum holds Apple Day, and in December, a popular Wassail fireplace evening.
WHERE: 311 Berkeley Ave., Middletown
WHEN: Tuesday – Sunday,
10 a.m. – 4 p.m., July and Aug.
Philosopher tours are
Wednesday – Sunday
Whitehall docents tours on
Thursday, July 23
Admiss ion: By donation