2018-08-02 / Around Town

Philosophy on a Summer’s Afternoon

By Andy Long


Michael Latzer is one of this summer’s resident scholars at Whitehall, the home of George Berkeley in Middletown from 1729 to 1731. (Photo by Jen Carter) Michael Latzer is one of this summer’s resident scholars at Whitehall, the home of George Berkeley in Middletown from 1729 to 1731. (Photo by Jen Carter) Once again, this summer, philosophers and scholars have been welcomed to Whitehall, the home of George Berkeley, to spend several weeks in residence, inspired by the iconic, colonial farmhouse and its grounds and to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the work of the 18th century Anglo Irish sage.

The program consists of four sets of lectures by “resident philosophers.”

In residence until Aug. 5 is Michael Latzer, a scholar from Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, who is interested in Christian Philosophy. He will talk with visitors to Whitehall on such matters as reality, existence, illusion, and whether the cosmos is, as Berkeley believed, simply a figment of God’s imagination.

Patrick J.J. Phillips of Toronto’s York University will be in residence from Aug. 6 to Aug. 12. Phillips has written that Berkeley was one of the first philosophers to explore the interchange between our perceptions and our moral and ethical behavior.


“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 
– George Berkeley “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” – George Berkeley The final Resident Philosophers will be Finnish colleagues from the University of Helsinki. Timo Airaksinen is a Professor of Moral Philosophy there, as well as a weekly columnist at the “Helsingin Sanomat,” Finland’s most widely circulated newspaper. Rhode Island isn’t completely alien to Prof. Airaksinen, as he has written a book on H.P. Lovecraft. Another subject of his interest is the Marquis de Sade.

Whitehall is located in Middletown, which formed part of Newport when the house was built in 1729. Berkeley was only at the home from 1729 to 1731, but he may be one of the most consequential people who ever lived in Newport. Now associated with the phrase, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” he is regarded as a founder of “Empiricism,” and is also associated with fellow Britons David Hume and John Locke.


This main room with its open hearth is part of the original house, where Berkeley and others would gather, especially during the colder months. 
(Photo by Lynne Tungett) This main room with its open hearth is part of the original house, where Berkeley and others would gather, especially during the colder months. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) His continuing presence in Newport is felt beyond Whitehall. He was a founder of the society that went on to create the Redwood Library, and upon his return to Britain he ordered the organ still used at Trinity Church, where he also preached on occasion.

After the Berkeleys left Newport, the house was used as an inn, a pub, and quarters for English officers during the Revolutionary War. In the 1800s, it became a romantic ruin for Newporters to visit, and an inspiration for architects, said Hope Alexander, president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America. Renowned architect Charles McKim, she added, kept a photo of Whitehall above his desk.

Alan Baker and Shelley Costa, a married couple who teach at Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia, concluded the first residential session of the summer on July 22. Costa is a native Newporter and a member of Rogers High School’s class of 1988. She and her English husband had philosophy’s version of the cinematic “meet cute” when both were graduate students at Princeton and he wanted a book she’d checked out for the semester, “The Spread of Newtonian Calculus in Britain.”

They gave presentations on Berkeley on the late afternoon of July 19 on the front lawn of the house.

Alexander introduced the pair and spoke of Whitehall’s history and architecture. She emphasized the front section, built by Berkeley, which is attached to a saltbox structure built in the 1600s, and is one of the first Palladian buildings in America. It makes much use of symmetry, even resorting to illusion to maintain it, with a fake front door forming a double door that balances the proportion of the front.

Baker and Costa spoke of Berkeley’s work, which is based in part on the idea that objects have no existence beyond our perceiving them.

Baker called his talk “Descartes, Berkeley, and Skepticism,” referring to both philosophers’ notion that objects are “bundles of perceptions” and culminations of our sensory experiences with them, rather than existing materially.

Where the two philosophers differ is that the Frenchman, Rene Descartes, allowed that objects might in fact exist while Berkeley, an Irishman, said it didn’t matter if they did. They agreed that objects have a continuous existence in God’s mind because God observes all. Thus, that tree that fell in the lonely woods did make a sound, because God heard it.

Skepticism for both men meant more than doubting but understanding and appreciating the bounds of man’s ability to comprehend, given the limits of sensory perception.

Costa’s talk, “Berkeley and Non-Violence,” spoke of Berkeley’s friendship with Samuel Johnson, not the famous writer but an Anglican missionary who lived in Stratford, Connecticut. According to Costa, Berkeley and Johnson corresponded, and in a 1729 letter to Johnson, Berkeley wrote, “It is a common fault for men to hate opposition, and to be much wedded to their own opinions. I am so sensible of this in others that I could not pardon it to myself.”

The non-violence comes into play with the capacity to accept the arguments of others, a capacity fostered by conceding that all we know is based on what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste, and we cannot be certain of anything beyond what are our senses experience.

For more information about the lecture series, call 401-846-3116 or visit whitehallmuseumhouse.org. The Colonial Dames suggest that all visitors older than 15 make a $5 donation.

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