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23 Jun

Berkeley’s Foray into Experimental Philosophy

Curiosity leading [Berkeley] one day to see an execution, he returned home pensive and melancholy and could not forbear reflecting on what he had seen. He desired to know what were the pains and symptoms a malefactor felt […] in short he resolved to tuck himself up for a trial; at the same time desiring his companion to take him down at a signal agreed upon […]
Berkeley was, therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and our enquirer had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor.

From Memoirs of the late Dr. Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, as it appeared in Volume 6 of the Annual Register for the Year 1763. It was originally printed in the Weekly Magazine (1759/60) and reprinted/pirated in The British Plutarch in 1762.

The entire Memoirs account was rejected by A. A. Luce, the great Berkeley scholar, as “ignorant hackwork”. However recent research has established that it was probably written by Oliver Goldsmith, who did have relevant biographical sources. Goldsmith had an uncle who was Dean in Cork under Berkeley, and more pertinent to this extract, his uncle and patron was Thomas Contarine (later Reverend), Contarine being the companion who strung Berkeley up.

More on how Goldsmith, Luce and Yeats saw Berkeley is in the David Berman essay, “George Berkeley: pictures by Goldsmith, Yeats and Luce” (Hermathena, No. 139, GEORGE BERKELEY: ESSAYS AND REPLIES (Winter 1985), pp. 9-23), available free here.

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