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Western Philosophy: Idealism

A Brief introduction to Idealism:


Idealism is the oldest metaphysical and epistemological doctrine, originated from ancient
India in the East and from Plato in the west. Idealism holds that ideas or thoughts make
up fundamental reality. Actually knowable thing is only consciousness. Nothing can
really exist outside of mind. Idealism stresses that spirit or idea is the most important and
essential element of the life and the universe. In spite of having some different views on
idealism, idealist philosophers agree that:
(1) The human spirit is the most fundamental element in life
(2) The universe is essentially not material in its ultimate nature.
According to Idealism, Only ideas, spirit, or mind are real. In contrast to materialism
(belief in matter, nature or atoms as basic entity of reality), idealism explains universe in
the terms of idea, spirit or mind. Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Fichte,
Schelling, Royce, Bradley and A.C Ewing are included in idealist tradition. Each idealist
philosopher defines the term idealism in his own way. For example, Plato, instead of this
material world, preferred the world of ideas and forms as a real word. Similarly, Berkeley
relates ideas to perception in the sense of knowing things. Hegel presents an example of
objective idealism (that idea exists objectively and evolves dialectically), Kant present
transcendental idealism while Brightman and Fiewelling serve as sources for personal
idealism.
Idealism also holds that to search for truth, mind and soul are more important than
matter and body because world of matter is changeable, imperfect and uncertain while
truth is eternal, perfect and certain. In other words, Idealism may hold that
(1) World or reality exists essentially as spirit or consciousness
(2) Abstractions and laws are more fundamental in reality or at least that whatever exists
is known in chiefly mental dimensionsthrough and as ideas. Therefore we can say that
there are two basic forms of idealism.

(1) Metaphysical idealism

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

As metaphysics is a branch of philosophy which deals with the questions about nature of
ultimate reality, existence, being, time and space etc, therefore we can say that
metaphysical idealism asserts the ideality of reality. Metaphysical idealism is directly
opposed to materialism, a view which emphasizes that basic substance of the world is
matter that can be only known in the terms of material forms and process.

(2) Epistemological Idealism


As epistemology in philosophy deals with the nature and process of knowledge, therefore
epistemological idealism may be defined as a form of idealism which asserts that true
knowledge is achieved only through ideas and mind. Epistemological idealism is opposed
to realism, a view which stresses that knowledge does not depend on mind because things
and objects exist outside of mind independently. In short, realism holds that we can know
things as they are (in their real forms).
Idealism, often with its bold and expansive syntheses, is also opposed to skepticism (a
view that true knowledge of reality is impossible) with some exceptions such as in the
work of F.H Bradley, positivism (a view that rejects the non-empirical and non-verifiable
knowledge such as metaphysics and theology on scientific basis) and atheism (a view that
denies existence of God or an ultimate reality).

Essence of Idealism: typical Tenets of Idealism:


To grasp essence of idealism we can see some of its typical tenets: To be is to be
perceived; Truth is the whole, or the Absolute; reality reveals its ultimate nature
more faithfully in its highest qualities (mental) than in lowest (material); the Ego is
both subject and object.

1. The dialectic method


Dialectic is a fundamental process of thought and reality. It is especially associated with
Hegel. By this method we arrive at the truth by: (1) Stating a thesis (e.g. subjective idea),
(2) developing an antithesis or contradiction of thesis (objective idea), and (3) combining
(both thesis & antithesis) and resolving them into a coherent synthesis (absolute idea).

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

Therefore, idealism continually and dialectically creates new knowledge which is


integrated with earlier discoveries. Thus, idealism is friendly to all quest for truth whether
in the natural or behavioral sciences or in art, religion, and philosophy. It seeks the truth
in every positive judgment and in its contradiction (negation) as well. Thus dialectical
method of idealism overcomes contradictions in human knowledge and such removal
leads to the synthetic judgment with higher degree of truth (e.g. absolute idea) than that
of present in each of the two lower judgments which are combined together dialectically
(subjective idea and objective idea).

2. The centrality of mind in knowledge


Other philosophy gives the matter primacy over mind and they explain matter (a lower
level of reality) by mind (a higher level of reality). But idealism opposes those
philosophies and holds that lower is always explained by higher i.e. matter can be
explained by mind, but mind (higher) cannot be explained by matter (lower). Therefore,
idealism stresses the centrality of mind metaphysically and epistemologically.

Basic arguments
Four basic arguments found in the literature of idealism may be briefly summarized.

1. Esse est percipi: To be is to be perceived


For an object (table or tree) to exist, or for an object to be real, object must be perceived
by human mind or Ultimate Mind (God). The existence (or being) is to be
perceived/known by a mind. In other words, if a thing exists, it means that a mind
perceives it. If I perceive (see or feel) a table in a room, it exists. It is important to know
that Berkeley says that when I leave the room, table will not disappear but it will still

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

exist because other minds or an Ultimate Mind will perceive it. If no mind perceives the
table, then existence of table is impossible. Similarly an odor exists, if it is perceived
(smelt), a sound exists if it is heard (perceived), a color exists if it can be perceived (seen)
and so on. If anything is not perceived, in other words if it is not seen, heard, touched,
tasted or smelt, then it does not exists.
In a nut shell, Berkeley says nothing can exist, if there is no spiritual being (man or God)
who experiences (or perceives) that thing.

Types of Idealism
Subjective Idealism

Subjective Idealism (or Solipsism or Subjectivism or Dogmatic Idealism or


Immaterialism) is the doctrine that the mind and ideas are the only things that can be
definitely known to exist or have any reality, and that knowledge of anything outside the
mind is unjustified. Thus, objects exist by virtue of our perception of them, as ideas
residing in our awareness and in the consciousness of the Divine Being, or God.
Its main proponent was the 18th Century Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley and
he developed it out of the foundations of Empiricism which he shared with other British
philosophers like John Locke and David Hume. Empiricism emphasizes the role of
experience and sensory perception in the formation of ideas, while discounting the notion
of innate ideas.
Berkeley believed that existence was tied to experience, and that objects exist only as
perception and not as matter separate from perception. He claimed that "Esse est aut
percipi aut percipere" or "To be is to be perceived or to perceive". Thus, the external
world has only a relative and temporary reality. He argued that if he or another person

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

saw a table, for example, then that table existed; however, if no one saw the table, then it
could only continue to exist if it was in the mind of God. Berkeley further argued that it is
God who causes us to experience physical objects by directly willing us to experience
matter (thus avoiding the extra, unnecessary step of creating that matter).

Transcendental Idealism

Transcendental Idealism (or Critical Idealism) is the view that our experience of things is
about how they appear to us (representations), not about those things as they are in and of
themselves. Transcendental Idealism, generally speaking, does not deny that an objective
world external to us exists, but argues that there is a supra-sensible reality beyond the
categories of human reason which he called noumenon, roughly translated as the "thingin-itself". However, we can know nothing of these "things-in-themselves" except that
they can have no independent existence outside of our thoughts, although they must exist
in order to ground the representations.
The doctrine was first introduced by Immanuel Kant (in his "Critique of Pure Reason")
and was also espoused by Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schelling, and later
resurrected in the 20th Century by Edmund Husserl.
This type of Idealism is considered "transcendental" in that we are in some respects
forced into it by considering that our knowledge has necessary limitations, and that we
can never know things as they really are, totally independent of us. The name may,
however, be considered counter-intuitive and confusing, and Kant himself preferred the
label Critical Idealism.

Objective Idealism

Objective Idealism is the view that the world "out there" is in fact Mind communicating
with our human minds. It postulates that there is only one perceiver, and that this

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

perceiver is one with that which is perceived. It accepts common sense Realism (the view
that independent material objects exist), but rejects Naturalism (the view that the mind
and spiritual values have emerged from material things).
Plato is regarded as one of the earliest representatives of Objective Idealism (although it
can be argued that Plato's worldview was actually dualistic and not truly Idealistic). The
definitive formulation of the doctrine came from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling,
and later adapted by G. W. F. Hegel in his Absolute Idealism theory. More recent
advocates have included C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce (1855 - 1916).
Schelling's Objective Idealism agrees with Berkeley that there is no such thing as matter
in the materialist sense, and that spirit is the essence and whole of reality. However, he
argued that there is a perfect parallel between the world of nature and the structure of our
awareness of it. Although, this cannot be true of an individual ego, it can be true of an
absolute consciousness. He also objected to the idea that God is separate from the world,
arguing that reality is a single, absolute, all-inclusive mind, which he (and Hegel) referred
to as "The Absolute Spirit" (or simply "The Absolute").
According to Objective Idealism, the Absolute is all of reality: no time, space, relation or
event ever exists or occurs outside of it. As the Absolute also contains all possibilities in
itself, it is not static, but constantly changing and progressing. Human beings, planets and
even galaxies are not separate beings, but part of something larger, similar to the relation
of cells or organs to the whole body.
A general objection to Idealism is that it is implausible and against common sense to
think that there can be an analytic reduction of the physical to the mental. Hegel's system
of Objective Idealism has also come under fire for merely substituting the Absolute for
God, which does not make anything clearer in the end.

Absolute Idealism

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

Absolute Idealism is the view formulated by G. W. F. Hegel, that in order for human
reason to be able to know the world at all, there must be, in some sense, an identity of
thought (subjective idea) and being (objective idea); otherwise, we would never have any
means of access to the world, and we would have no certainty about any of our
knowledge. Like Plato, Hegel argued that the exercise of reason enables the reasoner to
achieve a kind of reality that mere physical objects like rocks can never achieve.

Other Types of Idealism

(Not so important, you can leave it)

In addition to the main types of Idealism mentioned above, there are other types of
Idealism:
Epistemological Idealism asserts that minds are aware of, or perceive, only their own
ideas (representations or mental images), and not external objects, and therefore we
cannot directly know things in themselves, or things as they really are. All we can ever
have knowledge about is the world of phenomenal human experience, and there is no
reason to suspect that reality actually mirrors our perceptions and thoughts. This is very
similar to the doctrine of Phenomenalism.
Actual Idealism is a form of Idealism developed by the Italian philosopher Giovanni
Gentile (1875 - 1944) that contrasted the Transcendental Idealism of Kant and the
Absolute Idealism of Hegel. His system saw thought as all-embracing, and claimed that
no-one could actually leave their sphere of thinking, or exceed their own thought. His
ideas were key to helping the Fascist party consolidate power in Italy, and gave Fascism
much of its philosophical base.
Buddhist Idealism (also known as "consciousness-only" or "mind-only") is the concept in
Buddhist thought that all existence is nothing but consciousness, and therefore there is
nothing that lies outside of the mind. It is a major tenet in the early Yogacara school of
Buddhism, which developed into the mainstream Mahayana school.
Panpsychism holds that that all parts of matter involve mind or, alternatively, that the
whole universe is an organism that possesses a mind. Therefore, according to

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Western Philosophy: Idealism

Panpsychism, all objects of experience are also subjects (i.e. plants and minerals have
subjective experiences, albeit very different from the consciousness of humans). Gottfried
Leibniz subscribed to a view of this kind of Idealism.
Practical Idealism is a political philosophy which holds it to be an ethical imperative to
implement ideals of virtue or good (it is is therefore unrelated to Idealism in its other
senses). Its earliest recorded use was by Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948), although it is
now often used in foreign policy and international relations, where it purports to be a
pragmatic compromise between political realism (which stresses the promotion of a
state's narrow and amoral self-interest), and political idealism (which aims to use the
state's influence and power to promote higher liberal ideals like peace, justice and cooperation between nations).

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