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"Idealism" in its philosophical sense, is the view that mind and spiritual values are fundamental in the world as a whole. Thus, idealism is opposed to naturalism, that is, to the view that mind and spiritual values have emerged from or are reducible to material things and processes. Philosophical idealism is also opposed to realism and is thus the denial of the commonsense realist view that material things exist independently of being perceived. Some philosophers who have held the idealist view in its antinaturalist form have not opposed commonsense realism, and thus it is possible to be a metaphysical idealist and an epistemological realist. More often, however, arguments against commonsense realism have been used in order to establish metaphysical idealism. The description "subjective idealism" is sometimes used for idealism based on antirealist epistemological arguments, and the description "objective idealism" for idealism that is antinaturalist without being antirealist.

In terms of these definitions, philosophical theism is an idealist view, for according to theism God is a perfect, uncreated spirit who has created everything else and is hence more fundamental in the world than any material things he has created. Marxist philosophers have therefore held that there are in principle only two main philosophical systems: idealism, according to which mind or spirit is primary in the universe, and materialism, according to which matter is primary in the universe. If "primary" is taken not to mean "earlier in time" but rather to mean "fundamental" or "basic," then these Marxist definitions agree with those given above. The only objection to them is that many philosophers who accept theism would be unwilling to be labeled idealists, since they would take the view that idealists belittle the material world and regard it as illusory by comparison with mind or even as less real than mind, whereas theists do not belittle matter or regard it as in any way less real than mind. Certainly this is a difference between theism and some forms of idealism, but there is force in the argument that theism and both subjective and objective idealism may be classed together as opposed to materialism. Pantheism may be regarded as a more thoroughly idealist view than theism, since pantheism is the view that nothing exists except God and his modes and attributes, so that the material world must be an aspect or appearance of God. Theism, in contrast, is the view that God has created a world beyond or outside himself so that the material world, although dependent on him, is not an aspect or appearance of him. What unites idealism both with theism and with pantheism is the rejection of materialism and the assertion of a metaphysic that is favorable to religious belief.

History and Origin of the Term

The word idealism came to be used as a philosophical term in the eighteenth century. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in his Réponse aux réflexions de Bayle (written 1702; published in Philosophischen Schriften, edited by C. I. Gerhardt, 7 vols. Berlin, 18751890), criticized "those who like Epicurus and [Thomas] Hobbes, believe that the soul is material" and held that in his own system "whatever of good there is in the hypotheses of Epicurus and of Plato, of the greatest materialists and the greatest idealists, is combined here" (Vol. IV, pp. 559560). In this passage Leibniz clearly means by "idealists" philosophers who uphold an antimaterialist metaphysic like that of Plato and himself. When, later in the century, George Berkeley's views came to be discussed, the word idealism was applied, however, to the view that nothing could be known to exist or did exist except the ideas in the mind of the percipient. (Berkeley called his own view "immaterialism," not "idealism.") Thus, Christian Wolff (16791754), a follower of Leibniz, included idealists, along with materialists and skeptics, among "three bad sects" that he reprobated, and Denis Diderot (17131784) wrote in 1749: "We call idealists those philosophers who, knowing only their own existence and that of the sensations that follow one another within them, do not grant anything else" (Lettre sur les aveugles, London, 1749). The term egoists was also applied to holders of this view, as can be seen from the article titled "Égoistes" in the Encyclopédie, edited by Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Diderot, which started publication in 1750. Today the word solipsists is applied to what were then called "egoists" or "idealists." In the Critique of Pure Reason (Riga, 1781) Immanuel Kant referred to his own view as "transcendental idealism," and in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (Riga, 1783) he called it "critical idealism." Thus, by this time the word idealism was beginning to lose the pejorative meaning that had linked it with extreme subjectivism.

The word idealism is derived from the Greek word δέα, which simply means something seen, or the look of something. Plato used the word as a technical term of his philosophy to mean a universal (such as whiteness) in contrast to a particular (such as something white) or to mean an ideal limit or standard (such as absolute Beauty) in contrast to the things that approximate or conform to it (such as the more or less beautiful things). According to Plato an Idea, or Form, is apprehended by the intellect, does not exist in time, and cannot come into existence or cease to exist as temporal things do and is hence more real than they are. In medieval philosophy Ideas or Forms were regarded as the patterns in accordance with which God conceived of things and created them, and hence they were thought of as existing in the mind of God. René Descartes used the word idea for thoughts existing in the human mind, sometimes retaining, however, the intellectual and objective character of ideas as understood in the Platonic tradition. But he also used the word idea for the effects in embodied minds of external objects acting on the sense organs, and hence the word came to stand for changing sense perceptions as well as for unchanging objects of the intellect. Descartes also used the word idea for a shape or form stamped upon a soft material, as when he said in Section XII of his Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628) that "shapes or ideas" are formed in the brain by things outside the body acting upon it. John Locke, in An Essay concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690), used the word idea for perceptions of "sensible qualities" conveyed into the mind by the senses and for "the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got" (Bk. II, Ch. I, Sec. 4). The mind, he held, "stirs not one jot beyond those ideas which sense or reflection have offered for its contemplation" (ibid., Sec. 24). Berkeley adopted Locke's terminology and held that by our senses "we have the knowledge only of our sensations, ideas, or those things that are immediately perceived by sense" (Principles of Human Knowledge, Dublin, 1710, Sec. XVIII). Thus, Berkeley here repeats a view already held by Locke.

Thus, the word idea was used variously to mean a Form in the Platonic sense, a Form as apprehended in the mind of God or by the human mind, a shape impressed on soft, yielding material, and, apparently by analogy with this last sense, a modification produced in a mind by the influence on it of external things that affect the sense organs. Neither a Platonic Form nor a shape is a mental entity. "Operations of the mind" clearly are, and so would be the effects in minds of material objects that produce "impressions" in them. Ideas in this last sense would seem to be like mental images, but mental images produced not by imagining but by the operation of external objects. This variation in meanings can be seen in Berkeley's A New Theory of Vision (Dublin, 1709), where he writes (Sec. XLI): "a man born blind being made to see, would, at first, have no idea of distance by sight; the sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the hearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind. The objects intromitted by sight, would seem to him (as in truth they are) no other than a new set of thoughts or sensations, each whereof is as near to him as the perceptions of pain or pleasure, or the most inward passions of his soul." It will be noticed that in his passage Berkeley comes close to assimilating "in his eye," a physical condition, to "in his mind," meant presumably to be a mental condition. Again, he puts "sensations" in apposition with "thoughts," although sensations and thoughts would seem to be as different as pains and concepts. There is also the suggestion that what is near to us is "in the mind," so that if colors and shapes are not, as they seem to be, at a distance from us, they must be in our minds. The passage is an important one for indicating the conflicts and confusions involved in the word idea and carried over into some of the arguments for idealism.


Berkeley gave the name "immaterialism" to the central thesis of his philosophy, the thesis that there is no such thing as material substance. Immaterialism has been prominent in idealist theories just because to prove that there is no material substance would be the most effective and spectacular way of disproving materialism. If there is no material substance, then matter cannot be the basis of what is or all that there is. Immaterialism has been supported by two main lines of argument. Along one line it has been argued that it is impossible that matter could be independently real. The arguments to this effect may be called the metaphysical arguments for immaterialism. Along the other line it has been argued that the colors, shapes, and sounds that are naturally taken to belong to independently existing material objects are in fact sensible qualities that cannot exist apart from being perceived.

The arguments to establish this may be called the epistemological arguments for immaterialism. Although he did not call himself an immaterialist, Leibniz, on the evidence of the passage we have quoted, would have regarded himself as an idealist, and his arguments were metaphysical rather than epistemological. Berkeley, of course, is best known for his epistemological arguments, even though his argument that the very notion of something existing totally unperceived is self-contradictory may be classed as metaphysical. Arthur Collier, in his Clavis Universalis (London, 1713), used both epistemological and metaphysical arguments; the subtitle of his book, "a Demonstration of the Non-existence or Impossibility of an External World," allowed for both types of approach.


Leibniz's metaphysical idealism consisted of two main theses: (1) that matter is necessarily composite and hence cannot be substantially or independently real, and (2) that simple (that is, noncomposite) substances must be perceiving and appetitive beings even though they are not necessarily conscious or self-conscious. He gave the name "monad" to these independently real and essentially active substances, and he argued that space and time cannot be real containers in which substances exist but must be the order in which monads are related to one another. Thus, he held that space and time are not absolute existences but relations of coexistence and succession among created monads. He did not conclude from this, however, that space and time and material objects are mere illusions or delusions; delusions and dreams, he held, are by their very nature inconsistent and unpredictable, whereas the material world in space and time is regular and in part predictable. Leibniz was not quite explicit on the matter, but he seems to have believed that space and time were a sort of mental construction or ens rationis and that material things are regular appearances rather than real substances. Sometimes, however, he used the expression phenomena bene fundata for space and time.

However this may be, Leibniz argued for an idealist system in which there is a series of realms of being with God as the supreme, uncreated spiritual substance. In the realm of created substances all the members are active and immaterial and some are self-conscious substances created in God's image. In the realm of appearances the elements are "well-founded" in the substantial realities, and in consequence they show a rational order even though, like the rainbow, they disappear when closely examined. Finally, there are isolated realms of mere illusion and delusion that, however, have their place in the total scheme of things. Leibniz believed that this metaphysical system could be proved by reason. He held, too, that sense experience is not an independent source of knowledge but is reason in a state of obscurity and indistinctness. Thus, he held that "we use the external senses as a blind man does a stick" and that the world is revealed as it is by means of reason, not by means of the senses (Letter to Queen Charlotte of Prussia, 1702). Thus, he denied not only the substantial reality of matter but also the efficacy and even the possibility of mere sense experience. This is a theme that many later idealists have developed. It runs counter, however, to the empiricist immaterialism of Berkeley.


Berkeley is the best-known exponent of immaterialism on epistemological grounds. His basic argument is that what we immediately perceive are sensations or ideas, that sensations or ideas are necessarily objects of perception (their esse, as he put it, is percipi, their essence is to be perceived), and that what we call physical things, such as trees and rocks and tables, are orderly groups or collections of sensations or ideas and are hence mind-dependent like the sensations or ideas that compose them. This argument proceeds on the assumption that sense experience is basic and reliable. Matter is rejected on the ground that the senses inform us of ideas but not of material substances to which these ideas belong. The very notion of a material substance distinct from sensible qualities or ideas is, according to Berkeley, unimaginable and inconceivable.

Berkeley made the surprising claim that this view is in full accordance with common sense. According to common sense, he argued, trees and rocks and tables are immediately perceived and have the characteristics they are immediately perceived to have. But according to those who believe in material substance, what is immediately perceived are the ideas produced in the mind by material substances of which we can only have mediate or indirect knowledge. Furthermore, these indirectly perceived material substances do not have the characteristics of color, hardness, etc., which common sense says they have. Hence, Berkeley thought that material substances, even if they were conceivable, would be problematic existents, so that the theory in which they figured would give rise to skepticism about the existence of familiar things like trees and rocks and tables. Immaterialism, in contrast, with its claim that such things, being ideas, are immediately perceived, does not lead to skepticism about them.

In its reliance on sense experience, then, and in its acceptance of the view that trees and rocks and tables are immediately perceived and are as they seem to be, Berkeley's immaterialism is very different from that of Leibniz. On the other hand, there is an important point of similarity between their views that is often overlooked. Leibniz held that substances, or monads, that is, the basically real things that make up the world, must be active, perceiving beings. Berkeley held this too, for he argued that sensible qualities or ideas are dependent and passive existences that depend on independent and active beings. These independent and active beings, according to Berkeley, are selves. The difference between Berkeley and Leibniz is that Berkeley held that only selves are active, whereas Leibniz held that activity is possible at a lower level than that of selves. However, this view that what is real is active is an element in a number of idealist theories.

Berkeley also supported immaterialism with the argument that it is not possible even to conceive of anything existing apart from being thought of, for it must be thought of in the very act of being conceived. This argument was not used by Leibniz, but it has played an important part in the arguments of many idealists since Berkeley.


Arthur Collier's Clavis Universalis, which appeared posthumously in 1713, was possibly written before Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), in which Berkeley's immaterialist philosophy was first published. Collier used epistemological arguments to prove immaterialism, but, unlike Berkeley, he made no attempt to reconcile immaterialism with common sense. On the contrary, he said that in denying the existence of the material world he meant that bodies are as delusory as the visions of lunatics. Collier also produced metaphysical arguments for immaterialism, maintaining, for example, that matter can be proved to be both infinite in extent and not infinite in extent, infinitely divisible and not infinitely divisible, and since nothing can in fact have contradictory characteristics, matter cannot exist.

Knowledge of immaterialism was spread in Germany by the publication of a book that contained German translations of Berkeley's Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713) and Collier's Clavis Universalis and whose title was Sammlung der vornehmsten Schriftsteller die die Wirklichkeit ihren eigenen Körper und der ganzen Körperwelt leugnen (Rostock, 1756). The translator and editor, Johann C. Eschenbach, set out to refute as well as to translate the two books.

Transcendental Idealism

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, described his own view as formal, critical, or transcendental idealism. Nevertheless, a famous passage of that book (B 274) is headed "Refutation of Idealism." Kant called the types of idealism he claimed to be refuting problematic idealism and dogmatic idealism, respectively. By problematic idealism he meant the view, which he attributed to Descartes, that the existence of objects in space outside us is doubtful. By dogmatic idealism he meant the view, which he attributed to Berkeley, that "space and all the things to which it belongs as an inseparable condition" is "something impossible in itself and hence looks upon things in space as mere imaginations" (B 274). Kant's interpretation of Descartes is not quite adequate, but his interpretation of Berkeley is so completely at fault that it seems possible that he had made use of Eschenbach's book and confused Collier's arguments with those of Berkeley.

In any case, Kant's transcendental idealism is very different from the types of idealism we have so far considered. Kant held that it is not possible to gain knowledge of the world by rational thought alone, and thus he rejected all attempts such as those of Leibniz and Wolff to do so. Nonetheless, he also held that mere sense experience does not give knowledge of the world either, since in the absence of interpretation, sense experience is "blind." Thus, Kant argued that unless our perceptions were organized within what he called the pure a priori intuitions of space and time in terms of rational principles such as the requirement that our perceptions refer to things in causal relation with one another, knowledge of an objective world would be impossible. Without the a priori intuitions of space and time and the categories of the understanding, there would be a manifold of fluctuating sensations but no knowledge of the natural world. When Kant refuted the two types of idealism mentioned above, he argued that no one could become aware of himself unless there were enduring material substances with which he could contrast his own fleeting experiences. We should not be aware of selves unless we were also aware of material things. This line of argument disposes of the view that we could be certain of our own existence but doubtful about the material world and also of the view that material things are "mere imaginations." Unless there were material things in space, we should not know of our own existence or of our own imaginations.

Kant's transcendental idealism, therefore, is his view that space and time and the categories are conditions of the possibility of experience rather than features of things as they are in themselves. Whether things-in-themselves are in space and time and whether they form a causally interacting system we do not know, but unless we were so constituted as to place everything in spatiotemporal contexts and to synthesize our sensations according to the categories of the understanding, we should not have knowledge of an objective world. Kant did not think that this synthesizing was carried out by the empirical selves we are aware of in ourselves and others. He thought, rather, that a transcendental self had to be postulated as doing this, but of this transcendental self nothing could be known, since it was a condition of knowledge and not an object of knowledge. The natural world, or the world of appearances, as he calls it, somehow depends on a transcendental self of which we can know nothing except that it is. Whereas at the empirical level selves and material things are equally real, the knowledge we have at this level presupposes the synthesizing activities of a transcendental self of which we can know nothing.

Kant was regarded in his own day as a destroyer not only because he maintained that there was no basis for the rationalist, metaphysical constructions of Leibniz and Wolff but also because he held that no single one of the traditionally accepted arguments for the existence of God was valid and that it is impossible to prove the immateriality and immortality of the soul. Idealists such as Leibniz and Berkeley and Collier had considered that they had framed philosophical arguments that favored religious belief. Berkeley, for example, emphasized that his conclusions made atheism and skepticism untenable. He also claimed to have provided a new and cogent argument for the existence of God. According to Kant, however, sense experience cannot lead us beyond the natural world, and the categories of the understanding can be validly applied only where there are sense experiences and if applied beyond them can lead only to insoluble antinomies. For example, if the category of cause is used to transcend sense experience, then equally valid proofs can be made to show that there must be a first cause and that there cannot be a first cause. In the appendix to the Prolegomena Kant says that "idealism proper always has a mystical tendency" but that his form of idealism was not intended for such purposes but only as a solution of certain problems of philosophy. All this seems to place Kant outside the main idealist tradition and to indicate that he was developing a positivistic view. Nevertheless, at the end of the eighteenth century a group of philosophers who are known as Absolute idealists claimed to have been inspired by him. What, then, are the features of Kant's idealism that gave rise to views so different from his?

One is that Kant called specific attention to the elements of activity and spontaneity in knowledge. His view that knowledge of nature would be impossible apart from the activity of the understanding in synthesizing sensations in accordance with the categories led some of his successors to regard knowledge as analogous to construction or making. Another feature of Kant's philosophy that pointed in the direction of Absolute idealism was the thesis that synthesizing in terms of the categories presupposed a unitary transcendental self. It is true that Kant himself said that as a presupposition of experience the transcendental self could not be an object of knowledge, but some of his successors claimed to be rather more familiar with it.

Some of Kant's views on morality and on freedom of the will also gave scope for development in an idealist direction. Kant held that the free will problem is insoluble by metaphysical argumentation, for it can be proved both that there must be a freedom of spontaneity and that there is no freedom and everything takes place according to laws of nature. But in his ethical writings that followed the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that our knowledge of and respect for the moral law presupposed freedom of the will. He emphasized that this was not a metaphysical or speculative proof; his point was that metaphysics could not disprove freedom of the will, so that we are justified in accepting what morality presupposes. He argued, furthermore, that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul might also be accepted as practical concomitants of morality, as long as the fundamental impossibility of their being theoretically proved was recognized. Again, Kant introduced into his account of knowledge a faculty of reason (Vernunft ), which, remaining dissatisfied with the understanding's confinement to the ordering of sense experiences, constantly strove for completeness and totality. Kant thought that the reason might in practice advance our knowledge by seeking for a completeness that is not in fact to be foundKant used the expression focus imaginarius in this connection. Some of his successors transformed this suggestion into the claim that reason reveals a real, not an imaginary or merely methodological, totality.

Absolute Idealism


The development from Kant's idealism to Absolute idealism can be most readily seen in the writings of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814). Like Kant, Fichte believed that strict determinism is incompatible with morality and that our knowledge of the moral law presupposes the freedom of the will. Therefore, the philosopher is faced with choosing between two systems of thought, the deterministic system that Fichte called "dogmatism," of which Benedict de Spinoza is the chief representative, and "critical idealism." Fichte recognized that the philosophy a man chooses depends on the sort of man he is, but he also thought that reasons could be given for preferring the idealist course. A reason on which Fichte placed great weight is that thought and intelligence cannot be accounted for within a system of causes and effects, for, in comprehending causal determination, they necessarily go beyond it. If, therefore, there is to be a fundamental account of things, it must start from the intellect. Fichte was here developing a suggestion by Kant in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals that the operations of the intellect transcend the phenomenal series of causes and effects. Thus, according to Fichte a free, intelligent ego (Ich ) must be the starting point of philosophy, and everything else must somehow be "deduced" from this ego. Fichte, therefore, endeavored to go beyond Kant by showing that space and time and the categories are not just facts that must be accepted as they are but necessary conditions of intelligence. Even the material world is not merely matter of fact but is presented as a series of obstacles that must be overcome in the performance of our duties.


Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854) began his philosophical career as a supporter of Fichteas the titles of two of his early works show: Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie (Tübingen, 1795) and "Philosophische Briefe über Dogmatismus und Kritizismus" (in Philosophische Journal, 1796). Schelling's first account of his distinctive views was titled System des transzendentalen Idealismus (Tübingen, 1800), but he later described his view as "absolute idealism," explaining that things are always conditioned by other things, whereas mind is undetermined and absolute. Fichte's idealism has sometimes been called a "moral idealism," since its basis is a system of active moral beings. Schelling's has sometimes been called an "aesthetic idealism," since Schelling argued that it is the artist who makes men aware of the Absolute. Although, like Fichte, he believed that free activity is basic in the world, he placed less emphasis on the distinction between individuals and came nearer to pantheism.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) is too individual a philosopher to be readily classifiable, but he was undoubtedly the most comprehensive and the most influential of the Absolute idealists. In his Encyclopedia (Sec. 95) he writes of "the ideality of the finite," which he says is "the main principle of philosophy," and says that "every genuine philosophy is on that account idealism." Like much that Hegel wrote, this is somewhat cryptic, but it appears to mean that what is finite is not real and that the true philosophy, idealism, recognizes this. The matter is more fully discussed in the Science of Logic (Bk. 1, Sec. 1, Ch. 2), where Hegel says that philosophical idealism is the view that "the finite is not genuinely real." Here he also contrasts his form of idealism with subjective idealism and says that in denying the reality of the finite, idealist philosophy is at one with religion, "for religion no more admits finitude to be a genuine reality, than it admits finitude to be ultimate, absolute, or as basic (ein Nicht-Gesetztes ), uncreated, eternal."

We need not linger over Hegel's rejection of subjective idealism, except to refer to what he says about Berkeley's immaterialism in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Hegel there argues that Berkeley says very little when he says that things are ideas, for this only amounts to recommending a change of nomenclature and calling things ideas, and this throws no new light on the status of things and ideas. Hegel's arguments are metaphysical rather than epistemological. He thought that Fichte was right when he tried to deduce or give reasons for the categories, and Hegel's Science of Logic may be regarded as his view of how the deduction should be carried out. Insofar as such a compact work can be summarized, its argument is that we say very little about the world when we say that it is, rather more when we say that it is measurable, or that it is a series of interacting things, more again when we think of it in terms of chemical combinations, still more when we apply the categories of life, more again when we apply the categories of theoretical reason, and most of all when we come to the categories of will and the pursuit of the good. What remains of the older metaphysical arguments is his view that the incomplete and inadequate categories lead to contradictions. These contradictions, Hegel held, are resolved as the higher categories are reached, in particular the category of the Absolute idea.

Hegel also tried to show that rudimentary mind operates in the natural world. But what most concerned him was the working of mind in human society. He set out a series of stages of human achievement proceeding from the family organization to "civil society" (what today we call the market economy), from civil society to the state, and then, at the highest levels, to art, religion, and philosophy. The idealist character of this construction may be seen from the fact that when Marx wished to set out a materialist view of society he took the economy as basic, the state as dependent on it, and regarded art, religion, and philosophy as ideologies that had no real influence.

Hegel's philosophy was elaborated after his death by a series of able successors and criticized from many points of view. It came to be known in England about the middle of the century, and Benjamin Jowett translated some passages (which he never published) for the use of his students. Absolute idealism was made known to a larger British public by James Hutchinson Stirling's The Secret of Hegel (2 vols., London, 1865), (Fichte's moral idealism had earlier influenced Thomas Carlyle, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been influenced by his reading of Schelling, although he had not accepted all of Schelling's views. William Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity" seems to be a translation of a phrase of Schelling's that Coleridge noticed and copied into his notebook).


About the time when German Absolute idealism was becoming known in England through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle, it was also becoming known in the United States through a group of writers (mostly Unitarians) who came to be called the transcendentalists. Later, in the 1860s, idealist philosophy received more detailed and professional attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1867 at St. Louis, William Torrey Harris founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, in the first issue of which he referred disparagingly to the prevailing "brittle individualism" that he considered should be replaced by a philosophy in which the state was properly comprehended as a support for freedom. In the same period Thomas Hill Green was teaching philosophy at Oxford with the support of Jowett. The nature of Green's influence may be seen from a letter sent to Green in 1872 asking him to speak to an essay society whose members felt the need for "earnest effort to bring speculation into relation with modern life instead of making it an intellectual luxury, and to deal with various branches of science, physical, social, political, metaphysical, theological, aesthetic, as part of a whole instead of in abstract separation," and sought for "co-operation instead of the present suspicious isolation." This letter was signed by, among others, F. H. Bradley, who had recently become a fellow of Merton College (Melvin Richter, The Politics of Conscience. T. H. Green and His Age, London, 1964, pp. 159160). Both Harris and his circle and Green and his were critical of social individualism as well as of positivism and materialism. They aimed to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which they thought was based on an inadequate pluralistic metaphysics.

Green's form of idealism was rather closer to that of Kant than to that of Hegel. It was built around two main themes, that the natural world cannot be self-contained and ultimate, and that there is no merely given experience. The first theme is an extension of Kant's theory of the transcendental ego, which Green held implied that nature presupposes "a principle which is not natural," a "spiritual principle" (Prolegomena to Ethics, Oxford, 1883, Sec. 54). The second theme, on the other hand, goes well beyond Kant, who believed that there was a "manifold of sense" which the understanding synthesized. Green's view that there is no merely given sense experience, and that all experience implies some sort of intelligent organization, was a central theme of subsequent idealist argument. It has a certain kinship with Leibniz's theory that ideas of sense are confused ideas of reason.

Green died in 1882, and the leading English idealist philosophers after that were F. H. Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. In Scotland, where idealism very soon prevailed in the universities, Edward Caird's A Critical Account of the Philosophy of Kant (Glasgow, 1877) and Andrew Seth's (later Pringle-Pattison's) Hegelianism and Personality (London and Edinburgh, 1887) were notable contributions. But from the 1880s to the 1920s Bradley and Bosanquet dominated the philosophical scene in Great Britain. Bradley attempted to discredit the commonsense view of the world by bringing to bear a multitude of arguments to show that it involved self-contradictions, and he argued that these contradictions could be eliminated only if the world is shown to be a single, harmonious experience. The central theme of Bosanquet's idealism was that every finite existence necessarily transcends itself and points toward other existences and finally to the whole. Thus, he advocated a system very close to that in which Hegel had argued for the ideality of the finite. Bradley and Bosanquet influenced one another a great deal. For example, Bradley's Ethical Studies (London and Edinburgh, 1876) influenced Bosanquet's account of society, and Bosanquet's Knowledge and Reality (London, 1885) led Bradley to modify very considerably the views he had set out in his Principles of Logic (London, 1883).

In the United States the most impressive contribution to the philosophy of idealism is Josiah Royce's The World and the Individual (first series, New York, 1900; second series, New York, 1902). Royce was extremely learned in the literature of idealism, both German and British, and The World and the Individual was written in the light of his study of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel and of his reading of Bradley's Appearance and Reality (London, 1893). Furthermore, Royce was acquainted with the empiricism and pragmatism of C. S. Peirce and William James and with Peirce's work in formal logic. Like Pringle-Pattison, Royce considered that Bradley went too far in regarding the individual mind as "fused" or "transformed" in the Absolute. The mystic who regards finite experience as mere illusion, Royce held, is an improvement on the realist who uncritically accepts it just as it is, but nevertheless the very point of idealism would be lost if the individual self is deprived of all cosmic significance. Royce believed he could show that the "world is a realm of individuals, self-possessed, morally free, and sufficiently independent of one another to make their freedom of action possible and finally significant" (The World and the Individual, first series, p. 395). Like Fichte, Royce endeavored to support this view by an analysis of the moral, rational will.

By the beginning of the twentieth century idealism had become a powerful force in the universities of the English-speaking world. Empiricism and realism were held to have been finally discredited, along with the utilitarianism and individualism that had so often accompanied them. Philosophical truth was thought to be a unity, so that similar principles animated idealist works on aesthetics, ethics, religion, and politics. Such leading British statesmen as Arthur J. Balfour and Richard B. Haldane and the South African prime minister Jan C. Smuts wrote books defending the idealist point of view. When the new provincial universities were being founded in Great Britain at that time, Haldane used his influence to foster the study of philosophy in them, as a central, unifying subject.

At the same time, however, points of view opposed to idealism were being vigorously developed. An example is G. E. Moore's "The Refutation of Idealism," which appeared in Mind (n.s. 12 [1903]: 433453). Another example is The New Realism, a collection of articles by American philosophers critical of idealism that was published in New York in 1912. Bertrand Russell urged that idealists were ignorant of new developments in logic and that this rendered their theories untenable. Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London, 1922) was symptomatic of a new, pluralist, antispeculative approach to philosophical problems. Moore's "The Conception of Reality" (PAS, 19131914) attempted to show that one of Bradley's theses was nothing but a consequence of his not realizing that the proposition "Unicorns are thought of" is of quite a different logical form from the proposition "Lions are hunted." In the 1920s the very possibility of speculative metaphysics was denied on the basis of the allegedly empiricist principle of verifiability. Furthermore, the idealist theses about the "unreality" of finite individuals and the "reality" of society or the state were held to be evil as well as meaningless.

But during this period when the idealist movement was under increasing attack, three important treatises appeared in which comprehensive idealist theories were developed. John M. E. McTaggart's The Nature of Existence (Cambridge, U.K., 2 vols., 19211927) defended a pluralistic idealism by means of metaphysical arguments designed to show that space, time, and matter cannot possibly be real. Michael Oakeshott's Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge, U.K., 1933), unlike McTaggart's work, seems to have been completely unaffected by the realist and empiricist arguments so widely accepted at that time. Brand Blanshard's The Nature of Thought (2 vols., London, 1939), on the other hand, maintains a constant and detailed criticism of behaviorist and empiricist arguments. It is noteworthy that in none of these elegantly written idealist works is there any attempt to defend a theistic position. Indeed, The Nature of Existence concludes its discussion of God by saying that "there can be no being who is a God, or who is anything so resembling a God that the name would not be very deceptive" (Sec. 500).

Idealist Social Theory

Most nineteenth-century and twentieth-century idealist philosophers were agreed that utilitarians and individualists had a false view of what constitutes an individual person. They believed that since individuals are constituted by their relations to one another, the idea that society is an association of independently existing individuals is absurd. They thought, too, that it follows from this that freedom is something more positive than just being left alone by the government. Insofar as government is concerned with the common aims of individuals, it is not merely a constraint on them but a manifestation of their most rational purposes. Some idealist writers, therefore, saw no serious harm in Rousseau's claim that men can be forced to be free. T. H. Green was thus able to support temperance legislation on the ground that it enabled those protected by it to fulfill their abiding aims rather than their passing whims.

Even so, Green had no doubts about the ultimate reality of individual persons, whereas Bosanquet, in his Philosophical Theory of the State (London, 1899) argued that the state is the real individual and that individual persons are unreal by comparison with it. But Bosanquet did not think that this justified socialist control. On the contrary, he believed that if society is organic and individual, then its elements can cooperate apart from a centralized organ of control, the need for which presupposes that harmony has to be imposed upon something that is naturally unharmonious.

McTaggart was the one leading idealist who denied the relevance of metaphysics to social and political action. He was a Hegelian scholar who was in general agreement with Hegel's views, but he thought that Hegel was wrong in supposing that metaphysics could show that the state is more than a means to the good of the individuals who compose it. McTaggart concluded that "philosophy can give us very little, if any guidance in action. Why should a Hegelian citizen be surprised that his belief as to the organic nature of the Absolute does not help him in deciding how to vote? Would a Hegelian engineer be reasonable in expecting that his belief that all matter is spirit should help him in planning a bridge?" (Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, Cambridge, U.K., 1901, p. 196).

Some Comments on Idealism

act and object

Moore, Russell, and other realist philosophers at the beginning of the twentieth century objected to idealism that its exponents failed to distinguish between the act of perception and the object of the act. It was rightly argued that the words idea and sensation were used vaguely and thus encouraged the confusion. According to the realist argument, colors and shapes are objects of the mind, whereas pains and feelings are states of mind, and what the idealists do is to say of the former that they are essentially mental, when this is true only of the latter. It may be questioned, however, whether the idealists were thus confused. Certainly Berkeley was not, since in the first of the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous he himself made this objection only to reject it on the ground that the only acts of mind are acts of will, and in perceiving we are passive and do not exert acts of will.

In any case it is not easy to be sure that we can recognize or identify acts of perception. William James, for example, said he could distinguish no such thing (Essays in Radical Empiricism, New York, 1912), and Russell later took this view as well (The Analysis of Mind, London, 1921). Furthermore, even if the distinction is acceptable, what the object of perception is still remains to be determined. It is hard to maintain that what is immediately perceived is a physical object, since this seems to be inconsistent with the physiology of perception. If the immediate object is a sense datum, as Moore and Russell argued, then this suggests a representative theory of perception. But representative theories of perception are liable to the objection that they make our knowledge of physical objects problematical. If, on the other hand, sense data are not intended to play their part in a representative theory of perception but are meant to be all that can be perceived, then commonsense realism has been abandoned and Berkeley is vindicated. Apart from this, the very notion of a sense datum is dubious, since it is impossible to specify what a sense datum is without reference to physical objects. The distinction between act and object does not, therefore, lead to any effective arguments against idealism.

existence apart from mind

We have seen that Berkeley supported his immaterialist theory with the argument that nothing could exist apart from mind, since if we try to think of something existing unthought of we have to think of it, so that there is a contradiction in the very notion of thinking of something unthought of. Berkeley was by no means the only idealist who used this argument. It seems to have been accepted by Bradley, for example, when he wrote in Chapter 14 of Appearance and Reality :

We perceive, on reflection, that to be real, or even barely to exist, must be to fall within sentience . Find any piece of existence, take up anything that any one could possibly call a fact, or could in any sense assert to have being, and then judge if it does not consist in sentient experience. Try to discover any sense in which you can still continue to speak of it, when all perception and feeling have been removed; or point out any fragment of its matter, any aspect of its being, which is not derived from and is not still relative to this source. When the experiment is made strictly, I can myself conceive of nothing else than the experienced.

This general line of argument came under attack in The New Realism, where the objection to it was that it falsely concludes that whatever is must be experienced from the evident tautology that whatever is experienced is experienced. From the fact that nothing can be experienced without being experienced it does not follow that everything must be experienced. Another way of stating this objection is to distinguish (a ) it is impossible to-think-of-something-existing-unthought-of and (b ) it is impossible to think of something-existing-unthought-of. Berkeley and Bradley are accused of denying the possibility of (b ) because of the obvious impossibility of (a ) (G. Dawes Hicks, Berkeley, London, 1932).

idealist metaphysics

Idealism involves the existence of some ultimate spiritual reality beyond what appears to common sense and ordinary sense experience. If it could be proved, therefore, that it does not make sense to speak of something that transcends sense experience, then idealism, like all other metaphysical systems, would be meaningless, as is claimed by logical positivism. Logical positivism, however, has been subjected to serious criticism and is by no means the chief alternative to idealism. It is linguistic philosophy, the philosophy that seeks to solve or to dissolve philosophical problems by showing that they arise out of linguistic misunderstandings, that today is the strongest opponent of idealism.

Moore's insistence on the act-object distinction was not, as we have seen, a successful mode of attack on idealism. But when he criticized Bradley for misunderstanding the logic of propositions in which something is said to be real, he was starting a sort of philosophizing that has proved most inhospitable to idealist theories. Moore saw that when Bradley said that time is unreal he had no wish to deny such things as that people are sometimes late for their trains. Yet if there were no temporal facts, there would be no trains and no people to catch or to lose them. Moore felt that something had gone wrong with Bradley's argument, and he tried to locate the fault. He thought that Bradley believed that even though time is unreal, if it can be thought of then it must have some sort of existence. Moore thought he could show that this belief is groundless and arises from a misunderstanding of what is being said when something is said to be real. But Moore also came to believe that we know for certain such things as that there are trains and people and that in consequence we are justified in denying out of hand those philosophical views that would require trains and people and space and time and matter to be mere appearances or not to be real at all. It was through his attempts to understand the prevailing idealist metaphysics that Moore came to adopt his philosophy of common sense. This philosophy and the linguistic philosophy that grew out of it regard our prephilosophical beliefs and concepts as in a certain sense unassailable. If this view is correct, then idealism is based on misunderstandings. If it is not correct, then the idealist criticisms of our prephilosophical beliefs have to be taken seriously.

idealism and the nature of thought

The idealist movement is important in the history of philosophy quite apart from the success or failure of idealist metaphysics. Idealists have insisted from Kant onward that thinking is an activity. This view of thinking was Kant's particular contribution to philosophy and is opposed to the Cartesian theory of knowledge. According to Descartes knowledge consists in the intuition of clear and distinct natures. What keeps us from obtaining knowledge, Descartes held, is the existence of prejudices that keep us from getting face to face with the ultimate clarities; once the prejudices are removed, the world shows itself as it really is. On this view the human mind is like a mirror that reflects what is there when it has been wiped clean. According to Kant, however, the mind approaches the world with concepts and presuppositions of its own. It does not reflect the world but tries to understand and interpret it. The activity of synthesizing is an activity of interpreting, and this can be done only by means of concepts that we already possess. According to Descartes we must wipe the mirror clean to be ready for undistorted visions; inquiry ends in revelation. According to Kant we gain knowledge as we improve and test our theories. Apart from natural science, nature is nothing but what men have to contend with in their daily concerns. This view was metaphysically elaborated by Kant's idealist successors, but they did not lose sight of an important implication of it that Kant had seen, the implication that the pursuit of knowledge was a spontaneous activity. They argued that knowledge and freedom go together and that therefore determinism and reductive materialism cannot be true. This would appear to be the essence of the idealist argument.

See also Absolute, The; Coherence Theory of Truth; Dialectical Materialism; Hegelianism; Ideas; Neo-Kantianism; New England Transcendentalism; Panpsychism; Personalism; Realism; Relations, Internal and External; Solipsism.


A number of idealist texts are available in The Idealist Tradition: From Berkeley to Blanshard, edited by A. C. Ewing (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957).

The meaning of the term idealism is discussed in Norman Kemp Smith, Prolegomena to an Idealist Theory of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1924).

On the history of idealism, see G. Watts Cunningham, The Idealistic Argument in Recent British and American Philosophy (New York: Century, 1933); Nikolai Hartmann, Die Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus, 2 vols., Vol. I: Fichte, Schelling und die Romantik (Berlin and Leipzig, 1923), Vol. II: Hegel (Berlin and Leipzig, 1929), 2nd ed., 1 vol. (Berlin, 1960); J. H. Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. Studies in the History of Idealism in England and America (London, 1931); and Josiah Royce, Lectures on Modern Idealism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1919).

On idealist social theory, see A. J. M. Milne, The Social Philosophy of English Idealism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), which, in spite of its title, has a chapter on Royce.

For an analysis and criticism of idealism, see A. C. Ewing, Idealism: A Critical Survey (London: Methuen, 1934).

other recommended titles

Ayers, Michael. "What Is Realism?" Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplement 75 (2001): 91110.

Bradley, F. H. Appearance and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Foster, J. The Case for Idealism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Franks, Paul. "From Kant to Post-Kantian Idealism: German Idealism." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplement 76 (2002): 229246.

Kulp, Christopher, ed. Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Revolt against Dualism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1930.

McDermid, Douglas James. "The World as Representation: Schopenhauer's Arguments for Transcendental Idealism." British Journal for the History of Philosophy 11 (2003): 5787.

Neill, E. "Evolutionary Theory and British Idealism: The Case of David George Ritchie." History of European Ideas 29 (2003): 313338.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Royce, J. The Religious Aspect of Philosophy. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.

Sprigge, T. L. S. The Vindication of Absolute Idealism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983.

Van Cleve, James. "Time, Idealism, and the Identity of Indiscernibles." Nous, supplement 16 (2002): 379393.

H. B. Acton (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated May 08 2018


The term idealism in its broadest sense denotes the philosophical position that ideas (mental or spiritual entities) are primary and lie at the very foundation of reality, knowledge, and morality, while non-ideal entities (such as physical or material things) are secondary and perhaps even illusory. Strands of idealistic thought can be found in ancient and medieval philosophy, but modern idealism begins in the wake of René Descartes (15961650), whose method of doubt problematized the relation of the mind (or spirit or ideas) to the material world and thus raised questions about how ideas "inside" the mind can be known to interact with or correspond to any material, extended thing "outside" the mind.

Early Modern Idealism: Leibniz and Berkeley

The idealism of Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz (16461716) arose largely in response to questions raised by Descartes about the relation between mental substances and physical substances. According to Leibniz, real substances do not and cannot interact, because to be a substance is to be independent of the influences of other substances (but no finite substance is altogether independent of God, who is the ground and cause of all finite substances, including ourselves). Furthermore, Leibniz argued that every genuine substance must be utterly non-composite or simple (i.e., not made of parts), because the ongoing unity and existence of any being made of parts depends on causes outside of the being itself (and such dependence contradicts the very definition of substance). Accordingly Leibniz held that no genuine substance can be material, because matter is essentially composite, which means that matter cannot be substantially or independently real. Leibniz thus concluded that substances must be percipient, or have perceptions, because the only way in which a substance can be utterly simple and yet reflect diversity within itself is through the undivided activity of perception. Leibniz's idealism can be summed up in the proposition that "to be is to be a substance, and to be a substance is to be percipient." For Leibniz, the real world is simply the totality of all such noninteracting ("windowless") and percipient substances (called "monads"), and our experience of the material world is to be explained idealistically: to be a substance is to be percipient, and the perceptions belonging to any one substance accurately reflect the states of all other substances, not because there is any real interaction among substances but because God has ordained a "pre-established harmony" among all finite substances and their perceptions.

If modern philosophy is divided into two main schools of thought"rationalism" and "empiricism"then Leibniz is a "rationalist" idealist, while George Berkeley (16851753) is an "empiricist" idealist. Berkeley began with John Locke's empiricist premise that the mind does not possess innate ideas but acquires ideas only through sensory experience. Like Locke, Berkeley also held that the mind has immediate or direct perception only of its own ideas. But unlike Locke, Berkeley denied that the mind's immediate perception of its own ideas can give it indirect knowledge of material things outside of it. Berkeley further insisted that "an idea can be like nothing but an idea" (Principles, part 1, section 8), and so we can never know whether the immaterial ideas in our minds resemble or accurately depict material things outside of our minds. Furthermore, Berkeley argued, there is something self-contradictory in the proposition that objects of perception can exist without being perceived. In order to avoid skeptical or altogether absurd conclusions, Berkeley argued, one must abandon belief in the independent existence of material things and become an idealist or "immaterialist." For Berkeley, the ideas that we have of sensible things are not caused in us by independently existing material things; rather, these ideas simply are the sensible things themselves. But sensible things have continued existenceeven when we finite minds are not perceiving thembecause they continue to exist in the mind of God, whose perception of things not only causes the sensible things to exist but also from time to time causes them to be perceived by us. Thus for Berkeley, our perception of sensible things is nothing other than our perception of ideas in God, and sensible things have an orderly, predictable, and enduring existence because of the wisdom and goodness of God. For Berkeley, then, the immaterialist view of reality not only refutes skepticism but also provides indirect theoretical support for theism. Far from seeking to reduce the real world to the status of "mere" ideas, the real aim of Berkeley's immaterialism is to elevate "mere" ideas to the status of the real world.

Kant's Transcendental Idealism

Immanuel Kant (17241804) famously wrote that his "transcendental idealism" arose in response to the radical skepticism of David Hume (17111776; see Prolegomena, p. 260). Unlike Berkeley, Hume doubted not only the independent existence of material objects but even the objective validity of concepts that still remained central to Berkeley's immaterialist system, such as the concepts of causality and God. Kant recognized that these and other metaphysical concepts could be neither verified nor falsified by recourse to experience alone; however, Kant did not simply reject metaphysics (as Hume had done) but sought to determine the legitimacy and scope of metaphysics by asking the prior question of what reason might justifiably claim to know a priori (that is, independent of all experience).

For Kant, the question of the legitimacy and scope of metaphysics is intimately linked to the question of the possibility of "synthetic apriori judgments." As synthetic, such judgments extend our knowledge beyond our mere concepts of things, and as a priori, they have necessary and universal validity. Prior to Kant, the empiricists had argued that all synthetic judgments must be a posteriori (that is, based on experience), while Leibniz and Leibnizians had argued that even seemingly synthetic judgments are not really synthetic, because all the predicates belonging to any particular thing can in principle be discovered through an analysis of the mere concept of the thing. The Leibnizian option was unacceptable to Kant, because it entailed that human sensibility is not essentially different from (but is simply a confused form of) human understanding, and thus that human knowing is different in degree, but not in kind, from divine knowing. The empiricist option was unacceptable because, for Kant, judgments based on experience (a posteriori judgments) could never yield knowledge about what is necessarily and universally the case. Against both sides, Kant argued that synthetic a priori knowledge is possible for us, because we possess a kind of sensibility (or intuition) that is not merely empirical (a posteriori) but a priori. More specifically, we possess the a priori forms of intuitionspace and timewhere space is the form of all outer sense, and time is the form of all inner sense. For Kant, no object can be given to us (and thus we can have no access to objects beyond our mere concepts), except through the a priori forms of space and time, which are the "subjective conditions" of our own mode of intuiting things. Kant also argued that we possess a priori concepts or "categories" of the understanding whichlike the a priori forms of intuitionare not derived from experience but rather which make our experience of objects possible in the first place. Indeed, Kant argues, there would be no such thing as "objects" for us if we did not make judgments applying our own a priori concepts (or categories) to the sensible manifold that is intuited by us through our own a priori forms of space and time. Kant concludes that the "objects" we know through the a priori forms of intuition and categories of the understanding are not "things-in-themselves" (they are not things as they might exist apart from our own a priori conditions of knowing) but only appearances.

Kant's denial that we can have knowledge of "things-in-themselves" is not meant to imply that the empirical objects of ordinary experience (what Kant calls appearances) are "un-real" or merely illusory. For Kant, the objects of ordinary experience are certainly real, for "the real" is simply that which exercises some degree of influence on our sensibility (Critique, A 165; B 208). But while objects of ordinary experience are empirically real, Kant insists that they are "transcendentally ideal" (and not transcendentally real), which is to say that they are not to be identified with anything beyondor anything that transcendsthe bounds of possible experience or the a priori subjective conditions that make such experience possible in the first place. Simultaneously embracing both "transcendental idealism" and "empirical realism," Kant claims to have shown how we are justified in making synthetic a priori knowledge claims and in employing concepts that are neither derived from nor verified through experience. But just as Kant's transcendental idealism entails the distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances, it also entails a distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate employment of pure (a priori) reason. For Kant, we can legitimately pursue a limited "metaphysics of experience," and we can legitimately make synthetic a priori knowledge claims about objects of possible experience. For example, the concept of "causality" (even though "pure" and underived from experience) remains objectively valid when applied to things that can be intuited by us under the a priori conditions of space and time. But Kant also argues that we cannot legitimately pursue metaphysics or make synthetic a priori claims regarding objects that transcend all possible experience. Furthermore, he argues that the attempt to make knowledge claims about the non-sensible objects of traditional metaphysics (for example, God, the soul, and the world as a whole) inevitably leads reason into illusion and self-contradiction. But while we cannot obtain objectively valid theoretical knowledge of such non-sensible objects, our ideas regarding such objects (for example, our idea of God) may continue to play a legitimate role in guiding our search for complete knowledge in our theoretical pursuits and the complete good in our moral pursuits.

Idealism, from Kant to Fichte and Schelling

In the years following its public promulgation, Kant's transcendental idealist philosophy was the object of widespread excitement but also much critical scrutiny. Three interrelated problems (or perceived problems) would prove to be significant for the subsequent development of German idealism. First, critics argued that Kant failed to derive or "deduce" the forms of intuition and the categories of the understanding in a systematic and rigorous way, and as a result his critical system could claim only contingent or inductive (as opposed to universal and necessary) validity for itself. Second, critics claimed that Kant's inadequate derivation of the forms of intuition and categories of the understanding committed him to a series of unacceptable dualisms, all of them rooted (directly or indirectly) in the dualism between sensibility and understanding (for example, the dualisms between intuitions and concepts, activity and passivity, receptivity and spontaneity, the a priori and a posteriori, knowledge and belief, theoretical reason and practical reason). Third, critics argued, Kant's strict separation of sensibility and understanding made it impossible for him to account for the receptive character of human knowing except by reference to "things-in-themselves" that allegedly exist apart from the human knower and thus render the activity of human knowing finite, dependent, and passive; but this postulation of things-in-themselves contradicts the spirit of Kant's own transcendental idealism, according to which we cannot know anything about things-in-themselves, including what roleif anythey play in rendering human knowing finite, dependent, and passive.

In the midst of ongoing debates about Kant's transcendental idealism, the young Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814) became convinced that the Kantian system was essentially correct but stood in need of a more systematic formulation and rigorous defense. First, Fichte argued that it was wrong to think of the "faculty of thinking" or the "mind" or the "self" as if these terms referred to a substrate that underlies our mental operations and persists even in the absence of actual cognitive activity. To think of the self in this way, he claimed, is to regard it as an unknown "thing in itself" that has existence even apart from its being known, and such a view is inimical to transcendental idealism. Fichte went on to argue that the self is nothing other than the free, uncoerced activity of "self-positing" or "self-awareness" and that this very activity can serve as the single, foundational principle from which one could rigorously derive all the other conditions of synthetic a priori knowing, including even the self's apparent dependence on things outside of it. More specifically, Fichte argued that the self would have no occasion to reflect back on itself, and thus it could never even be a self if it did not also take itself to be finite and partly determined by a "not-self" outside of it. In other words, Fichte held that even the apparent dependence of human knowing on supposedly independent, unknowable things-in-themselves could be explained on the basis of the necessary conditions of the self's own activity of self-positing. He went on to assert that the not-self, without which the self could not even be a self, must ultimately be understood as another free self, thereby arguing for the necessity of belief in other selves (or intersubjectivity) as a condition of the possibility of the self's own self-positing. In practical philosophy, Fichte also took a step beyond Kant, arguing that the idea of God is necessary for our moral purposes but also that this idea in fact signified nothing other than the moral order of the world itself.

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (17751854) was an early follower of Fichte but eventually distanced himself from the Fichtean claim that a properly critical philosophy can begin only with the activity of the self-positing self. By 1799 Schelling was arguing (along with Fichte) that one could derive the not-self (or "nature") from the self-positing activity of the self, but also (against Fichte) that one could equally derive the self-positing activity of the self from the not-self (or "nature"). In subsequent years Schelling departed even farther from Fichte, explicitly rejecting the Fichtean claim that the distinction between subject and object (self and not-self) is a distinction that can be made only by and within subjectivity itself. In effect Schelling argued that Fichte was right to relativize Kant's rigid distinction between subject and object (or correlatively, between understanding and sensibility, or concepts and intuitions) but wrong to achieve such relativization by locating the distinction within subjectivity alone. For Schelling, the distinction between subject and object is not merely subjective but arises only from within an "absolute identity" that is neither subject nor object but both at once. Furthermore, Schelling held, this absolute identity cannot be discursively demonstrated or conceptually articulated (because demonstration and conceptualization already presuppose a subject-object split) but can only be apprehended immediately in an intellectual intuition or (according to Schelling's later thought) an aesthetic intuition. According to Fichte, Schelling's appeal to immediate intuition and his claim that unconscious nature is continuous with and provides the conditions for the emergence of conscious subjectivity could only signal a return to pre-critical, pre-Kantian metaphysics. But Schelling insisted that his "identity philosophy" incorporated the truths of transcendental idealism, while also moving beyond Kant's and Fichte's "subjective idealisms" to a more comprehensive and satisfactory "absolute idealism." This absolute idealism, Schelling argued, did not uncritically presuppose any dualisms between subject and object, freedom and nature, or human agency and God, but rather explained all such dualisms as mere moments within the absolute's own process of internal self-differentiation.

Hegelian Idealism and Its Aftermath

In 1801 the virtually unknown Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) published a short book entitled The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy, in which he argued that Schelling had rightly criticized Fichte's "subjective idealism." But by 1807, with the publication of his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel had begun to criticize Schelling for reasons that were to become determinative for the development of his own version of absolute idealism. First of all, Hegel argued against Schelling that the pathway to a truly "scientific" absolute idealism could not be based merely on an immediate intuition (whether intellectual or aesthetic) but instead had to be conceptually articulated and discursively mediated. Indeed Hegel referred to his own Phenomenology as the "ladder" by means of which readers could be led discursively from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness to that scientific consciousness or "absolute knowing" (see Phenomenology, p. 14). Second, and contrary to what might be implied by Schelling's insistence on immediate intuition, Hegel argued that the discursive pathway to absolute idealism is not external to, but constitutes an integral part of, the very truth of absolute idealism. For Hegel, then, Schelling was correct to claim that previous expressions of the subject-object identity within the absolute (for example, in nature and in earlier forms of philosophy) contained the conditions of the emergence of the subjectivity that eventually grasps the truth of absolute idealism; however, Schelling was wrong to hold that his being correct about this could be ascertained through an immediate intuition. For Hegel, quite simply, one could not know that absolute idealism is true if one did not conceptually recollect the previous forms of thought leading up to it. Because of this, Hegel also held that previous forms of thought do not lead just accidentally or haphazardly to his own thought but rather find their necessary consummation only within his absolute idealism. Third, Hegel agreed with Schelling that a true idealism must not simply presuppose the traditional dualisms of subject and object, freedom and nature, or human agency and God (thus Hegel held that our own coming-to-be conscious of the truth of absolute idealism is not essentially separable from God's own coming-to-be God). But because of his commitment to conceptual rigor and discursive articulation, Hegel went on to argue that the denial of these traditional dualisms required the development of a new and "dialectical" logic, one that would demonstrate how all finite things reflect within themselves the fundamental yet contradictory identity-in-difference of Being and Nothing (Logic, p. 85). All things are in themselves contradictory, Hegel argued, and so Kant was wrong to try to eliminate or contain such contradiction by introducing his distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves (Logic, p. 237).

Hegel's idealism represents the most systematic and comprehensive version of post-Kantian idealism, for it contained within itself not only a new dialectical logic but also very detailed philosophies of nature, history, art, law, and religion. Not long after Hegel's death, however, his idealistic philosophy became the object of a sustained materialist critique and transformation, primarily at the hands of Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), Karl Marx (18181883), and Friedrich Engels (18201895). Most famously, Marx and Engels sought to transform Hegel's dialectical idealism into a form of "dialectical materialism." They agreed with Hegel that existing reality is fundamentally dialectical and in contradiction with itself, but against Hegel they argued that reality's basic contradictions are rooted not in merely conceptual determinations (such as the identity-in-difference of Being and Nothing) but rather in the material conditions underlying all forms of precommunist social and economic organization. They went on to assert that systems such as Hegel's tended to perpetuate the destructive contradictions at work in precommunist society insofar as these systems tended to regard such contradictions as merely ideal andworse stillas necessary to the proper unfolding of the history of thought. But just as Hegel had argued that a recollective conceptual journey through incomplete forms of thought is necessary to the very truth of absolute idealism, so too Marx and Engels argued that an actual material journey through incomplete forms of social organization (feudalism, mercantilism, and capitalism) is necessary to emergence of the truly just communist society that is yet to be. In spite of this materialist critique, Hegelian idealism enjoyed an energetic revival in Anglo-American philosophy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The three most important post-Hegelian British idealists were Thomas Hill Green (18361882), Francis Herbert Bradley (18461924), and Bernard Bosanquet (18481923), while their most important American counterpart was Josiah Royce (18551916).

See also Empiricism ; Epistemology ; Hegelianism ; Marxism ; Rationalism .



Berkeley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Edited by Jonathan Dancy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Early Philosophical Writings. Translated and edited by Daniel Breazeale. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

. Science of Knowledge. Translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Parenthetical citations refer to the pagination of Fichte's Gesamtausgabe, edited by I. H. Fichte, which is also indicated in the margins of this English translation.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Difference between Fichte's and Schelling's System of Philosophy. Translated by H. S. Harris and Walter Cerf. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.

. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

. Science of Logic. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Humanities Press, 1976.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Parenthetical citations refer to the A and/or B pagination of the Akademie edition, which is also indicated in the margins of this English translation.

. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as Science. New ed, translated by Paul Carus and revised by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977. Parenthetical citations refer to the pagination of the Akademie edition, which is also indicated in the margins of this English translation.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Philosophical Essays. Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. The views described in this entry are to be found especially in Leibniz's "Monadology" and "Discourse on Metaphysics."

Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Edited by David McClellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph. System of Transcendental Idealism. Translated by Peter Heath. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978.


Ameriks, Karl, ed. Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Baur, Michael, and Daniel O. Dahlstrom, eds. The Emergence of German Idealism. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

Beiser, Frederick C. The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

. German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 17811801. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Harris, H. S. Hegel's Development. Vol. 1: Toward the Sunlight (17701801). Vol. 2: Night Thoughts (Jena 18011806). Oxford: Clarendon, 1972, 1983.

Hylton, Peter. Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

Neuhouser, Frederick. Fichte's Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Pinkard, Terry. German Philosophy 17601860. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Pippin, Robert B. Hegel's Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self- Consciousness. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Michael Baur


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In philosophy, the family of doctrines revolving around the contention that the object is dependent on, and constituted by, the experiencing subject. In objective idealism the relation of interdependence holds mutually between subject and object in experience; in subjective idealism the dependence is one-way, upon the subject. Idealism is opposed to materialism, denying that mind originates from or is reducible to matter. It is equally opposed to all types of realism holding that either the objects of experience, or at least noumenal things-in-themselves, exist apart from being experienced. Idealisms may be either rationalistic, as with Leibniz, or empiricistic, as with Berkeley. Historical examples of both pluralistic and monistic-pantheistic idealisms can be found, although the post-Kantian systems of absolute idealism are monistic.

This article is divided into three parts: the first surveys the development of idealism from its earliest origins to its classical statement by Hegel; the second concentrates on post-Hegelianism idealism in Europe; and the third, on post-Hegelian idealism in the United States.

Origins and Development

Idealism as above described strictly speaking is found only in modern philosophy, and pure examples of this position cannot be found in either ancient or medieval philosophy.

Ancient Thought. The famous remark of parmeni des in frg. 3 (H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz) equating thinking and being has sometimes been understood as idealistic; but Parmenides seems rather to have meant by it that thought has to be explained in terms of being as its object rather than being by thought. The pre-Socratic philosophers seem to have been materialists. For the Sophists, the assertion that the object of perception exists only in relation to a perceiving subject led not to idealism but to skepticism, or to a pragmatic concern with the utility, rather than truth, of opinions.

Plato's famous theory of transcendent Ideas, or Forms, has often been denominated as idealism. Certainly plato is in agreement with modern idealists in holding, as he does in Laws (book 10), that soul is the eldest of all things and that the physical is the product of the spiritual. The order of nature is due to divine mind, as the Demiurge of the Timaeus, but there is an underived material principle, and the archetypal Ideas, or Forms, to which the Demiurge looks are not thoughts in any mind, as the Parmenides explicitly states. The Platonic Ideas are the ultimate objective realities apprehended by knowledge in the soul, which has for Plato an intermediate grade of reality between the Ideas and the changing sensibles.

Curiously it is in Aristotle rather than in Plato that a certain anticipation of modern idealistic doctrine is to be found. The being qua being of metaphysics is identified by Aristotle with the divine entities separated in existence and definition from matter and motion; and these entities in turn, with perfect intelligences, "thinking upon thinking," in whom knowing subject and known object are identical. But such divine minds do not creatively produce lesser realities, nor are they even cognizant of them. No one is more uncompromisingly realistic than Aristotle in his account of physical nature and of human knowledge, and his theory has often been regarded, with some plausibility, as tending to naturalism.

plotinus, and the Neoplatonic tradition, contributed perhaps more to the formation of modern idealism than any other ancient or medieval thinkers. The Aristotelian identification of contemplative mind and divine being was taken over, and an effort was made to account for soul and physical nature by a process of emanation out of divine mind, which precontains in a higher, more unified mode all that exists in exile here below. But divine mind itself, although inclusive of the fullness of being, was seen as derived from a higher principle that is not intelligence or being.

Medieval Thought. No medieval thinker can be regarded as an idealist in the modern sense, although there were developments in the Middle Ages that helped to prepare the ground. The Augustinian tradition of interiorism, with its insistence that the road to truth and being lies within, was one such development. Augustine's doctrines of the spiritual autonomy of the soul and the active production by the soul of its own sense data, on the occasion of bodily changes, were others. Avicenna's famous "floating man," who still knows himself and his own mental operations even though all channels of physical sensation are blocked off, epitomized a long tradition, opposed by thomas aquinas, that extended to Descartes. There is even a sense in which medieval "realism" concerning universalsas found in such thinkers as bo ethius, william of champeaux, and duns scotus, who attributed to physical objects the identical forms or essences found in abstract thoughtconstituted a remote preparation for modern idealism.

Lastly, there was a little-noted medieval background for the 17th-century assumption that man experiences only his own ideasan assumption that came to be crucial for the subjective, empirical idealism of Berkeley. This was to be found in the "formal object" analysis of sensation, common to much medieval and late medieval scholasticism. The ultimate "given" of sensation, for this theory, becomes a congeries of atomic colors, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile sensations. Sensation experiences, in this view, only the sensible accidents, not substance or the "This man Callias" of Aristotle's account; and the intellectual inference to underlying realities was opened to the critical attacks later to be launched by the British empiricists. When such "data" (themselves the product of formal intellectual abstraction) were made into the direct objects of sensation, contrary to St. Thomas's injunction against making sensible species objects, the characteristic modern epistemological situation was producedwithin which modern idealism came to flower. It is remarkable that solipsism seems to have become a serious philosophical problem only in the modern era.

Modern Thought. The egocentric predicament has typified most of modern philosophy since R. descartes, for if one directly experiences only one's own ideas, problems of extramental reference and reality become crucial. The very existence of physical entities outside of and independent of mind thus became a significant question for modern philosophers.

Berkeley. G. berkeley initiated the empiricist variety of modern idealism by answering in the negative. J. locke had made the famous distinction of primary and secondary qualities, the former being regarded as properties of physical substances, the latter being dismissed as subjective and relative. Berkeley was able to show that the so-called primary qualities are just as dependent on their being perceived as the secondary ones. As an empiricist, he held that all of man's knowledge is derived from the ideas of sense experience, and cannot reach to anything different from ideas, apart from minds in which ideas exist. The very being of ideas, for him, is their being experienced. Consequently, the very existence of independent material substances was denied; in this step Berkeley believed be had refuted not only materialism but also atheism and skepticism. Skepticism is overcome since man is certain of his own existence and of the ideas in his mind. The insuperable problems of representational theories of knowledge need not be faced, for there are no real physical entities beyond such ideas. Atheism is refuted by showing that it is impossible for the whole or any part of the visible world to exist without a mind. Since collections of ideas (trees, rocks, etc.) exist independently of human will, and appear in regular order, they are results of divine will, and exist in God's mind when not perceived by creatures.

Leibniz. In the works of G. W. leibniz, idealistic conclusions were reached by a purely rationalistic method. Taking as a premise that every complex is analyzable into simples, a proposition he considers self-evident, Leibniz shows that the simple units or monads of reality cannot be material, since everything material is infinitely divisible. Leibniz's system is summarized in his Monadology (1720).

Kant. While Berkeley had attempted to found idealism on empirical grounds, D. hume held that the empiri cism of ideas led rather to skepticism. The impact of Hume on the great German philosopher I. kant led to the central crisis of modern philosophy. Kant saw that if a radical empiricism entails skepticism, a radical rationalism in its turn leads to sterility. The empirical critique had made the supposed primary data of experience into a manifold of sense in itself unordered and unintelligible, incapable by itself of constituting scientifically knowable objects or even experiential objects. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1st ed. 1781; 2d ed. 1787), Kant maintains that the objective world of experience that founds mathematics and physics must be constituted by the organizing forms and categories of mind out of the materials of the sensuous manifold. Such a scientifically meaningful objective realm of experience is, however, only phenomenal, not noumenal. The mind determines only the forms in which things appear, but man's mentality is devoid of intellectual intuition and real "things-in-themselves" are unknowable to him. The attempt by pure reason to attain metaphysical knowledge is doomed to founder in illusion and antinomy. There is, however, a practical use of reason that establishes, over against deterministic physical nature, the spiritual world of moral duty and freedom. Confidence in the reality of this moral universe is an affair of faith, not of pure speculative reason.

Post-Kantian Idealism. Post-Kantian German philosophers sought to restore authentic metaphysical knowledge by insisting on the fact of intellectual intu ition and by abandoning the unknowable Kantian Ding ansich. J. G. fichte thus sought to advance beyond Kant's transcendental idealism to a new form of subjective idealism. In particular, Fichte (and Schelling and Hegel after him) desired to overcome the Kantian dualisms: the form and matter of experience, physical necessity and spiritual freedom, theoretical and practical uses of reason, and phenomenal and noumenal worlds. To do so, they evolved a general idealistic premise that philosophy must begin with the unconditioned absolute met with in human consciousness. For Fichte, this is the ego or self, and its unity is the ground of the systematic inter-connection of the antithetic principles of experience. The entire body of knowledge is to be deduced starting with the first three principles that the self posits. In the thesis, the ego posits its own being; in the antithesis, the nonego is "op-posited" to the ego; in the synthesis within the absolute ego there is "op-posited" a divisible, finite nonego to the divisible, finite ego. "Being," for Fichte, is this self-positing process. The nonself is irreducible only from the point of view of the theoretical ego, but not in relation to the practical ego, which posits this barrier to force the theoretical ego to reflect back upon itself. The realms of morality and right are deduced from the infinite striving of the practical ego.

In the works of F. W. J. von schelling, nature is given more than a moralistic significance in relation to the practical ego. The identical activity of the absolute is manifested unconsciously in nature and consciously in human mind. The absolute, which is the source of both, was originally conceived as a point of indifference, in which the oppositions characterizing finite perspectives are overcome. Hegel's ridicule of this position forced Schelling to attempt to explain how such opposites can be radicated in God, or the absolute, and distinctions borrowed from the theosophist J. bÖhme were employed.

Post-Kantian absolute idealism culminated in the great system of G. W. F. hegel. Absolute spirit is identified by Hegel with the concrete universal, the absolute concept whose self-development is traced through the dialectical phases of logic, philosophy of nature, and philosophy of spirit, and is finally consummated not in religion but in philosophical thought. The object in finite understanding is other than mind, but philosophic reason manifests their dialectical identity in the union of absolute mind. Schelling rejected Hegel's dialectic of absolute concept as neglecting the existential factor.

Post-Hegelian Idealism in Europe

Idealism, as described in the preceding section, continued as a living philosophical movement beyond Hegel into the 19th and 20th centuries although it was somewhat in eclipse by the middle of the 20th century. This part of the article considers post-Hegelian thinkers in Germany (Schopenhauer), England, France, and Italy.

Germany. The voluntaristic, pessimistic idealism of A. schopenhauer grew out of Kant more than Hegel, whose dialectic of rational concepts was rejected. A nonrational metaphysical intuition was sought to attain the noumenal order; this was identified with a blind, irrational will to live, a unitary principle manifesting itself in the pluralistic phenomena. As for Kant, objects of knowledge for Schopenhauer are phenomena constituted by forms organizing the inchoate sensuous manifold. But sufficient reason applies only to phenomena, not to the world as a whole or to its noumenal basis. There cannot be a plurality of things-in-themselves, since the forms of space and time that individuate objects apply only to phenomena. Human experiences of the self and of one's own body as striving expressions and manifestations of will and freedom, combined with an inference extended to all perceived objects, point to a unitary cosmic will. Although man's knowledge of this cosmic willl is interior and privileged it is known by him only through the form of time and, indirectly, in the acts of the body. In its own nature, the thing-in-itself, or will, is not a knowing subject, but is nonrational, even irrational, since that which is the ultimate ground of every kind of sufficient reason cannot be proportionate to any cognitive power. The will-to-live incarnates itself at every level of nature, according to Platonic ideas, but such archetypal patterns do not imply intelligent planning. The higher and lower levels of will's embodiment are incessantly at war, objectively manifesting will's own internal hostilities and essential need, deficiency, and consequent pain. This is the source of Schopenhauer's famous pessimism. Schopenhauer considers three ways of escape from the egoism and hatred stemming from the will-to-live, viz, suicide, art, and morality. Suicide is futile, since it destroys not the will but only the phenomenal individual. Art, in contemplating disinterestedly the "Platonic Ideas," is only temporary release. Moral sympathy and renunciation in an ascetic denial of the will-to-live constitute the only cure. There is a final suggestion that perhaps such a renunciation might lead to a positive union with the thing-in-itself in a character transcending its aspect of pain-bearing will.

England. The definitive entrance of German idealism into England was signalized by the publication (1865) of J. H. Stirling's Secret of Hegel. Thomas Hill Green (183682) is the first important figure in the British idealistic school of the late 19th century. Green accepted the main tendencies of post-Kantian German idealism, and on this basis attacked the traditional British empirical and utilitarian positions, as well as the evolutionism of Herbert spencer. Man could not, according to Green, be a product of natural forces or a member of the phenomenal series since such a product could not know and explain himself, and thereby possess moral significance. It is the spiritual that produces the order and unity of nature, which is radicated finally in self-consciousness, an alluniting consciousness that is eternal mind. Biological evolution itself, culminating in human mentality and self-consciousness, manifests the eternal, universal spirit. Human free activity is not in time and has no antecedents, just as self-consciousness has no origin. Human conduct, to be distinctively human, involves the conscious presentation of a want to a subject who identifies himself with it, transforming natural desire into will. Green's ethical theory is based on self-realization, the self being understood as the ideal self whose good includes the perfection of all rational agents.

The greatest of the English post-Hegelian idealists is F. H. bradley, whose metaphysical masterwork is Appearance and Reality (London 1893). Bradley is not a Hegelian; he rejects the dialectical unfolding of the Idea. Rather, Bradley is a modern Eleatic, a disciple of Parmenides who employs, like his ancient predecessors, sharp dialectical instruments of refutation to convict the pluralistic phenomenal world of contradiction and unreality. The German realist J. F. Herbart also had held that nothing can be real that is contradictory, maintaining that reality must be an absolutely self-consistent system. Using this test, Herbart had found contradictions in such supposedly clear concepts as thing, change, becoming, matter, and self-consciousness. The Herbartian critique had been aimed at establishing the reality of many unchanging reals only externally related to each other. The Bradleyan dialectic, more powerful and subtle than Herbart's, proposed to show the internal contradictions of all realistic or pluralistic hypotheses. As opposed to Hegel, the Absolute Reality that is a coherent whole is not identified with dialectical reason; reason itself, in its discursive movement, deals only with appearances and can never be consummated in a union of identity with the Absolute. Thinking is essentially relational. External relations, which make no difference to their terms, require in turn new relations to bond them with their terms and an infinite regression arises. Even internal relations, where the relations bite into the being of the terms, only import into the interior of such entities the same disjunction and residual externality. Reason, in its effort to judge truly that A is B, must expand A beyond its naked isolation (in which state it cannot be a subject of judgment at all, even of identical predication) until it becomes the totality of the real, which is "such that" the predicate B can be truly asserted of it. But reason can never achieve this final synthesis or reunion of concrete existence and separated abstract content. Even if, per impossibile, reason could complete its infinite task, it would not be the Absolute, although the Absolute is a unity of experience, a seamless whole beyond all disrupting relationships, which mysteriously includes reason and all else. Man's experience begins with an immediate unity of feeling that is below the level of rational analysis, although it is somehow pregnant with such structures and contrasts. It is by a remote analogy with this original felt unity that man forms his notion of the Absolute Reality. It is an experience having for its sole materials feeling, thought, and volitionthere are no othersbut uniting them in a harmonious whole above the relations of the many appearances dealt with by reason. Thought cannot give man any intuitive vision of this ultimate harmony of experience, nor does Bradley posit any mystical union with the Absolute.

Bernard Bosanquet (18481923), whose most important work is The Principle of Individuality and Value (London 1912), followed Bradley in many respects but was more akin to Hegel than his famous contemporary had been. As for Hegel, for Bosanquet the notion of the concrete universal, of a universal which determines its own particularization, is central. Individuality is a striving toward completion and fulfillment, and may be exemplified in a logical system, a work of art, the moral self, a social institution. In all cases the fulfillment of individuality is in the whole, so that the goal of knowledge, moral conduct, and artistic creation is always the Absolute. Reality and value are inseparably one. In the sphere of knowledge, truth is the ideal completed totality of the system of knowledge; thus Bosanquet affirms the characteristic idealistic theory of degrees of truth and reality and the coherence theory of truth. Ethically, the moral value of an action is judged by coherence with a more inclusive scheme, and ultimately with the Absolute itself. In art, the ideal of beauty is the harmony of the completed whole.

A more minor figure in post-Hegelian British idealism is John Ellis McTaggart (18661925), who did commentaries on Hegel's logic and dialectic and developed, in The Nature of Existence (2 v. Cambridge, Eng. 192127), a pluralistic, personalistic idealism more akin to that of the American personal idealists Bowne and Brightman than to that of Hegel. All beings are spiritual persons, including God, if He exists. Such a God, however, would be finite, and is not to be identified either with the infinite personal God of traditional Christianity or with the Absolute of Green, Bradley, and Bosanquet. Others who contributed to the development of British idealism are Edward Caird (18351908), who wrote The Critical Philosophy of Kant (2 v. Glasgow 1889); John Caird (182098); and the great Platonic scholar Alfred Edward Taylor (18691945), whose early work, the Elements of Metaphysics (London 1903), was heavily influenced by Bradley.

France. French idealism was less a development out of German and Hegelian idealism than was the case in England. Negatively, it developed as a reaction against the positivism of Auguste Comte. The activistic or dynamistic philosophy of maine de biran, which opposed positivism, became one of the native sources of French idealism. Maine de Biran organized his philosophy around the notion of the active force or effort of which one is conscious in overcoming obstacles, a concept having some kinship with Fichte's active ego that requires the nonego for its fulfillment. But Kant lay in back of the French idealistic development, as did native sources. C.B. Renouvier named his philosophy neocriticism to indicate its Kantian source. However, like McTaggart later in England and the American personalists, Renouvier moved beyond Kantian criticism to the construction of a pluralistic and personalistic idealistic metaphysics. The thing-in-itself was abandoned. Unlike Royce in America, Renouvier regarded actual infinity as self-contradictory, and his world is a finite sum of finite beings. Infinite transition is impossible, so that real discontinuity in nature must be admitted, and to Renouvier this provides an opening for uncaused beginnings and consequently for free will.

The emphasis on the reality of contingency and freedom is characteristic of French idealism. A. A. cournot, in terms of mathematical probability theory, had opposed the reigning dogma of the certitude and necessity of scientific laws, and with É. boutroux this dogma received its definitive challenge in The Contingency of the Laws of Nature (1874, 4th ed. 1902, tr. F. Rothwell, London 1916). Real indeterminacy was taken as the foundation for freedom, and God was regarded as the maximal point in the hierarchy of beings in terms of freedom and indeterminacy.

One more figure in French idealism deserves mention. Alfred Jules Emile Fouillée (18381912) was not, to be sure, an idealist strictly speaking, since he sought to synthesize idealism and materialism in an evolutionistic and voluntaristic philosophy that makes mind and matter aspects of one and the same thing. Neverrtheless, for him only psychi phenomena are directly experienced by man, and consequently the primary analogate for man's understanding of reality must be active mind and its idées-forces.

Italy. Italian idealism derived from Hegel but chiefly from the historical side of hegelianism, the Hegel of the Phenomenology of Mind, where the dialectical advance of the human spirit in history, art, religion, and philosophy is described. The absolutism of Hegel's thought, which made such a strong appeal in England, was regarded in Italy as static and alien to the dynamic, temporal, and progressive movement of the human spirit. It was the latter that B. croce understood as reality, rather than some transcendent absolute experience. Reality is focused on the present, and past and future are real only in relation to present experience. One of Croce's most influential contributions was in the area of aesthetics. Sense perception and artistic creation differ only in degree; intuition is creative of the data of both.

The other prominent modern Italian idealist was G. gentile, who, unlike Croce, made common cause with the fascism of his day. The dualisms engendered by the subject-object contrast are synthesized in the unity of self-consciousness, which is manifested at its peak in philosophy. Art is one-sidedly subjective, religion onesidedly objective, but philosophy alone achieves perfect synthesis; it not merely knows reality, it is reality. But since philosophical reflection develops through history, philosophy is history.

Critique. From the point of view of Catholic Christian theism, two variants of modern idealism appear clearly unacceptable. The absolute monism of post-Kantian German idealism is certainly one. But even the pluralistic, personalistic idealisms cannot be reconciled with Christian theism if they are regarded as implying divine finitude.

Bibliography: j. d. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954). f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946), esp. v.7, Fichte to Nietzsche (1963). j. marÉchal, Le Point de départ de la métaphysique, v.4 Le Système idéaliste chez Kant et les postkantiens (3d ed. Paris 1947). r. jolivet, Les Sources de l'idéalisme (Paris 1936). h. d. gardeil, Les Étages de la philosophie idéaliste (Paris 1935). a. carlini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:11891201. j. mÖller, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:60102. w. wieland, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:55662. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 1:67281.

[l. j. eslick]

American Idealism

Although American idealism reflects the many varieties of its British and German antecedents, most American idealists fall into one of two groups, personal or absolute. Personal idealists conceive reality as a self or as belonging to a self; they are indebted to Berkeley, whom they consider to have shown conclusively that matter does not exist, and are usually theistic. Absolute idealists, on the other hand, tend to be monistic and pantheistic; they hold that reality is included within one complete system, present to an all-comprehensive Mind called the absolute. They believe that Berkeley went too far in denying the existence of matter altogether, although they credit him with rightly insisting that everything in reality is dependent on mind. They are convinced also that personal idealism places too much emphasis on the separateness of persons from one another and from God.

The history of idealism in America is largely a record of protest by religious-orientated thinkers against various forms of materialism, naturalism, and positivism that tend to deny the intelligible order of the universe and its dependence on mind. Most American idealists have been led to their position in search of a rational basis for morality and religion. This is true equally of the early idealists of New England, of the St. Louis Group, of B. P. Bowne and J. Royce, and most recently of Errol Harris.

Early Idealists. American idealism finds its earliest representatives in Jonathan edwards and Samuel Johnson (16961772), both of Connecticut. Although Edwards is known primarily as a Calvinist theologian and preacher, he developed from a critical reading of Newton and Locke a personal idealism that was to parallel in many respects the work of Berkeley, although he was probably ignorant of the fact that the British philosopher had reached similar conclusions. Johnson, who was the founder and first president of King's College, was directly influenced by Berkeley, with whom he became personally acquainted during Berkeley's visit to America (172931). Johnson retained enough of his earlier acquaintance with scholasticism, however, to prevent him from accepting outright Berkeley's nominalism. Neither Johnson's idealism nor Edwards', however, were to make a permanent impression on American thought.

Idealism in the U.S. was to receive its major impetus through the efforts of a group of influential teachers and professional men who met regularly in St. Louis during the years immediately following the Civil War. This group met at first informally in the home of William Harris, the future U.S. commissioner of education, for the study of German philosophy. Later, owing to the influence of Henry Conrad Brockmeyer (18281906), it undertook the serious study of Hegel, methodically analyzing Brockmeyer's translation of one of Hegel's works. It eventually founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, the first philosophical periodical in the English language, in which it published translations and commentaries on German philosophy. Other members included G. H. Howison, Thomas Davidson, and Joseph Pulitzer. Bronson Alcott was so impressed with the St. Louis Hegelians, as they came to be known, that he resolved to make their Hegelianism known in the East, which he did by inviting various representatives of it to the Concord Summer School of Philosophy.

Howison and Bowne. George Holmes Howison (18341916), who later taught for man years at the University of California, Berkeley, became one of the betterknown members of the St. Louis group. A personal idealist, he devoted much of his effort to combating the evolutionary agnosticism of Herbert Spencer. He also attacked the pantheistic and solipsistic tendencies of absolute idealism. He suggested that cosmic evolution, as a judgment about nature, is essentially a teleological idea. Science must rest upon the assumption of an allpervading rationality in things. This implies, he thought, a self-conscious intelligence underlying, and responsible for the connectedness of, all phenomena.

The cause of personal idealism was simultaneously advanced, and perhaps with greater success because he was a more systematic thinker than Howison, by Borden Parker Bowne (18471910) of Boston University. In his major work, Personalism (New York 1908), Bowne discloses himself as at once indebted to and critical of Kant. He believed that Kant and his followers paid so much attention to the forms by which the mind organizes experience that they had all but forgotten the self whose characteristic activity is to know by means of the organization of experience. Bowne taught that man's cognitive powers are in general reliable. "Intelligence is simply a bottom fact which explains everything but accepts itself." Persons and the external world exist, but they exist as objectified or realized ideas. Bowne's epistemology is dualistic insofar as he holds that the idea and its object are numerically distinct. He accepts the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, identifying the latter with the personal. A Supreme Person is the ground for both the system of nature and the community of persons. Bowne's personalism is also voluntaristic. To be is to act, and to act is to will. Attacking a mechanistic sense-bound naturalism on the one hand, Bowne criticizes an idealistic impersonalism on the other.

Royce and Others. Of American idealists, Josiah royce is probably the most outstanding. His principal work, The World and the Individual, the Gifford lectures of 18991900 (2 v. New York 190001), earned him a lasting place in the history of American philosophy. In these lectures Royce argued that "the whole universe including the physical world is essentially one living thing, a mind, one great spirit." This conclusion, Royce believed, was not only in accord with the demands of reason but also with the facts of human experience and the assumptions of science. Since the universe is one great allinclusive mind, the best method of acquiring an understanding of its nature is by an examination of one's own conscious experience. Just as the human mind is the sum total of fleeting conscious experience, so the Absolute is composed of all the conscious selves into which he has differentiated himself and whose conscious experiences are embraced in his own universal Mind. Royce believes it impossible to think of the world in a realistic or materialistic sense, as first having existence independent of human minds and later producing them. Like Howison and Bowne, he attacks materialistic conceptions of evolution. For Royce, the world and the mind are organically related; neither can be taken apart from the other; there can be no object without a subject that knows it.

The cause of idealism was advanced also by James E. Creighton (18611924), for many years the editor (from 1893 until his death) of the Philosophical Review; by W. E. Hocking (18731966), an absolute idealist; by E. S. brightman, whose idealism is best described as personalism; and most recently by E. E. Harris, who in his Nature, Mind and Modern Science (New York 1954), attempts to show that classical empiricism and logical positivism are dead ends, reopening the idealistic examination of evolution.

Although between 1875, and 1900 almost every professor of philosophy in the U.S. was an idealist, and idealists remained in the majority for a decade or two later, idealism could not maintain itself on the American scene. Bowne and Royce bequeathed to America a host of inspired religious teachers, ministers, and administrators; but their influence was to give way before the criticism of realism and naturalism. This trend from idealism to naturalism is strikingly reflected in the intellectual development of John Dewey as he moved from an early defense of idealism to an outright naturalism. In general, idealism came to be regarded as unscientific or as insufficiently imbued with the scientific spirit.

Critique. From the viewpoint of moderate realism, American idealism begins not with experience but with the problems bequeathed to it by the erroneous epistemologies of Locke and Hume, whose empiricism, in turn, has its origin in the exaggerated realism of Descartes. A moderate realism, offered as an alternative explanation, would insist that things exist independently of the human mind, which is capable of discovering not only their phenomenal but also their essential aspects. The intelligibility of the universe is accounted for in terms of a personal, creator God, distinct in essence from His creatures, who is at once their origin and their goal, as well as continually responsible for their existence.

See Also: transcendentalism.

Bibliography: c. m. perry, ed., The St. Louis Movement in Philosophy (Norman, Okla. 1931). w. g. muelder and l. sears, eds., The Development of American Philosophy (New York 1940). h. g. townsend, Philosophical Ideas in the United States (New York 1934).

[j. p. dougherty]


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In philosophy, idealism designates a variety of historical positions since Plato (c. 428348 or 347 BCE). The general characteristics of idealism derive from its historical examples. In metaphysics, idealism stands for a general belief about the nature of reality. In epistemology, it represents the belief that only a certain kind of reality is intelligible to the human mind. In Plato, whose idealism is influenced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides (born c. 515 BCE), the metaphysical and the epistemological aspects of idealism are combined in such a way that only ideas (or Forms) are fully real and only ideas are fully intelligible (compare Plato, Phaedo 65A67B, and Republic 506B518D). All forms of idealism hold that intelligible structures (ideas) are part of the world itself rather than merely interpretations or constructs of the mind. As a result, idealist philosophers assume either a partial or a complete identity between intelligible structures and reality itself. In the most extreme casenamely, that of the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (16851753)ideas and minds are said to be the only reality there is.

Furthermore, all forms of idealism hold that intelligible structures rather than matter or physical bodies constitute the foundation of reality. In this sense, idealism is opposed to materialism and physicalism in metaphysics or ontology. Idealists also generally hold that what is known or knowable about the world are ideal entities (e.g., conceptual structures, laws, principles, values) that are either inherent in things as their essence or that function as their normative archetypes. In this sense, idealism is opposed to realism in epistemology.

Among the major idealist philosophies after Plato are the rationalist idealism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), according to whom reality consists of infinitely many ideal entities called monads (metaphysical atoms); Berkeleys empirical or psychological idealism (to be is to be perceived); the transcendental or critical idealism of Immanuel Kant (17241804), who in the Critique of Pure Reason (first edition, 1781) states that the conditions of the possibility of experience in general are likewise conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience (A 158); German idealism represented primarily by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (17751854), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831); the British idealism of Thomas Hill Green (18361882), Francis Herbert Bradley (18461924), and Bernard Bosanquet (18481923); and the American idealism of Josiah Royce (18551916).

Idealism achieved its most highly developed form and its most comprehensive and ambitious expression in post-Kantian German idealism and in Hegels system in particular. Although insisting that he remained perfectly true to the spirit of Kants philosophy, Fichte made the first decisive step beyond Kant by abandoning the thing-in-itself as well as the dualism of concept and intuition in favor of a unified first principle, the absolute ego. In this way, he very much set the agenda for post-Kantian German idealisms drive toward a holistic system based on a monistic principle. Scholarship since the 1950S has pointed out that a rivaling realist tendency with dualistic aspects continued to be an ingredient in post-Kantian idealism, as can be seen in the philosophies of the later Fichte and Schelling.

Hegels strict monism conceived of the totality of reality or the absolute as a self-determining system exhibiting the structure of a self-referential, self-conscious subject called spirit. Spirit unfolds in human history and achieves complete self-recognition in Hegels speculative idealism. The conceptual structure of spirit is that of the Concept or the Idea: The Absolute is the universal and One Idea (Hegel 1831, §213). At the heart of Hegels system, for which the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) initially served as an introduction, is the three-part Science of Logic. In three books titled Being (1812), Essence (1813), and The Concept (1816), the Logic develops the categories (thought-determinations) that are supposed to provide the intelligible structure of spirits external existence as nature, subjective, objective, and absolute spirit. These forms of spirit in externality comprise a philosophy of nature, a philosophy of mind (soul, consciousness, self-consciousness), a moral and political philosophy, and a philosophy of religion, the arts, and philosophy itself. The categories of the Logic are derived by means of the dialectical method through which concepts are shown to generate an opposite that is nonetheless also their necessary complement (e.g., no ground without a grounded) and must therefore be combined in a new concept in order to capture the whole of which they are merely a part. The dialectical process continues until an all-inclusive concept (the absolute Idea) is reached. Hegel claims that the categories are generated autonomously by thought itself and have objective validity. His Logic is thus an epistemology just as much as it is an ontology. According to Hegel, it replaces traditional metaphysics.

Idealism is also used to characterize basic approaches in ethics, aesthetics, social ethics, and political science, where it is referred to as practical idealism. Idealism has been criticized for being inherently teleological in that it typically focuses on the consummation of the process of cognition in an ideal state of total (self-)knowledge or in the achievement or eschatological projection of an end of history (both tendencies are manifest primarily in Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel). This seems to contradict the open-endedness of the process of cognition as well as that of history. The future seems either closed or predetermined. Both assumptions contradict our normal intuitions as well as scientific rationality. Idealisms attempt to overcome dualisms such as appearance and reality, nature and spirit, mind and matter, concept and intuition has also been criticized for making the mind, self, thought, or spirit the only true reality, thus abandoning the realistic element that normally accounts for the content of knowledge. Thus in Hegel the object or other turns out to be the self in disguise and genuine otherness seems to have disappeared. All cognition becomes self-cognition and reality a self-manifestation of reason. A charitable reading of idealist philosophies will point out, however, that to the extent that all knowledge is mediated by concepts or acts of interpretation, an ideal element in all cognition remains an irreducible factor. Thus this criticism must be directed primarily at those idealist positions that leave no room for ontological otherness.

SEE ALSO Epistemology; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Materialism; Philosophy of Science


Ameriks, Karl, ed. 2000. The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Ewing, Alfred Cyril, ed. 1957. The Idealist Tradition: From Berkeley to Blanshard. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1990. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, and Critical Writings, ed. Ernst Behler. New York: Continuum.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sandkühler, Hans Jörg, ed. 2005. Handbuch Deutscher Idealismus. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

Vesey, Godfrey, ed. 1982. Idealism, Past and Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Klaus Brinkmann


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IDEALISM . Idealism is the metaphysical view that reality is of the nature of mind. It stands in contrast with scientific philosophies, such as naturalism, realism, and pragmatism that assume that natural life in the natural world is philosophy's appropriate point of departure. Idealism is not grounded in an empirical evaluation of fact. It is grounded in an intuitive evaluation of meaning. Because all philosophy presupposes that things have a meaning and that something, at least, of that meaning can be known, all philosophy has an idealistic element.

Idealism does not deny the reality of the physical world. It insists only that the apparent self-sufficiency of the natural world is deceptive. Nature seems to go its own way, to be self-sufficient, eternal, and operating on the basis of its own laws without need of a creator or outside force to initiate and sustain its motions, but idealism maintains that it relies on mind or spirit or idea for its forcefulness, purposiveness, and inherent meaning. Idealism therefore always distinguishes between appearance and reality, but its emphasis can either be objective or subjective. Subjective idealism sees the physical world as metaphysically insubstantial. Objective idealism regards physical substance as a necessary counterpart of mind.

Subjective Idealism

The doctrine of the world as māyā or illusion in Śakāra's Advaita Vedānta philosophy in India is the most systematic statement of subjective idealism, although George Berkeley's philosophy is the best-known statement of subjective idealism in the West. Berkeley observed that one's visual perception of the physical world is that of shapes and colors, not of any substantial "thing." People project "physical substance" into the picture because they assume that there must be some "thing" that "has" these perceived qualities.

All one ever knows, however, are the perceived qualities. Reality, therefore, is a perception on the part of a perceiver. Hence Berkeley's principle esse est percipi ("to be is to be perceived"). He pointed out that one seems to see distance; in fact, however, three-dimensional depth perception is a learned projection of the mind, not a physical reality that impinges directly on one's senses. He added that the physical sciences are not concerned with some "substantial" reality of a physical object, but rather with those perceptions known to mind. To test a yellow metal to see if it is gold, for example, the chemist does not test "substance," but propertiessolubility in different acids, combining proportions, and weight. The "substance" of gold is only a fact of experience that these properties bring together. Berkeley concluded that the distinction between what Locke had called primary qualities and secondary qualitiesreal "substance" as opposed to "appearances" (of color, shape, etc.)was mistaken. Nature is, he insisted, whole. If space is mental, then all the other qualities of the natural object must also be mental. Reality is entirely an observer's perception.

But what of objects that are alone and unobserved by any human knower, like the tree in the deserted forest or the living-room furniture in the dead of night? Berkeley argued that natural laws hold for events past as well as future because there is an eternal mind to think them. The living-room sofa exists as an object in the eternal perception of the mind of God. God alone guarantees the eternal endurance and order of nature.

The most consistent subjective idealist in modern Western philosophy was G. W. Leibniz, who held that each self is a "monad" of self-enclosed experience. He accepted a plurality of worldsmy world must be different from yoursand solipsism, the view that each person is solus ipse, a "windowless monad."

Here subjective idealism runs afoul of the "ego-centric predicament." Confined to his or her own ideas, the self-confessed solipsist nevertheless assumes that he or she knows what it might be like not to be so confined; otherwise the assertion has no significance. Each self is conscious, necessarily, of what it is not, in order to know itself as a distinct and separate entity. Solipsism, therefore, is self-refuting.

Objective Idealism

Objective idealism, mindful of this pitfall, grants to naturalism that the physical world is given from "outside" one's self, and must be received passively, but agrees with subjective idealism that one's experience of this given world is, in large part, an interpretation shaped by one's own mind. Both subjective and objective idealism are rooted in the intuition that reality is essentially mind. Objective idealism is distinguished by a nondual view in which the physical world shares metaphysical reality.

The historic relation between idealistic philosophy and religious reflection stems from this common concern for showing how an immaterial power gives the material world its reality and true being. The idealistic commitment to mind as ultimately real expresses, in the language of experience, a view that overlaps the religious commitment to spirit as the enabling power of being. This tradition in Western philosophy was first explored systematically by Plato, for whom reality lay in the eternal forms, or ideas, that were the meaning of any particular thing. These particulars, however, were always imperfect because they were necessarily material. Matter, for Plato, is an admittedly indispensable context for existence. More significantly, however, it is a hindrance to realization of the true meaning of things, which is their ideal form. Plato is unclear as to why nature should exist, and matter remains a dark and unresolved dilemma in his philosophy. Aristotle gave matter greater status by making it the counterpart of form or idea in any particular. Matter is therefore the possibility of a new form. Mind or spirit or form shapes matter, as the idea of a pot in the mind of a potter transforms a lump of clay into a utensil for human use.

Plato and Aristotle incline toward idealism but remain dualists. It was only after Immanuel Kant that idealism offered an integrated view of reality that did justice to natural fact. Beginning with the radical distinction between mind and matter with which René Descartes had first fashioned the modern mind, idealists argued that mind and matter are different but interdependent. J. G. Fichte argued that will is the essence of mind, and will requires the recalcitrant opposition of material stuff in order for work to teach the moral lessons of industry, perseverance, and devotion to factual truth. For Fichte, nature is "the material for our duty, made sensible." For Friedrich Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, nature is necessary in order that mind attain full self-awareness. Hegel argued that useful knowledge is always acquired through a double movement: first one gains an intimate knowledge of the particular thing, and then one learns something of what it is not. To know one's own language for what it truly is, for example, one must know something of a different language. So, to generalize from that experience, mind must know something that is not mind. It must wander in an alien world before it can return home to know itself truly for the first time. Nature, therefore, is the "otherness of spirit," the alien land in which the mind wanders in order to gain full possession of itself. Or, to put it less metaphorically, natural objects are the necessary content of mind. There is no thought without an object; one must think something. Whereas subjective idealism, in both the monadology of Leibniz and the Advaita Vedānta of Śakara, argues that mind alone is the really real, objective idealism argues that objective nature is a necessary condition for the reality of mind. Reality is therefore not a univocal state; it is a dialectical process.

Idealist Ethics

Idealism also proposes an ethics, developed from its metaphysical view that mind or spirit constitutes an eternal and purposive transcendent order. As the metaphysical reality of any particular is derived from the idea that is its ultimate meaning, so the norms and values of human behavior are derived from the transcendent idea of love, power, justice, or so forth.

Unlike modern naturalisms, which regard ethical values as entirely relative to the social and psychological needs of natural groups, idealism holds that there are what Kant called categorical imperatives, or moral absolutes. Kant stated the foundational principle of all idealistic ethics, people always should be treated as ends in themselves and never as a means to some end; but his dogmatic categorical imperative lacks metaphysical justification. It was his successors who developed an independent metaphysics that could flesh out Kant's intuitive insight with a rational argument. Hegel supplemented the Kantian view with a dialectical interpretation of concrete freedom that seeks to ally itself with whatever is objectively rational and universal in the laws and institutions of one's community. This view turned idealism toward social realism. Josiah Royce later argued that the objective reason that Hegel sought in institutions could not be found there if, as Hegel himself noted, institutions rise and fall. Rejecting Hegel's conservatism, Royce argued that one's loyalty is not just to the institutionalized rationality of the past but to the hoped-for rationality of the future. For Royce, therefore, one's primary loyalty is not to institutions but to those creative causes that some institutions sometimes serve. There will be different interpretations as to what these causes should be, but the authentic common spirit of cause-servers everywhere will always be one of loyalty. Royce's categorical imperative is therefore that one should be loyal to loyalty wherever it is found.

Various forms of idealism were influential during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when there was confidence in reason and hope for the future. The prevailing spirit since the late twentieth century has become skeptical of rationalization and pessimistic about the future, so idealistic philosophy is less influential. However, when religious thinkers look for a rational and universal language of experience in which to articulate the dramatic, poetic, and mythological convictions of the great religions with their message of a divine Logos that assures the ultimate fulfillment of a divine purpose, that language is inescapably some form of idealism.

See Also

Metaphysics; Naturalism; Nature, article on Religious and Philosophical Speculations.


Plato's dialogues all focus on the idealist issue, and Plotinus's third-century Enneads bears resemblance to the Advaita Vedānta philosophy in India, which Śakara articulates in his ninth-century Commentary on the Brahma Sutra. Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), translated by Theodore M. Greene et al. (New York, 1960), identifies mind and spirit in idealistic fashion, and Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1832), 3 vols., translated by E. B. Speirs and J. B. Sanderson (London, 1895), is the first systematic statement of idealistic philosophy of religion in the West. Josiah Royce's The Problem of Christianity, 2 vols. (New York, 1913), and William Ernest Hocking's The Meaning of God in Human Experience (New Haven, Conn., 1912) are the best-known systematic statements in the American philosophical tradition.

The best secondary sources on idealism are in the major histories of Western philosophy. For a technical discussion of philosophical ideas and their development, Wilhelm Windelband's History of Philosophy, translated by James H. Tufts (New York, 1893), is still unsurpassed. For idealism as an influential strand of modern intellectual culture, see John Herman Randall, Jr.'s The Making of the Modern Mind (New York, 1976) and Randall's two-volume The Career of Philosophy (New York, 19621965), especially volume 2, From the German Enlightenment to the Age of Darwin. The most recent significant interpretation of a major religious tradition in the light of an idealistic philosophy is Paul Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology (Chicago, 19511963).

New Sources

Beiser, Frederick. German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 17811801. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Henrich, Dieter, Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism. Edited by David Pacini. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

McCumber, John. "The Temporal Turn in German Idealism: Hegel and After." Research in Phenomenology 32 (2002): 4460.

Pinkard, Terry. German Philosophy 17601860: The Legacy of Idealism. New York, 2002.

Pippin, Robert. Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations. New York, 1997.

Leroy S. Rouner (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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The debates regarding Russia's national identity and historical destiny were always vital to the work of the prominent Russian thinkers, who were also preoccupied with moral issues and closely involved with literature. Due to its location between Europe and Asia, Russia belongs to both cultural worlds, having inherited different and often contradictory value standards that played a significant role in the course of its history. This marginal cultural situation of the country resulted in two competing approaches to its role in world history: national isolationism and openness to Europe, both trends still present in the national consciousness. During the Kievan Rus period, affiliation with Europe was a strong feature of culture. The Tatar invasion and the development of the Moscow Kingdom generated a strong tide of alienation from the West. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Moscow Kingdom was the proclaimed "the third Rome" (by monk Filotius)the vanguard force in world history inheriting the grandeur of the Roman Empire and at the same time opposed to the declining West. Peter the Great made a radical attempt to bridge the gap between Russia and the West by assimilating European values and life standards on Russian soil. However, his attempt to create a new cultural synthesis brought about contradictory results: superficial reception of the Western standards in economic, social, political, and cultural spheres on the one hand, and reinforcement of traditional non-European Russian values on the other. As Nikolai Berdyayev noted, Russia never knew the Renaissance and never accepted the humanism and individualism produced within this cultural paradigm. Although European civilization created the disciplinary society (Michel Foucault) in the modern period, it preserved the sphere of individual rights and liberties that was gradually expanding in parallel with rational standards of social control and coercion. Communal and authoritarian tendencies of Russian culture had no real counterbalance in personal values such as those commonly accepted in Europe. Even in the period of Russian Enlightenment that started under Catherine II, the critical efforts of such leading intellectuals as Nikolai Novikov, Mikhail Shcherbatov, or Alexander Radishchev did not bring radical change to tsarist rule and the prevailing cultural climate of the country.

The understanding of national history throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was considerably influenced by the Enlightenment, German idealism, and the philosophy of Romanticism. Whatever their value systems, Russian thinkers of the first part of the nineteenth century interpreted history in view of the tragic events of the French Revolution and Napoleon's invasion of Russia. This is the reason why, as Vasily Zenkovsky pointed out, Russian thinkers were highly critical of the results of Western historical development. The structure of Russian thought from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the twentyfirst century was based on binary oppositions lacking synthetic reconciling units. Oppositions deeply embedded in Russian thought included communitarianism and democracy versus imperial autocracy; egalitarianism versus social hierarchy; progress versus traditionalism; and so forth. The deficiency of synthesis of contradictions inherent in Russian thought constitutes its difference from the Western intellectual paradigm.

russia and the west: the dilemma of national selfidentity

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Westernized Russian thought found its expression in two different trends: the moderate conservatism of historian and writer Nikolai Karamzin, who defended autocracy of the Catherine II variety against the chaos of the French Revolution, and the Decembrist movement, which idealized the democratic traditions of Novgorod and Pskov republics and intended to put constitutional limits on the autocracy of the tsar. Famous poet Alexander Pushkin (according to Berdyayev, the only Russian man of the Renaissance) vigorously supported the ideas of the Decembrists. At the opposite pole, Vladimir Odoyevsky, Dmitry Venevitinov, and other members of the Wisdomlovers society, who represented the antiEnlightenment trend and were convinced followers of Schelling, believed in the leading role of Russia and its mission to save European civilization. Although Pyotr Chaadayev's thought was also nourished by Schelling and other representatives of German idealism, he took a more critical approach to Russia. According to Chaadayev, Russia lacked a true heritage of historical tradition and should therefore assimilate the European cultural legacy before assuming a leadership role in tackling humanity's problems.

These discussions evolved into the debate of the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Despite their criticism of serfdom and the existing political order, Ivan Kireyevsky, Alexei Khomyakov, Konstantin Aksakov, and other Slavophiles, highly disparaging of Catholicism and Protestantism, European individualism, and the rationalist culture of the Enlightenment, proclaimed the necessity of finding a particularly Russian path of cultural and political development. While critical of the West, German idealism, and Hegelian doctrine as its utmost expression, the Slavophiles were nevertheless nourished conceptually by Schelling's philosophy. They believed in the superiority of Russian civilization based on the Russian Orthodox vision of the unity of human and God, the special harmonic order of relations existing among the believers (sobornost ), and the peasant commune organization of social life as a paradigm of organic relations that should replace the external coercion of state power.

In contrast to the Slavophiles, the Westernizers believed in the productive role of humanity's rational development and progress, the positive significance of the modernization process initiated by Peter the Great, and the necessity to unify Russia with the European West. Unlike the Slavophiles, this movement had no homogeneous philosophy and ideology, representing rather a loose alliance of different trends of literary and philosophical thought that were strongly influenced by German idealism and, in particular, by Hegel. Radical democrats, such as Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, or Nikolai Ogarev, proposed ideas that differed from the liberal persuasions of Timofei Granovsky, Konstantin Kavelin, and Boris Chicherin. Moderate criticism of the European West and nascent mass society, common to many Westernizers, found its utmost expression in the peasant socialism of Herzen and Ogarev, who, like the Slavophiles, idealized the peasant commune as a pattern of organic social life needed by Russia.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky and other revolutionary democratic enlighteners of the 1860s, who further developed the Westernizers' ideas while upholding the value of the communal foundations of Russian peasant society, paved the way for the radical populist ideology of Pyotr Lavrov, Pyotr Tkachev, and Mikhail Bakunin and the liberal populism of Nikolai Mikhailovsky. Radical populist ideology influenced the Russian version of Marxism considerably. The "return to the soil" movement, headed by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Strakhov, and Apollon Grigoriev, was a reaction to this trend of thought. In the 1870s, Nikolai Danilevsky developed his philosophical theory of historicalcultural types inspired by the ideal of PanSlavic unity with the leadership of Russia. Skeptical of both the PanSlavic ideal and the contemporary stage of European liberal egalitarian society, Konstantin Leontiev proposed, in his version of the conservative theory of historicalcultural types, the ideal of Byzantinism preserving the communal and hierarchical traditional foundations of Russian culture and society in isolation and opposition to the liberalindividualistic European West.

the search for the universal vision of history and the challenge of the twentieth century

The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were marked by the growing popularity of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Soloviev in Russian intellectual circles. As one of the prophets of his time, Tolstoy, in the tradition of Rousseau, put forward a criticism of industrial civilization and state power in the capitalist age and proposed his utopian ideal of Christian anarchism glorifying the archaic peasant way of life as a radical denial of the existing social order and alienation. Based on the ideas of Plato and the neoPlatonists Leibniz and Schelling, Soloviev's doctrine of absolute idealism interpreted history as a field of human creativity, a realization of Godmanhoodthat is, the permanent cooperation of God and human. In his philosophy of history, Soloviev moved from the understanding of Russia's role as the intermediary link between the East and West to the ideal of theocratic rule unifying the Church power (the pope) with earthly rule of the Russian tsar, and finally came to a profound criticism of theocratic rule. On the final stage of his philosophical career, he gave a very critical evaluation of the autocratic tradition of the Moscow Kingdom and the Russian Empire that became the source of inspiration for Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Nikolai Berdyayev, Vyacheslav Ivanov, and other Silver Age religious philosophers who revealed the negative traits of the alliance between the Orthodox Church and the State and called for the free creativity of religious laymen in order to bring about radical change in Russian social and cultural life.

After the Bolshevik Revolution the majority of prominent Russian thinkers had to migrate abroad. Berdyayev, Georgy Fedotov, and Merezhkovsky continued there the tradition of the philosophy of history based on the idea of unity of Russia and Europe. At the opposite pole, national conservative isolationism found its expression in the works of Pyotr Alexeyev, Pyotr Bicilli, Nikolai Trubetskoy, Pyotr Savitsky, Lev Karsavin, and other representatives of the Eurasian movement. The liberal and conservative nationalist visions of Russian history are still present in contemporary thought. The liberal paradigm coined by Andrei Sakharov was preserved in the writings of Yegor Gaidar, Boris Fyodorov, Grigory Yavlinsky, and others. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's vision of Russian history based on Berdyayev's legacy is moderately conservative, while Alexander Dugin and other neoEurasians form the extreme right wing, advocating an isolationist nationalist approach to Russia's past and present.

See also: berdyayev, nikolai alexandrovich; chaadayev, peter yakovlevich; decembrist movement and rebellion; enlightenment, impact of; hegel, georg wilhelm friedrich; karamzin, nikolai mikhailovich; lovers of wisdom, the; slavophiles; tolstoy, leo nikolayevich; westernizers


Berlin, Isaiah. (1978). Russian Thinkers. London: Hogarth.

Florovsky, Georges. (19791987). Ways of Russian Theology. 2 vols., tr. Robert L. Nichols. Belmont, MA: Nordland.

Glatzer-Rosenthal, Bernice, ed. (1986). Nietzsche in Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kline, George. (1968). Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lossky, Nicholas. (1951). History of Russian Philosophy. New York: International Universities Press.

Pipes, Richard, ed. (1961). The Russian Intelligentsia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raeff, Marc. (1966). The Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas. (1952). Russia and the West in the Teaching of the Slavophiles: A Study of Romantic Ideology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walicki, Andrzej. (1979). A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, tr. Helen Andrews-Rusiecka. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zenkovsky, Vasilii. (1953). A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols., tr. George L. Kline. New York: Columbia University Press.

Boris Gubman


views updated Jun 27 2018


IDEALISM. As a philosophical concept, idealism can be employed both in a broad sense and in a much narrower, more specific form. Broadly speaking, idealism encompasses any philosophy that treats ideasrather than, for example, matteras primary. Plato's theory of forms is perhaps the first example of this approach. When applied more specifically, idealism is the notion that the only things that exist are minds and their contents (ideas). This theory was first fully developed by Bishop George Berkeley (16851753).

Plato drew a clear distinction between the sensory world and the intelligible world, which we can only apprehend through reason. He argued that the objects of the sensory world are mere copies of universal, ideal "forms," that make up the realm of what is intelligible. Plato's theory was subsequently taken up and developed by the Neoplatonists, especially Plotinus and St. Augustine. To some extent, Berkeley's idealism built on these earlier theories, but it also drew on and challenged scientific understandings of the world that had been developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Berkeley set out his philosophy in his Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). Three years later he published his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, a more accessible version of the theory, in which Philonous ('lover of mind') convinces and converts Hylas ('matter') to his point of view. Both works were, in part, a response to John Locke's (16321704) Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689). Locke's explanation of the world relied on four key elements, God, matter, ideas, and minds. While Berkeley expressed great respect for Locke, he rejected the doctrine of matter that Locke, along with many others, accepted. According to Berkeley matter in itself is unintelligible; it is impossible for us to either observe or imagine matter alone, devoid of all other qualities or characteristics. Moreover, Berkeley argued that an adequate explanation of the world could be given on the basis of the other three elements alone, in Berkeley's terminology God, finite spirits, and their ideas. Berkeley defined "ideas" as the objects of perception and "spirits" as the entities that exercise perception. Within this system the existence of an infinite spirit, God, which is both omniscient and omnipresent, is crucial.

Berkeley's theory had a mixed reception. The story is that Samuel Johnson (17091784) claimed to be able to refute it simply by kicking a stone, but others took it more seriously. There has been much discussion as to whether (and to what extent) Berkeley influenced Immanuel Kant (17241804). In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of pure reason) Kant attacked Berkeley's traditional version of idealism and advocated a combination of "empirical realism" and "transcendental idealism." Both philosophers saw all experience as mind-dependent. However, for Berkeley there was nothing beyond or outside of mind, whereas Kant retained the regulative idea of "things-in-themselves" lying behind experience.

Idealism continued to be important beyond the early modern period. During the nineteenth century the ideas of Berkeley and especially of Kant provided a basis for the absolute idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17641814) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831). Despite a subsequent collapse in the influence of this position, idealism continues to be advocated into the twenty-first century, though usually in forms that are closer to Kant than to Berkeley.

See also Berkeley, George ; Kant, Immanuel ; Philosophy .


Primary Sources

Berkeley, George. Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues. Edited by Howard Robinson. Oxford and New York, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. Translation of Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781).

Secondary Sources

Urmson, J. O. Berkeley. Oxford and New York, 1982.

Vesey, Godfrey, ed. Idealism Past and Present. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1982. See especially the foreword and the first three chapters.

Rachel Hammersley


views updated May 21 2018


Idealism as an ontological or epistemological doctrine holds that reality, or what can count as reality for human beings, is determined by mind. The various ways of specifying the basic role of mind ontologically or epistemologically yield various forms of idealism. As an ontological doctrine idealism can hold that reality is basically mental in nature; the physical world is an expression of this mental reality. An argument for the position that what one takes to be material is actually spiritual is that what is actual is process or activity, and mind or spirit is the model of activity. In this sense, metaphysical idealism is contrasted with materialism. An example is the doctrine of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) that reality consists of active substances, or monads.

As an epistemological doctrine, idealism can hold that humans do not have access to a mind-independent reality. However, an epistemological idealism along this line can easily be transformed into an ontological one to the effect that there is no mind-independent reality. Idealism in this sense is constrasted with realism. The position of George Berkeley (16851753) that esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) could be read as an example of an epistemological idealism with radical antirealist claims, which amounts to an ontological immaterialism. But Berkeley also argues that sensible things exist independently of human beings in that they exist in the mind of God (theistic idealism ).

An ontological idealism can hold precisely that there is a reality beyond the physical world of sense experience, and this transcendent reality is the basic or true one in that it accords actuality to the relentlessly changing world of sense experience. Humans have access to the ultimate reality beyond the world of sense experience through higher forms of mind, but the true or divine reality transcends the human mind. This form of metaphysical idealism is thus an ontological realism (claiming that reality is independent of the human mind). The classic example of a metaphysical idealism as a transcendent idealism is the doctrine of the world of ideas in Plato (428347 b.c.e.).

Epistemological idealism can be reformulated as transcendental idealism. The critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant (17241804) not only attacks dogmatic metaphysical positions that imply that humans have access to things in themselves beyond the world of sense experience, but also Berkeley's subjective idealism (as Kant takes it to be), which dissolves reality into what humans experience. Instead, according to Kant, space and time, and the categories (e.g., the category of causality) are, as structures of the human mind, also conditions of possibility for the experience of the world. However, this opens the problem that reality is on the one hand "reality-for-us," while on the other hand an ultimate reality beyond this reality is postulated. This problem is dealt with by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), whose various positions are collectively labelled German Idealism.

Absolute idealism in Hegel seeks to overcome the Kantian split between the world of sense experience and ultimate reality (thing-in-itself) without returning to a dogmatic position. Hegel points out that in having an experience, human understanding of the world and human self-understanding can be changed. This possibility of self-transcendence implied in experience cannot be accounted for if ultimate reality is placed beyond the limits of experience. Hegel's absolute idealism solves the basic task of German Idealism left over by Kant, namely, to account for both freedom inherent in rationality (autonomy) and the embodiment of that freedom. While Fichte emphasizes the activity of the human mind as a productive activity, Schelling sets out to overcome this (as he called it) subjective idealism in Fichte by combining a transcendental philosophy and a philosophy of nature. In Hegel's absolute idealism, mind (Geist ) transcends the divide between freedom and nature by coming to itself through nature and history. Accordingly, Hegel's idealism is not to be captured by the opposition between idealism and materialism, or between realism and antirealism.

As the complex position of Hegel indicates, idealism needs to be reformulated in opposition to its traditional forms. Basically, idealism concerns the problem that human access to reality must tell something about that very reality. From the brief outline above one can extract the insight that in relating to reality human beings are doing something. Thinking is an activity. Humans only relate to reality in interpreting it. This does not imply, however, that reality is what people interpret it to be or that reality is a mental construction. If mind were basic in this sense, people would not be able to discuss the reality of the mind. Instead the crucial argument could be the following: A comprehensive theory of reality must be able to account for the reality of mind and self-consciousness that it itself presupposes. Following this line of argument, idealism could be reformulated as a response to reductive forms of naturalism in that it points to the presupposition that human beings as subjects relate to the world, and only as self-interpreting animals are they able to form theories about the world in which they live. The task is to account for both the embodiment of mind and this presupposition of mind.

The question of idealism is thus not only the basic question of science concerning the reality of interpretations and models of reality. Idealism also concerns religious questions about the place of human beings in the world. Religion need not be interpreted along the lines of an idealism that posits a second world beyond the world of sense-experience. A reformulation of idealism as outlined above can instead draw upon the understanding to be found in religion that human consciousness reflects the problem of the embodiment of consciousness itself.

See also Materialism; Naturalism; Realism


berkeley, george. a treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge (1710). in the principles of human knowledge with other writings, ed. g. j. warnock. london: fontana library, 1962.

hegel, georg wilhelm friedrich. the phenomenology of mind (1807), trans. j. b. baillie. london: allen and urwin; new york: humanities press, 1977. revised reprint of 1931 edition.

kant, immanuel. critique of pure reason (1781), trans. norman kemp smith. london: macmillan, 1978.

arne grØn


views updated May 11 2018

idealism A term used to refer to that position in the philosophy of the social sciences which assumes that the social world, like all other objects of external perception, consists of ideas originating from some source or other. Examples of such sources would be Hegel's ‘Geist’, Berkeley's God, or (most commonly in sociology) the minds of individual human beings. In other words, what idealism asserts ontologically is that society only exists in so far as human beings think that it exists. And what it asserts epistemologically is that the proper way to gain knowledge of society is through the investigation of this thinking.

The position set out by Peter Winch in his The idea of a Social Science (1958) comes closest to that of pure idealism in contemporary social science, although some versions of discourse analysis are also good approximations. More commonly, however, sociologists drawn to idealism have followed one of two courses: either they have based themselves on a synthetic ontology which assumes the coexistence of mental and material phenomena in the social world, and have combined this with a largely empiricist epistemology (as, some have argued, in the case of Max Weber); or, they have combined an idealist ontology with an empiricist stress on the epistemological primacy to be accorded to observation (as, perhaps, in symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology).


views updated May 11 2018

i·de·al·ism / īˈdē(ə)ˌlizəm/ • n. 1. the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, esp. unrealistically: the idealism of youth. Compare with realism. ∎  (in art or literature) the representation of things in ideal or idealized form. Often contrasted with realism (sense 2).2. Philos. any of various systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind. Often contrasted with realism (sense 3).DERIVATIVES: i·de·al·ist n.i·de·al·is·tic / īˌdē(ə)ˈlistik/ adj.i·de·al·is·ti·cal·ly / īˌdē(ə)ˈlistik(ə)lē/ adv.