This article is about the philosophical notion of Idealism. Idealism is also a term in international relations theory

In general parlance, "idealism" or "idealist" is also used to describe a person having high ideals, sometimes with the connotation that those ideals are unrealisable or at odds with "practical" life. However in philosophy, idealism is used to refer to any metaphysical theory positing the primacy of mind, spirit, or language over matter. It is usually juxtaposed with Realism.



Idealism names a number of philosophical positions with quite different tendencies and implications.


Plato proposed an idealist theory as a solution to the problem of universals. A universal is that which things share in virtue of having some particular property. So for example the wall, the moon and a blank sheet of paper are all white; white is the universal that all white things share. Plato argued that it is universals, The Forms that are real, not specific individual things. Confusingly, because this idea asserts that these mental entities are real, it is also called Platonic realism; in this sense realism contrasts with nominalism, the notion that mental abstractions are merely names without an independent existence. Nevertheless, it is a form of idealism because it asserts the primacy of the idea of universals over material things.

George Berkeley

Bishop Berkeley, in seeking to find out what we could know with certainty, decided that our knowledge must be based on our perceptions. This led him to conclude that there was indeed no "real" object behind one's perception, that what was "real" was the perception itself. This subjective idealism led to his placing the full weight of justification on our perceptions. This left Berkeley with the problem, common to other forms of idealism, of explaining how it is that each of us apparently has much the same sort of perceptions of an object. He solved this problem by having God intercede, as the immediate cause of all of our perceptions.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant held that the mind forces the world we perceive to take the shape of space-and-time. Kant focused on the idea drawn from British empiricism, and its philosophers such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, that all we can know is the mental impressions, or phenomena, that an outside world which may or may not exist independently creates in our minds; our minds can never perceive that outside world directly. Kant's postscript to this added that the mind is not a "blank slate", but comes equipped with categories for organising our sense impressions. This Kantian sort of idealism opens up a world of abstractions to be explored by reason, but in sharp contrast to Plato's, leaves only uncertainties about a knowable world outside our own minds. We cannot approach the noumenon, the "Thing in Itself" (German: Ding an Sich) outside our own mental world. This sort of idealism goes by the equally counterintuitive name of transcendental idealism.


Hegel, another philosopher whose system has been called idealism, thought that history must be rational in something significantly like the way science is. His famous dictum is that "the Real is Rational"; reason is the arbiter that shapes the world as it is, and gives us access to what is real. Hegel's idealism posits that since ideas about reality are products of the mind, there must be a mind at work in the universe that establishes reality and gives it structure. Hegelian idealism goes by the name of absolute idealism.

British idealism

British idealism enjoyed ascendancy in English-speaking philosophy in the later part of the 19th century. F. H. Bradley of Merton College, Oxford, saw reality as a monistic whole, which is apprehended through "feeling", a state in which there is no distinction between the perception and the thing perceived. Bradley was the apparent target of G. E. Moore's radical rejection of idealism.

J. M. E. McTaggart of Cambridge University, argued that minds alone exist, and that they only relate to each other through love. Space, time and material objects where for McTaggart unreal. He argued, for instance, in The Unreality of Time that it was not possible to produce a coherent account of a sequence of events in time, and that therefore time is an illusion.

Critique of Idealism

G. E. Moore

The most influential criticism of Idealism is Moore's The Refutation of Idealism. This was the first application of Moore's analytic philosophical method, which greatly influenced Analytic philosophy.

Moore proceeds by examining the Berklian aphorism esse is percipi: "to be is to be perceived". He examines in detail each of the three terms in the aphorism, finding that it must mean that the object and the subject are necessarily connected. So, he argues, for the idealist, "yellow" and "the sensation of yellow" are necessarily identical - to be yellow is necessarily to be experienced as yellow. But, in a move similar to the open question argument, it also seems clear that there is a difference between "yellow" and "the sensation of yellow". For Moore, the idealist is in error because "that esse is held to be percipi, solely because what is experienced is held to be identical with the experience of it".

David Stove

The Australian philosopher David Stove argued in typically acerbic style that idealism rested on what he called "the worst argument in the world". He named one version of this argument, deriving from Berkeley, "the Gem". Berkeley claimed that "(the mind) is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing unthought of, or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself". Stove argued that this claim proceeds from the tautology that nothing can be thought of without its being thought of, to the conclusion that nothing can exist without its being thought of. Presented in this way, the argument is not even a syllogism - hardly an argument at all.

John Searle

In The Construction of Social Reality John Searle offers an attack on some versions of idealism. Searle conveniently summarises two important arguments for idealism. the first is based on our perception of reality:

1. All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experiences
2. The only epistemic basis we can have for claims about the external world are our perceptual experiences


3. the only reality we can meaningfully speak of is the reality of perceptual experiences (The Construction of Social Reality p. 172)

Whilst agreeing with (2), Searle argues that (1) is false, and points out that (3) doe snot follow from (1) and (2).

The second argument for idealism runs as follows:

Premise: Any cognitive state occurs as part of a set of cognitive states and withing a cognitive system
Conclusion 1: It is impossible to get outside of all cognitive states and systems to survey the relationships between them and the reality they are used to cognize
Conclusion 2: No cognition is ever of a reality that exists independently of cognition (The Construction of Social Reality p. 174)

Searle goes on to point out that conclusion 2 simply does not follow from its precedents.

Idealism in religious thought

Not all religion and belief in the supernatural is, strictly speaking, anti-materialist in nature. While many types of religious belief are indeed specifically idealist, for example, Hindu beliefs about the nature of the Brahman, Zen Buddhism stands in the middle way of dialectics between idealism and materialism, and mainstream Christian doctrine affirms the importance of the materiality of Christ's human body and the necessity of self-restraint when dealing with the material world.

Several modern religious movements and texts, for example the organisations within the New Thought Movement and the book, A Course in Miracles, may be said to have a particularly idealist orientation. The theology of Christian Science is explicitly idealist.

More accurately Idealism is based on the root word Ideal meaning a perfect form of and is most accurately described as a belief in perfect forms of virtue, truth, and the absolute. Idea-ism would be a more appropriate term for the definitions listed above. There is a clear distinction between an idea and an ideal. i.e. Websters Dictionary says "conforming exactly to an ideal, law, or standard: perfect.

See Also

McTaggart, John The Unreality of Time, available at wikisource:The Unreality of Timede:Idealismus et:Idealism es:Idealismo eo:Ideismo fr:Idalisme ko:관념론 it:Idealismo he:אידיאליזם hu:Idealizmus nl:Idealisme ja:観念論 pl:Idealizm zh:理念论


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