Idealism (definition and characteristics)

We explain what idealism is, how it is classified and the representatives of this theory. In addition, we also write about its characteristics and criticisms.

What is Idealism?

Philosophical idealism refers to a family of philosophical theories that the realm of ideas constitutes a separate existence, often more important than the tangible world.

That is why they are also known as immaterialism and they take the exact opposite position to the schools of materialism, for which only the tangible, material world exists.

Idealism is a long-standing philosophical school, encompassing, in their respective forms, the studies of philosophers as distant in time as Plato and Immanuel Kant.

In general terms, they embrace the idea that objects have no existence if there is also someone who perceives them, that is, a mind that is aware of their respective existences.

Therefore, in order to achieve the truth of things and to know things properly, ideas, thinking subjects and thought itself must be taken into account, and not only objects as an immutable reality external to those who perceive them.

Basic concepts of idealism

Idealism distinguishes between two basic concepts: the phenomenon, that is, the object as it appears or appears in front of the intelligence that perceives it, and the noumenon, the object as it is for itself.

For idealists, the reality is not the set of existing nomena as much as the perceived phenomena of them. This means that the nature of reality remains veiled, hidden from consciousness and makes us wonder if the world is only that which the senses perceive.

Platonic idealism

Also called “Platonic realism”, it comes from the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), a disciple of Socrates and teacher of the famous Aristotle, who in his Republic and in other Platonic dialogues raises the existence of universals: objects that exist in a broader and more abstract sense than physical objects, as they are metaphysical or ultra physical in nature.

A human being does not have access to these universals through any of his senses, but he can conceive them, he can understand them. In this they differ from the particulars, perfectly tangible, which are the objects around us and which are a copy of the universal original form, that is, a copy of ideas.

Objective idealism

This variant of idealism, much later than Plato, states that ideas exist by themselves and that we can only access them through experience.

Its name comes from its closeness to scientific logic, which was initially based on that same concept of the real as something that can be discovered through experimentation.

Subjective idealism

Opposed to the previous one, this idealism maintains that ideas exist within the mind of the subject, so there is no autonomous world outside of it. This school is divided in turn into two variants:

Radicals. They claim that subjectivity is what builds the world, so there is no independent nature of those who perceive it, but exists “for us.”

Moderate. They maintain that the perception of the real varies according to the content of the mind, so its existence varies according to the subject, despite having a certain existence of its own.

German idealism

With this name, the objective idealistic philosophical school from the Germany of the 18th and 19th centuries is known and sustained in the work of Immanuel Kant and the influences of Romanticism, the Enlightenment and the historical context of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

According to Kant, the outside world exists but is not knowable to man as a whole, which is why Kant is often said to be both materialistic and idealistic.

Transcendental idealism

Also called “transcendental subjectivism,” it is the name that Immanuel Kant gave his specific doctrine of thought. Broadly speaking, it consisted of the contemplation of two elements in all knowledge:

The given. External to the subject, it is an object of knowledge.

The put in. Owned by the subject, which is nothing other than the subject himself who is preparing to know something.

This is summarized in that “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind ”, that is, that both concepts are interdependent for the knowledge of anything.

Representatives of idealism

Idealism in its various variants had the contributions of those already mentioned by Plato and Immanuel Kant, but also by Descartes, Leibnitz, Hegel, Bolzano, Berkeley, Fichte, Mach, Cassirer and Schelling. It is one of the most central philosophical doctrines in the history of thought.

Importance of idealism

It constituted a fundamental variant in the evolution of philosophical thought throughout history, basing the investigative attitude of the philosopher who distrusts his senses and the perceptible and wonders about what “there is”.

Criticism of idealism

The positions opposed to idealism have criticized his commitment to a higher immaterial world, present in religions such as Christianity, which promises an outer life more important than the perceivable.

This position would downplay the perceptible world and allow the relativization of many arguments and debates.

Antagonistic schools

The antagonistic schools of idealism are materialism, for which there is only that which is perceivable and experienceable and nothing else; or realism in general, which defends the existence of a real-reality, whose existence is alien to the human mind that perceives it and can only be known if it is sought and experienced, but is ultimately alien to the same process of knowledge.

What is an idealistic person?

An idealist is a person who aspires to an ideal, a person devoid of a sense of reality, of a practical spirit. 

Rather than criticizing oneself, an idealist criticizes others from their environment, who are not “so perfect,” according to their criteria. Thus, an idealist often lives in an inner rage, rarely letting it out, so as not to seem “imperfect”. 

An idealistic perfectionist thinks he is a perfectionist after he has managed to “do” good. He identifies with what he does, not what he is. He asks for the impossible because it is utopian to believe that you can find perfection in the material world, more precisely in the physical, emotional and mental world.

Realist vs Idealist vs Optimist

Realist vs Idealist vs Optimist – these three character traits are often confused or misunderstood, but the truth is that the difference between these concepts is significant.

A truly realistic person accepts both the fact that things can take a bad turn and the way things can take a very good turn. He keeps all his “doors open” and very easily “gives it optimism” if he pays attention only to the good parts.

The opposite of the word “idealist” is “realistic”, which means that an idealistic person is not realistic. He demands the impossible and loses sight of its limits, possibilities and needs. He finds himself striving to perfection, according to his criteria of perfection most of the time, which is too difficult to achieve.

An optimistic person knows that in any situation he only has something to gain (most of the time it is), and he takes advantage of his chances every time they appear. He accepts both success and failure because he knows they are complementary, and they usually come bundled. He is aware that the relationship between them depends on him … and as time goes on, success becomes second nature.

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FAQ about Idealism

What is idealism theory?

The idealism theory, or philosophical idealism, refers to a family of philosophical theories that the realm of ideas constitutes a separate existence, often more important than the tangible world. That is why they are also known as immaterialism and they take the exact opposite position to the schools of materialism, for which only the tangible, material world exists.

What is an idealism example?

An example of idealism is the belief that all people are good in the end, that someone will always save the day. 

What are realism and idealism?

Realism and idealism are philosophical doctrines. The realism philosophy focuses on national interests and security, while the idealism philosophy is mainly concerned about the well-being of humans. 

What are the different types of idealism?

There are two basic types of idealism: metaphysical idealism and epistemological idealism. The first one, describes the idea of reality, while the second one holds the idea that the mind can grasp only the psychic.

What are the basic principles of idealism?

The basic two concepts and principles of idealism are the phenomenon, that is, the object as it appears or appears in front of the intelligence that perceives it, and the noumenon, the object as it is for itself.

What is idealism in simple words?

In simple words, idealism means believing in a “utopia” , the perfect and ideal world, where human well-being is the most important.  

Conclusions

In this blog post, we explained what idealism is, how it is classified and the representatives of this theory. In addition, we also wrote about its characteristics and criticisms.

The idealism theory, or philosophical idealism, refers to a family of philosophical theories that the realm of ideas constitutes a separate existence, often more important than the tangible world. That is why they are also known as immaterialism and they take the exact opposite position to the schools of materialism, for which only the tangible, material world exists.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know!

Further reading

Idealism: The History of a Philosophy, by Jeremy Dunham 

Idealism beyond Borders (Human Rights in History), by Eleanor Davey 

Idealism: The Art of Exalting Man, by Darin Panzer 

Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, by Tyron Goldschmidt 

References

“Idealism”: Author – Julia Máxima Uriarte, March 10, 2020.

Hilosophybasics.com – Idealism

Regonstate.edu – Philosophical Perspectives in Education

Qcc.cuny.edu – Idealism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Idealism

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