What is Idealism in philosophy?

In this guide, we will discuss What is Idealism in philosophy and we will mention some of the most influential philosophers of this doctrine. Additionally, we will see some of the differences between idealism and realism, which are regarded as opposites. Finally, we will mention six of the basic principles around idealism and some of the arguments to support this point of view. 

What is Idealism in philosophy?

If you are wondering, ‘What is Idealism in philosophy?’ we need to start by defining what Idealism is. Idealism is a philosophical doctrine which argues that ideas are the only reality. Additionally, for idealists, there is no external reality and the world only consists of ideas. For this reason, the idealists believe that material things do not really exist.

Moreover, for the idealists, material things don’t seem to exist because they are mutable and destructible while ideas are not, since, on the contrary, they are immutable and indestructible. Subsequently and following their line of idea, we find that their argument comes from the thought that whatever that is mutable and destructible keeps on changing and whatever that keeps changing then it can’t be considered real.   

Idealism is usually contrasted with Realism, which is the philosophical doctrine that argues that material objects are independent of the human mind and this means they can exist on their own. Therefore, realists argue that material objects are real and contrary to the contention of the realists, idealists do associate reality with the ‘mind’ rather than material things.

Finally, we find that the mind is the essence of reality for idealists and ideas are the only permanent reality. 

Plato and Idealism 

As you may know already, Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher that was one of the most famous philosophers to provide arguments in favour of Idealism, in fact, it is considered the father of Idealism. It is well known that Plato believed that the physical world was not real and as we have mentioned since the physical world undergoes constant changes then we can’t really tell what it really is.

In his work titled ‘The Republic’, Plato introduced two kinds of world, the world of forms or ideas and the world of matter. According to Plato, any material object that exists in the world of matter is just a copy of the objects that exist in the world of ideas or forms. For instance, let’s think about a tree. For Plato, the tree that we experience in the world of matter is not real because it can change and can be destroyed. 

However, the ‘real’ tree is the one that exists in the world of forms, meaning, the tree that exists on the level of idea. Indeed, our conception of material objects, for instance, the tree from our example. Is the ‘form’ of those material objects. For Plato, that is the ‘real’ tree, the one that exists in the world of ideas. 

Idealism vs Realism

As we have mentioned, Plato said there are two worlds which are also known as the spiritual or mental world being eternal, permanent, regular and universal. The second type is also known as the world of appearance which is no other than the one we are able to experience through our senses, it is believed to be imperfect and to change. The division is often referred to by philosophers of the mind as the duality of mind and body. 

In contrast, as we have mentioned, realists believe that reality exists independent of the human mind and the ultimate reality is the one where physical objects are (focus on the body/objects). Additionally, realists believe that truth is objective, meaning what we can experience through our senses. Another influential Greek philosopher who was Plato’s student was Aristotle and he is known as the father of both Realism and the scientific method. 

In his philosophical point of view, the aim was to understand objective reality through the use of all observable data. As indicated by oregonstate.edu, “Aristotle believed that to understand an object, its ultimate form had to be understood, which does not change. For example, a rose exists whether or not a person is aware of it. A rose can exist in the mind without being physically present, but ultimately, the rose shares properties with all other roses and flowers (its form), although one rose may be red and another peach coloured.”

Basic principles of idealism in philosophy

According to Sommer (2018) from britannica.com, there are six common basic conceptions that distinguish idealistic philosophy, and they are:

  • The union of individuality and universality.
  • The contrast between contemporaneity and eternity.
  • The doctrine of internal relations and the coherence theory of truth.
  • The dialectical method.
  • The centrality of mind in knowledge and being.
  • Transmutation of evil into good.

“To be is to be perceived”

This argument indicates that all the qualities attributed to objects are sense qualities. Therefore, the colours we see are quality of visual experience and the hardness of objects is the sensing of resistance to a striking action. However, these qualities only seem to exist when they are perceived by some individual or spirit equipped with sense organs. 

George Berkley, who is known as one of the most influential empiricists, rejects the idea that sense perceptions are caused by a material substance. Subsequently, we see how he proposes the statement ‘to be is to be perceived’. This is considered a simple argument but among modern idealists is considered irrefutable.

The reciprocity argument

This argument is closely related to the one we have just mentioned. It is believed that it is closely related to ‘To be is to be perceived’ from the perspective of contention that subject and object are reciprocally dependent upon each other. Therefore, it is possible to conceive the existence of a subject without an object, “since the essential meaning of being a subject is being aware of an object and that of being an object is being an object to a subject, that relation being absolutely and universally reciprocal (Sommer, 2018)”. 

Consequently, it is argued that every complete reality is always a unity between a subject and an object (i.e. an immaterial reality, a concrete universal).

What is Idealism in philosophy?

The mystical argument

This third argument holds that in the individual’s immediate experience (his own subjective awareness), the intuitive self is able to achieve a direct apprehension of ultimate reality, which ends up being spiritual. Consequently, the mystic can bypass normal cognition, feeling that, for metaphysical ‘perceptions’, the process of mediation interposed between the objects we sense and their perceptions reduce the reliability as compared with direct intuition. 

This argument has many thinkers and philosophers supporting it, who have lived in different periods and cultures. Some of the most ancient philosophers are known to be the Greek and one of them was Plato who believed the final leap to the form of ‘good’ was mystical in nature. However, we also have to mention that Hinduists, Buddhists, Chinese, etc., have also idealists among them and idealistic points of view.

Why is this blog about What is Idealism in philosophy important?

As we have mentioned while answering, ‘What is Idealism in philosophy?’ We started by defining what Idealism is. Idealism is a philosophical doctrine which argues that ideas are the only reality. Additionally, for idealists, there is no external reality and the world only consists of ideas. For this reason, the idealists believe that material things do not really exist. 

Moreover, we talked about how for the idealists, material things don’t seem to exist because they are mutable and destructible while ideas are not, since, on the contrary, they are immutable and indestructible. Subsequently and following their line of idea, we find that their argument comes from the thought that whatever that is mutable and destructible keeps on changing and whatever that keeps changing then it can’t be considered real. There are several types or varieties of Idealism that are worth looking into if you consider yourself as an idealist or if you agree with their arguments. 

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about What is Idealism in philosophy

What do you mean by Idealism?

Idealism in philosophy means a group of metaphysical views which argue that ‘reality’ is in some way indistinguishable or inseparable from human perception and/or understanding that is believed to be mentally constituted, closely connected to ideas. According to the philosophical perspective, idealism is conceived as the doctrine that argues the world/reality only exists essentially as a spirit or consciousness.

What is the role of students in Idealism?

Idealism is believed to be one of the most traditional philosophical doctrines in education, in which a teacher has the central role as a role model, showing them how to become good citizens. Students are meant to answer the questions the teacher asks and subsequently, the teacher provides feedback that allows students to improve themselves.

What are the main features of Idealism?

The main features of Idealism or the most important fundamental principles of Idealism are:

  • Idealism believes in the Universal Mind.
  • Idealism believes Man is a Spiritual Being.
  • The world of ideas and values are more important than the physical world or the world of matter.
  • Real knowledge is perceived in mind.
  • Importance of personality development. 

What are the types of Idealism?

There are two basic types of Idealism, metaphysical Idealism which argues the ideality of reality and epistemological Idealism, which argues that in the knowledge process the mind can grasp only the psychic or that its objects are conditioned by their perceptibility. However, some philosophers and thinkers are said to argue that there are more types or varieties of Idealism.

What is the aim of Idealism?

The aim of Idealism in education is to discover and develop the abilities and full moral excellence of each individual in order to better serve in society. The curricular emphasis is the subject matter of mind in areas such as literature, history, philosophy, and religion.

References 

Youtube.com: “What is Idealism? – PHILO-notes”

Oregonstate.edu: “Section III – Philosophical Perspectives in Education. Part 2”

Sommer, D.R. (2018, Mar.) Idealism. Retrieved from britannica.com/topic/idealism.

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.