The term idealism refers to any philosophical system or thesis that emphasizes the mental (idea) or the notion of very high or preeminent value (ideal). Because minds evaluate, it is possible to imagine a deep relationship between these two very different criteria. There are some connections, but clarity demands that they be understood separately. Only the emphasis on the mental yields a distinctly idealist conception of time.
When emphasizing value, ideal, idealistic, and idealize serve many functions. For example, norms and goals are often called ideals. On that basis, some moral attitudes such as optimism, commitment, and cheerfulness are deemed idealism, as in “the idealism of youth.” Similarly, in international relations, idealism refers to a policy or posture obligating a state to promote higher aims among nations, such as peace, justice, cooperation, open borders, or democracy, while practical idealism refers to a position between that kind of idealism and what is known as realism, which refers to a state’s selfishness in international affairs.
A second line of usage takes off from the fact that whatever would fully satisfy a desire is called ideal. Hence, in aesthetics, idealism has to do with representing things as we would like them to be (idealized) rather than as they are. With a little pejorative shading here, idealist calls out a vice. Thus, in ethics, the idealist is one whose standards are unrealistically high, or who is too confident about the virtue of a person or line of action, or perhaps altruistic to a fault. A system of ethics might be called idealistic if it sacrifices too much for the sake of a particular principle; or if it elevates any aspect of moral life too high, for example, sympathy at the expense of autonomy, but especially the spiritual or rational at the expense of the sensual or immediate; or if it believes too much in the goodness, or perfectibility, of human nature; or if it overestimates the moral efficacy of a line of causation, such as instruction, role models, prayer, meditation, sobriety, free markets, self-denial, the individual, the mass, the ego, the id, or rationality. Slightly more pejorative shading renders the idealist an idle dreamer of utopias, or an impractical adherent of some perfect, best, or ultimate in some domain. At the deepest levels of pejoration, ideal gives way to idea, in the sense of imaginary, and the idealist is primarily a fantasist.
Philosophy and Idealism
When the emphasis falls on mind, rather than value, there are both broad and narrow uses. Most broadly, idealism is the negative of naturalism, materialism, or realism. Both naturalism (which abjures supernatural explanations) and materialism (which asserts that reality is ultimately physical) relegate the mental to a nonbasic, nonfundamental ontological status. Idealists do the reverse. Realism holds that the world exists independently of thoughts about it. Idealists typically deny some or all of that. However, there are systems of idealism that grant a good deal of realism, and so the most common and broadest ways of thinking about idealism treat it as the negative either of materialism or naturalism, or both.
For Karl Marx, it is the negative of materialism. If materialism is built upon the particular, the describable, and the sensuous, idealism stresses the universal, the indescribable, and the supersen- suous. Where materialism posits the mechanistic, idealism introduces the teleological, and where it abjures evaluation, idealism inserts appraisals. Taken in this way, idealism includes all theses and systems that ultimately ground reality in the animate or the mental, whether taken as idea, mind, will, ego, nous, logos, word, text, absolute, God, life force, or earth turtle. Every kind of theism in which something animate is the source, ground, or essence of nature is idealism. Every account of causation that introduces teleology is idealism. Every ascription of a value to the essence of things is idealism. In this sense, the history of philosophy is very much a history of idealism, if only because it has been rare for thinkers to adhere to strict materialism and to forgo teleological and normative language in their descriptions of the world. When they have deviated into materialism, many have settled on a dualistic view in which it inevitably became all but impossible to allow the material equal footing with the ideal, making them realists who maintain a form of idealism.
Such views are often called realistic idealism, which refers to any doctrine that recognizes the existence of nonmental, nonideal entities but relegates them to a subordinate status as compared to the ideal. Theistic schools of this sort allow some category of nonmental existence independent of the divine mind but also hold that the divine created it, perfected it, controls it, or is coeternal with it. Nontheistic schools include Plato’s system, in which timeless, disembodied ideas are organically united in the idea of the Good. Insofar as the world of particular things is downgraded into a mere imitation of these transcendent universals, Plato’s system is an instance of realistic idealism. Another example is psychological idealism, which is the doctrine that ideas or judgments cause thoughts or behaviors. Like Plato’s system, this doctrine is understood as denying either naturalism or materialism, or both, but not realism.
Epistemological idealism is the view that all entities other than minds are exclusively noetic objects, meaning that they have no reality apart from being perceived or thought by a mind. Edmund Husserl attempted to systematically think through a hypothetically couched form of epistemological idealism. In his phenomenology, the essences of objects, including the self, the other, time, and causation, are methodically treated as if they were exclusively noetic, apart from any other status they might actually have. A nonhypothetical system is found in George Berkeley’s doctrine of immaterialism, where to be is to be perceived, and all that exists must be either perceiver or perception. Another is the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, in which knowledge is wholly a product of the logical self or of transcendental unity of apperception.
In the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, learning is giving oneself to oneself. In postmodernism, there is nothing outside the text, and there are signifiers but no signified, both of which directly imply that our minds can encounter only thought. Semantic idealism is the thesis that our descriptions refer only to ideas rather than to things, so that, for example, the tautology, “When I speak of my right hand, it is my right hand of which I speak” is false, and instead, “When I speak of my right hand, it is an idea of my right hand of which I speak” is true. The implausibility of semantic idealism has been a frequent challenge to forms of epistemological and psychological idealism that rely on or imply it.
In its narrowest senses, idealism is variously qualified so as to sort and organize metaphysical outlooks. For example, impersonalistic idealism grounds the world in unconscious, spontaneous mental energy, whether as life force, precognitive urge, or primordial will. Personalistic idealism, also known as personalism, grounds the world in a selfconscious or purposive principle, such as nous, logos, or ego. The relationship between the mental world ground and individual, finite minds is crucial.
Monistic idealism holds that each finite mind is a mode, aspect, or projection of the One. Pluralistic idealism grants varying degrees of freedom, autonomy, privacy, uniqueness, and causal independence to the thoughts and acts of finite minds. With regard to their means of accounting for the natural world, schools of idealism are either subjective or objective. Subjective idealism holds that the natural world is a projection of our minds and appears to imply solipsism. Objective idealism identifies the natural world with the thoughts or acts of the world ground. Given these distinctions, Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which grounds the world in blind will and affirms that every lion is one lion, can be understood as an impersonalis- tic, monistic, objective idealism. Schopenhauer’s primary influence, the Vedic philosophy, which teaches that the finite self is a moment of the impersonal Brahman, is also an impersonalistic, monistic, objective idealism.
Schopenhauer’s antipode, G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy, which treats thought as the ground of the world, freedom as the condition of thought, and self-consciousness as the condition of freedom, obviously grounds the world in a self-conscious principle, and it is thus a personalistic, pluralistic, objective idealism. Henri Bergson’s philosophy of elan vitale is an impersonalistic, pluralistic, objective idealism, a status it shares with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of will to power.
George Berkeley’s immaterialism is often described as “subjective idealism,” but that cannot be the case as the term is defined here. Berkeley denies only matter in nature, not nature’s independence from finite minds. Objects in nature turn out to be exclusively noetic in his system, but they are not projections of our minds, but rather thoughts perceived in the mind of God, a view echoing prior work by Arthur Collier and John Norris. Because objects in nature are accounted for in terms of the acts of God’s mind, rather than the acts of finite minds, Berkeley is an objective idealist with a personalistic world ground and a pluralistic outlook on finite minds.
A version of subjective idealism is found in the “windowless monads” of Gottfried Leibniz, which perceive the real world by perceiving only themselves. A more recent example is the decidedly antirealist school of postmodernism. Given its denial that our minds can encounter anything other than thought, the question becomes whose thought, our own or that of another, is encountered in the objects of nature. The postmodernist cannot offer us an encounter with the thoughts or acts of an independent world ground, because that would mean encountering the signified rather than the signifier. With the only route to objective idealism thus blocked, the postmodern idealist must be a subjective idealist for whom the natural world is a mental projection conditioned by our backgrounds and differences. Because these backgrounds and differences condition the world, postmodernism is an impersonalistic, notably monistic, subjective idealism, in which an unmistakable degree of monism among finite minds is achieved through the notion of impersonal, collective construction of reality—to be is to signify as a group member.
In the philosophy of mind, hylozoism, the view that matter is alive, and hylopathism, the view that matter is sentient, or that whatever is ontologically more basic than consciousness, such as neurons and their building blocks, already contain the essentials of consciousness, are impersonalistic idealist views. Alfred North Whitehead’s panexperientialism, which holds that the fundamental constituents of reality are experiences, is somewhat more personalistic than these, as is panpsychism, which attributes mind to matter. Panentheism, which holds that the One both transcends and is imminent in the universe, and pantheism, which identifies the natural world with the One, are yet more personalistic. The occasionalism of Nicholas Malebranch, in which natural causation is an illusion and God is the sole cause of all events, including all human acts and cognitions, is an example of a highly monistic causal pantheism, the omnisufficiency of a personal One, in the philosophy of mind.
Time and Idealism
Because idealist thinking is found in all ages and languages, the term idealism is frequently restricted so as to sort schools according to historical criteria, for example, as 19th century, modern, or ancient idealism; German or British; Vedic or Buddhist; philosophical or religious. By the same token, there is no single idealist attitude pertaining to time. History’s various gods and goddesses of time, such as Chronos, Aion, Kali, and the figure of Father
Time, express personalistic views, while a World Tree and a World Snake express impersonalistic views. Personalistic creationism in this area has often stumbled over the fact that the notion of a creator of time looks incoherent, because a creator of time must change from a state of not creating time to a state of creating time, and thus time must exist (as the medium of change) before it is created.
In philosophy, there has been one characteristically idealist thesis about time, known as the ideality of time thesis, which holds that time is not to be found outside of mind, or that it is exclusively noetic, or phenomenal, a view expressed as early as Antiphon the Sophist. Plotinus held it as well. Its modern proponents, in their various ways, include Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and most of the school of 19th century German idealists, including Schopenhauer, Hegel, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling. Kant held that space and time were necessary, a priori preconditions of understanding. The external world is necessarily represented in space and time, while the inner world of thought is necessarily represented temporally. In both cases, time is empirically real but transcendentally ideal, meaning that it is an actual datum of experience, though we can have no reliable conception of it outside of experience. In contrast, Nietzsche probably denied the ideality of time in favor of a real eternal return. More recently, many of the existentialists who were inspired by Husserl’s work entertained phenomenological versions of the ideality of time, including Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In the school of British Idealism, F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart embraced the ideality of time thesis. The latter famously argued for the unreality of time and produced a system that was so pluralistic that there was no God or One in it. Instead, McTaggart grounded the world in the thoughts of a community of immortal spirits.
Belief in the ideality of time has often been held as a consequence of the belief that all things are ideal, but it has also occurred, for example in Kant and McTaggart, that belief in the ideality of time thesis has been the basis on which a more general idealism was erected and justified.
Critics of idealism have been many, beginning at least with Aristotle. The most notable German critics are Kant and Nietzsche. Kant argued against all forms of thought, including all forms of idealism, that move beyond the limits of categorical experience to predicate the thing in itself. Nietzsche suggests that Kant’s transcendental idealism is based in the faulty argument that a priori synthetic truths are possible by virtue of a faculty, and he describes Hegelian idealism and Kantian skepticism as delaying tactics employed in a largely theological struggle to prevent the emergence of a naturalistic world view.
In Britain, G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell led a revolt against the breed of Hegelian idealism that was then dominant in English philosophy. It was the seminal event in the birth of the school now known as analytic philosophy.
See also Berkeley, George; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Materialism; McTaggart, John M. E.; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Plato; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Solipsism; Whitehead, Alfred North
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