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 (1646716) 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 (1685753) 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 (42847 B.C.E.).
Epistemological idealism can be reformulated as transcendental idealism. The critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724804) 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 (1762814), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775854), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770831), 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.
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