What Idealism Is and isn’t



“Shorn of its rational constraint, the banner of ‘realism’ by itself becomes strictly meaningless. In fact, the relations between ‘realism,’ ‘materialism,’ and ‘idealism,’ are of considerable dialectical complexity so I think it’s a mistake to brandish any one of them in isolation from the others. They derive whatever philosophical sense they posses from their contrastive inter-dependence. Just as the assertion of an unqualified or indiscriminate ‘realism’ is uninformative, the proclamation of ‘materialism’ has also become meaningless, a genuflection to academic orthodoxy often licensing positions that are indistinguishable from the most objectionable theses of idealism.” – Brassier, Interview in Realism, Materialism Art

Brassier’s sentiment in the above quote, combined with Grant, Dunham, and Watson’s ruminations on idealism as a realism of the idea, has led me deeper into the history of idealism. Examining the texts of figures such as Berkeley, Kant, and the post-Kantians, as well as the British and American Idealists, has quickly painted a very different image of the tradition then what is usually given. It seems clear to me that the positive or constructive project of idealism has been lost, and that the name has become a dumping ground for the negative aspects of philosophy (as Brassier suggests).

Going through the idealist canon one finds a number of idealisms none of which confirm to the most egregious stereotype of idealism generically – namely that the idealist position is an extreme form of solipsism, that the world merely leaps out of the mind. Starting with this as the strong form of ontological idealism, (SOI) a basic schema can be set up to try and track the general stance of idealism though this still does not do justice to its more specific claims, or its more constructive project.

Strong Ontological Idealism (SOI): All is Thought/Everything is mind. (Possible candidates – Sprigge, James Jeans, Eddington)

Strong Epistemological Idealism (SEI): Everything we know is mind. (Berkeley)

Weak Ontological Idealism (WOI): Everything is minds and ideas (British and American Idealism while German Idealism falls somewhere between WOI and SEI)

Weak Epistemological Idealism (WEI): Everything is in minds. (Kant? This is hotly debated still)

SOI – Most of the thinkers who might fall into this category are physicists from the turn of the century and into the 1950s. But even a figure like Jeans who discusses the cosmos as a ‘giant thought’ leaves questions. To say the cosmos is more like a mind than like a machine expresses more a skepticism regarding mechanism than a particularly strong thesis about the power, or being, of mind. Even if Jeans’ claim is that the cosmos is more mind like, this can still be read as a materialist claim about the mind (i.e., it is more like the cosmos than some would like to admit, i.e., its constitution deeply affects its behavior). Jeans and Eddington simply wonder if the indeterminancy which appeared to be at the heart of physics for them may apply to the very basic functioning of thought. More speculatively, the claim could be made is what exists is the mind of god and we are merely thoughts in that mind. As Jeans famously wrote in The Universe Around Us:

Finite picture whose dimensions are a certain amount of space and a certain amount of time; the protons and electrons are the streaks of paint which define the picture against its space-time background. Traveling as far back in time as we can, brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility.”

While I am skeptical as to the theological implications, such a claim is still far from the standard solipsistic claim aimed at idealism generally.

SEI – In his Metaphysics for the Mob John Russell Roberts demolishes the standard critique of Berkeley surrounding the damning phrase esse ist princi (to be is to be perceived). Roberts writes:

“Berkeley tells us, ‘‘[t]heir esse is percipi.’’ Clearly, the ‘their’ is anaphoric on ‘unthink-
ing things,’ what Berkeley also sometimes refers to as ‘‘sensible things’’ and some-
times as ‘‘ideas.’’ What Berkeley taught is that the being of sensible things consists in
their being perceived. But with that said, two all-important points have to be
insisted upon immediately. First, the same is not true of minds, what Berkeley more frequently calls ‘‘spirits’’ but also refers to (equivalently) as ‘‘souls,’’ ‘‘wills,’’ and ‘‘agents.’’ The being of spirits does not depend on their being perceived. In fact, spirits cannot be perceived. [T]he words will, soul, spirit, do not stand for different ideas, or in truth, for any idea at all, but for something which is very different from ideas, and which being an agent cannot be like unto, or represented by, any idea whatsoever.
The esse of spirits is not percipi. The second point is even more important: Berkeley is a monist. His is a monism of minds.” (5)

The skepticism which accompanies Berkeley’s thought (which anyone who has paid any attention to Hume would notice) is why he is in the strong epistemological camp since spiritual-substance, whatever it is that composes the self, is not known other than through its effects. Thus even in Berkeley something is not mind-like and even is ontologically outside the purview of mind other than as a supposition. There is a reason why the empiricists built on his work more than they tore it down…

WOI – The spectrum of this position runs somewhere between Hegel and Bradley in that there is some discordance between mind and idea (via negation for the former or in dissembling and reassembling experience for the latter) in which there may be something outside thought but only as a limit to which thought must approach. Thus ‘outside’ only comes into play as a epistemological motivator to indicate the failure of thought. Objective Idealism would fall into this camp (particularly of Peirce and Schelling) whereas absoluteness would as long as it is qualified by some form of indirect access (thus Hegel may fall into SOI.

WEI -Weak epistemological Idealism is probably the most common claim and could be applied to much of continental philosophy following Heidegger, and much of analytic thought that follows in the wake of Wittgenstein. Kant is arguably the progenitor since his form of thought admits there is something outside minds and ideas, but that speaking or thinking it is somewhat contradictory other than feeding into our senses and intuitions.

This general sketch is far from polished but I would hope it at least make the throwaway use of the term ‘idealism’ as a general insult in the realm of thought (or of politics in a different sense) problematic. If the term fits into an ecology along with realism and materialism, the purported limits of the former, and the indiscriminate meanings of the latter become more sharply focused. Without using idealism as that form of thought which studies the behavior of thoughts, that treats them as if they escaped their material or rational habitats, realism gets into troubling explaining imagination and materialism gets into trouble explaining abstraction (just for starters). Furthermore, and as I tried to discuss here, analytic philosophy in its turn to fictionalism has re-entered idealist terrain that it Moore and Russel had declared off limits.

Lastly, and to leave room for future writing, one of the central issues of idealism, particularly in the form of British Idealism, was not about realism or rationalism opposed to idealism (many of the idealists saw themselves as rationalists as opposed to empiricists or pragmatists) but about the tension between monism and pluralism, between identity and difference. The contours of this debate, how it played about between Bradley and James has a lot to say about current battles between flat and layered ontologies,


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