Idealism - Definitions


Idealism is a term with several related meanings. It comes via idea from the Greek idein (ἰδεῖν), meaning "to see". The term entered the English language by 1796. In ordinary use, as when speaking of Woodrow Wilson's political idealism, it generally suggests the priority of ideals, principles, values, and goals over concrete realities. Idealists are understood to represent the world as it might or should be, unlike pragmatists, who focus on the world as it presently is. In the arts, similarly, idealism affirms imagination and attempts to realize a mental conception of beauty, a standard of perfection, in opposition to aesthetic naturalism and realism.

Any philosophy that assigns crucial importance to the ideal or spiritual realm in its account of human existence may be termed "idealist". Metaphysical idealism is an ontological doctrine that holds that reality itself is incorporeal or experiential at its core. Beyond this, idealists disagree on which aspects of the mental are more basic. Platonic idealism affirms that abstractions are more basic to reality than the things we perceive, while subjective idealists and phenomenalists tend to privilege sensory experience over abstract reasoning. Epistemological idealism is the weaker view that reality can only be known through ideas, that only psychological experience can be apprehended by the mind.

Subjective idealists like George Berkeley are anti-realists in terms of a mind-independent world, whereas transcendental idealists like Immanuel Kant are strong skeptics of such a world, affirming epistemological and not metaphysical idealism. Thus Kant defines idealism as "the assertion that we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining". However, not all idealists restrict the real or the knowable to our immediate subjective experience. Objective idealists make claims about a transempirical world, but simply deny that this world is essentially divorced from or ontologically prior to the mental. Thus Plato and Gottfried Leibniz affirm an objective and knowable reality transcending our subjective awareness—a rejection of epistemological idealism—but propose that this reality is grounded in ideal entities, a form of metaphysical idealism. Nor do all metaphysical idealists agree on the nature of the ideal; for Plato, the fundamental entities were non-mental abstract forms, while for Leibniz they were proto-mental and concrete monads.

As a rule, transcendental idealists like Kant affirm idealism's epistemic side without committing themselves to whether reality is ultimately mental; objective idealists like Plato affirm reality's metaphysical basis in the mental or abstract without restricting their epistemology to ordinary experience; and subjective idealists like Berkeley affirm both metaphysical and epistemological idealism.

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