Idealism is one of the oldest schools of thoughts in the world of philosophy, originating in human nature itself, continuing from the primitive man to his present counterpart in some modified from or the other. From the idealistic standpoint it has overtones of spirituality since it believes that the ultimate existing element is spiritual in nature. The entire universe is an extension of the mind of soul. From the epistemological standpoint it is better called idealism implying thereby that thought or idea has greater validity than the physical object. From the normative standpoint it is accurately represented by the term idealism which means that the theory attaches greater importance to ideals than to facts in this world. Obviously the term idealism connotes different concepts when placed in various contexts. Whatever the context the word definitely represents a particular theory in philosophy.
It has always been believed that idealism is the philosophic theory which is a complete contradiction of the theory known as realism. Idealism has the following characteristics:
- Universe subsists with in the spirit or mind : According to this philosophic theory the entire world is fundamentally of the nature of spirit of mind which accounts for its being called idealism.
- Mechanistic explanation of universe is inadequate : Idealists refuses to accepts that the world or universe is susceptible to a mechanical explanation, or to believe that the processes of Nature can be explained on a mechanistic principle. For this reason the idealists are opposed to all deterministic thinking.
- Teleological explanation of universe : Opposed to the mechanistic explanations of the universe the idealists turn to a teleological theory which holds that human life and natural processes have a common objective which both are simultaneously trying to achieve. They do not object to or reject science but for them the scientific explanation of the universe is not the last word on the subject. Their standing point is best exemplified by the axiological attitude.
- Synthesis between Man and Nature : It becomes inevitable for the idealists to believe that there is harmony between the natural processes and human activity. Both man and Nature are busy in working out a common destiny.
- Man is central to the universe : Idealists are also humanists from this stand point. They believe that man being the ultimate is spiritual existents in central to the universe. Human life has a universal and omniscient importance or value. And in man’s ultimate good lies the final objective of the universe. It is in man that mind, the spiritual element underlying the entire universe realises its essential and purest nature.
- Special attention to the normative and social science : Opposed to the realists and the materialism the spiritualists or idealists do not accept the scientific explanation of the universe based on scientific laws. They prefer the assistance of the normative and the social science in their own scheme of the universe. Ethics, aesthetics and logic make up the three normative sciences while the chief among the social sciences are psychology and sociology. The idealistic expla-nation of the universe makes greater use of psychology, ethics, logic, aesthetics, etc. then of chemistry, physics, mathematics and the rest of the natural sciences. It is only natural for such an explanation to be completely opposed to the materialistic or naturalistic explanation of the universe.
- Evaluative explanation of the universe : In other words, the idealists profess an evaluative explanation of the universe and of human life which is what makes them idealists. It should be kept in mind that the term idealists does not imply the vague minded dreamer or imaginative visionary. The idealist does not reject the assistance of the natural science in comprehending the universe but he does not accept such natural facts to be the be all and end all of human life. His noting comprehends the realization of truth, beauty and goodness in human life.
- Conceptualists : In the field of epistemology the idealists is better called a conceptualist since he believes that the object has no existence apart from its concept. In professing this view the idealists propounds a theory completely at variance with the realist conception of the problem. He believes that the object and its qualities do not have any existence independent of the conception of them. Knowledge influences them. Knowledge of an object accrues not directly but indirectly, through the medium of thought. Objects are not public, since they change with the viewpoint from which they are observed. An object has no existence apart from the thought if it. Existence lies in being related to consciousness.
- Universe is knowledge : The idealists hold that the universe can be known through the medium of reason or mind since both mind and the universe are invested with an identical spiritual element. Hegel goes so far as to establish an identity between mind and nature by positing that mental categories coincide with stages in the development of the universe. Whatever the minor difference among them, all idealists hold that the universe is knowable.
- Emphasis on the mental or spiritual aspect of universe : Another important characteristic of the idealists thought is that it emphasizes the mental or spiritual aspects of the universe without nullifying or completely rejecting materialistic explanations of it. It is this higher aspect which conveys some meaning to the lower or material aspect. And everywhere the lower can be explained in terms of the higher. The naturalists of materialists reverse this by explaining the higher in terms of the lower. Idealism opposes this process.
- It is possible to derive some conception of the idealist position from the above elucidation.
Idealism V/s Materialism
As two distinct systems of philosophy, idealism and mate-rialism differ in the following respects:
- Basic element in the universe : According to idealist theory, the basic element in the universe is mind or spirit while according to the materialists the universe inheres in a material element or physical energy.
- Element of creation : Idealists believe that the elements that are basic to creation are experience, thought, reason, intelligence, personality, values, moral and religious ideals etc. On the other hand the materialists believe that the basis of creation are substance, motion and physical energy.
- Explanation of creation : In explaining creation the idealists postulate mind or spirit as prior to substance, and this helps them to provide a teleological explanation for the universe, or of conceiving the universe as an existent with an object. Materialist thinking tends to destroy this purposive edifice since it holds that it is material substance which is prior to mind and that the functioning of the universe can be explained with the help of such mechanical laws as conservation of energy and motion in electrically charged particles of matter.
- Primary of mind or substance : In this manner, according to idealism, it is the mind which is the only real existent, material substance being no more than an impression, image or shadow of it. For the materialists it is the material substance which has the highest reality while the mind is a secondary and accidental creation or emergent. According to the idealists, physical objects are only experimental while the actual reality in the universe in the universe is the mind.
- Difference in epistemology : From the epistemological standpoint materialism is realism while idealism tends towards what can be called idealism.
- Relation between Man and Nature : Idealism holds that man and Nature function in harmony while is central to the scheme of the universe, a position that is completely denied and contradicted by the materialists.
- Philosophic point of view : The philosophic standpoint of the idealists is idealist while the materialistic theory tends to a more realistic appraisal. Idealism makes a spiritual or evaluative appraisal of the universe and its functioning, materialism a more factual and realistic one.
- Emphasis on normative v/s physical science : In explaining the universe the idealists place greater emphasis upon the role played by such normative sciences as logic, aesthetics and ethics. Materialism, on the other hand, makes use of the natural sciences—physics, biology, chemistry and the rest of them to evolve a tenable theory of the origin and functioning of the universe.
- Stress on spiritual v/s physical aspect : In explaining the universe and the role of human beings and human life the idealists lay stress on the spiritual aspect of reality while the materialists transfer the importance to the physical side.
As science has progressed inexorably the concepts of mind, spirit and matter have undergone considerable change so much so that there is no conflict between materialism and spiritualism in present day philosophy. But it appears to be beyond doubt that idealism is nearer to an explanation of the modern human consciousness that materialism.
Types of idealism
Generally speaking there are many varieties of idealism in vogue but the more prominent ones can be conveniently listed as follows :
This particular species of idealism is to be found in the thought of Berkeley the British philosopher in the tradition of empiricism. It is termed subjective since it holds that all objects of knowledge are subjective in as much that they depend upon the mind. It is equivalent to a conceptual theory since it also holds that the universe is composed of either minds alone or of minds and their ideas, nothing else besides. According to Berkeley, existence lies in perception, meaning thereby that a thing exists only when it is the subject of perception. Anything which cannot be the subject of mind cannot exist. He does not imply thereby that the object must be a subject of only a mind, but of any mind that exists in the universe. It is also difficult to have an infinite number of thoughts in one mind which is finite; they can exist only in an infinite mind, and this mind is God.
Subjective idealism also holds that the qualities of an object have existence as elements in perception, not otherwise. Images depend upon the human mind while objects have their existence since they are perceived by God. Objects correspond to the knowledge of the while knowledge corresponds to the objects. Knowledge is direct awareness of the object. Objects are not public.
This particular form of idealism was propounded by Kant the German philosopher. Kant’s first discovery concerned the limits of man’s knowledge, and it led him to the conclusion that the only knowledge that is possible to man is knowledge of the phenomenon. From this hypothesis he proceeded to argue that objects are phenomenal, that their existence as well as the existence of their qualities depends upon their being known. An object is just as it appears to being its phenomenal appearance. There is direct knowledge of the phenomenal object, and this knowledge depends upon the construction of the mind. We can never know the thing-in-itself, or what is otherwise called the Noumenal reality. Therefore, this kind of reasoning leads subjective idealism to a kind of scepticism. This type of idealism finds its greatest difficulties in the duality it has posited between phenomenal and noumenal reality, object and its sensations and their classes, and between the mind and its categories of thought. Hegel is the most important thinker of all those who indulged in the effort of trying to resolve this dualism.
The Hegelian form of idealism is also known as objective idealism. According to Hegel the ultimate reality is the absolute eternal substance, outside which nothing can and does exist. If he believed this, then obviously his thought resembled the subjective idealism of Berkeley. But his idealism is given a different designation for he combines it with a touch of realism. He believed that although objects are not independent of the mind they are real and not dependent upon the finite mind. He accepts the independent existence of objects, that is independent of the finite mind. Hence the name objective idealism. Deviating from the dualism between phenomenal and noumenal reality created by Kant, Hegel believes that objects are just what they appear to be although the perception of them changes along with the change in our knowledge of them. The existence of objects does depend upon knowledge, and so does the existence of their qualities. The nature or form of objects is determined by knowledge, which is direct. This knowledge of objects is private and personal rather than public because they are the subjects of individual and private minds, not limited by another mind. The Absolute is the ultimate subject, within which all the limited objects are mutually related. From the standpoint of the Absolute all knowledge is subjective but from man’s standpoint it is objective. Hegel, therefore, represents the line of objective idealists.