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Criticism of Idealism

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Criticism of Criticism of Idealism..

All of the Bibliography pages herein are written by a variety of unknown people commenting on and quoting famous philosophers. Many works are presented as fiction, referred to here but most are simply one philosopher commenting on another’s work. For us at to make a criticism of this page or others in the bibliography section, we would, at least, have to understand what the authors and commentators are talking about and so far that has not been accomplished. Each have their own interpretation of some theory or other and the words they choose coupled with their semantic meaning is just too nebulous to deserve comment. Enough to say that all their theories are incorrect except when thought is cited as the only process.

Immanuel Kant

In the 1st edition (1781) of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant described Idealism as such.

We are perfectly justified in maintaining that only what is within ourselves can be immediately and directly perceived, and that only my own existence can be the object of a mere perception. Thus the existence of a real object outside me can never be given immediately and directly in perception, but can only be added in thought to the perception, which is a modification of the internal sense, and thus inferred as its external cause... In the true sense of the word, therefore, I can never perceive external things, but I can only infer their existence from my own internal perception, regarding the perception as an effect of something external that must be the proximate cause... It must not be supposed, therefore, that an idealist is someone who denies the existence of external objects of the senses; all he does is to deny that they are known by immediate and direct perception...

Critique of Pure Reason, A367 f.

In the 2nd edition (1787) of his Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote a section called Refutation of Idealism to distinguish his transcendental idealism from Descartes’s Sceptical Idealism and Berkeley’s Dogmatic Idealism. In addition to this refutation in both the 1781 & 1787 editions the section "Paralogisms of Pure Reason" is an implicit critique of Descartes Problematic Idealism, namely the Cogito. He says that just from "the spontaneity of thought" (cf. Descartes’ Cogito) it is not possible to infer the ’I’ as an object. In his Notes and Fragments ( 6315,1790-91; 18:618) Kant defines idealism in the following manner:

" The assertion that we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining is idealism"

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard’s primary criticism against Hegel is based around Hegel’s claim to have developed a fully comprehensive system that could explain the whole of reality. The quote commonly used to express this idea, whether fair to Hegel or not, is, "What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational," in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821). Kierkegaard asserts that reality can be a system for God, but it cannot be so for any human individual, because both reality and humans are incomplete, and all philosophical systems imply completeness. Kierkegaard attacked Hegel’s idealist philosophy in several of his works, but most succinctly in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846).

In the Postscript, Kierkegaard, as the pseudonymous philosopher Johannes Climacus, argues that a logical system is possible but an existential system is impossible. Hegel argues that once one has reached an ultimate understanding of the logical structure of the world, one has also reached an understanding of the logical structure of God’s mind.

Climacus claims Hegel’s absolute idealism mistakenly blurs the distinction between existence and thought. Climacus also argues that our mortal nature places limits on our understanding of reality. As Climacus argues: "So-called systems have often been characterized and challenged in the assertion that they abrogate the distinction between good and evil, and destroy freedom. Perhaps one would express oneself quite as definitely, if one said that every such system fantastically dissipates the concept existence.... Being an individual man is a thing that has been abolished, and every speculative philosopher confuses himself with humanity at large; whereby he becomes something infinitely great, and at the same time nothing at all."

A major concern of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and of the philosophy of Spirit that he lays out in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817-1830) is the interrelation between individual humans, which he conceives in terms of "mutual recognition." However, what Climacus means by the aforementioned statement, is that Hegel, in the Philosophy of Right, believed the best solution was to surrender one’s individuality to the customs of the State, identifying right and wrong in view of the prevailing bourgeois morality. Individual human will ought, at the State’s highest level of development, to properly coincide with the will of the State. Climacus rejects Hegel’s suppression of individuality by pointing out it is impossible to create a valid set of rules or system in any society which can adequately describe existence for any one individual.

Submitting one’s will to the State denies personal freedom, choice, and responsibility. In addition, Hegel does believe we can know the structure of God’s mind, or ultimate reality. Hegel agrees with Kierkegaard that both reality and humans are incomplete, inasmuch as we are in time, and reality develops through time. But the relation between time and eternity is outside time and this is the "logical structure" that Hegel thinks we can know.

Kierkegaard disputes this assertion, because it eliminates the clear distinction between ontology and epistemology. Existence and thought are not identical and one cannot possibly think existence. Thought is always a form of abstraction, and thus not only is pure existence impossible to think, but all forms in existence are unthinkable; thought depends on language, which merely abstracts from experience, thus separating us from lived experience and the living essence of all beings. In addition, because we are finite beings, we cannot possibly know or understand anything that is universal or infinite such as God, so we cannot know God exists, since that which transcends time simultaneously transcends human understanding.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to mount a logically serious criticism of Idealism that has been popularised by David Stove (see below). He pre-empts Stove’s GEM by arguing that Kant’s argument for his transcendental idealism rests on a confusion between a tautology and begging the question, and therefore is an invalid, improper argument. In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Part 1 On the Prejudice of Philosophers Section 11, he ridicules Kant for admiring himself because he had undertaken and (thought he) succeeded in tackling "the most difficult thing that could ever be undertaken on behalf of metaphysics."

Quoting Nietzsche’s prose:

"But let us reflect; it is high time to do so. ’How are synthetic judgements a priori possible?’ Kant asked himself and what really is his answer? ’By virtue of a faculty’ - but unfortunately not in five words,... The honeymoon of German philosophy arrived. All the young theologians of the Tübingen seminary went into the bushes all looking for ’faculties’... ’By virtue of a faculty’ - he had said, or at least meant. But is that an answer? An explanation? Or is it not rather merely a repetition of the question? How does opium induce sleep? ’By virtue of a faculty,’ namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliére."

(In fairness to Kant, we might note that when Nietzsche claims to know what Kant "at least meant," in his discussion of the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments, he neither cites nor paraphrases anything that Kant actually wrote [Nietzsche rarely cites or paraphrases his opponents].) In addition to the Idealism of Kant, Nietzsche in the same book attacks the idealism of Schopenhauer and Descartes via a similar argument to Kant’s original critique of Descartes. Quoting Nietzsche:

There are still harmless self-observers who believe that there are "immediate certainties"; for example, "I think," or as the superstition of Schopenhauer put it, "I will"; as though knowledge here got hold of its objects purely and nakedly as "the thing in itself," without any falsification on the part of either the subject or the object. But that "immediate certainty," as well as "absolute knowledge" and the "thing in itself," involved a contradictio in adjecto, (contradiction between the noun and the adjective) I shall repeat a hundred times; we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words!

G. E. Moore

The first criticism of Idealism that falls within the analytic philosophical framework is by one of its co-founders Moore. This 1903 seminal article, The Refutation of Idealism. This one of the first demonstrations of Moore’s commitment to analysis as the proper philosophical method.

Moore proceeds by examining the Berkeleian aphorism esse est percipi: "to be is to be perceived". He examines in detail each of the three terms in the aphorism, finding that it must mean that the object and the subject are necessarily connected. So, he argues, for the idealist, "yellow" and "the sensation of yellow" are necessarily identical - to be yellow is necessarily to be experienced as yellow. But, in a move similar to the open question argument, it also seems clear that there is a difference between "yellow" and "the sensation of yellow". For Moore, the idealist is in error because "that esse is held to be percipi, solely because what is experienced is held to be identical with the experience of it".

Though this refutation of idealism was the first strong statement by analytic philosophy against its idealist predecessors--or at any rate against the type of idealism represented by Berkeley--this argument did not show that the GEM (in post Stove vernacular, see below) is logically invalid. Arguments advanced by Nietzsche (prior to Moore), Russell (just after Moore) & 80 years later Stove put a nail in the coffin for the "master" argument supporting (Berkeleyan) idealism.

Bertrand Russell

Despite Bertrand Russell’s hugely popular book The Problems of Philosophy (this book was in its 17th printing by 1943) which was written for a general audience rather than academia, few ever mention his critique even though he completely anticipates David Stove’s GEM both in form and content (see below for David Stove’s GEM). In chapter 4 (Idealism) he highlights Berkeley’s tautological premise for advancing idealism.

Quoting Russell’s prose (1912:42-43):

"If we say that the things known must be in the mind, we are either un-duly limiting the mind’s power of knowing, or we are uttering a mere tautology. We are uttering a mere tautology if we mean by ’in the mind’ the same as by ’before the mind’, i.e. if we mean merely being apprehended by the mind. But if we mean this, we shall have to admit that what, in this sense, is in the mind, may nevertheless be not mental. Thus when we realize the nature of knowledge, Berkeley’s argument is seen to be wrong in substance as well as in form, and his grounds for supposing that ’idea’-i.e. the objects apprehended-must be mental, are found to have no validity whatever. Hence his grounds in favour of the idealism may be dismissed."

A.C. Ewing

Published in 1933, A. C. Ewing, according to David Stove, mounted the first full length book critique of Idealism, entitled Idealism; a critical survey. Stove does not mention that Ewing anticipated his GEM.

David Stove

The Australian philosopher David Stove argued in typical acerbic style that idealism rested on what he called "the worst argument in the world". From a logical point of view his critique is no different from Russell or Nietzsche’s -- but Stove has been more widely cited and most clearly highlighted the mistake of proponents (like Berkeley) of subjective idealism. He named the form of this argument - invented by Berkeley -- "the GEM". Berkeley claimed that "[the mind] is deluded to think it can and does conceive of bodies existing unthought of, or without the mind, though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself". Stove argued that this claim proceeds from the tautology that nothing can be thought of without its being thought of, to the conclusion that nothing can exist without its being thought of.

The following is Stove’s version of Berkeley’s GEM (1991:139):

1) You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind.

2) Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.

1) Is a tautology (self-referential statement); therefore the premise of this argument is trivially true.

2) Is not a trivially true conclusion. The logic flowing from 1) to 2) is valid (as this premise cannot lead to a false conclusion), but unsound because tautological premises can bring only tautological conclusions.

Refer to Stove’s 1991 book The Plato Cult & Other Philosophical Follies chapter 6 Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story for numerous elucidations and numerous GEM’s quoted from the history of philosophy and GEM’s reconstructed in syllogistic form.

John Searle

In The Construction of Social Reality John Searle offers an attack on some versions of idealism. Searle conveniently summarises two important arguments for (subjective) idealism. The first is based on our perception of reality:

1. All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experiences.

2. The only epistemic basis we can have for claims about the external world are our perceptual experiences. therefore,

3. The only reality we can meaningfully speak of is the reality of perceptual experiences. (The Construction of Social Reality p. 172) Whilst agreeing with (2), Searle argues that (1) is false, and points out that (3) does not follow from (1) and (2).

The second argument for (subjective) idealism runs as follows:

Premise: Any cognitive state occurs as part of a set of cognitive states and within a cognitive system.

Conclusion 1: It is impossible to get outside of all cognitive states and systems to survey the relationships between them and the reality they are used to cognize.

Conclusion 2: No cognition is ever of a reality that exists independently of cognition. (The Construction of Social Reality p. 174)

Searle goes on to point out that conclusion 2 simply does not follow from its precedents.

Alan Musgrave

Alan Musgrave in an article titled Realism and Antirealism in R. Klee (ed), Scientific Inquiry: Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Oxford, 1998, 344-352 - later re-titled to Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s GEM in A. Musgrave, Essays on Realism and Rationalism, Rodopi, 1999 also in M.L. Dalla Chiara et al. (eds), Language, Quantum, Music, Kluwer, 1999, 25-35 - Alan Musgrave argues in addition to Stove’s GEM, Conceptual Idealists compound their mistakes with use/mention confusions and proliferation of unnecessary hyphenated entities. stock examples of use/mention confusions:

Santa Claus (the person) does not exist. ’Santa Claus’ (the name/concept/fairy tale) does exist; because adults tell children this every Christmas season.

The distinction in philosophical circles is highlighted by putting quotations around the word when we want to refer only to the name and not the object. stock examples of hyphenated entities:

things-in-itself (Immanuel Kant) things-as-interacted-by-us (Arthur Fine) Table-of-commonsense (Sir Arthur Eddington) Table-of-physics (Sir Arthur Eddington) Moon-in-itself Moon-as-howled-by-wolves Moon-as-conceived-by-Aristotelians Moon-as-conceived-by-Galileans

Hyphenated entities are "warning signs" for conceptual idealism according to Musgrave is because they over emphasis the epistemic (ways on how people come to learn about the world) activities and will more likely commit errors in use/mention. These entities do not exist (strictly speaking and are ersatz entities) but highlight the numerous ways in which people come to know the world.

In Sir Arthur Eddington’s case use/mention confusions compounded his problem when he thought he was sitting at two different tables in his study (table-of-commonsense and table-of-physics). In fact Eddington was sitting at one table but had two different perspectives or ways of knowing about that one table.

Richard Rorty and Postmodernist Philosophy in general have been attacked by Musgrave for committing use/mention confusions. Musgrave argues that these confusions help proliferate GEM’s in our thinking and serious thought should avoid GEM’s.

Philip J. Neujahr

"Although it would be hard to legislate about such matters, it would perhaps be well to restrict the idealist label to theories which hold that the world, or its material aspects, are dependent upon the specifically cognitive activities of the mind or Mind in perceiving or thinking about (or ’experiencing’) the object of its awareness." (Kant’s Idealism, Ch. 1)

Idealism in religious thought

A broad enough definition of idealism could include most religious viewpoints. The belief that personal beings (e.g., God and the angels) preceded the existence of insentient matter seems to suggest that an experiencing subject is a necessary reality. Also, the existence of an omniscient God suggests, regardless of the actual nature of matter, that all of nature is the object of at least one consciousness. Materialism sees no incoherence in a scenario of there being a cosmos where no sentient subject ever develops; a wholly unknown universe where neither any subject, nor any object of a subject’s experience ever exists. Historically, Mechanistic Materialism has been the favorite viewpoint of Atheist philosophers. Still, idealistic viewpoints that have not included God, supernatural beings, or a post-mortem existence have sometimes been advanced.

While many religious philosophies are indeed specifically idealist, for example, some Hindu denominations view regarding the nature of Brahman, souls, and the world are idealistic, some have favored a form of substance dualism. Mahayana Buddhist denominations have usually embraced some form of idealism, while some Christian theologians have held idealist views, substance dualism has been the more common view of Christian authors, especially with the strong influence of the philosophy of Aristotle among the Scholastics. Several modern religious movements, for example the organizations within the New Thought Movement and the Unity Church, may be said to have a particularly idealist orientation.

The theology of Christian Science includes a form of subjective idealism: it teaches that all that exists is God and God’s ideas; that the world as it appears to the senses is a distortion of the underlying spiritual reality.

A Course in Miracles

A spiritual self-study course published in 1976, represents an explicitly idealist, pure non-dualistic thought system. In the Course, only God and His Creation, which is Spirit and has nothing to do with the world, are real. The physical universe is an illusion and does not exist. The Course compares the world of perception with a dream. It arises from the projection of the dreamer, i.e. the mind ("projection makes perception,", according to its wishes (perception "is the outward picture of a wish; an image that you wanted to be true," T-24.VII.8:10). The purpose of the perceptual world is to ensure our separate, individual existence apart from God but avoid the responsibility and project the guilt onto others. As we learn to give the world another purpose and recognize our perceptual errors, we also learn to look past them or "forgive," as a way to awaken gradually from the dream and finally remember our true Identity in God. The Course’s non-dualistic metaphysics is similar to Advaita Vedanta. What A Course in Miracles adds, is that it gives a motivation for the seeming though illusory existence of the perceptual world (for a further discussion, see Wapnick, Kenneth: The Message of A Course in Miracles, 1997, ISBN 0-933291-25-6).

The West is inundated with physicalistic monism. There is widespread belief that everything will be explained in terms of matter/energy by science. Since we are constantly taught this it may make the idea of mentalistic monism hard to grasp. One way to begin to grasp the idea is through analogy. One analogy is the movie screen. If we next consider "Star Trek’s holodeck" it takes us a step further as what appear to be physical objects are not. Next consider the movie "The Matrix". In "The Matrix" even people’s bodies and identities are projected. Then replace the machine with a vast and powerful mind. A last analogy is our dreams at night. We seem to be in a world filled with other objects and other people and yet nothing of it is real. Although this is not a strict philosophical argument it does allow us to begin to think along these lines.

Idealism is based on the root word "Ideal," meaning a perfect form of, and is also described as a belief in perfect forms of virtue, truth, and the absolute. (i.e., Webster’s Dictionary says "conforming exactly to an ideal, law, or standard: perfect"). idealism in comparison to pragmatism.

Idealism&action Other uses

In general parlance, "idealism" or "idealist" is also used to describe a person having high ideals, sometimes with the connotation that those ideals are unrealisable or at odds with "practical" life.

The word "ideal" is commonly used as an adjective to designate qualities of perfection, desirability, and excellence. This is foreign to the epistemological use of the word "idealism" which pertains to internal mental representations. These internal ideas represent objects that are assumed to exist outside of the mind.

See also

McTaggart, The Unreality of Time		
Solipsism, which is related to epistemological idealism 
Practical idealism 
German idealism 
Transcendental idealism 
A.C. Grayling-Wittgenstein on Scepticism and Certainty Science and Health
with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy: idealism in religious thought

Reference List of "ism’s", Theories "ologys" and Philosophies

Analytic philosophy
Continental Philosophy
Critical theory
Dialectical materialism
Logical Positivism
New Philosophers
Ordinary language
Virtue ethics