Idealism vs. Realism: A Brief History
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently read a number of famous Idealists in the history of philosophy, as well as some famous critics of Idealism. For those of you not terribly familiar with the history of Idealism, let me give you a brief historical overview. But be warned: This is not so much an objective, well-rounded history of Idealism as a preliminary ramble on the matter.
First of all, a clarification of words, since Idealism in a philosophical sense has nothing to do with having high ideals. Rather, it asserts that what is most real and/or accessible to us humans are our ideas or thoughts about the world. (I guess a more fitting name for this strand of thought would be “Idea-ism” instead of Idealism.) To what degree and in what precise way those ideas actually correspond to an outside reality that causes our sense perception is an open question. Idealism is hence the opposite of Realism. Again, Realism in a philosophical sense has nothing to do with being realistic. Rather, it asserts that what is most real and/or accessible is the outside reality in which we live. I should add, however, that there are many variations of Realism and that some are harder to distinguish from Idealism than others.
Several posts I had last year about the question in what way and to what degree science reveals reality were essentially a debate between Idealism and Realism. But the two positions go much further back than modern science. Plato, in many ways the founder of Western philosophy, is seen by some as a Realist and by others as an Idealist. I gravitate more toward calling him an Idealist, albeit a different one than some later Idealists. For later Idealists such as Descartes and Kant, the ultimate goal lay in knowing the reality and particulars of (1) the human mind and (2) the physical world, and they did so by examining how we build up ideas about that world. In contrast, for Plato the ultimate goal lay in getting away from the physical world of particulars altogether, toward an appreciation of pure ideas. For Descartes and Kant, ideas were a means to an end, and that end was knowledge of the physical world and thinking beings within this world. For Plato, the world was a means to attain a purely intellectual—perhaps one could even say “spiritual”—end, namely the appreciation of abstract concepts such as the “Good”, beauty or mathematics. In that way, Plato’s goal was much closer to that of mystics and other religious people whose main purpose is not to get to know the material world, but to use the world as a vehicle to get beyond the world.
But in another respect, Plato was a much greater Realist than either Descartes or Kant, because he thought that these Ideas existed completely independently of humans thinking them, whereas for Descartes and Kant, reality could not be separated from thinking about reality. Kant considered things as they really are in themselves, independent of our perceiving them, to be beyond the reach of human knowledge, whereas Plato considered things in themselves to be ultimately knowable.
Plato’s student Aristotle directly reversed his master’s course toward the universal Ideas. He, instead, set out to map as detailed as possible all the particulars of this world. Although it could be said he was an Idealist in the sense that he categorized pretty much everything in Nature, and what else is categorization than imposing certain ideas on the outside world? Or if “imposing” is too strong a word, then at least he still abstracted certain patterns and categories from Nature.
Also, I am not at all sure that Realists would be happy to claim Aristotle’s Metaphysics as their own. Nor, come to think of it, his Organon, that is, his six works on logic. For aren’t his “laws” of logic the ultimate abstraction and universalization of thought itself? What could be more idealistic than to formulate laws of logic? Having gotten rid of Plato’s forms, did Aristotle not create new absolute forms by the erection of logic? These forms are more idealistic and less realistic than Plato’s forms, because they are more bound up with human thinking. In another sense, however, they are realistic and exist outside of ourselves, because they are not merely descriptive forms of how we actually think but normative forms of how we ought to think. Just like Plato’s forms of ideas are something we ought to strive toward, so Aristotle’s forms of logic are something we ought to strive toward. (Edmund Husserl calls Aristotle’s laws of logic “forms” in his “Widerlegung des Psychologismus”.)
But perhaps, by portraying Aristotle as half an Idealist, I am only betraying my own leanings toward Idealism. For the Idealist, everyone is an Idealist; Realists are only fooling themselves. At least the “naïve” Realists. The line between what are called “critical” Realists and Idealists is more blurred, I would say, and I am still not quite sure whether I am a moderate Idealist or a critical Realist.
In any case, Aristotle’s main goal seems to have been to get to know the particulars, not the universals, and he tried to steer away as far as possible from Plato’s kind of Idealism. Also, he is centuries away from Kant’s kind of Idealism, since the starting point of Aristotle’s thought is the outer reality of objects, not the inner subject that, according to Kant, inevitably constructs the outer reality in a certain way.
However, by the time Christianity took hold in the West (the fourth century AD), Aristotle had largely been forgotten and the Idealism of Neo-Platonism ruled the day. Early Christianity was strongly influenced by this intellectual climate, but one shouldn’t be too quick to put all early Christian thinkers in the Platonist camp. The reason, I suggest, is that there is something in the very nature of Christianity that is the ultimate marriage of Idealism and Realism. After all, the author of John (I mean one of the four Gospels in the New Testament) speaks of the Word having become flesh. To the Greek Idealists, this Word—this Logos—was an abstract concept that denoted the underlying structure of the world, as far removed from a particular material object as you could get. The Logos was nothing you could touch and feel, nothing empirical, nothing that the Realist could relate to. And this Logos, the author of John basically implies, became accessible to the Empiricists and Realists. It could be touched and felt, as Thomas was called to do after the Resurrection to convince him empirically of the reality of Jesus’ glorified body. This Christian concept of the Incarnation, so different from Pagan ideas of divine incarnation, brings the ultimate abstraction of Idealism into the touch-and-feel reality of the Realists.
It is not my concern here to discuss whether this merging of Idealism and Realism in John is true or even makes sense, but just to note that Christianity has never belonged purely to the Idealist or the Realist camp. Hence you find some Christians gravitating more toward Idealism and others more toward Realism. The Christian God is both transcendent and immanent, both outside of this world and in this world. As such, God and the world can be approached both from the side of Idealism and from the side of Realism. Or am I forcing here a misleading connection between the concept of Transcendence/Immanence and Idealism/Realism?
From which side, then, did Augustine, that giant among early post-canonical Christian thinkers, approach God and the world? Was Augustine an Idealist or a Realist? I think, since Augustine was a Neo-Platonist, he should best be seen as an Idealist in the Platonic sense. Compared to Descartes, Berkeley or Kant more than a millennium later, he was still a Realist, but he also differed from Plato in at least two important ways and thus prepared the way for later forms of Idealism. Those two differences are: (1) a greater separation between the inner self and the outer world, and (2) a greater pessimism about human nature and people’s ability to achieve true knowledge by their own lights.
Of course, Plato had also focused on the inner self, since he believed in the pre-existence of souls and thus in innate ideas that we need to call forth from within us. Nevertheless, the perfect ideas, the perfect forms are still objectively “out there” and the goal for Plato was to get in touch with them. In contrast, Augustine primarily wanted to get in touch with God, and this God was within him through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Also, his sinfulness was primarily an inner sinfulness. Thus his major existential struggle was an inner struggle, not an outer one. This focus on the inner life had a huge impact on Western thought. It created two worlds: the more important inner world of a person’s thoughts and feelings, and the less important outer world perceived through the senses. This set the stage for Descartes’ later dualism that sharply separated mind from matter. And without at least some kind of distinction of mind and matter, Idealism is impossible. The sharper the distinction, the more pronounced Idealism can become.
Likewise, it can be said that Augustine’s emphasis on the sinfulness or “brokenness” of people prepared the way for the later skepticism against Realism. By emphasizing that we are inherently sinful and, out of our own power, unable to attain to the truth, Augustine created a sense of epistemological inadequacy in people. “I am not able to get to the truth by myself; I need help from God to figure things out”—that was the sense that Augustine wished to instill in people. For about a thousand years after Augustine, this “help from God to figure things out” came mostly via the authority of the Church. People were sinful and broken and needed the Church to tell them what to think.
Then, in the 16th century, when the authority of the Church in Rome crumbled in large parts of the West, an epistemological vacuum was created. Hence the rise of general skepticism during that time, and hence the need for Descartes to come up with a solution. Not surprisingly, his solution took a decidedly Idealistic turn, starting from the fact that we are thinking individuals and that thinking (=ideas), at least, really exists, he forged a bridge via a personal knowledge of God to the outer world that God had created. In other words, he forged a bridge from Idealism to Realism with God as the connector, but what was most real to him was thinking, and what needed proof was that this thinking corresponded accurately to the outside reality.
The subsequent history of Idealism in the West is too manifold to even begin tracing in this already too lengthy post. Suffice it to say that Immanuel Kant, too—though he strongly objected to being called an Idealist—took the individual thinking being as his starting point and shows how we have certain “a priori” (that is, prior to any experience) ways of thinking that strongly shape how we perceive reality. As mentioned above, the outside reality itself, apart from our perceiving it, is basically beyond our grasp. Berkeley then went a step further and said that being means being perceived. All that matters, all that is really real, is our perception. It is impossible to think of something not perceived by us, for by the very act of thinking about it, we are perceiving it.
It is against this backdrop—and much more—that G.E. Moore wrote his “Refutation of Idealism” in the early 20th century. But more about that in a later post.