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Who's an "Idealist"?

Author(s): H. Darren Hibbs

Source: The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Mar., 2005), pp. 561-570
Published by: Philosophy Education Society Inc.
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The Review of Metaphysics

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1 HE term "idealism" has been used to characterize a variety of posi

tions in the western philosophical tradition. Plato, the Neoplatonists,
Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel, among others, have been inter
preted as proponents of some version of philosophical idealism. Ide
alism is typically viewed as a response to theoretical problems gener
ated by materialism and certain forms of realism. The difficulties
involved with making sense of mind and values within a strictly mate
rialist context, materialist explanations of causality, realist accounts
of knowledge, and the ontological status of matter itself have provided
the grounds for idealist innovations. However, idealist solutions to
these problems need not reject materialism or realism in toto. Ideal
ists may incorporate philosophical claims which appear to be consis
tent with materialist or realist doctrines. For instance, Plato, the Neo
platonists, and Hegel often write about physical, material objects as if
they exist as extramental entities?on some interpretations, at least.
An idealist of the Berkeleyan sort would reject the notion of extra
mental material bodies as incoherent. Thus, the following questions
(1) Does idealism entail a particular attitude towards materialism?

(2) Does idealism entail assent to one or more propositions of any sort?

I will examine some possible answers to these questions. My aim

is to show that the way the term "idealism" has been defined by stan
dard philosophical reference works and employed by historians leads
to a negative answer to both questions. The traditional usages of the
term are either too broad or too narrow to capture all and only ideal
ists under a given understanding of the term "idealism." This result,
however, is not due to a failure to identify the proper definition of ide
alism. There is no such definition in my view. The philosophical

Correspondence to: Division of Humanities, Nova Southeastern Univer

sity, 3301 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33314.

The Review of Metaphysics 58 (March 2005): 561-570. Copyright ? 2005 by The Review of

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systems that have been identified as forms of idealism share no com

mon feature that would justify their inclusion in a basic category of
metaphysical classification such as "idealism." As a means of clearing
up some of the confusion, I will propose a taxonomy of idealism(s)
which avoids conflating fundamentally distinct systems of thought.
Additionally, I hope to show that in order for the term "idealism" to be
of any use to historians, at the very least it should denote some type of
positive claim about the nature of reality.
The term "idealism" was first used to describe philosophi
cal doctrines by Leibniz in 1702 in claiming an affinity between
his own metaphysics and Plato's critique of materialism.1 Leibniz ap
pears to have used the term in this context to refer to those who share
an antipathy towards materialist accounts of mind. Since the time of
Leibniz, the term has acquired multiple meanings which are often ob
scure or uninformative.2 The same observation could be made about
the term "realism"; the scope of realism includes a range of theses
that some who deem themselves "realists" would reject. The diffi
culty lies in crafting a definition of idealism that is broad enough to in
clude the major idealists while excluding philosophical positions that
are opposed to fundamental idealist doctrines. As I will argue,
the manner in which idealism is usually characterized results
in a confused classificatory system.
We can begin with a search for central doctrines shared by philo
sophical systems commonly regarded as forms of idealism?the sys
tems of Plato, the Neoplatonists, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel.3
One might suggest that these idealists are united in their commitment
to what I will call the antimaterialist thesis. Suppose materialism (or
M) to be the following thesis: an exhaustive inventory of reality in
cludes nothing but entities that are material, or spatially extended.

1 Harry B. Acton, "Idealism," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul

Edwards ed, vol. 4, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1967), 111. See
Leibniz, "Reply to the Thoughts on the System of Preestablished Harmony
Contained in the Second Edition of Mr. Bayles Critical Dictionary, Article
Rorarius,n in Philosophical Papers and Letters, ?d. Leroy Loemker (Dor
drecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 578.
2 See the litany of idealisms noted by Robert Pippin in HegeVs Idealism:
The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989), 55, 61, 131, 183, 188, 202, and 223.
31 will restrict my analysis to these figures. Mentioning others neither
aids nor hinders my case.

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The antimaterialist thesis (~M) is the denial of M or: the thesis that an
exhaustive inventory of reality includes nothing but entities that are
material, or spatially extended, is false. On this view, idealists are said
to believe that immaterial or nonspatial entities exist, or at least that
materialism provides an incomplete account of the contents of reality.
At first glance, it seems that each idealist above would as
sent to the antimaterialist thesis, but this is not the case. The
problem with the antimaterialist characterization of idealism is
twofold. First, not all philosophers who are traditionally con
sidered idealists would agree with the proposition above.
Kant's version of idealism makes no claims about the status or
content of reality as it is in itself. According to a traditional
reading of Kant, we know that phenomenal reality will include
the appearance of material bodies, but we cannot substantiate
materialist or antimaterialist claims about the noumenal
realm. Thus, on this reading of the Kantian view, one is not
epistemically entitled to assert the falsity (or truth) of materi
alism as a thesis about the ultimate content of reality.
A second difficulty involves the fact that philosophers who
are not typically considered idealists might assent to ~M as
well. For instance, a traditional theist might argue that materi
alism provides the correct analysis of creation (excepting
souls, perhaps) but as a theory it is incomplete or incoherent
without the foundation of theism, or an appeal to mind. A the
ist holding such a view probably considers himself a realist and
would likely scoff at being labeled an idealist because he be
lieves that an adequate explanation of material reality requires
an appeal to a creative mind. But how can this theory be compared
with Berkeleyan idealism? Berkeley rejected both the coherence of
materialist concepts of extramental, material objects and the exist
ence of such objects. For Berkeley, material bodies are merely collec
tions of ideas that are perceived by immaterial minds. Although some
types of theism have been characterized as idealist, it seems clear that
theists who hold a materialist view of nature are deeply opposed to
the essential tenets of immaterialist versions of idealism. Using the
antimaterialist criterion above would result in a classificatory system
that ignores the fact that the only general point of agreement between
the traditional theist and Berkeley is that some notion of God is a

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necessary explanatory concept. Thus, ~M neither captures all idealist

systems nor does it identify idealist systems only.
Another candidate can be located in standard philosophi
cal reference texts. Note the following excerpts:
As the term will be used here, a philosopher is an idealist if and
only if they believe that the physical world exists either (1) only
as an object for mind, or (2) only as a content of mind, or (3)
only as something itself somehow mental in its true character, a
disjunction we shall sum up as the thesis that the physical is de
rivative from mind.4

Idealism, the philosophical doctrine that reality is somehow

mind-correlative or mind-coordinated?that the real objects con
stituting the external world' are not independent of cognizing
minds, but exist only as in some way correlative to mental opera
tions. The doctrine centers on the conception that reality as we
understand it reflects the workings of mind.5

Idealism. A name given to a group of philosophical theories, that

have in common the view that what would normally be called the
'external world' is somehow created by the mind. Idealism does
not quarrel with the plain man's view that material things exist;
rather, it disagrees with the analysis of a material thing that
many philosophers have offered, according to which the material
world is wholly independent of minds.6

IDEALISM, in its philosophical sense, is the view that mind and spiritual
values are fundamental in the world as a whole.7

[Idealism is] any theory which maintains the universe to be throughout

the work or the embodiment of reason or mind.8

Each of these definitions employs what I will call the mind-de

pendency thesis (MD): an idealist is a philosopher who thinks reality
is in some sense mental, or is derived from, or depends upon, mind for
its existence. This formulation is designed to accommodate a range
of idealisms, but it suffers from the same defect as ~M. MD estab
lishes a category of metaphysical theories that includes both immate

4 Timothy L. S. Sprigge, "Idealism," in Edwards, Encyclopedia, 663.

5 Nicholas Rescher, "Idealism," The Cambridge Dictionary ofPhilo
sosphy, ed. Robert Audi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 354.
6 Antony Flew, "Idealism," in A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1984), 160.
7 Harry B. Acton, "Idealism," in Edwards, Encyclopedia, 110.
8 James M. Baldwin, "Idealism," in Dictionary of Philosophy and Psy
chology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928), vol. 1, 500.

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rialist doctrines and the common sense realism of traditional theism.

Traditional theism is included along with Berkeleyan immaterialism
because the traditional theist holds reality to be created and sustained
by a personal God, or Mind. However, it is difficult to imagine
a greater gulf between metaphysical doctrines than the one
that exists between a philosopher who claims that a tiger is
simply a collection of ideas in an immaterial mind and one who
asserts that it is a physical entity in extramental reality. MD is
too broad to be an informative method of classifying metaphys
ical theories.
A proponent of MD might respond by arguing that despite
the difference of opinion about the ontological status of indi
vidual objects in experience, both the Berkeleyan immaterial
ist and the traditional theist think that mind must be the
ground of reality. This appeal to mind as the fount of reality is
what links the Berkeleyan immaterialist and the traditional
theist with the idealist tradition.
It is true that the theist appeals to mind as the source of
reality, but we should note the distinction between the Berke
leyan immaterialist's and the theist's motivation for this ma
neuver. Berkeley attacks the view that there is an extramental
world populated by extended material bodies by attempting to demon
strate the non-existence of mind independent bodies. For Berkeley,
the very idea of a material body existing "outside" of mind is incoher
ent; the concept of a material substance is vacuous. That is, material
ism mistakes the ideas in one's mind for extramental objects. Thus,
Berkeley believes that materialism is a conceptually confused doc
trine that is inherently nonsensical. In the absence of a material real
ity apart from mind, Berkeley draws the conclusion that mind must be
the only reality.
The traditional theist, on the other hand, need not reach the con
clusion that mind is the ground of being on the basis of a critique of
the concept of extramental, material bodies per se. The traditional
theist does not find the concept of an extramental material body to be
incoherent or absurd. The theist does find the view that material bod
ies are the only entities in existence to be untenable. Typically, tradi
tional theists argue that material existence as a whole requires some
explanation. The need for an explanation follows from either: (1) the
fact that something exists rather than nothing, or (2) that what does

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exist is a collection of contingent beings, or (3) that the material

world possesses certain features (design, order, etc.) that imply an in
telligent creator. Mind, or God, is introduced to explain why some
thing exists and why material existence is structured the way it is. It
is not, therefore, an attack on the intelligibility of the mere concept of
extramental, material entities that leads to the conclusion that mind
grounds reality, but the need for theoretical completeness. On this
basic metaphysical issue the theist is directly at odds with an idealist
of the Berkeleyan sort.
The conclusion to be drawn is that Berkeleyan idealism
and traditional theism share little in common regarding their
metaphysical commitments and the motivations behind those
commitments. Agreement between the two is limited to the
postulate that a personal God exists that is responsible for
creating the universe. On the issue of what God creates and
how He does it there is a fundamental disagreement. Berke
ley's God makes ideas perceptible to created, immaterial minds
and the God of traditional theism produces a spatially ex
tended universe out of extramental matter. The differences between
these two metaphysical systems far outweigh the similarities, and this
should lead historians to reassess the value of MD as the basis for
characterizing idealism.
I have argued that MD casts its net too widely in trying to capture
the core doctrine of idealism. Now I will argue that MD is also too
narrow as it excludes a prominent version of idealism. On a standard
reading of Platonic idealism, no appeal to mind as the sustaining prin
ciple of existence is made, but transcendent forms, or ideas, are said
to somehow radiate being into the spatio-temporal realm. On this in
terpretation, material bodies are ontologically derivative entities that
depend upon the immaterial, eternal, immutable forms. Although the
capacities of the mind play an important role for Plato in describing
what the highest form of reality must be like, mind itself does not pro
vide the ontological foundation of existence. But if MD were altered
to accommodate idealisms of the Platonic type it would not be an im
provement. Grouping Platonic idealism along with Berkeleyan imma
terialism as similar metaphysical theories would be as misleading as
assigning Berkeleyan idealism to the same category of metaphysics as
the traditional theist. Whereas Plato acknowledges the existence of
material bodies (albeit a limited status) Berkeley flatly denies their

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existence. To say that material bodies are feeble entities that rely
upon immaterial objects for their existence is far from asserting the
Berkeleyan notion that material bodies are just collections of ideas in
immaterial minds. Furthermore, Plato ascribes to a theory of forms
that has no correlation in Berkeleyan metaphysics. Thus, the breadth
of philosophical positions that have been characterized as idealist are
so diverse that the term "idealism" alone cannot provide the basis for
a satisfactory classificatory system.
It is my contention that there are two fundamentally op
posed metaphysical traditions in the West that have each been
labeled a type of idealism. The difference between these gen
eral philosophical positions is such that placing each under the
rubric of idealism renders the term "idealism" at best uninfor
mative, and at worst severely misleading. Therefore, a revised
method of categorizing metaphysical doctrines that have been
characterized as types of idealism is needed. I intend to argue for a
method of classification that reflects the philosophical roots of two
metaphysical traditions within idealist thought, which I will call res
idealism and mens-idealism.
The distinction between these two metaphysical traditions cen
ters on the ontological status of material bodies. The mens-idealist ar
gues that material bodies do not exist as extramental realities but only
as phenomena within immaterial mind(s). For the mens-ideaiist, ma
terialist accounts of the physical objects in experience are simply
false; there are no such extramental objects in existence. Immaterial
mind and its contents provide an exhaustive ontological inventory of
the universe. The res-idealist does not argue for the non-existence of
material bodies but claims that material bodies cannot be the only
type of entity in existence. Typically this involves the claim that mate
rial bodies possess extramental existence (at least with respect to fi
nite, or human minds) but something essentially unlike matter must
be responsible for the existence of the physical world.
Now we can determine how this classification works with the
standard idealist philosophical systems. The representatives of the
mens class of idealism include Berkeley and, provided the relevant in
terpretation is adopted, Leibniz and the Absolute Idealists (Fichte,
Schelling, and Hegel). Each of these figures has been interpreted as
critics of a materialism that explains extramental bodies in terms of
states of consciousness.

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The motivations for the mews-idealists' rejection of materi

alism vary. Leibniz argued that material bodies could not be
ontologically basic because they were infinitely divisible; mat
ter could not be the foundation of reality. Therefore, immate
rial mind (the monad) must be basic and material bodies must
be phenomenal occurrences within monads. Berkeley found
the very concept of mind-independent material objects to be
vacuous or incoherent. Materialism is not just false, it is a the
ory that cannot be articulated without contradiction. For Berkeley, so
called material bodies are merely collections of qualities, which are in
turn ideas, and ideas exist only in minds; therefore, material objects
are collections of ideas perceived by mind. The Absolute Idealists
(again, assuming the relevant interpretation) sought a resolution to
the subject-object dualism inherent in modern philosophy by positing
a subject as the ground of reality. If what had previously been charac
terized by philosophers as extramental material objects were in fact
the internal representations of mind, then the subject-object dualism
and the skeptical difficulties that flow from it would be obviated. On
this interpretation of the absolute idealists, material bodies are re
duced to phenomenal states within mind.
The res-idealists include Plato, Neoplatonists such as Plotinus,
and possibly the Absolute Idealists, again, provided the appropriate
interpretation is adopted. In general, Plato's metaphysics provides
the model for this type of idealism. For Plato, the most real objects
are those that are eternal, ontologically independent, and immate
rial?the forms. Material bodies lack the qualities of stable, indepen
dent beings. Matter implies mutability, which implies change and dis
solution. Consequently, matter cannot be ontologically fundamental.
This basic metaphysical framework is altered and expanded by
subequent philosophers in the Platonic tradition. Plotinus accepted
the existence of extramental material bodies but agreed with Plato
that material existence is on a lower ontological plane than the imma
terial realm of forms. But for Plotinus, the forms themselves are a
product of the One, the cognitively inaccessible source of all being.
To include the Absolute Idealists in this category, one must adopt
an interpretive strategy that describes the nature of the Absolute and
its relation to its manifestations in the appropriate way. If the Abso
lute is construed as the fount of both material and immaterial entities
(spirit or mind), while it is itself neither, then material bodies might be

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said to exist externally to individual minds. The similarity with Neo

platonic metaphysics is apparent if the following apply to the general
metaphysical structure in Absolute Idealism: (1) mind and
matter exist as separate entities on the some level, and (2)
mind and matter originate from a source which is neither mat
ter nor mind. If this broad interpretation of Absolute Idealism
is correct, then the ontology of Absolute Idealism closely re
sembles that of Plotinus. Material objects can be said to exist
apart from finite minds but are substantially united at the highest on
tological tier in the One, or the Absolute.
Of course, traditional theism satisfies the criteria for membership
in the res-idealist camp, but many traditional theists would probably
balk at being labeled an "idealist" of any sort. However, I do not think
this is a problem with the proposed classification. Using the proposed
method only requires us to classify theism with other systems that
share a common view of the structure of reality: extramental material
bodies exist, but they are ontologically dependent upon a nonmaterial

An obvious omission in my discussion of these two categorie

idealism is the philosophy of Kant. Kant is not mentioned as a m
ber of one of either of these categories of idealism because I do
think his philosophy should be characterized as a form of ideali
With regard to phenomenal representations, Kant affirms all that tr
tional materialists had held to be the case?physical objects are
stantial entities engaging in causal interaction according to fixed l
Yet his critical limitations on metaphysical speculation prevent the
tension of these claims to reality as it is in itself. Since our knowl
of reality is limited to how it is structured in experience for us, K
sounds like an idealist of the mens sort. Yet he also claims that th
is an external world that exists independently of finite minds. Acco
ing to Kant, the in itself, or the noumenal world, is neither struct
by nor dependent upon mind.9 Here his account invokes a realist o
The two types of idealism under discussion involve fundamental
metaphysical claims about the nature of reality. The mens-idealist

9 Kant does postulate the existence of God as a matter of practical rea

son. However, it is consistent with his critical philosophy to leave open the
question of whether the noumenal world is the product of a divine mind.

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claims that reality is composed of immaterial mind and its contents

alone. Material objects are reduced to the status of phenomena
within minds. The res-idealist claims that material objects exist extra
mentally (at least to finite minds) but the ground of reality is nonmate
rial. Kant does not make any claims about the ultimate character of
reality as it is in itself. His critical philosophy specifically rules out
any such commitments to the nature of noumenal reality. Conse
quently, to depict Kant's philosophy as a version of either type of ide
alism appears to be mistaken.
To argue that Kant is not an idealist may strike the reader as an
unconscionable historical gaffe. After all, he called his own philoso
phy "transcendental idealism." Yet his position on the nature of real
ity is essentially no different from Hume's. Both explain physical ob
jects as phenomenal constructs within the mind and both reject the
possibility of a metaphysical account of what lies behind the veil of
appearance. Hume is not usually interpreted as an idealist because
his philosophy lacks any positive metaphysical thesis that could be
construed as a claim that mind or ideas are fundamental in the world.
Similarly, Kant does not make any positive claims about the nature of
reality apart from its representational form and content Therefore,
classifying Kant as a res or mens idealist seems to be as misleading as
placing Hume in one of these categories.
I have argued that there are two types of idealism in the Western
philosophical tradition. The distinction between these versions of
idealism rests on an analysis of the ontological inventory of the uni
verse within idealist systems. The res-idealist holds that material ob
jects are extramental entities while the mens-idealist rejects the exist
ence of extramental material objects, reducing these objects to
phenomenal constructs within mind. The distinction between these
two styles of idealism is, on the level of metaphysics, profound. An in
formative, accurate method of classifying metaphysical systems
should reflect this distinction.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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