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FALLACY OF IDEALISM

(From Reality and the Mind, Epistemology – Bruce Pub.)


Fr. Bittle

The foregoing review of the trends in modern philosophy was necessarily brief. It will suffice
however, to indicate the maze of contradictory theories which have arisen in this relatively short
period of time. Almost every thinker has his own particular brand of theory, more or less at
variance with that of his fellow philosophers. There seems to be hardly a single point on which
they all agree, when they begin to expound the details of their system. On the surface, there
appears to be nothing but intellectual chaos. Viewed from a broader standpoint however, by far
the majority of these theories and systems will be seen to be more or less alike. They reveal a
common parentage and show a common kinship. As such, then, they must possess a uniform
trait, a fundamental doctrine identical in them all, which underlies all the variants and forms the
root-idea from which they derive their origin and then develop into different philosophies. This
uniform trait is idealism, and the root-idea is the idealist postulate.
It would be an impossibility to submit every form and variant of idealism to a critical
evaluation. Nor is this necessary. If it can be shown that the fundamental doctrine the root-idea,
of idealism is essentially fallacious, then idealism itself as a system of thought, no matter what its
individual shade and shape, will also be shown to be essentially fallacious.

THE COMMON ELEMENT IN IDEALISM

Idealism arose out of the difficulty of understanding and explaining how the human mind can
transcend itself and know extra-mental reality. The ordinary man sees no difficulty in this; for
him there is no problem. He sees houses; he hears sounds; he smells odors; he tastes flavors; he
touches objects: these are plain, everyday facts; what more is there to say? The epistemologist
acknowledges these facts, and he finds his problem precisely in these facts. Certainly we see and
hear and smell and taste and touch; but what do we perceive in these psychical acts and how do
we perceive these supposedly extra-mental things? The extra-mental objects (if there be such)
cannot very well leave their location, travel through the intervening space, pierce the body, and
enter the mind in their physical being; the house across the street, for instance, remains across the
street and the red of the rose remains in the rose out there in the garden. And the mind assuredly
does not leave the body, flit through space, and envelop the star billions of miles away in its
physical being; the mind remains here and the star remains there. How then, can he mind
perceive things at a distance, or how can things get into the mind? It does not seem to solve the
difficulty by referring to the stimuli (light-waves, air-waves, etc.), which are supposed to leave
the objects and impinge upon the sense-organs; because then we should perceive these stimuli
and not the objects from which they come. That, however, is not the case: we perceive appar-
ently objects and certainly not stimuli.
The greatest difficulty lies in the fact of the dissimilarity which exists between mind and
matter. The mind is psychical, while the objects are physical; the mind is unextended, while the
objects are extended. How can the mind assimilate something so diametrically opposed to its
own nature? And how can physical, extended objects impress themselves upon a mind which is
altogether devoid of all extension? Can the extended become unextended, or the unextended
become extended? Can the physical become psychical, or the psychical become physical? Is this
not a contradiction in terms? Since the mind is psychical, it seems perfectly obvious and logical,
that nothing but what is psychical can affect the mind and nothing can proceed from the mind but
what is psychical. All knowledge, then, since it proceeds from the mind and takes place in the
mind, must be purely mental. Physical objects are, therefore, absolutely excluded from
knowledge: the objects of knowledge are mental objects, ideas. Consequently, even when we
apparently perceive external and extended objects, what we really perceive are ‘mental objects,
‘ideas,’ ‘conscious states, ‘representations,’ but not physical, extra-mental things themselves. All
we can perceive is our ‘ideas’ of things; whether anything corresponds ‘out there,’ extra-
mentally, to these ‘ideas,’ is something we can never actually know. If such extra-mental objects
exist, we simply cannot know them, because they are physical entities, and the mind is restricted
to the mental, the psychical, the ideal, in all its processes. As far as the mind is concerned, its
objects have ‘being’ only in so far and so long as they are ‘perceived’: esse est percipi. Such
‘being’ is then not physical, but ideal; and since it proceeds from, and resides in, the mind as its
‘subject,’ it is subjective. All objects of our knowledge are, therefore, ideal and subjective,
because they are mental products. This doctrine, that the mind in its knowing can know only its
own ‘ideas’ or ‘percepts, is idealism; and when this doctrine is accepted as an axiom or pos-
tulate, it is the idealist postulate.
This line of reasoning, formulated in many different ways, though seldom cast into strict
logical form, is basic to idealism. It can be worded thus: Objects, so far as the knowing mind is
concerned, exist only when perceived; but perception (‘being perceived’) is a conscious mind-
state or ‘idea’; hence, objects are only conscious mind-states or ‘ideas’; consequently their
existence or ‘being’ (esse) is nothing but ‘being perceived (percipi): esse est percipi. The
argument originated with the antithetical dualism existing between body and mind, as postulated
by Descartes.

THE FALLACY OF THE IDEALIST POSTULATE

Logic is not the strong point of modern philosophers. They disdain the strictly logical
formulation of arguments and prefer the loose language of the essayist. And loose language often
hides loose thinking. We can see this clearly in the argument of Berkeley if we cast his thoughts
into strict form. A close analysis will reveal the fallacy underlying his argument. Here are his
words: “What are the aforementioned objects [houses, mountains, rivers, and, in a word, all
sensible objects] but the timings we perceive by sense? and what do we perceive besides our own
ideas or sensations? and is it not plainly repugnant that any of these [ideas or sensations], or any
combination of them, should exist unperceived ?” A casual reading of this argument sounds
plausible enough; in fact, it almost seems self-evident; and to many this line of reasoning has
appeared so transparently and unanswerably obvious, that it has been accepted without question
and become the dogma of idealism. It deserves, therefore, to be analyzed more in detail.
It will be evident that the conclusion of the idealist argument will have to be that objects
cannot exist in reality except when they are perceived, because it is the contention of the idealists
that the ‘being’ of objects is their ‘being perceived.’ So far as we are concerned, they cease to
‘be’ once they cease to ‘be perceived.’ Here is the syllogism:
Ideas or sensations cannot exist unperceived;
But sensible objects (houses, etc.) are ideas or sensations;
Ergo, sensible objects (houses, etc.) cannot exist un-perceived.

The fallacy lies in the minor premise: “Sensible objects (houses, etc.) ideas or sensations.” The
term ‘sensible objects’ can be taken in two meanings: objects can be called ‘sensible’ in the
meaning of ‘actually sense-perceived’ and in the meaning of ‘potentially sense-perceived.’ In the
first meaning they are perceived in the act of perception; and in the second meaning they can be
perceived. In the first case we have objects which are ‘within’ the act of perception, and in the
second case we have objects which are 'outside the act of perception but are capable of being
perceived. In either case such objects would be called ‘sensible.’ The difference lies in the fact
that in the first case these 'sensible' objects are considered as ‘perceived, while in the second case
they are merely ‘perceiv-able. Berkeley confuses the two meanings: he identifies the ‘perception
of objects with the objects of perception. His argument merely proves that ‘sensible’ objects
when perceived are ideas or sensations’; but it says nothing whatever about such objects when
not perceived. All that his argument can prove is that ‘objects are perceived when we perceive
them'; and that, though true, is plainly a redundancy and a juggling of words but no proof that
things ‘cannot exist unperceived.’
If he contends that the argument also holds in the second meaning, so that there are no
sensible objects outside the act of perception which are unperceived but perceiv-able, he begs the
whole question by presupposing in his premise what is supposed to be the burden of the
conclusion. Such a contention is an unwarranted assumption. “Sensible objects are ideas and
sensations” when perceived; but that is no proof that they cannot be objects in and for themselves
without being perceived. What idealists prove is merely that ‘sensible objects cannot be
perceived as existing without being perceived as ideas or sensations’; but this in no way proves
that ‘sensible objects cannot exist without being perceived as existing.’ Because objects, when
perceived, have now a ‘subjective existence,’ it does not follow that such objects have a
‘subjective existence’ only. Things could possibly have an ‘objective existence’ for themselves
and then obtain an added ‘subjective existence’ in the subject when perceived by the subject. In
order to establish their case, idealists would have to disprove this possibility; but this their
argument fails to do.
The fallacy of the idealist argument will, perhaps, be more clear if we cast it into the form of
a hypothetical syllogism. It could be made to read in the following manner:

If something has a purely subjective existence, it has a mental existence;


But perceived objects have a mental existence;
Ergo, perceived objects have a purely subjective existence.

The major premise contains a true statement: anything that has a purely subjective existence is
mind-dependent, because it is produced by the mind; it has, therefore, a mental existence. The
minor premise is also true: when objects are perceived, they are perceived by the mind and as
such exist cognitionally in the mind; they have, then, a mental existence. But the conclusion does
not follow logically from these premises. It is the fallacy of false consequent. The minor premise
posits the consequent instead of the antecedent, and that is not logically permissible. If we wish
to avoid this inconsistency and make the minor premise posit the antecedent, the syllogism will
read:
If something has a purely subjective existence, it has a mental existence;
But perceived objects have a purely subjective existence;
Ergo, perceived objects have a mental existence.

But now the argument does not prove enough. It merely proves that perceived objects have ‘a
mental existence,’ arid that is something which the realist admits; the idealist, however, desires
to prove that all perceived objects have nothing but ‘a purely subjective existence,’ since it is his
contention that the ‘esse’ of all perceived objects is their ‘percipi.’ The argument does not reach
that far. Besides, in the syllogism, as now given, the minor premise states that ‘perceived objects
have a purely subjective existence.' This statement begs the question in dispute, because here the
‘esse est percipi’ is already assumed as true, while the truth of this fact is supposed to be found
only in the conclusion.
There is only one more way in which this argument can be formulated so as to be logically
correct and consistent. It could be made to read as follows:

If something has a mental existence, it has a purely subjective existence;


But perceived objects have a mental existence
Ergo, perceived objects have a purely subjective existence.

This syllogism is consistent, but the conclusion is not true. The major premise, as it stands is
again a begging of the whole question. The fact in question is precisely that which is assumed in
the major premise: Is it a fact that, if something has a mental existence, it has a purely subjective
existence? This is the very point which the idealist intends to prove by the argument; hence to
assume its truth in the premises is an illegitimate procedure.
It is thus seen that the fundamental position of the idealist is untenable, because illogical. He
cannot prove that the objects we perceive have only a subjective existence in the mind; for all he
knows, they may have a mind independent, objective existence in nature also. And if objects can
exist both in nature and in the mind (and no valid reason has been adduced to the contrary) then
the fundamental idealist postulate is invalid. D. C. Macintosh has summarized the essential
fallacy of idealism in these concise words:
“The fallacy may appear as one of equivocation — the common fallacy of ‘four terms’ — as
in the following syllogism:
What is subjective (dependent on self for existence) is not externally real, but mere idea; all
objects of which we are aware are subjective (related to a self which is conscious of them);
therefore, all objects of which we are aware are not externally real, but mere ideas. Or, if the
equivocation he avoided, the fallacy will remain as that of an ‘undistributed middle term,’ as in
this syllogism: The unreal objectively is subjective (related to a subject); Similarly all of which
one is conscious is subjective (related to a subject); therefore, all of which one is conscious is
unreal objectively (mere ideas). Or, more simply, psychological idealism may be said to rest
upon a fallacious conversion. From the obvious truth that all elements which depend on
consciousness for their existence, such as pains, feelings, desires, etc., are in the subjective
relation, i.e., are objects for a subject it is inferred, by the fallacious process of simple
conversion, that all that is in the subjective relation, all that is object for a subject, is dependent
on consciousness and this relation to consciousness for its own existence.”
THE EGO-CENTRIC PREDICAMENT

Every form of idealism, whether dualistic or monistic, rests upon the primacy of
consciousness. Things simply cannot be known, perceived, experienced, except by a conscious
mind. Consciousness is thus for them the universal condition of all knowledge and also of being.
Consciousness constitutes its objects; and if this consciousness maintains its own individuality in
the human mind, we have dualistic idealism [i.e. Existentialism], and if it is merged in a
universal Ego, we have monistic idealism [i.e. Teilhardism]. In either case the ‘object known’ is
identified with the ‘subject knowing.’ We have seen how Berkeley argues for the oneness of the
material reality with the perceiving mind. Bradley argues in a similar fashion for the oneness of
all reality with sense-experience. Immaterialism, phenomenalism, absolutism, and every shade of
idealism, ultimately base their doctrine on the fact that reality is somehow enclosed within the
realm of consciousness, for the simple reason that we cannot perceive objects as existing apart
from consciousness perception. This ultimate fact, which is the heart of idealism, thus rests on
what has been so aptly styled ‘the ego-centric predicament.’ Here is Perry's exposition of the
idealist fallacy as based on the egocentric predicament:
“No thinker to whom one may appeal is able to mention a thing that is not an idea, for the
obvious and simple reason that in mentioning it he makes it an idea. No one can report on the
nature of things without being on hand himself. It follows that whatever thing he reports does as
a matter of fact stand in relation to him, as an idea, object of knowledge, or experience. . .
“This predicament arises from the attempt to discover whether the cognitive relationship is
indispensable to the things which enter into it. In order to discover if possible exactly how a
thing is modified by the cognitive relationship, I look for things out of this relationship, in order
that I may compare them with instances of things in this relationship. But I can find no such
instances, because 'finding’ is a variety of the very relationship that I am trying to eliminate.
Hence I cannot make the comparison, nor get an answer to my original question by this means.
But I cannot conclude that there are no such instances; indeed, I now know that I should not be
able to discover them if there were.”
“Just in so far as I do actually succeed in eliminating every cognitive relationship, I am unable
to observe the result. Thus if I close my eyes, I cannot see what happens to the object; if I stop
thinking, I cannot think what happens to it; and so with every mode of knowledge. In thus
eliminating all knowledge, I do not experimentally eliminate the thing known, but only the
possibility of knowing whether that thing is eliminated or not.”
“This, then, is ‘the ego-centric predicament.’ But what does it prove, and how does it serve the
purpose of idealism? It should be evident that it proves nothing at all. It is simply a peculiar
methodological difficulty. It does, it is true, contain the proposition that every mentioned thing is
an idea. But this is virtually a redundant proposition to the effect that every mentioned thing is
mentioned — to the effect that every idea, object of knowledge, or experience, is an idea; object
of knowledge, or experience. And a redundant proposition is no proposition at all. The assertion
that an idea is an idea conveys no knowledge even about ideas. But what the idealist requires is a
proposition to the effect that everything is an idea or that only ideas exist. And to derive this
proposition directly from the redundancy just formulated, is simply to take advantage of the
confusion of mind by which a redundancy is commonly attended.”
“It may be argued, however, that the ego centric predicament is equivalent to an inductive
proof of the proposition that all things are ideas. Every observed case of a thing is a case of a
thing observed. Neglecting the redundancy, which is sufficient of itself to vitiate the assertion,
we remark that the induction proceeds entirely by Mill’s 'method of agreement,’ which is invalid
unless supported by 'the method of difference, that is, the observation of negative cases. But the
egocentric predicament itself prevents the observation of negative cases. It is impossible to
observe cases of unobserved things, even if there be any. In other words, there is a reason con-
nected with the conditions of observation why only agreements should be observed. But where
this is the case the method of a agreement is worthless; and the use of it is a fallacy.” (Present
Philosophical Tendencies, pp 129-131 Longmans, Green and Co.)
Perry’s criticism of the idealist argument from the ego-centric predicament is eminently
justified. The argument is essentially fallacious. The only way in which we can become
acquainted with things, is to perceive them or have ideas of them; therefore, if and when and
while we know them, they must be ‘percepts’ or ‘ideas’ in our consciousness. The very nature of
our knowing demands this. But things could possibly have existence without being perceived and
thus be mind—independent in their being; all that the ego centric predicament can prove is that
things cannot be perceived without being perceived, which truth, of course, amounts to a mere
tautology.
If we now turn to Bradley’s idealist argument, it will be evident that it is nothing but a sample
of specious reasoning from the ego-centric predicament. He says: “Find any piece of existence,
take up anything that anyone could possibly call a fact, or could in any sense assert to have
being, and then judge if it does not consist in sentient experience. Anything in no sense felt or
perceived becomes to me quite unmeaning.” Certainly, things ‘in no sense felt or perceived' must
be ‘unmeaning’ to the perceiver or knower; for how could they acquire a meaning for him, if he
did not ‘feel’ or ‘perceive’ them? That would imply ‘knowing’ them without someone knowing
them, and ‘perceiving’ them with out someone perceiving them. The very fact of cognition
always involves the perceiver or knower just as necessarily as the object itself that is to be
known; because an object, to be known, must be known by someone. Wherefore, Bradley’s
argument only proves that objects cannot exist for a perceiver and knower without sentient
experience; but it says nothing whatever about what objects can or cannot be for themselves
outside the knowledge relation, and Bradley’s conclusion that ‘experience is the same as reality’
is thus seen to be entirely unwarranted. The ultimate nature of reality is still an open question.
The whole attitude of the idealist, of whatever type he may be, rests upon a confusion of
ideas. From the fact that a being, in order to be known, must be perceived within the conscious-
ness of the perceiver in a mental act, he concludes that the ‘reality itself’ of the being, and not
merely its ‘perception,’ is mental. Reality would thus be immanent in the knower. The confusion
is based on the identification of the ‘reality’ and the ‘perception’ of the object known. It is
unquestionably true that the 'perception' of an object is mind dependent and immanent. To assert
that an object, when known can remain unperceived is a contradiction; and it would also be a
contradiction to assert that an unperceived object, when unperceived, can be known. But it is no
contradiction to assume that an object, which has a reality of its own, can remain unperceived by
a human mind, either temporarily or forever, either in part or in whole. We would simply not
know of its existence until such time when it enters our experience. To deny that such an object
can exist as an 'unperceived reality’ means to confuse the reality of this object with the
perception of its reality. This is precisely what idealists do, but it is an illogical and dogmatic
procedure and therefore fallacious.
The foregoing criticism shows that idealism arises out of the ego-centric predicament and that
its arguments involve a faulty logic. This, of course, does not prove that extra-mental reality
actually exists; it merely shows that idealism has not disproved the existence of extra-mental
objects. The question of the existence of such objects must be solved, not by any a priori, but by
an a posteriori method. Facts alone, together with their proper interpretation, must settle the
issue; that is the only scientific and philosophic procedure which can lead us with safety to a
definite conclusion.

SUMMARY OF CHAPTER IX

Most modern theories of knowledge are a form of idealism. The fundamental position of
idealism is fallacious.
1. The element common to all forms of idealism is the tenet that reality lies within the
consciousness of the perceiver and the mind cannot transcend its own conscious states. It arrives
at this conclusion through the difficulty of understanding how the mind can perceive objects at a
distance and how a psychical mind can conform itself to a physical object. Hence, there has
arisen the idealist postulate that the mind in its knowing can know only its own ‘percepts’ or
‘ideas.’ The argument can be formulated as follows: Objects, so far as the knowing mind is
concerned, exist only when perceived; but perception (‘being perceived’) is a conscious mind-
state or ‘idea’; hence, objects are only conscious mind-states or ‘ideas’; consequently their
existence or ‘being’ (esse) is nothing but ‘being perceived’ (percipi): esse est percipi.
2. The Idealist Postulate of idealism is fallacious. Berkeley’s argument that esse est percipi is
grounded on faulty logic. His term ‘sensible object’ is ambiguous, because he does not
distinguish between the ‘sensible’ as perceived and as perceivable. He merely proves that
‘sensible objects’, when perceived, are 'ideas or sensations’, so that his proof really amounts to
the redundant proposition that ‘perceived objects must be perceived.' The fallacy of idealism thus
consists in confusing the statement that 'sensible objects cannot be perceived as existing without
being perceived’ with the statement that ‘sensible objects cannot exist without being perceived as
existing’. To assume that the latter statement is true, is a petitio principii. All arguments which
tend to prove that all reality must be identified with ‘ideas’ involve either a ‘four-term’
syllogism, or an ‘undistributed middle,’ or a fallacious ‘conversion.’
3. The ego-centric predicament, or the difficulty to discover any objects outside the cognitive
relationship existing between object and subject, is responsible for the fallacy of idealism.
Dualistic and monistic idealism rests upon the primacy of consciousness. Since consciousness is
the universal condition of knowledge, it is also assumed that consciousness constitutes the being
of all objects of knowledge. Due to the ego-centric predicament, every mentioned thing is an
‘idea’, and from this idealists conclude that everything is an ‘idea’ and that only ideas exist. But
this reasoning is fallacious, because it merely proves that objects, if and when and while known,
must be ‘percepts’ or ‘ideas’; in other words, ‘things cannot be perceived without being
perceived’, which is a redundancy and a platitude. The argument, however, does not prove that
objects may not exist in themselves, as mind-independent things; without being perceived. The
whole attitude of the idealists is based on the confusion of identifying the reality of an object
with the perception of this reality; they fail to distinguish between the ‘knowledge of objects’
and the ‘objects of knowledge.'
The foundation of idealism thus rests on faulty logic and on the ego-centric predicament. The
existence of extra-mental things is a question which can be settled only by a close analysis of the
facts and by the proper interpretation the facts; not the a priori, but the a posteriori method can
solve the problem.