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What is Idealism?

Idealism, conception in philosophy according to which ideas are the only things known. The conception is developed along different lines by various philosophers including Plato, while later systems were evolved by Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, and Berkeley; but perhaps the most widely known are those of Leibniz, Hegel, and Kant. Broadly speaking, Idealism may be discussed under the two main headings of Subjective Idealism (or, as it is sometimes termed, spiritual monadism or pluralism) and spiritual monism.

Subjective Idealism was expounded by Leibniz as a belief that each individual mind exists apart from every other mind as a distinct unit living as it were in a universe of its own, so that nothing happening in another mind's universe is the same as that which happens in its own. We are aware, not of objects themselves, but merely of sensations produced by the objects, consciousness of them arising from our sensory disturbances. Thus we experience not things of the world, but our own feelings, which give us images and representations of the world of objects. This position is known as representationalism. Berkeley and Hume and, arguably, the Italians Croce and Gentile, belong to this school. Berkeley maintains in effect that something exists if it perceives, is perceived, or is perceivable. This conclusion is strenuously criticized by Realists. Spiritual monism differs from this theory, particularly over its view of the mind as an isolated entity. Hegel, with whom may be associated Schopenhauer and Bergson (though each has points of variance) holds that each individual mind is a part of a universal force, that its very existence depends upon its being part of a greater force, and that no object can be said to exist without its having a relationship to other objects. It is a part of another whole, which in turn is a localized part of yet another whole, until, finally, the universal whole is comprehended.

This is called by Hegel the Absolute, but the idea of the oneness of the universe is also the chief inspiration of those theologians who call God what for Hegel is the Absolute, and what Schopenhauer terms the Will. But whereas Hegel's idea of the universal whole is purely intellectual, Schopenhauer's Will is closer to a sort of universal instinct which enslaves the whole of creation. Bergson, however, conceives of a unity of all things with unending change as its mainspring, and claims that there is nothing but change; matter is therefore always in process of change, and has no existence at any given time.

Kant's Idealism challenges Leibniz's and Berkeley's in arguing that there is no evidence that we know our mind any more intimately than we know objects. We are conscious of ourselves only in knowing something that is not ourselves. Kant agrees that all knowledge depends upon perception, but insists further that this knowledge is always limited by the fact that we are finite minds operating within a particular place and time. Thought can extend the range of perception which reveals an object as part of a whole which stretches indefinitely away in space and time. Kant's standpoint is given at length in his Critique of Reason . Scholastic philosophy groups together all these systems under the term 'transcendental idealism', to which 'immanent idealism' is opposed by the neo-scholastics. Their position is that the intelligibility of things is immanent in them, and through that intelligibility the mind comes into direct contact with the thing.

Under the influence of Hegel, a British Idealist school developed in the late 19th century; its chief figure was F. H. Bradley. In this century, Idealism has been very much out of fashion among philosophers everywhere.

The word 'idealism' has also taken on another meaning, of a purely literary nature, expressing belief in the possibility of men achieving lofty goals, in the ultimate supremacy of man's 'better nature', etc. In this sense, such writers as Fogazzaro, Maeterlinck, and Shelley are idealists, whatever their philosophical sympathies.

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