Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Idealism is a philosophical view that suggest that the world is somehow constituted by the mind.

explanatory context

General definition

There are a several variants of idealism. Essentially, however, idealism implies the primacy of ideas. These may be spiritual or divine ideas or the constitutive ideas of human consciousness.


Idealism as a philosophical position should be contrasted with the term idealistic which has a number of overlapping polemical meanings.


Idealism was developed in Germany in 18th and early 19th centuries. It is usually seen as one of two routes taken by philosophy in attempting to reconcile Cartesian rationalist dualism. The other route is materialism, and idealism is often contrasted with it.


Descarte's rigid separation of mind and matter lead to insurmountable philosophical problems. While materialists rejected the separation in favour of material reality, idealists rejected substance from the metaphysical system in their search for a satisfactory theory.


In the course of development of idealist philosophy, there has been a shift (from late 18th century) in the main sense of idealism from one in which an object derived its properties from consciousness to a view of idealism as consciousness imaginatively conferring certain properties on an object.


Types of Idealism


Immaterialism (or naive idealism) is an early exposition of idealism, which argues that objects are constructions of ideas or sense data. This position is explicit in Berkeley's exposition of what he called immaterialism.


Quite literally, Berkeley conceived of the world without matter. For him, there were no independently existing objects, all so-called objects are nothing more than collections of ideas in the mind. According to Berkeley, material objects consist of nothing but ideas (whether in the mind of God or in the mind of a conscious agent that God has created)


Thus 'reality' is nothing more than the mental experiences we have of the world. However, Berkely was not contending that the real world and our experiences of it are different. There is no way we can know this because the only possible knowledge we have of the world is constituted by the ideas we have of it. The appearances we have of the world are the objects of the world (they do not stand in lieu of these objects as later transcendental idealists would imply). Furthermore, appearances are the perceptions or sensations of a thinking being.


Berkeley distinguishes between mind, which is active, and ideas, which are passive products of mind. There are a large number of finite minds and one infinite mind—the universal mind of god. Finite minds have limited ability to create while the divine mind has the power to create the world of nature. Berkeley claimed that mind and ideas were adequate to account for all our knowledge about the world.


This naive version of idealism claims that it is 'irrefutable'. Such claims are untenable, however, as immaterialism ultimately denies any knowledge of the 'objective world' and its history.


Berkeley proposed idealism as a counter to Locke's mechanical materialism. Berkeley argued that if we only have experiences at a subjective level then we can say nothing about the external world nor can we make rational inferences about the external world which has no necessary connection to our experience. Thus the only way to proceed is to conceive the world as a product of mind.



Solipsism takes immaterialism to its logical conclusion. Solipsism maintains that as far as one can tell the universe is nothing but the ideas of the mind of the self aware subject. All other minds are eliminated and the objects of the world are simply the products of the individual mind.


This view which makes the world (including what you are reading now) the product of your imagination (only you exist if you are a solipsist). Strictly speaking it is an irrefutable view, although a lot of energy has been spent on attempting to refute or devalue it, not least Wittgenstein's contention that if solipsism were true we would not need a language to assert it.


Subjective idealism

Subjective idealism has a number of different meanings. Although there is a specific approach, subjective idealism is often used as a general term to specify a number of related approaches to idealism.


At its most general subjective idealism refers to all approaches that reduce reality to appearances.


Less overarching is the use of the term subjective idealism to refer to all non-objective idealism. This usage derives from Hegel and refers to Kant and all non-Hegelian idealism, i.e. to those who argue that what is known of objects is contributed by the human beings who perceive them.


A less all inclusive usage excludes Kant and transcendental idealism and so is a general term covering immaterialism, solipsism and Fichte's subjective idealism.


The specific reference to a version of idealism called subjective idealism is to Fichte's view. This approach differs from immaterialism and solipsism by arguing that mind is a continuously creative and evolving entity which generates (in some way) the features of the known world.


The world, for Fichte, is the result of the continuous outpourings of a fundamental substance called the. The world is divided into two; the self (or Ego) and the non-self (or non-Ego) which are the external objects of the world. The Ego and non-Ego are both derived from, depend upon and are intelligible in terms of some creative agent. The fundamental substance is an impersonal Ego, a super-personal transcendent mind, from which all individual minds are derived. (To avoid clashing with Christian orthodoxy Fichte sometimes implies that such a mind is equivalent to the traditional notion of god).


Transcendental (Critical) Idealism


Transcendental idealism is a term used by Kant for his view of the external world. Sometimes referred to as critical idealism. Kant is the foremost proponent of transcendental idealsim although a more extreme form can be found in the work of Schelling.


For Kant, transcendental idealism is the only way by which we can account for our a priori knowledge.


Kant developed the earlier idealists attempts to deal with the rationalists dualism of mind and matter. In so doing, Kant's idealism is an attempt to make religion compatible with the emerging natural and physical sciences of the 18th century. Kant was disatisfied by the earlier attempts of idealists to deal with this (notably Liebnitz and Berkeley) as they tended to downgrade scientific knowledge. Kantian idealism is informed by Hume's empiricism. Hume had divided propositions into two categories which Kant came to call analytic propositions and synthetic propositions. Given that the latter propositions were not logically 'necessary' but depended on experience then, argued Kant, philosophy is reduced to manipulating tautologies while science deals with synthetic propositions. However, Kant argued that there were another set of propositions which applied to the world but are not developed analytically, these he called synthetic a priori propositions.



Kant's idealism posits a dualism of nature and reason.


Essentially, Kant argues that in the social world (of reason) people are seen as phenomenal beings determined by causal laws and also as having a noumenal existence as free and self determining.


This radically separates fact and value. Fact is relegated to nature, value is social. Thus all that is specifically human—culture, history, philosophy, art etc.,—could only be intuited speculatively and holistically as manifestations of human spirit.


Kant further argued that in nature there is a dualism of things-in-themselves and the phenomenal world of appearances.


Things-in-themselves are objects as they are, but this is essentially unknowable (noumenal). External objects of our experience are nothing but appearances with no independent existence outside our thoughts. That is, our experience is contingent upon our experiential equipment (senses). But it is also contingent upon the predispositions of the knower. This was a novel idea when Kant proposed it.


So knowledge can only be about appearances and such knowledge is contingent.


However, Kant argued not only that knowledge is contingent upon the knower's predisposition but also that certain conditions must apply for any world to be a common object of experience to a community of subjects. Such conditions would be communal predispositions.


Forms of experience

For Kant, these conditions of intersubjective knowledge meant that it was possible to specify the form (or metaphysic) of experience (given thought and reflection).


They fall into two broad classes. First, forms of sensibility which deal with inescapable characteristics of knowledge but which do not exist outside our knowledge, such as characteristics of space and time. Second, forms of understanding which are universal propositions about cusal determinancy, such as Newton's Law of the conservation of matter.


As all knowledge is experiential and relates to appearances (there being no access to things-in-themselves) then experience must fit in with these forms of knowledge, thus providing limits to knowledge.


This metaphysic of experience is neither analytic fact nor synthetic (experiential). Such propositions are synthetic a priori propositions. They refer to something which is necessary but not analytic.


Moral imperatives and belief

In this sense, Kant end up with no foundations for making claims about the existence of god other than belief. Kant's scheme admits that it is impossible to know god exists, indeed his scheme makes god absurd. Nonetheless, Kant belived in a god and his legitimation was that it was inescapable that people should have belief and moral convictions.


This ethical realm (including moral terms (good, bad, right, wrong, etc.) faith, and so on), along with rationality and freewill constituted a realm of discourse which could not be topics of knowledge. This is a non-material realm which relates to things-in-themselves. It is distinct from the knowledge of the sciences that relates to appearances.


Kant then gets involved in a circular argument, which claims that the idealist realm of ethics comes from reason (which is outside knowledge) and that therefore morals are rational and rationality comes from a higher plane, viz. god. He thus establishes the existence of god and of moral imperatives.



Objective (Absolute) Idealism


Objective idealism argues that all that exists is the product of one mind, the Absolute Mind (or Absolute).


This idea was developed initially by Hegel in the 19th century. His writings are complex and somewhat impenetrable.


Hegel went further than the immaterialist notion of a static world of ideas as the persistent thoughts in the Divine Mind and the subjective idealist idea of the (super) Ego generating both the subjective and objective features of the universe.


The Absolute

Hegel objectified thought and mind into a fundamental independent entity devoid of all subjective properties. This is the Absolute Mind which becomes the real universe and which manifests itself as world history and is organised as a rational dialectical process of self-realisation.


Hegel's project was to propose a metaphysical solution to the Cartesian dualism that saw history as the progressive development of rationality through the continued synthesis of contradictions by an absolute mind. This process was to continue until thought and being become identical, the world is fully intelligible and history culminates. The ultimate expression of the metaphysical system is then not just a description of the objective universe but is the Absolute itself expressed intellectually.



According to Hegel, the Absolute mind has been evolving throughout the world's history into a transcendent, self-contained being. History represents the series of stages through which the Absolute has passed in its development towards a state of complete self-realization. A stage of history is thus a moment in the development of the Absolute. The Absolute has strived to make itself and the world intelligible through continuous engagement with the contradictions contained in all hitherto explanations of the source, nature and meanings of the universe.


Hegel's analysis of the evolution of the world is (approximately) as follows. The universe began as a series of discrete particles and no explanantion of this chaotic state was available nor could any but a partial account be constructed. The Absolute, in order to make itself more intelligible thus synthesized the elements into a more graspable whole, namely the physical world. However, any attempt to work out a completely rational account of this physical world also leads to contradictions. So the Absolute evolved a higher stage, the chemical; which was followed by the biological and then the human. Only with the human has the march of reason through the world potentially come to an end.


Hegelian dialectic

The process of the Absolute, although evidenced in historical transformation of the world, is in fact a logical one. This logical process is the Hegelian dialectic. Each formulation of the universe (a thesis) is countered, because of the contradictions in the world and thus in the thesis, by another formulation (an anthithesis). Neither is satisfactory and they are combined into a synthesis. The synthesis preserved what is rational in the thesis and antithesis but discarded the irrational.


Hegel portrays the Absolute as continuously attempting to resolve the dialectic of thesis and antithesis via higher and higher syntheses until finally complete self-realisation is accomplished in an all-encompassing synthesis in which all partial truths become subsumed under one absolute truth.


At this point the inner logical struggle will be over as will the history of the world as each stage in the inner struggle of the Absolute is reflected in the stages of the history of the world. The world (and indeed universe) will then be completely intelligible. Until this point, individual comprehension is limited to the stage to which the Absolute has evolved. When the Absolute has reached full self-realisation, thought and being will become identical as full comprehension and the full state of the universe will be one and the same thing.


analytical review

University of Cambridge (2012) notes as a precursor to news on the' Impact of Idealism' project:

German Idealism changed the world and influenced politics, science, art and numerous other fields....

German Idealism began in the late 18th-century, against the turbulent backdrop of the French Revolution. Its first major figure was Immanuel Kant, whose idea of "transcendental idealism" revolved around the notion that the mind was key to the way in which we perceive the world, and that the world was filtered by perception.

Kant argued that we can only understand or make judgements about the world around us (or anything else) by experiencing it through our senses, then applying a framework of concepts to those experiences. This was a new theory of the mind, and pointed out the limits of human cognition by claiming that what we see is a world of appearances processed by our minds, and that it is impossible to understand it independently of ourselves.

associated issues


related areas

Marx critique of Hegel

Tetley 1985 Lecture outlines on idealism and Marx's objection


University of Cambridge, 2012, Research News: The impact of idealism, 6 September 2012, available at, accessed 23 January 2013, still available 5 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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