East Grinstead


Types of Idealism

Last time, I mentioned that several different types of idealism have developed since neoplatonic times. Idealism can be looked at as an epistemological entity (a theory of knowledge) or as an ontological entity (a theory of how things are). In other words, if it is an epistemological entity, the notion is that we cannot know anything that is independent of the mind. But if it is an ontological entity, the notion is that everything is a creation of mind – there is nothing else.
As time went on after the neoplatonists, several individuals produced their own takes on idealism and later philosophers were able to categorise these views as:

  • Subjective idealism,
  • Objective idealism,
  • Transcendental idealism,
  • Phenomenalist idealism.

Subjective Idealism

This type of idealism holds that only minds and their contents exist. This seems to have originated with Bishop Berkeley and he used the term immaterialism for it. With his famous statement esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) he asserts that only that which is perceived exists. Berkeley, as a good Christian, believed that God (being omniscient) perceived all that can be perceived – all beings as well as all objects.

Objective Idealism

Objective Idealism is a kind of realism but without the usually concomitant materialism. It asserts that to experience something is to combine the reality of the thing experienced with the mind of the observer. To my mind, this does not get us very far and leaves us wondering how these quite disparate things can be combined. The important distinction between subjective and objective idealism is that objective idealism asserts that there really are objects that are self-sufficient and not creations of the mind or spirit.

Transcendental Idealism

Enter Immanuel Kant. If we remember that what enters our eyes, for example, is a mass of what engineers and physicists would call white noise (a jumble of frequencies and amplitudes in that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call visible light) rather than nice pictures of our environment, we have to wonder how we interpret these into such pictures. Kant’s answer was that the mind shapes them into a space-time world. He considered that there was a world of things as they are (the noumenon) but that we could not apprehend it directly. The mind has a number of categories already installed into which we fit each Ding an sich (thing in itself). Most, though not all of Kant’s work was an elaboration of this theme.

Phenomenalist Idealism

Phenomenalism asserts that objects do not exist in themselves but only as we perceive them. They are perceptual phenomena or collections of sensory stimuli. Such a collection might be the redness and greenness of an apple together with its hardness, sweetness, roundness, etc.
There are further variants of idealism, some of the more interesting versions of which I would like us to look at in due course. For the present, though, I hope that this brief introduction will inspire you to look for information on the internet and come to our next meeting with material for discussion.

John Gibbs