Idealism and Idealism

Sunday, 10th April, 2016

When I think of Idealism I think of Plato and Hegel.

For Plato, Ideas (the Greek word he used – ἰδέα – is where everyone else gets the word from) floated about in their own little realm, somewhere other than spacetime, completely independent of humanity. Our human conceptions were more-or-less clumsy graspings after these Ideas.

For Hegel, there was only one thing which existed: the Idea (Hegel used the German Geist or spirit). Hegel’s philosophy was all about exploring the multi-faceted contradictions of this single thing (especially in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic). Humanity, or rather human-type consciousnesses, tumble out of the proceedings at some point.

Reading Marx, and Marxist philosphy, this is the way terms like Idealism, the Ideal, etc. are used.

Now I am reading more broadly, I have started coming across people for whom Idealism means Something Else. This Idealism is rooted in Descartes and Kant, and it essentially understands “Ideal” as “Mental”. From my Big Book of Philosophy (entry on idealism, philosophical):

[Idealism] maintains that what is real is in some way confined to or at least related to the contents of our own minds. … It has been argued by Myles Burnyeat that idealism proper could not appear before Descartes had argued for the epistemological priority of access to our own minds.

The entry goes so far as to claim that Plato was not an Idealist (which of course he certainly wasn’t, according to that definition):

Plato’s theory of forms is sometimes said to be a species of Idealism on the grounds that his Forms are also called Ideas. But those so-called Ideas were not simply contents of our minds; indeed Plato explicitly rejects that supposition in his Parmenides.”

(That is D. W. Hamlyn writing in 1995)

Sadly this latter conception of Idealism seems to be common. I can’t see how it is an improvement on even Plato’s Idealism as it pre-supposes the most important thing to explain, i.e., the thinking subject. I can see now why Rowlands felt the need to devote a chapter to chasing after various types of contemporary neo-Kantianism (e.g., Sapir-Whorf, Chomsky, post-structuralism).

On these pages, Idealism will generally refer to proper Idealism (Plato, Hegel). If I need to discuss the degenerate (post-)Kantian version I’ll do so explicitly.


5 Responses to “Idealism and Idealism”

  1. I think this an important path to explore and I look forward to reading your thoughts on “proper Idealism”. Here are few thoughts on what you wrote. They are a bit critical, but are meant warmly and offered in a spirit of collaboration rather than opposition.

    1. The definition of “improper Idealism” you cite almost seems too vague to be useful. If anyone who maintains that “what is real is in some way … at least related to the contents of our own minds” is an idealist, then it would seem as if anyone but a nihilist or an absolute skeptic would be an idealist. Right?

    2. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Kant equates the ideal with the mental. Look to B368-B377 of the 1st Critique for a rather clear statement on his use of ‘idea’, including discussion of how his use relates to Plato’s. Kant explicitly disclaims a use of ‘idea’ that would equate it with a mental representation. Ultimately, he defines an idea as a “concept of reason”: a pure concept (i.e., not empirical), that originates solely in the understanding (i.e., not in the pure forms of sensibility), which goes beyond the possibility of experience (i.e., cannot be a cognition) (B377). All these terms need a lot of unpacking, but once that unpacking is done I really don’t think you end up with “what is real is … confined to … the content of our own minds”. See also Kant’s rejection of “psychological idealism” (which is probably the right name for what you are distancing yourself from) in the long footnote to Bxxxix. His account of ‘ideal’ is quite involved, related to his account of ‘idea’, and something I’d like to understand better, but I really don’t think it amounts to “the mental” either.

    3. Hegel used the German /Idee/ for ‘Idea’. /Geist/ is usually translated as ‘Mind’ (e.g., in Pinkard’s translation of the Phenomenology[1]) or ‘Spirit’ (e.g., in Miller’s translation of the same). This handy glossary[2] glosses /Idee/ as “The unity of object and Concept; reality as sublated. The Idea is associated with the
    infinite, and equivalent to the Absolute”. But, of course, homonymy (or at least polysemy) and slipping senses is essential to Hegel’s method, so he uses the word in other ways as well. E.g., §55 of the Phenomenology, where he speak of Plato’s Eidos, and states simply “However, ‘Idea’ [Idee] means neither more nor less than ‘kind,’ or ‘species.'”



    • llaisdy Says:

      Dear Shon

      Thanks for your comment.

      Good point on the Hegel. So perhaps the Idea is the one thing that exists, while Spirit is a kind of alienated sub-component of the Idea. The activity or “phenomenology” of the Spirit pushes against this alienation. I bailed out of the Phenomenology of Spirit somewhere in the insanity of self-conceit LOL. Will have another bash sometime, though it might end up being with Pinkard’s new translation supposedly coming out next year (I may try the Logic first — the easy Encyclopedia Logic).

      Where does Pinkard translate Geist as “Mind”? AFAICS he translates it as “Spirit”.

      On Kant: I imagine a single sentence summary of Kant’s idealism might be something of a gross simplification :). It’s not even from the entry on Kant. However, that — let’s say “characterisation” — of Kant’s idealism is common nowadays (the very fact that that is the simplification given in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy is surely evidence for that). The characterisation appears again in Rowlands (who presents it as a response to what he calls the matching problem (after McGinn 1989)): “Idealism [is] the view that the view that reality is in one or another way, and to a greater or lesser degree, mental”.

      This blog post is about the use of the term Ideal (& Idealism) today. It is not a critique of Kant. If there’s a claim in it, the claim is that the Marxist and Hegelian use of the term Ideal is closer to Plato than to Kant.


      • Thanks for replying! iirc, you were right that, for Hegel, Geist is “the one thing that exists”, and all else are manifested through the movements of Spirit. While I think it is an important concept, Idee only shows up a few times in the Phenomenology, I think. I am not yet very strong on Hegel outside of the Phenomenology (and not particularly strong inside of it), so I can’t speak to the role of ideas or the ideal elsewhere.

        You are right about Pinkard’s translation! Straight up error on my part (it was an incautious couple of days for me, and I am error prone and dearly in need of caution).

        I think I am clearer on your intentions now. I see you are were aiming to distance your own usage and interest from a view that is popularly attributed to Kant. I look forward to watching this space to get clearer on your idea of ‘ideas’ and the ‘ideal’. I have no idea how those terms get used in Marxist thought, but would be interested to find out.

        If my reply has any value beyond pedantry, it might be in warning against being too eager to distance Hegel from Kant. What I meant to convey was that, in many ways, Kant’s use of ‘Idea’ is actually very close to Plato’s (I think). iiuc, Kant means his use to preserve the same basic logic of Plato’s use, only adjusted to account for the “Copernican Revolution”. The more I read Kant, the less radical a departure Hegel seems to me.

        I see that, if I’m going to keep up this engagement, I should probably spend some time reading through some of your older posts to get a better sense for our common ground 🙂

      • I should note: my feelings on the proximity of Hegel to Kant might just mean it’s been too long since I read Hegel!

      • llaisdy Says:

        Dear Shon

        Thanks for your replies 🙂

        I probably do have a “straw man” idea of Kant, which I should do domething about. Your comment and Susan Neiman’s article have certainly broadened my view, and I shall be more circumspect in future (about Kant).

        Best wishes


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