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Explanations > Social Research > Philosophies of Social Research > Idealism

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Our experience of the world is, for us, the world. To understand people, you must understand their experiences.


Idealism is, to a large extent, an opposite view to scientific and material viewpoints that asserts the importance of internal individual perceptions. Just because we cannot measure thought, this does not mean that it does not exist or is not important. For individual people, thought is everything and perception is filtered to the extent that we are hard-pressed to know what is really 'out there'.

Idealism includes the principles that:

  • The everyday world of things and people is not the world as it really is but simply as it appears to be.
  • The best reflection of the world is not found in physical and mathematical categories but in terms of self-aware thought.
  • Thought is the relation of each experience to that which it expresses, rather than the imposition of ready-made answers.

In Idealism, concepts are often viewed as being real. Thus 'mankind' is seen to have a reality beyond being just an idea.

Perhaps the most influential Idealist was Immanuel Kant, who human self, or 'transcendental ego,' constructs knowledge out of sense impressions, upon which are imposed certain universal concepts that he called categories.

After Kant, Hegel concluded that the finite world is a reflection of the mind, which alone is truly real. Truth is just the coherence between thoughts. He also considered the dilemma that as transient beings, this leads to reality also being transient.

Just a few of the types of idealism include:

  • Metaphysical Idealism: asserts the ideality of reality.
  • Epistemological Idealism: the mind can only hold that which it can perceive.
  • Subjective Idealism: (Berkeley) nothing exists except minds and spirits and their perceptions and thoughts.
  • Transcendental Idealism: (Kant) human self, or "transcendental ego," constructs knowledge out of sense impressions.
  • Critical Idealism: The name that Kant preferred for his approach.
  • Formalistic Idealism: another name for Transcendental Idealism.
  • Objective Idealism: Opposition to Berkeley's Subjective Idealism.
  • Aesthetic Idealism: (Schelling) variant of Objective Idealism.
  • Moral Idealism: (Fichte) variant of Objective Idealism.
  • Dialectical Idealism: (Hegel) variant of Objective Idealism.
  • Absolute Idealism: (Hegel) the real world is a reflection of the mind.
  • Kantian Idealism: Relatively recent view that seeks to go 'back to Kant'.
  • Neo-Kantian Idealists: View that seeks to progress from Kant onwards.
  • Theist Idealism: (Lotze) theory of the world ground, when all things find their unity.
  • Theist Absolutism: (Tennant) accepts traditional theological monotheism.

Three key types of Idealism:

  • Neo-Kantianism: We organize experience through mental constructs.
  • Rational Choice Theory: People make rational decisions.
  • Phenomenology/hermeneutics: Experience is internal. Positivism ignores this.

Idealism is opposed to many philosophies that stress material matter, including Empiricism, Positivism, Skepticism, Atheism and Materialism. It is closer to systems that emphasize meaning that is derived from thought, such as Rationalism. Overall, it is used as a container for other philosophies such as Phenomenology and Conventionalism that also oppose purely material viewpoints.

Logical Positivism particularly criticizes Idealism for the lack of verifiability of its ideas and hence questions the usefulness of the whole approach.

See also

Conventionalism, Phenomenology, Positivism

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