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idealism, the attitude that places special value on ideas and ideals as products of the mind, in comparison with the world as perceived through the senses. In art idealism is the tendency to represent things as aesthetic sensibility would have them rather than as they are. In ethics it implies a view of life in which the predominant forces are spiritual and the aim is perfection. In philosophy the term refers to efforts to account for all objects in nature and experience as representations of the mind and sometimes to assign to such representations a higher order of existence. It is opposed to materialism. Plato conceived a world in which eternal ideas constituted reality, of which the ordinary world of experience is a shadow. In modern times idealism has largely come to refer the source of ideas to man's consciousness, whereas in the earlier period ideas were assigned a reality outside and independent of man's existence. Nevertheless, modern idealism generally proposes suprahuman mental activity of some sort and ascribes independent reality to certain principles, such as creativity, a force for good, or an absolute truth. The subjective idealism of George Berkeley in the 18th cent. held that the apparently objective world has its existence in the consciousness of individuals. Immanuel Kant developed a critical or transcendental idealism in which the phenomenal world, constituted by the human understanding, stands opposed to a world of things-in-themselves. The post-Kantian German idealism of J. G. Fichte and Friedrich von Schelling, which culminated in the absolute or objective idealism of G. W. F. Hegel, began with a denial of the unknowable thing-in-itself, thereby enabling these philosophers to treat all reality as the creation of mind or spirit. Forms of post-Kantian idealism were developed in Germany by Arthur Schopenhauer and Hermann Lotze and in England by Samuel Coleridge; forms of post-Hegelian idealism were developed in England and France by T. H. Green, Victor Cousin, and C. B. Renouvier. More recent idealists include F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, Josiah Royce, Benedetto Croce, and the neo-Kantians such as Ernst Cassirer and Hermann Cohen.


See J. H. Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy (1931, repr. 1965); A. C. Ewing, ed., The Idealist Tradition (1957); G. A. Kelly, Idealism, Politics, and History (1969).

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  1. (PHILOSOPHY) the doctrine that the world as encountered is in part or whole a construction of IDEAS.
  2. (SOCIOLOGY) the doctrine that sociology must explain primarily by reference to the subjective and conscious intentions of persons (see also meaningful understanding and explanation).
In philosophy, sense 1 is one of the two basic possibilities that arise in considering the relations between, on one side, MIND or subject and, on the other, world or object (see SUBJECT AND OBJECT. EPISTEMOLOGY). For the world to be known by the subject, idealism suggests that there have to be guiding ideas or theories which unavoidably form the world as it is perceived or thought about. It regards its epistemological opposite, empiricism, as naive in supposing that the world as it really is can form, via the senses, a mind which is initially blank and passive.

Plato's idealism suggested that the objects of the world were in themselves imperfect versions of ideal objects which were their essences. Modern idealism derives from KANT and HEGEL. Kant suggests a two-way relation between mind and world, with the mind contributing universal forms by means of which the substantial and empirical world might be perceived and thought about. For Kant, this carries the implications that the world as it is in itself, unstructured by the mind, is unknowable; and that there is awareness, but not knowledge, of the mind as it is in itself- the ‘noumenal’ – and this is not structured by the forms which permit empirical knowledge, e.g. of space, time and causality. Hegel, rejecting Kant's unknowable ‘world-in-itself’, achieves a fully idealistic reconciliation by regarding mind and subject as essentially social and historical, and, simultaneously, the world as itself constructed or postulated in the successive categories of mind and subject. He attempted a revision of LOGIC (see DIALECTIC), with the world itself (not simply the ‘mind’) conceived as a succession of arguments.

The idea that mind constructs world rather than vice versa, is most evident within sense 2 , in the wide range of sociological theories that see the social world as the outcome of conscious human action, i.e. action that necessarily involves thought and ‘ideas’ on the part of persons. ‘Persons’ are 'S ubjects’, essentially knowledgeable about the situations in which they are placed, who intend (see INTENTIONALITY) their actions. The explanation of action necessarily involves reference to those intentions, and normally ‘interprets the meaning’ of actions by reference to intention, motive and REASON. See also WINCH.

The most significant critique of sense l is that of Marx, who attempts a ‘materialist’ development of Hegel-Hegel put back on his feet – by which the shape of social history and development is not determined by successive postulations of‘ideas’, i.e. the underlying movements of mind in the successions of the 'S pirits’ of particular ‘ages’, but by one range of social forces, particularly economic. For Marx, economic changes underlie all ideological changes. This emphasis on a socioeconomic substructure, he regards as a new form of MATERIALISM which nevertheless retains much of Hegel's ‘dialectic’ (see also DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM).

Recent discussion, in attempting to refurbish ‘materialism’, has extended Marx's critique to sense 2, by emphasizing the ‘material’ aspects of subjectivity, in particular its construction in social location, as opposed to the idealist subject. In doing so, it represents both 'S ubject’ and ‘object’, ‘mind’ and ‘world’, as constituted in essentially social and unconscious semiosis, and rooted in social practices.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the general designation for the philosophical doctrines asserting that consciousness, thought, the psychological, and the spiritual are primary and fundamental, while matter, nature, and the physical are secondary, derivative, conditional, and dependent. Idealism is thus opposed to materialism in the way it resolves the fundamental question of philosophy-that of the relations between being and thought, between the spiritual and the material, both in the realm of existence and in the realm of knowledge. Although idealism arose more than 2 1/2 millennia ago, the term itself, as a designation for one of the two warring camps in philosophy, first appeared only at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1702 the German idealist Leibniz described the hypotheses of Epicurus and Plato as those of the greatest materialist and of the greatest idealist. In 1749 the French materialist D. Diderot called idealism “the most absurd of all systems” (Izbr. soch., vol. 1, Moscow-Leningrad, 1926, p. 28).

The philosophical term “idealism” should not be confused with the word “idealist” as used in ordinary language and in everyday discussions of moral subjects. The latter term comes from the word “ideal” and refers to an unselfish individual striving to achieve lofty goals. In its philosophical use idealism also designates, in the realm of ethics, the denial that moral consciousness is conditioned by social being and the assertion of the primacy of moral consciousness. The confusion of these two concepts has frequently been used by idealists with the aim of discrediting philosophical materialism.

While there is a basic unity within the camp of idealism in the way the fundamental question of philosophy is resolved, nevertheless two main forms within this camp should be distinguished: objective idealism and subjective idealism. Characteristic of objective idealism is the recognition of a spiritual initial cause outside and independent of our consciousness; in subjective idealism it is inadmissible to suppose any reality outside and independent of our consciousness.

We encounter a historical predecessor of objective idealism in the religious artistic images of the ancient Indian Upanishads. Here the material world is presented as the veil of Maya behind which is hidden the true reality of the divine initial cause, Brahman. The first complete expression of objective idealism in conceptual form was in the philosophy of Plato; in medieval philosophy it was represented by Scholastic realism; in the modern period its main representatives have been Leibniz, Schelling, and Hegel. Subjective idealism was most vividly expressed in the doctrines of the English idealists of the 18th century, Berkeley and Hume.

The existence of two main forms of idealism does not exhaust the multiplicity and variety of idealist philosophical systems. Within the framework of these two forms many variations have arisen during the history of philosophy, depending on how the spiritual initial cause is conceived: as universal reason (in panlo-gism) or as universal will (in voluntarism), as a single spiritual substance (in monistic idealism) or as a multiplicity of spiritual initial elements (in monadology and pluralism), as a logically comprehensible rational cause (in idealistic rationalism), as a perceptual diversity of sensations (in idealistic empiricism and sensationalism and in phenomenalism), or as an irregular, alogical “free” cause that cannot be the object of scientific knowledge (in irrationalism).

Since the idealist and materialist solutions to the fundamental question of philosophy are mutually exclusive, only one of them can be true. The materialist solution is the true one, as is confirmed by the history of science when regarded from this point of view and by the development of social praxis. That being the case, how can it be explained that idealism has lasted so long and been preserved in the social consciousness for thousands and thousands of years?

This situation has very deep roots, both epistemological and social. The sources out of which idealism arises historically are the animism and anthropomorphism inherent in the thinking of primitive man, the attribution of soul or spirit to all the world around him and the tendency to regard its motive forces as being determined by consciousness and will, on the model of and by analogy to human behavior.

In later times the capacity for abstract thinking itself became an epistemological source of idealism. The possibility of idealism is already given in the first elementary act of abstraction. The development of general concepts and an increasing degree of abstraction were necessary phases in the progress of theoretical reasoning. But when abstraction is wrongly used it results in hypostatization of qualities, relations, and actions of real things isolated by the thought process from their concrete material bearers and in the attribution of independent existence to these products of abstract thinking. To regard consciousness, thought, size, form, goodness, or beauty as separate and independent of the material objects and entities possessing these characteristics is to follow the false path of abstract thinking that leads to idealism, just as one does if one thinks of plants “in general” or man “in general,” taking them for substances or ideas embodied in things. “Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness— voild the epistemological roots of idealism” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 322). These epistemological roots of idealism gain a foothold by virtue of certain social factors, having their origin in the division between mental and manual labor, as a result of which “consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world” (Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 30). With the formation of slave-owning societies idealism becomes the natural historical form of consciousness of the ruling classes, inasmuch as mental labor is initially their exclusive privilege.

In its origin and at all stages of its development, idealism is closely linked with religion. In essence, idealism arose as a conceptual expression of a religious world view and subsequently, as a rule, served as a philosophical justification and support for religious faith. In Lenin’s words, philosophical idealism is “a road to clerical obscurantism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 322).

The centuries-old history of idealism is quite complex. In the most varied forms at different stages of history, it expressed in its own way the evolution of forms of social consciousness in accordance with the nature of sequential social formations and new levels of scientific development. The basic forms of idealism, which were developed further in the subsequent history of philosophy, had already arisen in classical Greece. Idealist philosophy reached its highest flowering in classical German philosophy in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, the school that founded and developed a new historical form of rationalism—idealist dialectics. With the transition of capitalism into its imperialist stage the turn to irrationalism in its various versions has become the dominant feature of idealist philosophy. In contemporary times the idealist currents dominant in bourgeois philosophy are neopositivism (primarily in the Anglo-Saxon countries), existentialism (in Western Europe), phenomenology (usually intertwined with existentialism), and neo-Thomism (in the Catholic countries).

Contemporary idealist philosophers rarely acknowledge their adherence to the idealist camp. “Many feel that it is a feature of past history rather than a living school of our days” (A. C. Ewing, The Idealist Tradition, Glencoe, 111., 1957, p. 3). The dominant method for classifying philosophical doctrines in contemporary idealist philosophy is most frequently based not on the juxtaposition of materialism and idealism but on the juxtaposition of idealism to realism. Thus, the neo-Thomists, who call their doctrine “realism,” distinguish it from both materialism and subjective idealism. Other idealist tendencies claim to have gone beyond the two warring schools of thought by means of various ambiguous terms, such as “neutral monism” or “elements.” In fact, such assertions are essentially misleading, for all the leading tendencies in contemporary bourgeois philosophy are actually various forms of idealism.


Engels, F. Liudvig Feierbakh i konets klassicheskoi nemetskoi filosofii. K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokrititsizm. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18.
Lenin, V. I. “K voprosu o dialektike.” Ibid., vol. 29.
Lenin, V. I. “Konspekt knigi Aristotelia ‘Metafizika.’” Ibid., vol. 29.
Bykhovskii, B. E., I. Narskii, and V. Sokolov. “Idealism.” In Filosofskaiaentsiklopediia, vol. 2. Moscow, 1962.
Florenskii, P. A. Smysl idealizma. Sergiev Posad, 1914.
Cherkashin, P. P. Gnoseologicheskie korni idealizma. Moscow, 1961.
Cornforth, M. Nauka protiv idealizma. Moscow, 1957. (Translated from English.)
Sowemennyi sub”ektivnyi idealizm. Moscow, 1957.
Sowemennyi ob”ektivnyi idealizm. Moscow, 1963.
Oizerman, T. I. Glavnye filosofskie napravleniia. Moscow, 1971.
Willmann, O. Geschichte des Idealismus, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1907.
Ewing, A. C. Idealism. London, 1934.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Stockmann, Dr. Thomas
sacrifices his career to show that the public baths are a health menace. [Nor. Lit.: An Enemy of the People; Magill II, 292]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


any of a group of philosophical doctrines that share the monistic view that material objects and the external world do not exist in reality independently of the human mind but are variously creations of the mind or constructs of ideas
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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