Notes on Idealism II

– The starting point of idealism, at least in the modern period, can be traced to Descartes and his distinction between material and immaterial substances. Material substances are foreign to immaterial substances – one cannot know or cause or move the other.

– From that, it follows that sensations are either innate (Descartes) or given by God (Malebrance), since sensations can’t be produced by material substances.

– Malebrance developed Descartes logic with regard to causality – since we have no clear and distinct idea of causality to apply to matter, he fell back on God to supply causality.

– The obvious criticism here is Hume’s: if we have no idea of causality to apply to matter, how on earth can we apply it to God? Hence Hume’s position of causality being our own ideas projected onto objects, learned from custom.

– Berkeley’s critique can also be seeing hovering in the background: if sensations are explained entirely by the mind/God, why suppose ‘matter’?

– Descartes definition of matter and material substances had the effect of producing a world full of mutually exclusive substances which cannot act on or be acted upon each other. Matter has only mobility, not motion or the power to cause motion. God is the cause of all motion.

– The great sceptical problems are seen to be necessary conclusions if Descartes principles are accepted – matter as extension, the exclusivity of substances, the location of sensations within us as innate ideas, etc.

Rough Notes on Idealism

– Idealism is broadly the thesis that reality is mental – more specifically, reality is constituted by perception (Berkely), and the only things known are what is given in conscious experience.

– An argument for this view could be sketched out as follows: everything we know about reality is based on our own experience, all our experience is mental in nature (given in consciousness and mediated by the mind) therefore, reality is ultimately mental. All we experience or perceive are ideas (or sense-data, to use a more modern term) and bundles of ideas.

– As is commonly noted, this is an extreme form of empiricism.

– A simple objection: from the fact that all we perceive is X (in this case, ideas) it does not follow that all is X (granting for the sake of argument the Way of Ideas). That leap is quite unjustified in this case.

– John Haldane notes another objection:

‘Berkeley maintained that the realist assumption that some things are mind-independent is self-contradictory, since just as an object cannot be both seen and unseen, so nothing can be both conceived and unconceived. There is a difference, however, between the fact of conceiving of something and the content of what is conceived; and it is not contradictory to conceive of something as existing unconceived. Although I may be conceiving it, it is not thereby part of an object’s nature, let along of its being, to be conceived of by me or by anyone else.’

– Issue could also be taken with the empiricist epistemology that undergirds Berkeley’s project, and, for that matter, the Way of Ideas as a whole (the latter could be criticized just by pointing out how many skeptical problems arise when such an idea is entertained).

Epistemology and Being

I thought fairly long and hard about the previous post I put up – Hart made a persuasive case for ‘practical idealism’. But is it true? I’ll expound a little on the realism to which I hold (which is very heavily influenced by Torrance) and see if they can fit together.

In knowing, we come into contact with a distinct reality that discloses itself to us – it discloses its own ‘truth of being’. This disclosure is controlling, in that it forces the a priori concepts/categories we have to conform with the nature/activity if whatever reality is at hand. Basically, we think ‘after’ the nature of things as they reveal themselves in their activity/operations (there are similarities here with Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarian theology).

This disclosure of nature by activity doesn’t mean that the nature is something we know comprehensively – since nature is related to being, and the intelligibility of being is inexhaustible, even though we can know the nature as revealed, we cannot comprehend the nature. While our active intellect is formal cause of our knowledge, our concepts, significations, categories, etc, can never exhaust even the simplest reality – its very act of existing is, in a way, infinite in being.

Now, our active intellect is, as just stated, a formal cause, in that it organizes our knowledge of the intelligible being of the reality at hand into meaningful ‘structures of knowledge’. These structures are what is extracted, as Hart said, from everyday experience and formalized into meaningful categories of understanding. The key difference is that the active intellect is, for lack of a better term, subordinate to the reality it apprehends, in that its categories are always open to revision or outright discontinuation in light of the reality at hand disclosing itself to us anew, or as we experience it anew. The most simple reality, with which we are in contact with and acquainted with everyday as a matter of mundane life, has an intelligibility of being which is infinite and incomprehensible, because even the most simple reality simply exists. 

Note on Perception, the Mind, Metaphysics, and Objects

I look at something, say, the table my feet rest on. I perceive the table. Is this purely a mental event (idealism)? Or is my perception that of a mind-independent object (realism)? If it were the latter, there would still be mental activity, obviously, even though the object itself is not mental. However, is the mind predisposed to reality or a blank slate of sorts? Chomsky did some interesting work in the linguistic arena that suggested that there is a universal sort of grammar hardwired into us. Perhaps this carries over into general perception? Perhaps we have (a la Kant) categories with which we impose order on the world of experience.

But suppose I were to suggest that it’s the world that imposes it’s categories onto us. T.F. Torrance goes into great detail on this subject, generally in relation to theology, but it applies to metaphysics as well. God is a reality independent of our thought or perception of Him, and based on His self-revelation we ‘generate’ concepts that are worthy of Him. We have to ‘unlearn’ (apophaticism) our preconceived ideas and allow the force of His reality to impress His own categories and concepts on our mind.

Could this apply to our knowledge of the external world as well? That as we come into relation to the being of objects, reality itself impressions its own concepts upon us? The worlds being forces itself on us as we attempt to penetrate into the nature of reality, forcing us to abandon our categories as we inquire more deeply.

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of all that without conceding that the mind is predisposed to reality (the fit of the intellect to reality, to use the medieval phrase. This isn’t to say that our mental operations create the reality we perceive (et esse percepti, I think is the phrase) but rather that our mental categories make sense of the world of sensory experience. Perhaps our categories can be abandoned or reshaped in the light of true being.

Random Study Notes

Current cosmology: focused on information, holographic principle and black hole event horizons. Lots of conjecture but not as much empirical evidence in favour of one over the other. Importance of mathematics cannot be overestimated in current physics, but seems very easy to mistake the mathematical formulas describing phenomena for the phenomena itself. See Bertrand Russell on the mathematical skeleton of reality.

Idealism: in its classical form a powerful metaphysic, in theology, seems to border on heretical (ie Edwards, Berkeley). Similar to pantheism and emanation and poor distinction between thought, being and reality. Having a mental picture of an object is not grounds to assert that all reality is mental even though the mental plays an obviously key role in our perception of reality.

Hegel: powerful thinker whos ideas, to paraphrase That Individual, would have been brilliant had they been posited as an elaborate theory, but Hegel’s assertion that his philosophy was reality turns his ideas from interesting to absurd and even mad. Chilling ideas on the state, freedom and morality which laid the groundwork for a very bloody 20th century. Thoughts on the nature of reality similar to Heraclitus IE all is flux. History, the Real, Absolute Spirit all powerful ideas that need to be taken seriously as a system of thought.

Critical realism: primary viewpoint of Christianity – God exists independently of our thought or perception of Him. Stratification of truth (T.F. Torrance) distinguishes between kinds of truth IE truth of being, truth of relation, truth of statement. Operation of the human mind naturally realist – the words we employ point to the reality for which they stand rather than themselves. Our mind does not create reality but rather accepts the reality forced upon it, either in natural science or theology.

Epistemological Note

It seems odd to me that realism actually has opponents. Realism here is the idea that there is a reality independent of us or our perceptions – and that we can both experience and know reality-in-itself. The biggest opposing view, idealism (and by extension anti-realism), seems content to say that since all we experience is the content of our minds, we can’t know reality-in-itself. There’s obviously different kinds of idealism but that’s the basic gist. In the following paragraphs, Gilson provides some sharp commentary on the differences between realism/idealism:

‘We must always remember that the impossibilities in which idealism tries to entangle realism are the inventions of idealism. When it challenges us to compare the thing known with the thing in itself, it merely manifests the internal sickness which consumes it. For the realist there is no “noumenon” as the realist understands the term. Since knowledge presupposes the presence to the intellect of the thing itself, there is no reason to assume, behind the thing in thought, the presence of a mysterious and unknowable duplicate, which would be the thing of the thing in thought. Knowing is not apprehending a thing as it is in thought, but, in and thought, apprehending the thing as it is.

To be able to conclude that we must necessarily go from thought to things, and cannot proceed otherwise, it is not enough to assert that everything is given in thought. The fact is, we do proceed otherwise. The awakening of the intelligence coincides with the apprehension of things, which, as soon as they are perceived, are classified according to their most evident similarities. This fact, which has nothing to do with any theory, is something that theory has to take account of. Realism does precisely that, and in this respect is following common sense. That is why every form of realism is a philosophy of common sense.’

‘This is also why the realist never expects his knowledge to engender an object without which his knowledge would not exist. Like the idealist, he uses his power of reflection, but keeping it within the limits of a reality given from without. Therefore the starting point of his reflections has to be being, which in effect is for us the beginning of knowledge: res sunt . If we go deeper into the nature of the object given us, we direct ourselves towards one of the sciences, which will be completed by a metaphysical of nature. If we go deeper into the conditions under which the object is given us, we shall be turning towards a psychology, which will reach completion in a metaphysics of knowledge. The two methods are not only compatible, they are complementary, because they rest on the primitive unity of the subject and object in the act of knowledge, and any complete philosophy implies an awareness of their unity.

There is nothing, therefore, to stop the realist going, by way of reflective analysis, from the object as given in knowledge to the intellect and the knowing subject. Quite the contrary, this is the only way he has of assuring himself of the existence and nature of the knowing subject. Res sunt, ergo cognosco, ergo sum res cognoscens [Things exist, therefore I know, therefore I am a knowing subject]. What distinguishes the realist from the idealist is not that one refuses to undertake this analysis whereas the other is willing to, but that the realist refuses to take the final term of his analysis for a principle generating the thing being analyzed. Because the analysis of knowledge leads us to the conclusion “I think,” it does not follow that this “I think” is the first principle of knowledge. Because every representation is, in fact, a thought, it does not follow that it is only a thought, or that an “I think” conditions all my representations.’

– Etienne Gilson, (

I wondered why anyone would take the route of idealism/creative anti-realism (ICR) for a long time. Then it occurred to me that maybe there are more anthropological reasons for taking that route. Hume is famous for saying that there is no self, just a bundle of perceptions. If there is no self, then one can’t really have knowledge – and it seems to be a short leap from there to saying that reality is simply perception or something along those lines. Even if there is reality ‘out there’ it wouldn’t matter.

But then I thought more. It seemed like all that was really getting off on the wrong foot – when we know something, we don’t know it in a detached, objective way. We couldn’t know anything in that way, because we can’t get outside ourselves to be objective and detached. I then read this little bit by Torrance, which I’ve posted here before:

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

That seemed to me to be about right. If we interact in a dynamic and relational way with the world around us, we break through the dualisms that lead to naive realism/IRC. That is, I neither cold observe the real world in a detached way (which is impossible and leads to some odd ideas) nor do I construct reality out of my own experience/perception/mental content. I interact with the world as a personal agent and by doing so am able to know the thing I interact with in itself.