What is Idealism?

The People
March 19, 1983
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Question Period
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What is Idealism?

Idealism is the cart-before-the-horse school of philosophy. It is the belief that ideas somehow exist apart from the human brains that think them. Idealists claim that thought is basic, that thought exists before things, and that thought is the cause of things that exist in the material world -- if there is a material world.

However, even idealists admit that thinking requires a thinker. But since they deny that thinking is the product of the human brain, idealists claim that thinking is the activity of minds or souls. Unlike things in the everyday world, minds and souls supposedly aren't made of matter. Instead, they are said to be immaterial or spiritual substances that are independent of human bodies and matter.

Idealists usually maintain that minds and souls are part of a larger spiritual world that includes gods and other spirits as well as ideas. These ideas are supposed to be the models of things. They are said to exist before things and things are made in the image of ideas.

Some idealists claim that the world of matter and things is created out of nothing by an act of God or of several gods working together. More philosophical idealists say that the material world is the unfolding of the Absolute Idea -- whatever that may mean.

Still other idealists are ruthlessly consistent and deny that matter even exists. Matter, they claim, is simply an illusion. Things aren't material but only groups of ideas or sensations that exist in our minds or in the mind of God.

All of these beliefs may sound like an abstract -- and absurd -- philosophy that seems to be of little relevance to the real world. And, indeed, idealism is false. But because some idealist concepts are still widely believed, idealism has important consequences that can affect the way we think and act. For example, religion is based on idealist premises, even though many religious believers today would probably disagree with some of those premises.

Historically, idealism is a pre-scientific philosophy that is rooted in ignorance. Take the idea of the soul. Engels observed that in very early times people were "still completely ignorant of the structure of their bodies" and "come to believe that their thinking and sensation were not the activities of the bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death."

Lacking scientific explanations of the workings of the natural world, people likewise invented myths to explain such things as thunder and the seasons as the result of actions by gods and other supernatural beings. And, when class-divided societies arose, the existence of ruling classes and oppressed classes were also explained as the result of divine will.

Today, the advance of scientfic knowledge has swept away many idealist and mythical explanations of the natural world. For example, a doctor who maintained that evil spirits were the real cause of disease would be laughed out of town.

Unfortunately, idealism still has its supporters. Creationists, for example, reject the theory of evolution in favor of biblical mythology. More sophisticated idealists assert that the most important truths are beyond the reach of science and that there are ways of knowing things other than evidence, experience and practice.

Far more serious are the consequences of idealism on the economic, political and social fields. Many idealists claim that the solution to social problems is religious or moral revival. Crime, for example, is said to exist because some people are sinful or evil, and not because of poverty, unemployment and other real material conditions.

Likewise idealists explain that there are wars because human nature is prone to violence or because of conflicts between Freedom and Slavery, and not because ruling classes have material interests that drive them to try to dominate other nations. Idealism often functions as a tool of social reaction. It is a weapon that the ruling classes use to obscure the workings of the real world and of human society in order to uphold their systems of exploitation.

This is not to say that all idealists are reactionaries. Some hold forth beautiful ideas of peace and social justice. But they believe that these goals can be attained simply by preaching and trying to convince everyone of those ideas. They fail to adequately take account of social structure, class divisions and antagonisms, and the other material realities of modern society.

However, in order to change the world, it is necessary to understand it. Idealism stands in the way of both. If we are to take concrete steps toward a better world, we need a different philosophy - materialism. That will be the subject of the next question period.