In this guide, we will discuss “Idealism vs Materialism”, a bit of background on each of the philosophical approaches and how we could consider understanding the world from other points of view.
Idealism vs Materialism
We will talk about Idealism vs Materialism, how you can tell the difference between them and how they attempt to explain how reality is known. According to politicalsciencenotes.com, “Materialist philosophy emphasizes that its core idea is neither idea nor idealism, but rather it is the physical world. It stresses upon the master or material condition of society and day-to-day life.”
Subsequently, materialism acknowledges only the things in the physical world. There is no place for supernatural phenomena, divinity, or terms related, and the nucleus of materialism is ‘humankind’. However, alongside humankind, society also seems to step on the scene for the materialist philosophy but there are some philosophers that deny this. They indicate how the mind, thought, spirit and ideas are primary while the physical world is secondary.
In contrast, some philosophers indicate how the bases of materialism are the nature of reality regardless of humankind’s existence. Ted Tripp from marxists.org indicated, “When the earth was still a flaming sphere, resembling the sun today before it cooled there was no life on its surface, no thinking creature of any kind. First, we had a matter incapable of thought, out of which developed thinking matter, humans.”
Idealism, on the other hand, proposed that the basic element of reality is the mind or spirit. Everything else seems to come from the mind or spirit, depending upon its operation. Moreover, the mind or spirit exists before and separate from the matter, where the second is a passing phase or illusion.
Also, contrasted with the materialism philosophy, idealism proposes that the mind or spirit seems to emanate from the divine or leaves the door open to the possibility of the existence of supernatural phenomena, power, and interference.
Next, we will discuss a little bit of the historical background on each philosophical point of view but just superficially since we may not be able to cover it entirely.
Materialism: a bit of background
We can trace extreme or mechanistic materialism back to Leucippus (5th century B.C.) and his pupil (or associate) Democritus. They believed at that moment how there was no room for ‘chance’ but all happened by necessity, and how the universe contained only empty space and atoms. This meant that the sensations were a product of our atoms impinging on our senses.
A century later, Epicurus acknowledged this point of view of reality but added an ethic component where, even though the world was made of atoms and space and we are therefore a natural product, still had ‘free will’ to seek happiness.
Moreover, as indicated by R.J. Rummel (1975), “From the time of Lucretius until the seventeenth century, the belief in a fundamentally spiritual universe and the human soul dominated by God ruled Western philosophy.”
He indicated how, “…The rise of the natural sciences, the translations of Greek classics during the Renaissance and the questioning attitude encouraged by their reading, and the loosening hold of the Church due to its moral-spiritual confusion and schisms at the top encouraged a number of naturalistic movements. It was not, however, until the seventeenth century that materialism achieved its revival. One of those responsible for this was the French philosopher, Pierre Gassendi, the most influential thinker of that time.”
We have to acknowledge how the materialistic approach encouraged developments in the field of organic chemistry, where they have established how material substances and their interactions are necessary components of life, or in the subject of physics through the mechanical cause-effect and push-pull theories, to name a few examples.
If you are interested in knowing more about materialism, we recommend looking for thinkers like Engels, Feuerbach, or Marx.
Idealism: a bit of background
As we have discussed, idealism gives the mind the main role, where material substances and processes may not exist independently from the mind.
Parmenides of Elea, back in the sixth century B.C, is considered the father of western idealism. He argued that all things are one and that motion and change are unreal. Later on, Plato adopted the ideas and developed the ‘objective realism’.
As indicated by R.J. Rummel (1975), “for Plato, a reality of eternal and perfect ideas (or forms), such as hardness, underlies all appearances, such as something hard. That which we sense only more or less represents these ideas, this underlying reality knowable by the mind. The highest idea for Plato was the Good; to know it was the highest goal of knowledge.”
On the other hand, we have George Berkley and G.W. Leibniz, in the early eighteenth century, considered two of the major idealists. However, Berkeley has been considered the most influential of the two thinkers. He believed that material substances can have no reality independent of mind for us. What we get to perceive and know from the world, we get to do it through our senses.
R.J. Rummel (1975) indicates, “A tree is only a collection of sensations plus ideas, our conceptions of treeness, organizing our sensations. That matter should be independent of the senses is itself inconceivable, according to Berkeley.”
Subsequently, we can acknowledge how idealism in its beginnings, through Platonism, was perhaps the most influential philosophy of Greece and when combined with Jewish traditions, set motion to early Christianity. Moreover, his ideas were extremely influential not only for religion, ethics, economy, politics, among others.
As indicated by Ted Tripp, “One of the major tasks of the idealists was to rehabilitate the religious outlook, which for many reasons had fallen into disrepute. It had been weakened by the clash of moral standards attending the civil war, and unsettled and old views of the universe along with the positions of the ruling classes. The growing disbelief in the ancient creeds and rituals had to be countered by the reinforcement of religion. The idealist philosophers undertook this by their own methods.”
There is so much more to Idealism that we can grasp here, so if you would like to expand a little bit more on this subject, we recommend reading the thoughts of thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, or Hegel.
Other points of view (Idealism vs Materialism)
Materialism and Idealism are two opposite points of view and are considered two main philosophical tendencies but there are also other points of view that could occupy a position between them. For instance, as indicated by Ted Tripp, “agnostics, who cannot decide whether an external reality actually exists apart from ourselves and whether it is possible to know it. They remain suspended between materialism and idealism.”
Moreover, German philosopher Immanuel Kant indicated how things in themselves are able to exist as objective realities, more in tune with a materialistic approach. However, he also indicated how humankind could never know such reality and all we could know were phenomena or things that appear to us, more in tune with idealists.
It seems these two philosophies generate more questions than answers and even if they contradict each other and are extremes, we have come a long way to understand sometimes things are not only black or white, there are some grey areas. Moreover, we have to understand how idealism and materialism emerge and what was happening in their political, religious, cultural, and societal background to understand why they exist.
Why is this blog about Idealism vs Materialism important?
Understanding the differences between idealism and materialism are important because it lets us see through the thinkers of the time what was happening during that period of time. Each philosophical point of view has its pros and cons and for some people, they seem to generate more questions than answers.
However, we should consider their contributions and how their ideas have transformed through centuries and how they have contributed to many of the fields of knowledge we actually interact with. We know how the ideas proposed through idealism or materialism can be considered complex and difficult to understand, however, for better understanding they could be viewed through a practical point of view.
Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Idealism vs Materialism
What is the difference between idealism and materialism?
The difference between idealism and materialism relies on how idealism is the view that every object either is or depends on its existence and materialism is the view where the object exists. Moreover, the basic proposition of materialism refers to the nature of reality regardless of the existence of humankind while the basic element of reality for idealists is the mind or spirit, and everything depends upon its operation.
Was Marx a materialist or idealist?
Marx was neither materialist nor idealist. In synthesis, we could define Marx as a humanist and a naturalist. In his speech, Marx speaks of an element that is central to this theory: Labor. However, some people would say that his ideas could be interpreted and understood from both materialistic and idealistic approaches, depending on the point of view.
What is theory of idealism?
The theory of idealism proposes a diverse group of metaphysical properties or philosophies that understand reality in an indistinguishable or inseparable from human understanding or perception. In a way, it is mentally constituted, or closely connected to ideas. Idealism suggests that reality is a product of the mind and the mind is able to exist before and apart from matter.
What is an example of materialism?
An example of materialism is believing love can be bought with goods or money or valuing a new car over someone’s friendship. Materialism is the philosophy that everything can be explained in terms of matter, or how goods and wealth seem to be the most important thing in life (happiness).
What are the basic principles of idealism?
Some of the basic principles of idealism include:
- Idealism Believes in the Universal Mind.
- Idealism Regards Man as a Spiritual Being.
- The World of Ideas and Values is more important than the world of Matter.
- Real knowledge is perceived in mind.
- Importance of Personality Development.
Rummel, R.J. (1975) The Dynamic Psychological Field, Chapter 32: A Humanism Between Materialism and Idealism. Retrieved from hawaii.edu.
Politicalsciencenotes.com: “Difference between Materialism and Idealism”
Tripp, T. (n.d.) Materialism versus idealism. Retrieved from marxists.org.