In this guide, we will discuss “Realist vs Idealist”, what realism is, what idealism is, types of idealism, and is there a possibility someone can be both realist and idealist?
Realist vs Idealist
Realists vs Idealists have been debating for thousands of years and both philosophical perspectives have their pros and cons. They attempt to answer the questions humans have been trying to answer for centuries in regards to their very own existence in questions such as:
- Why are we here?
- Where do we come from?
- Where would we go?
- Are the things we perceive real?
We may have said at some point during a discussion or a conversation, ‘I am just being realistic’ or at least have heard someone else say it, but are we or are they really? Do we understand the concept of what being ‘realistic’ really means? Probably not.
Moreover, what do we really know about idealists other than considering them as ‘dreamers’ who aspire for something greater than what can be seen or experienced in the ‘real world’. It is believed that this perspective is more in tune with how young people perceive the world while realism seems to be a trend among older generations, somewhat associated with being flexible (or not) to changes.
As indicated in philosphybasics.com, “In general parlance, “idealism” is also used to describe a person’s high ideals (principles or values actively pursued as a goal), sometimes with the connotation that those ideals are unrealizable or impractical. The word “ideal” is also commonly used as an adjective to designate qualities of perfection, desirability, and excellence, which is totally foreign to the epistemological use of the word “idealism”, which pertains to internal mental representations.”
Let’s take a look at what realism is about and what idealism is about to be able to draw a line to differentiate them from one another in terms of how we perceive the objects around us.
You might also enjoy learning about the difference between a realist and visionary.
What is Realism?
Realism is a philosophical paradigm or perspective that proposes that material objects are independent of the human mind, meaning they are able to exist on their own. Subsequently, realists believe material objects are real. One of the most important representatives of this perspective is the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
An example of what a realist might say sounds like this: if you see a tree with your naked eyes it exists in the real world and is not just an abstract concept produced by the mind as idealists would indicate. Subsequently, the tree would exist independent of anyone’s perception and therefore is ‘real’.
There is another philosophical paradigm that exists, The Pragmatist Philosophy which is quite different from this paradigm on realism.
What is Idealism?
In contrast, Idealism is a philosophical paradigm that proposes that ideas are the only reality. This means, idealists believe there isn’t an external reality and the world is made of ideas. Subsequently, idealists argue that material things don’t really exist or are not real because they have the ability to mutate or be destroyed. In this sense, whatever is mutable and destructible can change and if it keeps changing, it can’t be considered as real. To learn more idealism, you should also be aware of the difference between idealism and materialism.
Moreover, only ideas seem to be real for idealists since they don’t change, are immutable and can’t be destroyed. Hence, the mind is the essence of reality for idealists and ideas are the only permanent reality.
One of the most important representatives of this perspective of idealism is the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. As you may know, Plato believed that the physical world was not real because it was constantly changing, so one can’t tell what it really is. He introduced the concept of having two kinds of worlds: the world of forms (or ideas) and the world of matter.
According to this Greek philosopher, the material objects that exist in the world of matter are just a copy of the objects that exist in the world of forms or ideas. For an idealist, you can destroy all of the chairs in the world but they would still exist in the mind, and this idea of the chair is considered the ‘ultimate truth’.
If you’re an idealist, you might find idealist jobs, the most suitable for you.
Let’s start by talking about subjective idealism, solipsism, or subjectivism. This is the doctrine that indicated how the mind and ideas are the only things that can be definitely known to exist or ‘be real’, and knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified (or not real). Subsequently, objects exist because we perceive them, as ideas that reside in our awareness and in the consciousness of a Divine Being or God.
The main proponent of this type of idealism was George Berkely where he set the foundations of Empiricism, with the help of other philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume. Empiricism indicates how there is an emphasis on experience and sensory perception in the formation of ideas, where innate ideas are non-existent.
In this sense and as indicated in phylosophybasics.com, “Berkeley believed that existence was tied to experience, and that objects exist only as perception and not as a matter separate from perception. He claimed that “Esse est aut percipi aut percipere” or “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Thus, the external world has only a relative and temporary reality. He argued that if he or another person saw a table, for example, then that table existed; however, if no one saw the table, then it could only continue to exist if it was in the mind of God.”
This type of idealism is also known as critical idealism and it defends that our experience of things is about how they tend to appear to us or how they are represented and not about the things showing as they are in and of themselves.
In general terms, they don’t deny that an objective world external to us does exist but they indicate how there is a supra-sensible reality beyond the categories the human reason is able to create called noumenon or understood as ‘thing-in-itself’.
Therefore, we can’t really know these ‘things-in-themselves’ except that they can have no independent existence outside of our minds.
If you would like to know more about transcendental Idealism, we invite you to read Immanuel’s Kant ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, which is one of the most iconic pieces of work from this German philosopher and thinker.
This is the perspective that sees the outside world as ‘mind communicating with our human minds’. It states that there is only one perceiver, and the perceiver is one with that which is perceived, where Realism is accepted but Naturalism is rejected.
“According to Objective Idealism, the Absolute is all of reality: no time, space, relation or event ever exists or occurs outside of it. As the Absolute also contains all possibilities in itself, it is not static, but constantly changing and progressing. Human beings, planets, and even galaxies are not separate beings, but part of something larger, similar to the relation of cells or organs to the whole body (philisophybasics.com).”
Realism and Idealism: a mix
Some philosophers tend to fall somewhere between both perspectives, being realistic about some objects but also idealist about others. This is especially true depending on what they are referring to, if it is something tangible as books or a table or if it relates to ethics or consciousness.
As we have mentioned, idealists believe that our perception depends on the mind, which means our ideas will interfere with how we perceive the world and this is something both idealists and realists can agree on to some extent.
As indicated by philosophyterms.com, “When you see a car, for example, idealists argue that you’re not directly perceiving the car but rather perceiving it through a kind of lens or fog imposed by all your knowledge, ideas, and associations related to cars. Thus, our ideas are like colored glasses that can never be removed – they distort everything we see and make it impossible to sense the world reliably. This is a point that even a strong realist can accept – even if you strongly believe in realism and argue that there is a real-world out there, you can still agree that perceiving that world is a complicated process involving both reality and ideas.”
Why is this blog about Realist vs Idealist important?
Here we discussed the main difference between realists and idealists. We saw how realists indicate how material objects are independent of the human mind, meaning, they are able to exist on their own. In contrast, idealists argue that material things don’t really exist or are not real because they have the ability to mutate or be destroyed.
Both are different points of view and perspectives on how we could perceive the world but as we discussed, there is a possibility to have a mix of both perspectives where up to some extent they agree. Realism and Idealism are not only adopted as philosophical ways of thinking but they could also be political and artistic ways to live and to perceive life.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Realist vs Idealist
What is the difference between a realist and an idealist?
The difference between a realist and an idealist relies on their way to perceive things. For instance, realists tend to have a more pragmatic and actual view of a situation while idealists see things in an ideal or perfect manner.
Can you be a realist and idealist?
Yes, it is possible to be both realist and idealist. Realism will be more inclined to know how things are, even if they are not how you expect them to be and idealism is more related to the values and views of how things could be.
What does it mean to be a realist?
A realist is a person who has a perspective of things as they are and deals with them in a pragmatic manner.
What does it mean to be an idealist?
An idealist is someone who cherishes (or pursues) high or noble principles, purpose, goals in life. It is considered a visionary or impractical person, someone who represents things as they might or should be, rather than seeing them as they are.
Is a realist a negative person?
Realists are perceived as negative people but true realists are people who make completely unbiased judgments and those who don’t see things through any kind of filter, positive nor negative.
Philosophybasics.com: “Introduction to Idealism”