Idealism – Beliefs, Principles, Quotes & Leading Figures

What is Idealism Philosophy?

Idealism is a philosophical framework that asserts the primary importance of the mental or spiritual realm in understanding the nature of reality.

It is a perspective that places significant emphasis on the mind, ideals, values, and consciousness, as opposed to the physical or material world.

Definition of Idealism

Idealism is a term derived from the Greek word ‘idea’, meaning to see.

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In philosophical terms, it refers to any theory that emphasizes the spirit, the mind, or the language over the physical world.

Idealism often proposes that the concepts we perceive in the world are merely representations of the ideas that exist in our minds.

Plato’s Idealism

Plato, one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy, was a significant proponent of idealism.

His theory of Forms is a classic example of idealism, suggesting that non-physical “Forms” (or ideas) represent the most accurate reality.

Plato posited that these Forms are eternal and unchangeable, while the physical world we see around us is merely a flawed reflection of these perfect Forms.

Types of Idealism

Idealism takes many forms, including subjective idealism, absolute idealism, transcendental idealism, and German idealism.

Subjective idealism, championed by George Berkeley, proposes that material objects only exist to the extent that they are perceived by a mind.

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Transcendental idealism, attributed to Immanuel Kant, argues that our understanding of the world is shaped by our perceptions, which are influenced by our mental faculties.

Absolute idealism, promoted by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, proposes that the universe and everything within it is part of an absolute mind or spirit.

German idealism is a broader movement that emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, incorporating elements of both transcendental and absolute idealism.

Idealism in International Relations

In the realm of international relations, idealism emphasizes international law, morality, and international organization, as opposed to power alone.

This perspective, often contrasted with realism, advocates diplomacy and cooperation as the means to achieve global peace.

Wilsonian idealism, named after US President Woodrow Wilson, is one of the significant iterations of idealism in international politics, promoting self-determination and democratic principles.

Idealism in Politics

In the realm of politics, idealism often refers to the pursuit of high-minded, principled, or noble goals, regardless of practical considerations.

It promotes values such as peace, justice, and equality, often driving social and political movements that seek transformative change.

Idealism vs. Realism

The debate between idealism and realism is a central discourse in many academic fields, especially philosophy and international relations.

While idealists believe that mind, spirit, or ideas shape the world, realists argue that the world exists independently of our perceptions, and it is primarily driven by material and tangible forces.

In international relations, while idealists emphasize moral principles and international cooperation, realists focus on state power and national interests.

Idealism in Education and Philosophy of Education

Idealism has significantly influenced education, emphasizing the development of the mind through the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness.

The idealist philosophy of education underscores the importance of character development, moral education, and the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual truth.

Idealists believe that education should aim to cultivate moral and ethical citizens who contribute positively to society.

Idealism Synonyms and Examples

Synonyms for idealism include romanticism, utopianism, and dreaminess.

Idealism often is exemplified in individuals who strive for perfect ideals, whether in personal behavior, social systems, or political policies.

An example of idealism could be the pursuit of a world free from war, or the belief in the perfectibility of human nature.

Idealism and Pragmatism for Beginners

Idealism and pragmatism are two contrasting philosophical perspectives.

While idealism is concerned with perfect ideals, pragmatism focuses on practical outcomes and real-world effects.

An idealist might pursue a perfect vision of society, regardless of the practical constraints, while a pragmatist would prioritize workable solutions that produce tangible improvements, even if they fall short of perfection.

Idealism vs. Materialism

Idealism and materialism offer contrasting views on the nature of reality.

While idealism posits that ideas, consciousness, or spiritual phenomena shape the world, materialism argues that material or physical entities and their interactions constitute the reality.

Materialists believe that matter and energy are primary, and consciousness or mind is a by-product of material processes.

Leading Figures

Leading figures in idealist philosophy include Plato, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel.

These philosophers have made significant contributions to various forms of idealism, shaping the discourse of this philosophy over centuries.

George Berkeley’s Idealism

Beliefs & Principles

Idealists believe that reality is fundamentally mental or spiritual.

They propose that the concepts, ideas, or ideals in our minds shape our understanding of the world.

Many idealists argue for the existence of universal ideals or principles that transcend the physical world.

They often emphasize the value of moral, ethical, and aesthetic ideals in shaping human behavior and society.


There are many quotes that encapsulate the spirit of idealism.

George Berkeley, an advocate of subjective idealism, famously stated, “To be is to be perceived.”

Another quote from philosopher Immanuel Kant, a proponent of transcendental idealism, reads: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Summary of Literature

The literature on idealism spans millennia, from ancient philosophical texts like Plato’s ‘Republic’, which introduced the Theory of Forms, to modern analyses of international relations.

Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ explores transcendental idealism, while Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ underpins the development of absolute idealism.

Characteristics of Idealism

The key characteristics of idealism include the belief in the primacy of ideas or consciousness, the existence of a higher, non-material reality, and the value of moral and ethical ideals.

Idealism often entails a commitment to moral or ethical principles, and the belief in the possibility of creating a better world through the power of ideals.


Idealism is a rich and multifaceted philosophy that has shaped our understanding of the world in many ways.

From influencing political and educational theories to offering profound insights about the nature of reality, idealism has left an indelible mark on human thought.

Despite the criticisms and alternatives, it remains a powerful philosophical framework that offers a compelling vision of a world shaped by ideas, values, and consciousness.

FAQs – Idealism

What is idealism in philosophy?

Idealism is a philosophical approach that asserts that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial.

It postulates that our understanding of reality is largely shaped by our minds rather than concrete, physical entities.

In its various forms, idealism often posits that the world as we see and understand it is a product of our perceptions and ideas.

Who are the main philosophers associated with idealism?

Some of the main philosophers associated with idealism include George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Gottfried Leibniz.

Berkeley proposed “subjective idealism”, suggesting that nothing exists outside the mind.

Kant’s “transcendental idealism” argued for a division between the phenomenal world (as it appears to us) and the noumenal world (things as they are in themselves).

Hegel’s “absolute idealism” proposed that everything finite, instead of being static and fixed, is dynamic and becomes more itself by becoming more its opposite.

How does idealism differ from realism?

Realism, in contrast to idealism, asserts that the world exists independently of our perceptions.

Realists believe that there is an objective reality “out there” that can be known through the senses and rational thought.

Idealism, however, posits that reality is constructed in the mind, and that the external world cannot be known independent of our perceptual and cognitive processes.

What is the impact of idealism on science?

Idealism has had a significant impact on science, particularly in the field of quantum mechanics.

The “Copenhagen interpretation,” one of the earliest and most commonly taught interpretations of quantum mechanics, suggests that the act of measurement affects the system being measured, a view that parallels idealist thought.

Idealism also impacts how scientists interpret data and experiments, with some arguing that our understanding of scientific phenomena is shaped by our perceptions and concepts.

What are the different types of idealism?

There are several types of idealism, including subjective idealism, objective idealism, transcendental idealism, and absolute idealism.

Subjective idealism, put forth by Berkeley, suggests that material objects only exist as perceptions in the mind.

Objective idealism asserts that the existence of objects depends on the mind, but these objects have an existence independent of any one individual’s perceptions.

Transcendental idealism, proposed by Kant, makes a distinction between how things appear to us (phenomena) and things as they are in themselves (noumena).

Absolute idealism, associated with Hegel, posits that reality is an absolute spirit, or mind, and the progression of history is the unfolding of this spirit understanding itself.

How has idealism influenced other fields such as psychology, sociology, and education?

In psychology, idealism influenced the development of cognitive psychology and the understanding of the mind as a complex, symbol-processing system.

In sociology, idealism informs the approach that emphasizes the role of ideas and culture in shaping society, as opposed to material or economic conditions.

In the field of education, idealism has influenced pedagogical approaches emphasizing the cultivation of the mind, character development, and the pursuit of truth.

What are some criticisms of idealism?

Critics of idealism often argue that it places too much emphasis on the mind and internal perceptions at the expense of the external, physical world.

Some argue that idealism is inherently anti-scientific as it downplays the role of empirical evidence.

Others critique it for its difficulty in explaining inter-subjective agreement about the nature of reality if everything is mind-dependent.

Is idealism a religious philosophy?

While idealism isn’t inherently a religious philosophy, its principles can be found in various religions.

For example, in Buddhism and Hinduism, the physical world is often viewed as illusionary and the mind or spirit is emphasized.

Similarly, Christian Science and some forms of mystic Christianity have idealistic elements.

However, one can hold idealist beliefs without being religious, as many idealist philosophers were not primarily religious thinkers.

What is the relationship between idealism and phenomenology?

Phenomenology, a philosophical approach that emphasizes direct, first-person experience, has links to idealism.

Both phenomenology and idealism reject the objective view of reality and instead focus on how reality appears to individuals.

However, phenomenology generally doesn’t go as far as idealism in claiming that reality is entirely mind-dependent; instead, it seeks to describe experiences without making metaphysical claims about the nature of reality.

How does idealism address the issue of skepticism?

Idealism can be seen as a response to skepticism.

Skepticism questions our ability to know anything with certainty, including the external world.

Idealism, however, argues that because our perception of reality is formed in our minds, we can be confident in our knowledge of our own perceptions, even if we cannot be certain of an external world independent of these perceptions.

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