During the first half of the 18th century, the Irish philosopher, theologian and bishop George Berkeley developed a radical but influential idealist conception, later called “subjective idealism”, based on a discussion of the theories of Descartes, Malebranche and Locke. Following in the latter’s footsteps, Berkeley starts from the presupposition that only ideas (or representations) can be the immediate objects of consciousness. However, he distances himself from Locke by insisting on the useless and contradictory character of the thesis of “primary qualities”. These “qualities” corresponded in Locke to the geometric and dynamic properties of the bodies themselves. As such, and unlike the “second qualities” caused by the action of the bodies on the senses, they were supposed to be directly attributable to the bodies. Against this distinction, which he considers inconsequential, between so-called “objective” primary qualities and secondary qualities described as “subjective”, Berkeley draws from an idealistic perspective his own distinction between:
- ideas from the subject’s “imagination”, which can be transformed at will and which are only fictions (subjective ideas)
- ideas which cannot be produced voluntarily by the subject but which result from very real “sensory perceptions” (objective ideas)
While Locke and those who conceived of the world as material generally considered that this second class of ideas resided in the material things present outside our minds, Berkeley on the other hand argued that it is useless to assume material things behind ideas, and that it is even contradictory to conceive something which would thus exist independently of the thought that we have of it. His fundamental thesis he summarizes in a now famous Latin formula (most often in its truncated form): esse est percipi aut percipere (“to be is to be perceived or to perceive”). This formula signifies that the being of objects is to be perceived, that of subjects, to perceive. Only then exist the ideas and the spirit by which they exist. The concept of matter, for its part, is a fiction of language which covers in shortened form various sensations which we thus group together. In this sense, Berkeley supports a position that he himself describes as “immaterialism”, and which corresponds to the negative side of his idealism.
A common mistake regarding Berkeley’s idealism is to think that it would lead to denying the reality of the external world as well as its independence from our mind. Yet Berkeley does not deny the reality of the external world, which we experience through our “sensory perception”, but only its alleged material nature. On the other hand, he maintains that there is an external reality independent of the subject, given in the sensible perceptions. But since this reality is not material, and since all ideas exist only relative to one mind, the “objects” of sense ideas (their objective content) must be present to another mind which perceives them. According to Berkeley, this spirit is God, and “things” are therefore nothing but complexes of ideas perceived by God and aroused in us by an affection of our spirit. One of the consequences of this theocentric system is that the science of nature no longer deals with the interactions of material things, but with laws that express the permanent order in which God produces and links ideas.
Whether Berkeley is truly an idealistic philosopher, and to what extent or in what sense he is, is still a disputed question today; first because Berkeley affirms the independent existence of the mind (in this sense, Berkeley is a realist with regard to minds), secondly because he believes that his philosophy transforms ideas into things by the very fact that it transforms things into ideas. He himself ignores the term idealism and uses the negative expression “immaterialism” to qualify his doctrine. It was Immanuel Kant who first applied to it the label of idealism, and more particularly of “dogmatic idealism”, because such a doctrine would be based on the dogmatic denial of the existence of corporeal things out of us. Kant distinguishes this Berkeleyan idealism from Cartesian “problematic idealism”, which questions the existence of things, and “transcendental idealism” (his own), which recognizes the existence of the “thing-in-itself” as than the reality of bodies as phenomena in space.
Kant’s transcendental idealism
Immanuel Kant’s idealism is an original attempt to reconcile different theses belonging to apparently incompatible philosophical options. It will leave a lasting mark on philosophical reflection on the nature of knowledge and on the possibility of knowing reality. Kant himself describes his idealism as “transcendental”, meaning by this new term all that relates to the conditions of possibility of experience and representation. In the Critique of Pure Reason, the first edition of which appeared in 1781, he defined this idealism as follows:
“I mean by transcendental idealism of all phenomena the doctrine according to which we consider them as a whole as mere representations and not as things in themselves, a theory which makes of time and space only sensible forms of our intuition and not of determinations given by themselves or of the conditions of objects considered as things in themselves.”
Kant’s transcendental idealism validates, at the same time as it limits, the power of reason, highlighting the conditions of its legitimate use. In this sense, it is “critical” idealism. The distinction he makes between, on the one hand, the phenomena of which we form the representation and, on the other hand, the thing in itself, capable of being thought from postulates but not knowable as such, allows to reconcile a form of “empirical realism”, which asserts the existence of objects as sensitive data, and a form of “metaphysical idealism”, which supports that of conceptual and sensitive forms a priori belonging to the knowing subject. Thus Kant refers back to back to “metaphysical realism” and “empirical idealism” which constitute for him the two dominant traditions in philosophy.
Unlike Berkeley’s empirical idealism, Kant’s idealism, like metaphysical realism, admits the existence of “things-in-themselves” outside of our minds. But contrary to what metaphysical realism affirms, these things, constituting the whole of reality or of being, remain forever inaccessible to us, unknowable, because our thought never grasps anything but phenomena, it is that is, appearances, relating to the a priori innate structures of our sensibility and our understanding. These forms condition all our knowledge and exist prior to all experience. In a way, they dictate the laws of the subject to the world. Kant calls this reversal of perspective in the way of envisaging the relationship between the subject and the world the “Copernican revolution”.
Because of the unknowable status of the thing-in-itself, Kantian idealism has also been called “agnostic” idealism, denying itself the power to know the reality “behind appearances”. It can also be seen as a form of relativism, since, according to him, everything that is known relates to the structure of human thought. However, if being is considered there as beyond the reach of theoretical knowledge, it is not denied there, and for the purposes of moral action, Kant will even consider it essential to postulate (“postulates of practical reason” ) the existence of God, of the soul and its immortality, thus joining in his Critique of Practical Reason (which he published in 1788) the spiritualist realism of religion.
Fichte’s “Absolute Self”
Johann Gottlieb Fichte is one of the main representatives of the philosophical current referred to as “German idealism”, which developed in Germany following the “Copernican revolution” introduced into the field of philosophical thought, at the late 18th century, by Immanuel Kant. This conceptual “revolution” consists in reversing the order of precedence in the subject-object relationship by granting primacy to the “transcendental subject”, the condition of possibility of the empirical world and of all knowledge. By taking up the principle of the transcendental subject to explain the formation of empirical reality, Fichte adopts a Kantian-type idealist position, but he radicalizes it to the point of changing its meaning, rejecting in particular the Kantian idea of a unknowable “thing-in-itself” where the reality of phenomena resides.
A certain reading of Fichte’s doctrine inherited from Hegel’s reflections on idealism also makes him one of the great representatives of subjective idealism, after Berkeley. This reading of Fichte is based on his concept of “Absolute Self”, which designates in his first system the ultimate and unsurpassable principle of reality. Fichte wonders how the unconditioned freedom he claims for the absolute Self can be reconciled with the limitation imposed on it by the dynamics of the external universe. One way of looking at its answer to the question is to consider that the Self creates the “Not-Self” by limiting itself, the external reality (the “Not-Self”) thus being entirely dependent on the Self. Fichte calls “imagination” the activity by which representations arise in the ego when it limits itself in this way by the non-ego.
For Fichte, the “Self” is the sole principle of all reality. It is therefore unconditioned, which implies that it has posited itself. Posing itself, this absolutely free Self can be said to be “cause of itself” and “absolute Self”. If it is in a certain sense “everyone’s Self”, it does not appear according to the empirical determinations of our consciousness, because it is at the very foundation of all consciousness. In this sense, it should not be confused with self-awareness. Indeed, insofar as it is infinite, the absolute Self cannot be that of self-consciousness which is finite; it is, positioned at a deeper level, the condition of possibility of this consciousness. Consciousness therefore paradoxically has an unconscious foundation. This unconscious basis of consciousness is the pure originating activity of the “Absolute Self”, which produces everything.
Fichtean idealism has a practical purpose. Indeed, the principle of the self-limitation of the Ego, constitutive of the real, resides in the characterization of the absolute Ego as infinite effort: the Ego needs the resistance of the Not-Ego in order to be able, by striving to overcome it, to give a practical dimension. The shock and the resistance of the objects of the Not-Self, assimilable to a reactive force, then together form the condition for the free activity of the Self to be reflected, for the subject to be conscious of himself and thus be able to determine himself morally. Fichte would define his philosophical system in this perspective as “realistic idealism”, not subjective idealism, because it establishes the presence of a force (the Not-Self) independent of the consciousness of the finite Self.
(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)