Idealist Argumentative Essays


The doctrine of idealism holds that "whatever can be known to exist, must be in some sense mental." The character of this doctrine opposes our common sense view that ordinary, physical objects like the table or the sun are made up of something very different from what we call "mind" or our "thoughts." We think of the external world as independent and holding physical things made of matter. Compared with the common sense view, idealism is plainly harder to believe. In the last chapter, Russell claimed that the way in which physical objects exist differs radically from our notion of sense-data; although, they do share a correspondence. Neither this relation nor common sense justified the possibility of a direct way of knowing the real nature of the outside world. The rejection of idealism on the basis that it runs counter to common sense thus seems premature.

This chapter reviews the grounds upon which the notion of idealism is built. Russell begins with arguments made by Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley couched his philosophy in the edifice of a theory of knowledge. He argued that the objects of sensation, our sense-data, must depend on us in the sense that if we stopped hearing or tasting or seeing or perceiving, then the sense-data could not continue to exist. It must exist, in some part, in a mind. Russell allows that Berkeley's reasoning thus far is "valid." However, further extrapolations are less valid. Berkeley continued that the only things of which our perceptions could make us sure of their existence were sense-data. Since sense-data existed in the mind, then all things that could be known existed in a mind. Reality was a product of some mind, and any "thing" not in some other mind does not exist.

Berkeley called the pieces of sense-data, or things that could be immediately known, "ideas." Memories and things imagined could also be immediately known by virtue of the way the mind works and were also called ideas. Something like a tree exists, according to Berkeley, because someone perceives it. What is real about a tree exists in its perception, an idea from which the famous philosophic idiom: esse is percipi derives; the tree's being is in its being perceived. But what if no human perceives the tree? Berkeley admitted belief in an external world independent of humans. His philosophy held that the world and everything in it was an idea in the mind of God. What we call a real thing is the continuing "physical" object or permanent idea in God's mind. Our minds participate in God's perceptions, and thus different people's differing perceptions of the same object are variable but similar because each is of a piece with the same thing. Nothing could possibly exist or be known except these "ideas."

Russell responds to Berkeley's idealism with a discussion of the word "idea." Russell claims that Berkeley generates a use of the word that makes it easier to believe the arguments advanced for idealism. Since we think of ideas as mental things anyway, when we are told that a tree is an idea, an easy application of the word "idea" places the tree in our minds. Russell suggests that the notion of something being "in the mind" is hard to understand. We speak of bearing some concept or some person "in mind," meaning that the thought of it or him is in our mind, not the thing itself. And thus, "when Berkeley says that the tree must be in our minds if we can know it, all that he really has a right to say is that a thought of the tree must be in our minds." Russell says that Berkeley's meaning is in gross confusion. He attempts to unravel the sense in which Berkeley engages sense-data and the physical world. Berkeley treated the notion of sense-data as something subjective, depending on us for its existence. He made this observation, then sought to prove that anything that "can be immediately known" is in the mind and only in the mind. Russell points out that the observation about the dependence of sense-data does not lead to the proof Berkeley seeks. What he would need to prove is "that by being known, things are shown to be mental."

Russell continues to consider the nature of ideas, in order to analyze the grounds of Berkeley's argument. Berkeley refers to two different things using the same word, "idea." One is the thing of which we become aware, like the color of Russell's table, and the other is the actual act of apprehension. While the latter act seems obviously mental, the former "thing" does not seem so at all. Berkeley, Russell argues, produces the effect of natural agreement between these two senses of "idea." We agree that the apprehending takes place in the mind, and by this we soon arrive at an understanding in the other sense, that things that we apprehend are ideas and are also in the mind. Russell calls this sleight of reasoning an "unconscious equivocation." We find ourselves at the end believing that what we can apprehend has been in our minds, the "ultimate fallacy" of Berkeley's argument.

Russell has made a distinction between act and object, using the sense of "idea." He returns to it because he claims that our entire system of acquiring knowledge is involved with it. Learning and becoming acquainted with something involves a relation between a mind and something, anything, other than that mind. If, with Berkeley, we agree that things that can be known exist in the mind alone, then we instantly limit man's capacity to gain knowledge. To say that what we know is "in the mind" as if we mean "before the mind" is to speak a tautology. Yet, this leads to the contradictory conclusion that what may be before the mind may not be in the mind as it may not be mental. The nature of knowledge itself refutes Berkeley's argument. Russell dismisses Berkeley's argument for idealism.

Materialism vs Idealism

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Materialism vs Idealism

History tells us very little of Titus Lucretius Carus, but one can see
from reading his work that he has a strong dislike towards religious superstition,
which he claims is the root of human fear and in turn the cause of impious
acts. Although he does not deny the existence of a god, his work is aimed
at proving that the world is not guided or controlled by a divinity. Lucretius
asserts that matter exists in the form of atoms, which move around the
universe in an empty space. This empty space, or vacuity, allows for the
movement of the atoms and without it everything would be one mass. He explains
that matter and vacuity can not occupy the same space, "...where there
is empty space, there matter is not...", and these two things make
up the entire universe. These invisible particles come together to form
material objects, you and I are made of the same atoms as a chair or a
tree. When the tree dies or the chair is thrown into a fire the atoms do
not burn up or die, but are dispersed back into the vacuity. The atoms
alone are without mind or secondary qualities, but they can combine to
form living and thinking objects, along with sound, color, taste, etc...
Atoms form life, consciousness, and the soul, and when our body dies there
is nothing left of the latter except for its parts, which randomly become
parts of other forms. Matter is never ending reality, only changing in
its form. In the philosophical system developed by Irish philosopher George
Berkeley, Idealism, Berkeley states that physical objects, matter, do not
exist independent of the mind. The pencil that I am writing this essay
with would not exist if I were not perceiving it with my senses, but in
the dialogue between Hylus and Philonous Berkeley attempts to show things
can and do exist apart from the human mind and our perception, but only
because there is a mind in which all ideas are perceived or a deity that
creates perception in the human mind, either way its God. He says that
the external world can not be understood by thought, but "sensible
things", objects that we perceive, can be reduced to ideas in the
mind. These ideas, or "objects before the mind", possess primary
qualities, the main structure, and secondary qualities, what we derive
from our senses, which are inseparable. I'm confused about this, if I'm
thinking about a star in a different galaxy, which makes the star an "object"
before my mind, then where are the secondary qualities?

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Idealism         Materialism         Physical Objects         Atoms         Lucretius         Berkeley         Ending         Pencil         Chair         Divinity        

Over all, idealism
appears to be the antithesis of materialism in its approach to discovering
the nature of the universe. Kant would say that both views are based on
speculation and can not be proven, but I prefer Lucretius' views over Berkeleys'
simply because he tries to keep a deity out of the picture. He claims that
the gods are not concerned with the affairs of mortals, where as it seems
that Berkeley uses god as an answer when he is unable to explain something.

Although, Lucretius says that nature is responsible for the arrangement
and combination of atoms. Wouldn't this suggest that nature is similar
to a divinity? or is nature, which is only matter and space, the wall that
separates the gods from mortals. Motivated by an animosity towards theological
belief, Lucretius seems to take a much more scientific approach. One can
not completely dismiss Berkeleys' views for, as Montague would say, there
is obviously more going on than meets the eye.

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