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We will suggest, on the contrary, that while there are many good reasons for epistemological idealism, indeed, that—suitably broadly understood—it has in fact become the default epistemology of modern philosophy, many of the most important of modern idealists have sought to avoid any inference from epistemological to ontological idealism. This was particularly true in the 20th century, when tendencies toward epistemological idealism were in fact widespread in many schools of philosophy although for different reasons than in the 18th century, reasons to be touched upon in the final section of this entry , very few philosophers were willing to identify themselves as idealists, even merely epistemological idealists.

As always when philosophy must decide between alternatives, there must be reasons or motives for deciding one way or the other. Since philosophical idealism in either of its forms does not seem to be the most obvious way in which to understand the nature of reality and the conditions under which its constitution can be known, it is of interest to look into the reasons and motives for idealism.

Here one can distinguish between two major kinds of motives: those which are grounded in self-conceptions, i.


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Motives for idealism based on world-convictions can be found in many different attitudes towards objectivity. If one is to believe in science as the best and only way to get an objective subject-independent conception of reality, one might still turn to idealism, at least epistemological idealism, because of the conditions supposed to be necessary in order to make sense of the very concept of a law of nature or of the normativity of logical inferences for nature itself. An inclination toward idealism might even arise from considerations pertaining to the ontological status of aesthetic values is beauty an objective attribute of objects?

In short: There are about as many motives and reasons for endorsing idealism as there are different aspects of reality to be known or explained.

As already mentioned, Berkeley, the paradigmatic ontological idealist in the British tradition, did not use the name for his own position, and Leibniz, at least some versions of whose monadology might be considered idealist, also did not call his position by that name. The skeptic doubts the possibility of knowledge in general and thus refuses to defend any positive claim at all. By contrast, the dogmatist puts forward positive doctrines, and these can be divided into those which posit as fundamental either one single kind of entities [ Art der Dinge ] or two different kinds.

This amounts to the division of all dogmatic doctrines, i. This is so because it reflects the main metaphysical disputes in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century philosophy on the Continent quite well. Although neither dualism, whose main representative was Descartes who asserted the existence of both res cogitans and res extensa , nor monism, allegedly represented paradigmatically by Spinoza in its materialistic version substantia, deus, natura and by Leibniz in its idealistic form monad, entelechy, simple substance succeeded in finding satisfying answers to this and related questions, in the early modern era these disputes shaped the conception of what the object of metaphysics metaphysica generalis sive ontologia was supposed to be.

Prior to Wolff, neither defending nor refuting ontological idealism seems to have been a central issue for rationalist philosophers, and none of them called themselves idealists. Yet what are by later lights idealistic tendencies can nevertheless be found among them.

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appearance essay in ontology realism

While from a later point of view it may seem surprising that these rationalists were not more concerned with explicitly asserting or refuting one or both versions of idealism, perhaps they were more concerned with theological puzzles about the nature and essence of God, metaphysical questions as to how to reconcile the respective conception of God with views about the interaction of substances of fundamentally different kinds, and epistemological problems as to the possibility of knowledge and cognitive certainty than they were worried about whether the ultimate constituents of reality were mental or material elements.

However, if one were to situate their thoughts within the framework provided by Wolff it is not that difficult to find traces of idealism both ontological and epistemological in their respective positions. With respect to their metaphysical or ontological teachings, this claim may seem surprising. Whereas according to Wolff ontological idealists are representatives of a species of metaphysical monism Descartes is one of the most outspoken metaphysical dualists. Consequently, it appears as if already for conceptual reasons there is no basis to burden either Descartes or Spinoza with traces of metaphysical idealism a la Wolff.

Leibniz, meanwhile, often seems unwilling to commit himself to ontological idealism even though that is the most natural interpretation of his monadology, while only Malebranche, as noted, seems to come close to explicitly asserting epistemological and perhaps ontological idealism as well. Nevertheless, both Descartes and Spinoza provide a starting point for their metaphysical doctrines with their conceptions of God, a starting point that is already infected with idealistic elements if ontological idealism is understood as implying a commitment to the primacy or at least the unavoidability and irreducibility of mental items in the constitution and order of things in general.

Both agree that in order to gain insight into the constitution of the world one has to find out what God wants us, or maybe better: allows us to know about it see e. They also agree that the world is created by God although they have different views as to what this means. Of all existing things all that God permits us to know clearly and distinctly is again according to both Descartes and Spinoza that their nature consists either in thinking or in extension. This claim can be seen as providing in the case of Descartes the basis for his justification of ontological dualism.

His distinction between extended and thinking substances is not just meant to give rise to a complete classification of all existing things in virtue of their main attributes but also to highlight the irreducibility of mental thinking substances to physical or corporeal extended substances because of differences between their intrinsic natures see e. In the case of Spinoza thinking and extension not only refer to attributes of individual things but primarily to attributes of God s. Things are different when it comes to epistemological idealism.

Open Philosophy

This is so because both Descartes and Spinoza think of cognition as a result of a process in which we become aware of what really is the case independently of us both with respect to the nature of objects and with respect to their conceptual and material relations. Descartes and Spinoza take cognition to be a process of grasping clear and distinct ideas of what is the true character of existing things rather than a process of contributing to the formation of their nature. According to Descartes the sources of our knowledge of things are our abilities to have intuitions of the simple nature of things and to draw conclusions from these intuitions via deduction Rules for the Direction of the Mind III, 4 ff.

For him the cognitive procedure is a process of discovery see Discourse on the Method , Part 6, 6 of what already is out there as the real nature of things created by God by finding out the clear and distinct ideas we can have of them Discourse , Part 4, 3 and 7. Thus the problem for both Descartes and Spinoza is not so much that of the epistemological idealist, i. Given what they take to be a basic fact that God has endowed us with the capacity to know the truth albeit within certain limits , i.

But he did take a great interest in the ontology of substances, God the infinite substance and everything else as finite substances in contrast to Spinoza, he rejected monism. Yet while the logic of his monadology clearly points toward ontological idealism, Leibniz frequently attempted to avoid this conclusion. One explicitly ontological argument for the monadology that Leibniz often deploys is that, on pain of infinite regress, everything composite must ultimately consist of simples, but that since space and time are infinitely divisible extended matter cannot be simple while thoughts, even with complex content, do not literally have parts, nor do the minds that have them, so minds, or monads, are the only candidates for the ultimate constituents of reality.

This argument clearly seems to imply that all finite substances are ultimately mental in nature and the infinite substance, God, is obviously mental in nature , so it seems as if Leibniz ought to unabashedly affirm ontological idealism, from which epistemological idealism would automatically follow, since if there is knowledge of reality at all, which Leibniz hardly seems to doubt, and reality is ultimately mental, then knowledge too must be of the mental.

Yet since finite substances are also defined as existing independently of one another although not existing independently from the infinite substance, God , there is a question as to why each should truthfully represent all the others, which Leibniz answers by appeal to the idea of a preestablished harmony: although considered from the point of view of the concept of substance it does not seem necessary that every substance truly represent all the others, in his goodness, thus in his preference for a maximally harmonious world, God has nevertheless made it such that they do.

In this mood, Leibniz tends to explain the existence of body as an artifact of the fact that each monad represents the world from its own point of view: physical locations and the bodies that occupy them are just the way in which the difference in the points of view of the monads is represented by them, but have no deeper reality; or, as Leibniz often says, space, spatiality, and bodies are just phenomena bene fundata , i. However, sometimes Leibniz writes as if space and time are not merely the way in which the pre-established harmony among monads presents itself to their consciousness, but as if the mental and physical or extended are two separate realms, each evolving entirely in accordance with its own laws, but with a pre-established harmony between them creating the appearance of interaction.

Perhaps Leibniz was genuinely undecided between two interpretations of the pre-established harmony and two conceptions of the reality of body, sometimes being a committed idealism and sometimes a dualist. As we will see later, even among the most committed absolute idealists of the nineteenth century it is not always clear whether they are actually denying the existence of matter or only subordinating it to mind in one way or another.

But as we have just seen, he did not himself unequivocally affirm idealism, and as we will shortly see subsequent Leibnizians such as Alexander Baumgarten argued for dualism and for a corresponding interpretation of pre-established harmony. His further doctrine that the mind sees all things in God, however, depends on his particular view of what modifications the mind undergoes in perception. He holds that sensations are literally modifications in the mind, but that they are highly indeterminate, or in later terminology lack determinate intentional objects, and that genuine understanding occurs only when and to the extent that the determinate ideas in the perfect intellect of God are disclosed to finite, human minds, to the extent that they are.

He then supposes that human thought is intelligible to the extent that these ideas are disclosed to it, on the occasion of various sensations themselves occasioned by God but not literally through those sensations.

Critical Ontology: An Introductory Essay - PDF Free Download

The crucial point is that genuine understanding consists in the apprehension of ideas, even though these are literally in the mind of God rather than of individual human beings, rather than of physical objects, even though the latter do exist. Malebranche had significant influence on both Berkeley and Hume, though neither the former and certainly not the latter accepted his position in its entirety. His position that knowledge consists in individual minds apprehending ideas in some greater mind would also be recreated by idealists as late as T.

Green and Josiah Royce in the second half of the nineteenth century, as we will later see. Before we turn to British or Anglophone versions of idealism, earlier or later, one last word about idealism within pre-Kantian rationalist philosophy is in order. Baumgarten accepts that the ultimate constituents of the world must be simples, hence monads of some kind.

But he does not suppose that monads are necessarily minds or intellects, hence a dualism of monads is at least possible. Baumgarten follows Wolff in distinguishing between two possible forms of idealism, first egoism, which admits the existence of only one spirit, that of the person contemplating such a doctrine, and then idealism proper, which allows the existence of multiple spirits. But both are refuted by the same argument.

This argument builds on a Leibnizian principle not hitherto mentioned, the principle of plenitude, or the principle that the perfection of the most perfect world, which is the one that God created, consists in the maximal variety of the universe compatible with its unity or coherence e. Baumgarten then argues simply that a universe that contains not only more substances but also more kinds of substances rather than fewer is a more perfect universe, and necessarily exists in preference to the other; and a universe that contains not only multiple minds rather than a single mind but also bodies in addition to minds is therefore a more perfect universe than either of the former would be, and is the kind that actually exists.

Ayer's Criteria of Verification

No one outside of the immediate sphere of Leibnizianism would ever again proffer such a refutation of idealism. The relation between ontological and epistemological idealism is complex. Ontological idealism can be argued for on its own, and bring epistemological idealism in its train. Epistemological idealism can be argued for independently of ontological assumptions but lead to ontological idealism, especially in the hope of avoiding skepticism. Or epistemological idealism can be the basis for rejecting any pretenses to ontology, including ontological idealism.

The first option may have been characteristic of some rationalists, such as Leibniz in his more strictly idealist mood. Both of the latter two are found within early modern British philosophy. We find considerations pushing toward epistemological idealism in both Hobbes and Locke in spite of the avowed materialism of the first and dualism of the second, who therefore obviously did not call themselves idealists. Berkeley argues for epistemological idealism and then adds ontological idealism in order to avert skepticism, although he calls his position immaterialism rather than idealism.

All of these movements fed into the general movement of rationalism, while the British philosophers, typically lumped together under the rubric of empiricism in spite of their own differences, all believed, albeit for different reasons, that the doctrines put forward by dogmatic metaphysicians rest on a totally unfounded conception of knowledge and cannot survive rational scrutiny empiricists might themselves be considered critical rationalists.

Thus the primary task of philosophy for these philosophers became that of providing a theory of knowledge based on an adequate assessment of the constitution of human nature, for they were interested in knowledge only as a human achievement. However, it is not human nature in general that is of interest in this context but the workings of those human powers or faculties that are responsible for our human ability to relate to the world in terms of knowledge-claims.

Reflections on the conditions of the possibility of knowledge led Hobbes and Locke to what might be considered forms of epistemological idealism in spite of their ontological commitments to materialism or dualism respectively, while Berkeley concluded that their epistemological idealism would lead to a skepticism that could be avoided only by his own more radical ontological idealism. This is easily confirmed by looking briefly at some of their main convictions concerning knowledge, starting with Thomas Hobbes — He describes the details of this process most succinctly in a short passage in chapter 6 of the first part Human Nature of his The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic , his first major philosophical work.

The message is straightforward with respect to both the basis and the formation of knowledge: senses sensations are basic to our acquisition of knowledge in that they lead to conceptions representations to which we attach names concepts which we then put together into propositions which, if true, already constitute knowledge, and from which there arise further knowledge if we draw conclusions in an orderly way from them.

Though the account given by Hobbes of the origin and the formation of knowledge is rightly called empiricist because it traces all knowledge back to the senses or sensations and their non-sensory causes, i. Nevertheless, his account may lead to an early form of epistemological idealism. II, VII, 1. In spite of a pre-reflective disposition toward dualism, an explicit argument for an agnostic attitude with respect to the ultimate constitution of reality, thus a form of epistemological idealism without any argument for ontological idealism, is also characteristic of John Locke — I, 2; s.

XXI, Such an investigation presupposes an acquaintance with our own minds, and thus according to Locke the most pressing task is to understand the mind or the understanding itself. Though his description of these processes differs in some interesting ways from the model Hobbes proposes, in the end both Hobbes and Locke share the view 1 that whatever we can know depends on our having ideas which must be somehow based in sensation, 2 that there must be some external cause Hobbes or some source of affection Locke which gives rise to sensory ideas, yet 3 ultimately we are ignorant about the real constitution of these causes and these sources.

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What we know is the content and structure of our own ideas epistemological idealism , although we have no reason to deny the existence of external objects thus to assert ontological idealism and even assume that in some regards external objects resemble our ideas of them in the case of primary qualities. This is indicated especially well by his theory of substance and his remarks concerning the limits of knowledge. Though Locke thinks of these reasons as totally compelling, he sees quite well that they do not justify any claim as to what a substance or a thing really is, what its nature or constitution consists in.

Thus he never gets tired of emphasizing that we only have a confused idea of substance a claim also made by Leibniz about three-quarters of our knowledge, although he held that we have a clear concept of what substance is , and repeats quite often at least three times in Book II, chap. This criticism of any metaphysical claims concerning the ultimate constitution of reality is accompanied by a more general warning against the overstepping of the natural limits of our cognitive faculties.

Major Ontologists

According to Locke it is just a fact about human nature that there are limits to the powers of the understanding. If therefore the nature and the constitution of substances both corporeal and spiritual are beyond our cognitive grasp then we should take this to be a hint that God has set limits to what we can know because he sees no reason for us to know everything.

Even if the powers He endowed on us would be magnified infinitely we still would remain clueless as to what substances really are because we still would be stuck in a world of qualities this is one way of reading II, XXIII, Thus, in the end metaphysical knowledge of any kind is meant to be beyond our reach. For Locke, epistemological idealism combined with ontological agnosticism is an expression of piety.

In his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge he raises doubts about whether an agnostic stance along the lines of Hobbes and Locke can be upheld consistently if one thinks about the origin and the properties of ideas the way they do. His arguments in favor of ontological idealism based on the acceptance of ideas as the objects of human knowledge are rather straightforward, turning on presuppositions which he at least considered uncontroversial.

Already here Berkeley has the means in place to cast into doubt the meaningfulness of the assumption that there might exist unperceived objects or things. This is due to his restriction of existence to what is perceivable or, even narrower, to what is perceived: If the only objects that exist for a mind—whether it is my own mind or the mind of other human beings or the divine mind—are ideas because there is nothing else that can exist for the mind, then the very concept of something that exists but is not for the mind or is unperceived is a contradiction in terms.

Thus if, as Berkeley supposes Locke does, one thinks of things as consisting of collections of ideas, he asks how could one take a thing to be something other than ideas and nevertheless to exist? The reasoning on which this claim is based seems to be the following: For two items to stand in the relation of likeness they must have something in common.


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  • Again, I ask whether those supposed originals or external things, of which our ideas are the pictures or representations, be themselves perceivable or no? This is the claim 3 that ideas are passive and causally inert, i. Again the primary function of this claim is to discredit a Lockean view according to which we have to think of the primary qualities of things—which are contents of the most fundamental ideas we have of them—as the causes of sensations or of sensory ideas.