Idealism - An Overview

Idealism: An Overview

By Linda Mihalic

Current definitions of Idealism reflect the dismissive, destructive materialistic world view at work in our culture, defining idealism as the act or practice of envisioning things in an ideal and often impractical form; pursuit of one’s ideals, often without regard to practical ends. Philosophy: The theory that the object of external perception, in itself or as perceived, consists of ideas.American Heritage Dictionary An early 20th Century definition is more accurate: The metaphysical doctrine that the real is of the nature of thought; the doctrine that all reality is in its nature psychical. Pursuit of the ideal; the act or practice of idealizing; especially, imaginative treatment of subjects; a striving after ideal beauty, truth, justice, etc.Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia An ideal is A conception of something in its absolute perfection; one that is regarded as a standard or model of perfection or excellence. An ultimate or worthy object of endeavor; a goal. Conforming to a standard of perfection or excellence; perfect or highly satisfactory. Existing as an archetype or pattern, especially as a Platonic idea or perception.American Heritage Dictionary

We travelers on the Via Christa regard the ideal as being perfect or supremely excellent in its kind, as the soul’s highest conception of the good. Plato of Athens is inarguably the Father of Idealism, based on his doctrine of Ideas, also known as the doctrine of Forms. From the Ideas flow the Ideals that serve as the essence of our Idealism. As idealists, we hold to the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, which to us is the true and original doctrine of idealism.

“The Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God;
walk before me, and be thou perfect.…Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations
have I made thee.”—Genesis 17:1,5

An idealist aspires to and pursues the ideal, as Abram was ordered to do. The Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.…Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.—Genesis 17:1,5. Words have a powerful and immediate effect: God changed Abram’s name to AbraHam to reflect his change from barren to life-filled. 1 In practice, the idealist constantly tends to idealize people, their character, virtues, and motives, which the other persons may or may not truly hold or express. A warning is in order: Holding a merely romantic attitude is imaginative but impractical. Many of the iconic personalities present for the rise of the Romantic movement were unwitting idealists who prized emotional esthetic expression above the life of the mind. When you conflate true Platonic idealism with romanticism, you leave logic behind in favor of imagination; you leave the straight and narrow way for the veils of illusion—a wasteland of weeds, thistles and nettles.

The idealist cultivates the habit of viewing, evaluating and judging people, experiences and things as being in an ideal form—as they might be or could be, which is a more generous and compassionate point of view. However, a Platonic idealist is not a fool: To the idealist, all states of being and of consciousness are perfectible, capable of becoming perfect. This state of perfection is possible, as illustrated in the story of Abram becoming Abraham. With every life, the soul gathers new experience, which it translates into greater wisdom over time. It should come as no surprise that this truth is easier to speak about than it is to practice.

Varieties of Idealism

German Idealism

German Idealism, when we study it as a product of its own age and country, is a most engaging phenomenon; it is full of afflatus, sweep, and deep searchings of the heart; but it is essentially romantic and egotistical, and all in it that is not soliloquy is mere system-making and sophistry. Therefore when it is taught by unromantic people ex cathedra, in stentorian tones, and represented as the rational foundation of science and religion, with neither of which it has any honest sympathy, it becomes positively odious—one of the worst impostures and blights to which a youthful imagination could be subjected.—George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, IV, i.

Subjective Idealism: To the subjective idealist (e.g., Leibniz, Fichte and Berkeley), nothing in the physical world really exists except minds and spirits, and their perceptions or ideas. The material world is thus a mere perception. Our Library incudes all of Leibniz’s works.

Objective Idealism, espoused by F. W. J. von Schelling, thoroughly conflates nature with God.

Transcendental Idealism: (also known as Critical Idealism) Ever since Kant published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, his readers and critics have argued about what he meant by the doctrine of “transcendental idealism.” For an exhaustive review of his work, we suggest “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism” (Stang, 2018).

Absolute Idealism, the creation of G. W. F. Hegel, seemingly moved from a “religious” to a “rational” view of God as principle, eschewing the question of personalizing principle entirely. This failure in balance doomed it to irrelevance except to Karl Marx and the rising tide of atheistic materialists, the revolutionary thugs who scorched the intellectual earth and sowed it with salt. In short, Hegel effectively killed German idealism. For additional insight, we recommend “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel” (Redding, 2020).

British Idealism

T. H. Green, influenced by Benjamin Jowett at Balliol College, Oxford, responded to the call of idealism in his own fashion: He wrote of “Wordsworth looking to ‘the open scroll of the world, however, as written within and without by a self-conscious and self-determining spirit’, and such a spirit transcends the human mind.” (Works, iii. p. 119) Thus, Green returned God to His status as the Creator of the Universe rather than some abtract principle labeled Nature. Modern social liberals have claimed Green as their own because he espoused higher education for women. However, he was at the core a deeply religious and rigorously rational man. For further insight into the role Green played in British Idealism, see Thomas Hill Green. Our Library includes Greens’s major works.

Francis Herbert Bradley, who in the later years of his extraordinary labors on behalf of philosophy was known as “the greatest mind in Europe,” was strongly influenced by T. H. Green. In turn, he greatly influenced an entire generation of Oxford scholars. Edna Lister discovered Bradley's Appearance and Reality early on in her own search, and it greatly influenced her own view of what is “real.” Our Library includes all of Bradley’s works. Following Bradley was A. E. Taylor, a British idealist philosopher most famous for his contributions to the philosophy of idealism in his writings on metaphysics, the philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, and the scholarship of Plato. (Van Andle, 2008). Our Library includes all of Taylor’s works.

British Idealism, absolute and otherwise, became a major target of materialists, so-called realists, pragmatists, atheists, and sophists, notably of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in much of their writing at the beginning of the 20th Century, although it continued to be influential for another twenty years. Russell and Moore are of that category which the world views as “sophisticated intellectuals”; we, however, label such second rate thinkers “sophistical obfuscators.” First rate thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead chief among them, continued to recognize Plato's importance: The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

American Idealism

America’s brand of Idealism is summed in one fine Greek word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), the Greek idea of the pursuit, manifestation, and/or experience of virtue, personal growth, self-actualization, flourishing, excellence, and meaning (Huta, 2013). 2 Like most other ancient philosophers, Plato maintains a virtue-based eudaemonistic conception of ethics. That is to say, happiness or well-being (eudaimonia) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct, and the virtues (aretê: ‘excellence’) are the dispositions/skills needed to attain it. (Frede and Lee, 2023) 3 The Philebus contains the most detailed analysis of eudaimonia or ‘happiness’ in the Platonic corpus. (Jorgenson, 2018) 4 Men such as Samuel Johnson (first president, Columbia University),  Jonathan Edwards (president, Princeton University), Thomas Clap (first president, Yale College), Benjamin Franklin, and William Smith (first provost, University of Pennsylvania), who adopted and taught Plato’s idealistic moral philosophy of eudaimonia, the pursuit of happiness, in American colleges to the generation of our nation’s Founding Fathers. (Olsen, 2013) 5 From the above citations, we can easily discern that the idealism of eudaimonia, far from being the child of Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, first saw the philosophical light of day among the Ancient Greek philosophers before him, most notably Plato, who was his teacher. In fact, our Founders based our Republic upon principles found in Plato's work of that title.

Josiah Royce was an American Pragmatist whose ideas included a philosophy of loyalty and defense of German absolutism. Royce and William Ernest Hocking were the founders and creators of a unique and distinctly American school of idealistic philosophy (Robinson, 1968). Hocking later continued the work of his mentor, Josiah Royce, revising and integrating idealism into empiricism, naturalism and pragmatism. Another source describes Royce’s emphasis on individuality and will, rather than intellect, which strongly influenced 20th-century philosophy in the United States. Royce studied under the philosophers William James and Charles Sanders Peirce at Johns Hopkins University, and finished his career at Harvard University, where James had found him a position. (Britannica 2024).

In the early 20th Century, Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty served as Edna Lister’s formal introduction to the rudiments of Idealism; however, she greatly favored Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. By 1933, she had adopted the main tenets of Platonic Idealism and had already begun teaching her iteration of it in the seminal lecture God as Consciousness Appears as Form. The rest, as they say, is history.


1^ In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet is also a number and the name of some dynamic power or process; H has the value of 5, the number signifying life.

2^ Definition of eudaimonia by Veronika Huta, Oxford Handbook of Happiness, 2013.

3^ Chad Jorgenson in Eudaimonia in: The Embodied Soul in Plato’s Later Thought. Cambridge Classical Studies. 2018, pp.118-140.

4^ Neil C. Olsen, Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress.. 2013.

Top ↑


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