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  The word idealism (derived ultimately from the Greek for ‘to see’) is used in at least four distinct ways in human thought. In everyday language it means moral or principled conduct (as opposed to pragmatic or ‘realistic’ conduct)—a usage preserved in the discipline of international relations. In history and the social sciences, it refers to the views of those who believe that ideas (or more broadly, ‘cultures’) are the most important explanatory sources for human conduct.

In philosophy, idealism is a theory first put forward by George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) and developed by , Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770 - 1831). The theory is that all that exists is the product of minds or ideas, that physical objects have no existence outside of the mind that is conscious of them: so understood, idealism is the opposite of materialism.

What rationale is there for such a surprising view? The argument from illusion suggests that when one sees a mountain the immediate object of one\'s experience is a visual image as of a mountain, and that this image is distinct from the mountain itself. Our perceptual experiences as of objects are distinct from the objects we perceive. Plausible as this is, it seems to lead to the sceptical problem that all one ever directly experiences are images as of objects, and not objects themselves. So how can we know that the objects really are as they seem to be? When one seems to see a mountain, how can one be sure that the mountain is there and that one is not merely hallucinating or dreaming it?

Berkeley\'s initial view, that physical objects are ideas in finite minds (such as ours and those of other animals), seems to solve this problem. If the mountain is just my visual experience as of it, then asking how I can be sure that the mountain is there seems to make no more sense than asking how I can be sure that I am having a visual experience as of a mountain. If physical objects are identical with my experiences as of them, then there appears to be to be no gap between seeming to see a mountain and really seeing a mountain.

So the view that physical objects are ideas in finite minds seems to have the advantage of dissolving the problem of scepticism. Unfortunately, it has two unacceptable results. The first is that physical objects only exist when they are perceived by a finite mind. The coin exists when I see it as I put it into the piggy bank, and it exists when you see it as you take it out. But it ceases to exist in between, because no finite mind is perceiving it.

The second objection is this. If physical objects are identical with my experiences of them, then there appears to be to be no gap between seeming to see a mountain and really seeing a mountain. This appears to have the advantage of dissolving the problem of scepticism. But it also obliterates the common-sense distinction between hallucinating or dreaming a mountain and seeing one. Surely there is a difference between seeming to see a mountain (when one hallucinates or has a dream about a mountain) and really seeing a mountain. The claim that physical objects are ideas in finite minds seems to obliterate this distinction.

Berkeley later held that physical objects are ideas not in finite minds but in the one infinite mind—God\'s. This avoids both the above problems. The coin in the piggy bank exists when no finite mind is perceiving it, because it exists as an idea in God\'s mind whether or not a finite mind is perceiving it. And there is a difference between hallucinating a mountain and really seeing a mountain. When I hallucinate an object which does not exist, I have a sensory idea as of it, but it does not exist because there is no idea of it in God\'s mind and objects are ideas in God\'s mind. When I see a mountain which does exist, I have a sensory image as of a mountain, a mountain which does exist because there is an idea of it in God\'s mind.

Thus, the second form of Idealism, according to which objects are ideas in God\'s mind, avoids the problems of the first version. Unfortunately, it also lacks the attraction of the first version noted above. The first version was attractive because it seemed to dissolve scepticism, by obliterating the gap between appearance and reality, between its seeming to me that the mountain exists and the mountain\'s really existing. But the second version respects this common-sense distinction. It may seem to me that the mountain exists when the mountain does not really exist. So the sceptical worry returns. If reality may be different from the way it appears to me, how can I know how things really are rather than merely knowing how they seem to be?

The fourth use of ‘idealism’, in the fine arts, originated in ancient Athens. Plato said that everything we see in reality is merely a shadow, a simulacrum, of its own ideal form, and Aristotle said that painters and sculptors, as they did their work, often had the ideal form in mind rather than the reality before their eyes. Art, therefore, might be truer to the ideal than reality itself. This was certainly the aim of Greek sculptors such as Praxiteles and Myron: they worked out complex theories of ‘ideal’ proportion, and modelled their works accordingly. (They were usually depicting gods and other supernatural beings, and saw them as the ‘ideals’ of beauty, dignity and so on, of which the same human attributes were simulacra. Therefore, to try to show the ideal, a statue of a god would take the best available versions of each human quality and try to embody them.) This approach was characteristic of Greek art (especially sculpture) until the late 3rd century  BCE, when artists replaced it with realism, showing human beings and animals as they were, and in poses characteristic of real life (for example a beggar with hand outstretched or a slave grimacing as she carried a heavy pot) rather than in emotionally neutral, idealized poses (prototypes of modern photographic pinups).

The distinction between idealism and realism in art was maintained, in Roman Europe and beyond, in a distinction between sacred and secular art. Sacred images aimed to show the ideal (both ‘good’ qualities and the ‘bad’ ones which were to be purged by true devotion and belief); secular images—unless they were concerned to show idealized versions of such qualities as leadership in a prince or benevolence in a patron—tended to be realistic views of the here-and-now. (This was so even if imaginary scenes were shown: Bosch\'s Hell, for example, is a nightmare, but its components are nasty ingredients from ordinary Flemish life of the time, stage-managed by gargoylish devils who are hybrids of perfectly ordinary, if horror-inspiring, creatures from reality.) The same is true of other ‘fine-art’ traditions: Indian, Persian and Far Eastern art, for example, all make a distinction between idealized human and animal forms in religious art (coupled in some cases with idealized depictions of plants and landscape), and an earthly, indeed often earthy, realism in the presentation of the secular. Folk art traditions, by and large, stand aside from idealism: their depictions of the supernatural tend more to (what sophisticated Western critics would describe as) surrealism, and the tendency to pattern-making and abstraction takes the ‘reality’ out of their depictions of secular phenomena. Idealism, as a guiding principle, is irrelevant.

During the Renaissance, European artists and theorists rediscovered and once again promoted idealism as a guiding principle of art with a slight but significant difference from the Platonic or Aristotelian approach. Now the driving theory was that art should be an uplifting experience for the observer, and that the artist should seek to achieve this uplift by representing not the natural world as seen, but an improvement of it shaping Nature, as it were, by a process of discerning selection. Bellori, lecturing at the Academy of St Luke in Rome in 1664, said that the artist gives flesh to ideal forms a promotion of the artist from the ancient Greek notion, that he or she simply strove to depict an ideal which was already there. In Neo-Platonic terms, the artist\'s pursuit of beauty is nothing more or less than a veneration of the Godhead visible in all creation an argument which should be considered before believing (as some Christian critics did) that the use during the Renaissance of originally pagan subject matter, a criterion of beauty, was in some way impious. PD MG AJ KMcL

See also materialism; naive realism; representative theory of perception.Further reading J. Foster, The Case for Idealism; , J. Foster and , H. Robinson, Essays on Berkeley; , Erwin Panofsky, Idea: a Concept in Art Theory.



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