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Idealism

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Idealists invert standard thinking in addressing the so-called problem of consciousness. For, if one takes the mind or mental activity to be in some sense fundamental then there is no longer a question of how consciousness fits, or fails to fit, into
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    Idealism Entry for the Oxford Companion to Consciousness  Daniel D. Hutto (DDH) When it comes to understanding the place of consciousness in the world, many of today's philosophers in the post-Cartesian analytic tradition see a stark choice between dualism and materialism. Few today are attracted to the dualistic idea thatmental phenomena exist outside of space-time. But modern materialism tends to partially accept Cartesianism by re-locating the mind in the world. Normally, this isdone by identifying it with a bodily organ – typically, the brain – and by holdingthat the objects of experience – typically, qualia – are properties of brain states.This strategy generates the most lasting problem of consciousness – and forces usto ask how might consciousness be made intelligible in naturalistic terms, e.g. byappealing to purely functional or physical categories. The most straightforwardway of dealing with this question would be to develop a theory of consciousnessthat is demonstrably consistent with our best scientific theories.Attempting to explain consciousness in terms of the categories provided bynatural science has for these reasons become the dominant strategy of many of today’s philosophers. But this is not the only way to understand the relation between consciousness and the natural world. Idealism is another option, one thatradically alters the problem-space. In the broadest sense, a position is idealisticinsofar as it either rejects the very idea of a mind-independent reality or rules outthe possibility of characterising the real in positive ways that are not inescapably bound up with our view of things.Idealists invert standard thinking in addressing the so-called problem of consciousness. For, if one takes the mind or mental activity to be in some sense  fundamental then there is no longer a question of how consciousness fits, or fails tofit, into the world as revealed by modern science. Quite the contrary, the issue ishow to account for the general tendency to believe that that world represents a   Idealism - OCC  2 genuinely mind-independent reality (and, indeed, what this tendency amounts to).Consequently, the greatest challenge for idealists – or at least those who wish tomake their position credible to modern eyes – is to account for scientific practice,and the status of its constructs, adequately without endorsing realist interpretations.Although no longer in vogue, idealism holds a prominent place in the history of  both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. Philosophical reflection on theVedas and the Upanisads, which treat consciousness as fundamental, inspired arich variety of Indian schools of thought. These resist simple classification. On theface of it, some promote views of consciousness which are amenable to dominantstrand of mainstream Western thinking. For example, the C ā rv ā ka and Ny ā ya-Vai ś esika schools regard consciousness as a proper object of empiricalinvestigation, despite its having special, non-material features. However, at leastfor the Ny ā ya approach, consciousness is thought to arise in an eternal soul or  ā tman. But since this soul is not identified with consciousness nor is consciousnessa necessary feature of it, its spiritual status is to this extent unclear.Other schools are decidedly idealist, such as the Advaita Ved ā nta, whichconceives of consciousness as the eternal, undifferentiated, self-luminous groundof all being. In contrast, all that we seem to encounter as distinct forms in theempirical world is regarded as illusory. Ultimately, proponents of this school makeno distinction between the subjective and the objective. In their view,consciousness is universal and public not individual and private. They carry the burden of explaining how this could be so.Yog ā car  ā Buddihsm – also called the ‘mind-only’ or ‘consciousness-only’ school – is often associated with Idealism, at least that of the epistemological kind. For example, it is argued that consciousness and its objects must be identical because itis not possible to separate phenomenal awareness from that which one is aware of – e.g. one cannot prize apart blueness from the awareness of blueness. Materiality isconceived, not as an abstract feature of the world – as it might be understoodtheoretically – but always as felt and perceived. But these arguments andreminders are offered as a means of encouraging us to relinquish all objectivemodes of thought, ultimately even those that promote attachment to the idea of anenduring self or ego. As such, they are best classed as sceptical and therapeutic.They have primary ethical import and are not in the service of independentepistemological or metaphysical projects. Indeed, ‘mind only’ Buddhism eschews   Idealism - OCC  3 all such ambitions in its attempt to overcome unenlightened forms of consciousness.In the West, the locus classicus of idealist thought is found in Berkeley’swritings. He, like his fellow empiricists, held that perception is the basis of allthought and knowledge – what our minds immediately perceive are ideas, wherethese are understood in a wholly sensory fashion. Some ideas are retained in our minds due to memory and which are extended by imagination. His famous mottowas esse est percipi – To be is to be perceived. In his view, only individual spiritsand ideas exist; thus anything which exists unperceived by human minds must bean idea perceived in the mind of some other spirit – i.e. the mind of God.In rejecting the very idea of a mind-independent reality, Berkeley quarreled withLocke who held that there is a world beyond experience – a world of primaryqualities that was causally responsible for our sensations. But, for Berkeley, to posit any such reality is a violation of empiricism. For example, to think of matter as something genuinely mind-independent would require thinking of somethingsuper-sensory. Yet if the senses are the only true source of our ideas this isimpossible. In making this case, he targeted the claim that abstract ideas could bederived from experience.Logical positivism, promoted by the members of the Vienna Circle – such asCarnap and Schlick – and others such as A. J. Ayer, was a more recent form of idealism. The positivists, latter-day empiricists, engaged in a sophisticated attemptto show that all meaningful claims, including those of the most abstract theoreticalsciences, must ultimately be analyzable as verifiable sensory or observationalstatements. Concomitantly, any substantial claims that resist such analysis are notfalse but nonsensical. Claims about the existence of an external world and mind-independent reality, inter alia , fall squarely into this category.Although very influential in the 20 th century, positivism has been largely rejecteddue to inherent problems in justifying its restrictive theory of meaning. Notably,contemporary physicalism inherited its general structure and methodological goalof reductionism from positivism, but it traded the epistemic bedrock of sense-datafor an ontological ground floor of theoretical entities, events and their relations.Historically this was a turning point that helped lay the ground for today’s problemof consciousness.   Idealism - OCC  4  Not all forms of Western idealism are wedded to empiricism. Manycontemporary philosophers are transcendental idealists, holding that it is not possible to explain or understand the basis of ‘our view of things’ by appeal to anyof the objective categories that apply in our everyday worldly encounters – including those of our best sciences. Kant is the inspiration for this line of thought.He sought to explicate the necessary conditions, both formal and material, thatmake objective representation possible. Yet, as our categories of experience onlyapply to empirical reality they cannot shed light on anything that might beimagined to transcend such a reality – i.e. the world as-it-is-in-itself.For Hegel,   Kant’s philosophy was not critical enough. He objected to what hesaw as its subjectivism; the very idea that there could be any distinction betweenwhat is empirically real and transcendentally ideal. He also found fault with Kant’smethod of deducing the categories, arguing that their validity could only belegitimately demonstrated if what is inherent in our thinking was made manifest;this required making no initial assumptions about the nature of the categories or  judgment forms.Putting this together led him to develop a version of Absolute Idealism, whichdenies that there could be any  possible contrast between our way of representingthe world and the way the world is in-itself. Accordingly, there is no division between thought and reality (or being). So understood, conceptual developmentand explication is a process of self knowledge; the fundamental determination of the mind’s actuality. In this way, spirit develops by itself  and  for itself  .Absolute Idealism has been worked out differently by thinkers such as Fichte andSchelling and, again, in a revised form by Green, McTaggart and F.H. Bradley inturn of the century in England. Bradley deserves special mention because hisunderstanding of the identity between thought and reality was decidedlyunHegelian. For him, although reality is spiritual, our best way of characterisingits nature is by analogy to non-conceptual experience – that in which no divisionsof thought are made. As such, for Bradley, there could be no progressive workingout of concepts in the way proposed by Hegel’s dialectical vision of logic. Indeed,ultimate reality could not be characterised by ordinary judgments, not even those of our best sciences. These are partial and only true to a degree – in a specifiedcontext, as it were.   Idealism - OCC  5 This is relevant to contemporary consciousness studies since those who followBradley and Kant must stand opposed to the grander ambitions of contemporaryscientific realists. They rule out a priori the possibility that our concepts of consciousness might co-evolve with those of the natural sciences. As such, there issimply no prospect of our understanding psychophysical relations in ways that weare as yet unable to anticipate. This possibility is left open by Hegelians.Although idealism no longer attracts widespread support, it still has a number of contemporary supporters . Focusing on its ethical and religious import, RobertAdams has, for example, recently attempted to vindicate it. John Foster advocatesan idealist solution to the longstanding problems of perception and knowledge. Heargues for idealism on the grounds that any physically relevant ultimate reality – one that causally sustains our sensory organization – cannot be truly logicallyindependent of the human mind because its laws must be partially concerned withhuman mentality.In the field of consciousness studies, Daniel Hutto has tried to defend amodified form of Bradleyian idealism by appealing to Davidson’s anomalousmonism (Hutto 1998, 2000). He argues that those versions of physicalism whichare committed to strong explanatory agendas can be shown to be implausible giventhe intractable problems associated with producing a theory of consciousness. If wefollow Bradley there are reasons to think that it is not possible, even in principle, tomake the relation between the mental and the physical intelligible. Yet, even so,there are compelling arguments for believing in the truth of a psychophysicalidentity theory, for doing so circumvents problems about mental causation. Thuswe have reason to want to endorse some form of metaphysical monism.But monism does not entail physicalism. This is pertinent if our best reasons for rejecting dualism are not, in their pure form, arguments for physicalism  per se . Andif we accept idealist arguments for doubting that a  privileged  specification of anunderlying reality is so much as possible – not even, say, in terms of a future,complete physics – this constitutes good reason to take some form of idealismseriously. D’Oro appeals to this same basic strategy to defend a contemporaryvariant of R.G. Collingwood’s idealism (D’Oro 2005).D.D.H.
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