Artemis Takes Aim

Idealism and Materialism


The Philosophical DictionaryIdealism

    . Belief that only mental entities are real, so that physical things exist only in the sense that they are perceived.


    . Belief that only physical things truly exist. Materialists claim (or promise) to explain every apparent instance of a mental phenomenon as a feature of some physical object. For many philosophers of the Western tradition, material objects are substances that have the attribute of extension (i.e., having spatial dimensions). Idealists deny the reality of any such stuff, while materialists deny that there is anything else.


    . Idealism is a class of positions in ontology and epistemology. Idealism as an epistemological position asserts that everything we experience is of a mental nature. That is, we can only have direct, immediate knowledge of the contents of our mind. We can never directly know or experience an external object itself. As an ontological position Idealism asserts either that only minds and the objects of mind exist, or that everything is composed of mental realities (e.g., thoughts, feelings, perceptions, ideas, or will).


    . In philosophy, materialism is that form of physicalism which holds that the only thing that can truly be said to exist is matter; that fundamentally, all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. Science uses a working assumption, sometimes known as methodological naturalism, that observable events in nature are explained only by natural causes without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural. As a theory, materialism belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. In terms of singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism stands in sharp contrast to idealism.


    In your opinion, what is more important: ideas or material conditions? Has progress in alleviating racial inequalities, for example, resulted mainly from changed beliefs and attitudes about race or from forced integration in our schools and workplaces? What event has had the most effect in improving the quality of life of persons of color, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" or the signing of the Civil Rights Act? Your answers to these questions will help you identify your philosophical perspective, a perspective that will influence your opinions about alternative social policies and programs.


Diana L. Ascher, PhD, MBA, is a principal at Stratelligence and a co-founder of the Information Ethics & Equity Institute. Her lifelong interest in knowledge and decision making has focused on the evaluation, classification, organization, communication, and interpretation of information, and motivates her work in the fields of behavioral science, finance, higher education, information studies, journalism, law, leadership, management, medicine, and policy. She brings more than two decades of experience as a writer, editor, media director, and information strategist to her work.

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