Is the idealist thesis about unintelligibility of extra-mental reality intelligible/interesting?


Idealism, in all its varieties, comes down to asserting the (at least partial) dependence of intelligible reality upon the conceptual apparatus of human rationality. In its more strong form, it claims that there simply is no 'extra-mental' reality, i.e no reality that exceeds the conceptual forms of intellect.

It would seem that if idealism were true, if there were no reality that exceeded our conceptual apparatus, then the question of whether there was such an extra-mental reality or not is an all together uninteresting one that couldn't be intelligibly formulated from the get-go.

I have two lines of questioning:

1.) How does the idealist concede the interest of the question "Is there an extra-mental reality?" and his answer to it if, for the idealist, the very suggestion of an 'extra-mental reality' is completely unintelligible?

2.) What criterion does the idealist appeal to in determining the unintelligibility of extra-mental reality?

If the concept of extra-mental reality is at least intelligible (so as to be judged by the idealist), then what exactly is unintelligible about 'extra-mental reality' and why so?

If 'extra-mental reality' is unintelligible not as it is considered as a concept, but as something else, how does the idealist, who concedes only the intelligibility of concepts, consider 'extra-mental reality' as 'something else' other than a concept?


Posted 2016-10-27T18:44:42.817

Reputation: 313

2I am not sure this is a fair description. First, idealism can be compartmental, one can be idealist specifically about semantics, epistemology, ontology, etc., and materialist/empiricist about other fields. When unqualified "idealism" is used the ontological/metaphysical type is usually meant, but objective idealists (Plato, Aquinas, Shankara, Leibniz, Hegel, Peirce, etc.) would deny vehemently that their idealist metaphysics is tied to human rationality specifically. Their thesis is rather that the "real world" is more like what we know as mind than matter. – Conifold – 2016-10-27T21:01:32.713



I am going to come at this from a modest level of idealism, something like Plato, rather than Berkeley.

1.) How does the idealist concede the interest of the question "Is there an extra-mental reality?" and his answer to it if, for the idealist, the very suggestion of an 'extra-mental reality' is completely unintelligible?

Our perception clearly creates the impression of there being stuff we interact with. So it is natural to assume that stuff is real. So there is no problem with motivating the question. However, what is natural is not necessarily wise.

2.) What criterion does the idealist appeal to in determining the unintelligibility of extra-mental reality?

The criterion of consistency and testability.

If the concept of extra-mental reality is at least intelligible (so as to be judged by the idealist), then what exactly is unintelligible about 'extra-mental reality' and why so?

We don't know, and we can't tell.

We know that much of what we perceive is inconsistent with itself. We see optical illusions, etc. So it is then natural to question how we correct our perception for its flaws.

Once you start trying to do so, you realize that there is no reasonable way to know when you have succeeded. You have no way of knowing what extra-mental reality is like except by comparison with previous copies of intra-mental realities. You cannot fully comprehend it, because you know your images of it are systematically flawed, and you have no standard by which to correct them.

So some part of extra-mental reality always remains unintelligible to you. Some level of your perception is illusion. And you have no idea what part that is: It could be only an insignificant portion, or the whole thing.

If 'extra-mental reality' is unintelligible not as it is considered as a concept, but as something else, how does the idealist, who concedes only the intelligibility of concepts, consider 'extra-mental reality' as 'something else' other than a concept?

There is no need to do so. If only intra-mental content is reliable, concepts are all you have. This is where Plato goes off and talks about forms.

We know that our intentions happen internally, as often they arise in a way that does not seem to affect anything else. But sometimes other things seem to respond to them. Sometimes my hand moves when I want it to. But we still can't know that this is not all an illusion.

Maybe only the intentions are real. So maybe there is not a real chair upon which I am sitting, but only the intention to be sitting and therefore something that serves the conceptual purpose of a chair. We know that the concept of the chair is real. But maybe only the concept of the chair is real.

It is clear that the world does not always meet whatever intention we throw into it. We seem to have to negotiate a lot of 'interface paraphernalia' to make any adjustments we want to the stuff that may or may not be out there. But that might all be internal resistence due to the inefficiency of our own mental workings.

Still, that seems bizarre. And we seem to evoke interdependent intentions from the environment. So either we are divided against ourselves, or there are other minds. If there are other minds, the odds are that the stuff between us is there, and that we really are using it to interact. But it is not necessarily so.

If this is not all just us, and you and I are not part of a single intellect that is segmented for some reason, then there has to be some way that intentions get transferred between minds, but it could be totally unrelated to the actual stuff we perceive, they could just be, in some sense, knobs and buttons on the user interface to whatever communication device ferries ideas between individual minds.


Posted 2016-10-27T18:44:42.817


1It's hard to argue that the chair I am sitting on doesn't exists. The chair can be collectively confirmed its existence. But not what is inside ppls head. That's the extra-mental reality. We cannot get inside anyone else head so all we've got are ours interpretation of facts, we will never converge nor attest that what's inside our head is real. Life seems, to me, to be one collective physical medium where separated universes exists inside each one's mind. – Felipe Lavratti – 2016-12-23T18:15:17.117

@FelipeLavratti how is what is inside your head "extra-mental"? Does "mental" not suffice to describe the first-person subjective ontology of consciousness? That there is an epistemic limitation to self-knowledge does not make fact a matter of interpretation. My experience of the rain is different than yours, but this does not alter the fact that it is raining when the statement "it is raining" is true. – Mr. Kennedy – 2016-12-23T19:25:14.593

@mr.kennedy: right. The fact of raining gives no room for interpretation, it is raining. And we only find this kind of truthfulness on the physical sphere. Life has its physical portion, but another huge portion that is not physical, but subjective. We cannot only rely on what we can prove real, the subjective part has to be somehow figured out otherwise our experiences might be incomplete, we might feel lost. robots would feel fulfilled reacting only to facts, we'd not, I believe. That's why idealism seems real to me. – Felipe Lavratti – 2016-12-23T19:39:55.230

@FelipeLavratti 'Collectively confirmed' by those other minds that you experience evidence of only internally? You can confirm consensus, you cannot confirm reality. The fact of raining can be affirmed only because of subjective impressions like wetness and chill. You are not really grasping the argument here. Once you start putting things in the 'subjective' column, it slowly swallows the whole show. Things like optical illusions indicate that those other sensations you thing objectively indicate rain are also subject to interpretation. – None – 2016-12-23T20:48:25.603

@jobermark (I am the pattern upvoter of your posts, heheh) Tell me, do you believe it life can be absolutely understood from our current perspective ? – Felipe Lavratti – 2016-12-23T20:59:33.990

@FelipeLavratti What I personally believe is basically a modernized version of Hegel from Jung, which is not entirely idealist, but is socially constructivist and based on a collective consciousness -- we cannot understand things from our current perspective, collectively or individually, but we can manage well enough to get along as our collective perspective improves. That really does not have much to do with this post, where I artificially adopt a straightforward idealist argument, which is popular historically. – None – 2016-12-23T21:12:08.267

It's nice of you this didactic approach. I'm sorry for drifting discussion a little off topic, but I am much more interested in knowing what is the view real ppl has about life, than the historical philosophies. It feels more real to me. Thanks for answering. – Felipe Lavratti – 2016-12-23T21:19:26.980


To contrast the answer above I will attempt to outline the criticisms of Idealism from Moore and Russell as I understand them.

The most important points of Russells's criticism is that at least two aspects to knowledge of a thing must exist. The thing itself, and our understanding of it (it's properties, its meaning). Given that there must be this dichotomy, if both concepts were "in the mind" then that would lead to the unsavoury conclusion that learning would become pointless as both the thing and the conception of the thing are in the same mind, you have not obtained any information by learning about the thing that was not already there.

This then means that if no "thing" existed prior to the mind then there can be no things other than those already contained therein and so pursuit of the currently unknown becomes equally pointless.

If we take a less strict form of Idealism than Berkeley's then all we have is a tautology that all we have perceived is the consequence of our perception. A useful warning may be drawn from this not to trust ones senses all the time, but that is substantially different to saying that all that exists is in the mind.

The conclusion that because we cannot know existence isn't contained solely in our minds as we have no test that could be carried out to disprove this and we should therefore accept the idealist standpoint is also flawed. As Both Moore and Russell separately point out, there is equally no evidence that we could put forward to demonstrate that a real world outside of our minds does not exist. As neither position can forward evidence to prove it's case or refute the other, a rational position would be to not deviate from our current common sense which is to perceive the world as if it had some external reality which we perceived, those perceptions being either right or wrong as measured by that reality. When positing the existence of a new entity, or the non-existence of a previously "known" one, the burden of proof is with the new concept, otherwise we end up with the problem of Russell's Teapot, where he argued that just because no-one could disprove his theory that a teapot orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars, that is not sufficient argument that we should believe such a teapot exists.

In short Idealism might be right, but it has no greater claim to be right than realism and realism has the greater claim to be the first, simplest and possibly most intuitive concept. As such, using Occam's Razor, it would seem sensible to work under that presumption until some proof emerges that it is untenable. The lessons from Idealism (that we should remember that the world, being filtered through our perception may not actually be as we think it to be) are, however, incredibly valuable.


Posted 2016-10-27T18:44:42.817

Reputation: 1 848

There is nothing in idealism, even in Berkeley, that prevents practical application. One can interact with our shared illusions as productively as one can interact with solid reality. But solid reality cannot be proven to exist, whereas the shared illusions seem impossible to escape even if you believe completely in physics. As the last part of Conifolds's comment above objects, this is a straw man. – None – 2016-10-30T03:26:49.863

@Jobermark Either the idealists are saying that there is nothing else other than our "shared illusion" as you put it, or they are saying that there might be something else but it is irrelevant because we can never know. The point Russell was making is that in that state of uncertainty, it is no less reasonable to presume that some real thing does exist, about which our senses provide us with some insight, than to presume it doesn't. The possibility of an alternative is not sufficient to argue that we should deviate from our current beliefs. – Isaacson – 2016-10-30T07:18:16.950

Your last sentence changed 'no less reasonable' unfairly into 'less practical' with absolutely no basis. Realism has no "more practical application". Knowing stuff is ultimately 'real' would not affect our perceptions, which are the only basis for our behavior. I do no need you to repeat yourself, I need you to actually listen to what is said occasionally. – None – 2016-10-31T14:24:23.540

@Jobermark My last sentence is a rational conclusion based on the premises I outlined above, it is not an alteration of anything, fairly or unfairly. Believing stuff is "real" absolutely has the power to affect our perceptions, our motivation, our beliefs and our emotional relationship with the world. It is no coincidence that most scientists are realists, believing in the reality of the thing they're investigating is what drives many people to investigate the world at all. – Isaacson – 2016-10-31T17:19:27.373

@Jobermark On a separate note, your last sentence is unnecessarily personal and below the standard I think we should expect from this site. What you "need" me to do is irrelevant, communication is a two way process, presuming a failure is the fault of the other party is a fallacy. – Isaacson – 2016-10-31T17:22:51.100

OK. Please refrain from simply repeating part of your existing answer in any case where I ask you a question. Treating ordinary human beings as if they are simply not capable of reading is insulting. This is a pattern of communication between us. I elaborate and you repeat your given position without incorporating or addressing the essence of the elaboration. True, I do not need anything from you if I do not interact with you. Perhaps that is the best decision going forward. – None – 2016-10-31T20:06:12.680