How can philosophy and soc. sci. avoid idealism, which seems so prevalent?


So, again and again I notice that even philosophers, soc. scientists etc. that claim to not be prone to be idealist (since it's unfashionable to be labeled as an idealist, because it's anti-realist), but may claim to be "scientific" or "pragmatic" or whatever, still are idealistic. Idealism/idealistic here means "too based on ideas or ideals, rather than real, verifiable things and practical concerns".

The way they do it is that even though they claim that they're something else than idealistic, they still over and over again rely on idealistic previous authorities (also in an idealistic, non-materialistic, non-pragmatic way). A social scientist can also spend his/her whole career doing non-materialistic, non-pragmatic things. That's idealism, even though it's "not idealism in theory" (but the world isn't a theory). For example, is possibly a highly regarded soc. scientist (or philosopher) in some contexts, but look who he cites and what ideologues he follows: Aristotle, centrism, neoconservatism. These are idealistic.

Rather than "solving problems abstractly and in theory" and being pretentious intellectuals (which is fashionable), what should philosophers and soc. scientists do? In order to actually help and do something useful for the society?

I also think that idealism ought to be broadened, if one still considers idealism to mean only this:

Idealism has an "everyday interpretation" that means ideas that are too ideal, removed from practice, reality. Desiring or proposing utopian or supernatural things, rather than limiting oneself to just what's practical.

On the other hand, science and practice has evolved so much that to consider idealism as in the wikipedia page today would just be stupidity.


Posted 2018-05-06T08:57:06.757

Reputation: 2 666

Question was closed 2018-05-06T15:08:09.383

I don't agree on this being opinionated. To display something that makes philosophers and soc. scientists more materialistic and pragmatic is de facto not opinionated, because it's not idealistic, but has to be factual. Otherwise it wouldn't show, what's asked to be shown. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T09:06:50.883

It should also be pretty clear, if you read what's said. If not, then ask about what's not clear? – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T09:11:45.297

What do you mean with anti-idealism in this context ? Materialism, marxism ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-05-06T09:34:07.547

What has Aristotle to do with "idealism" ? and "centrism" ? Is left-wing "materialistic" ? and rightwing ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-05-06T09:35:00.177

@MauroALLEGRANZA Everything that can be interpreted or argued to be anti-idealism. Aristotle (and/or the practice of referring to Aristotle) is often idealistic, because 1) Aristotle belonged to the elite and 2) he lived 2000 years ago (so the time and place was very, very different). This is basically what I'm asking about here, why do soc. scientists claim legitimacy by referring to such old authorities. There's absolutely no guarantee that Ancient philosophers wrote about "things that concern the laymen", rather than writing about the things that their elite club considered fancy. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T09:39:02.663

@MauroALLEGRANZA Ask Lipset? "Lipset left the Socialist Party in 1960 and later described himself as a centrist, deeply influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, George Washington, Aristotle, and Max Weber.[10] He became active within the Democratic Party's conservative wing, and was one of the 'original neoconservatives', a small group of public intellectuals who were the first to be called neoconservatives.[1][11]" – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T09:44:31.760

I am voting to close because I think the question is too broad, opinionated and I am unclear what you are asking. I hope you come back and ask other questions related to this theme because I find them interesting. Make the questions more specific, say, about some text in one of the books you are reading. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-06T13:19:13.960

@FrankHubeny I'm asking about how to turn philosophy into something else than armchair reading and "wannabe intellectualism". In order to motivate continuing to read philosophy instead of bashing it as useless wannabe intellectualism done by people too lazy to be scientists :) – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T13:22:08.757

I am in agreement with your aims. I hope to do the same thing. Also I am not a professional philosopher. The questions that can be answered here need to have an answer that fits in a few tight paragraphs and can be said to be "answered" with references that lead the reader elsewhere. Don't be discouraged by the close vote or any down-voting. Keep refining the questions and answers. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-06T13:31:36.743

@FrankHubeny What I'm looking for as answers is some sort of "this is how philosophy can serve practical human endeavors", if not even "be practice". Nowadays it seems like philosophers are people that interpret what others are doing, without doing much themselves. That's a bit irrational way of existence. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T13:33:35.943

One approach would be to pick the topic of "altruism". Check out Peter Singer, Jonathan Haidt, David Sloan Wilson. I only partially agree with what these three people offer, but they are good places to start. Then the questions will more likely be focused enough that someone here can answer it. Don't forget, most of us here can't really answer such questions. The answers will not be satisfying, but they may lead to something interesting nonetheless. Or maybe a new question. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-05-06T13:39:15.557

I agree with your question 100% (I think), but I think maybe the question could be worded more clearly like this: "Why do modern philosophers avoid idealism" or "Why do philosophers focus on the abstract, rather than try and solve practical problems?" I, too, perceive this as a serious problem. – David Blomstrom – 2018-05-06T16:11:21.970

Rather than label people like Seymour Lipset "idealistic," you might consider the possibility that they're operatives or propagandists. That's a HUGE problem that has impacted philosophy, along with science and religion. – David Blomstrom – 2018-05-06T16:18:48.970

@DavidBlomstrom Or wannabe ideological superstars, like Ayn Rand. Their point being in wanting to be some sort of leaders, but in fact tricking people that are not critical enough. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T16:24:18.827

Yes. She, too, was very right-wing - and quite racist. – David Blomstrom – 2018-05-06T16:26:11.250



So, again and again I notice that even philosophers, soc. scientists etc. that claim to not be prone to be idealist (since it's unfashionable to be labeled as an idealist, because it's anti-realist), but may claim to be "scientific" or "pragmatic" or whatever, still are idealistic.

If you hear "idealism" coming from a philosopher then it's most likely NOT used for that. (Instead they're talking about this.) So their self-description is probably going to be misleading.

Idealism/idealistic here means "too based on ideas or ideals, rather than real, verifiable things and practical concerns".

What are real and verifiable things? What are practical concerns? If we don't answer then it's completely unclear. If we do answer then we're ourselves already going away from "practical concerns" (or so it seems). But theoretical concerns aren't self-evidently meaningless.

Keep in mind that in science we'll find many things which seems impractical only to turn out extremely useful. Furthermore, theoretical concerns can provide a foundation for other areas to solve "practical concerns" - whatever exactly those are.

Rather than "solving problems abstractly and in theory" and being pretentious intellectuals (which is fashionable), what should philosophers and soc. scientists do? In order to actually help and do something useful for the society?

In political philosophy there's something called "ideal theory" and "non-ideal theory" (since Rawls that's also an explicit concern). They will argue when exactly they use which and why. In other words: philosophers do care about applicability. They just don't want to blindly run into unexamined views. Examining the views however requires a huge amount of theoretical work.

There's also a subfield called "Applied Ethics". So the premise that they don't care about "practicality" is pretty flawed.

Marc H.

Posted 2018-05-06T08:57:06.757

Reputation: 1 865

Examining the views could be unpractical. Because as animals, humans are more immediately dependent on something else than theoretical aspects. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T13:24:27.440

But how do you know that without examining the views? We might as well accuse, "Not examining the views is an excuse for maintaining dogma.". Think of it like this: if we don't know what practical aspects we should care about then what use is it in arbitrarily doing something because it seems practical? F.e., what if someone in the 60s comes and says, "Well, trying to get rid of racism isn't all that practical.". This either shows that some views are wrong about practicality or that practicality isn't all that matters. – Marc H. – 2018-05-06T14:01:49.423

"Requires zero isms" + "it's about survivalism". That's a contradiction. – Marc H. – 2018-05-06T15:27:54.510

I believe that basic human existence requires zero isms, ideologies etc. It's materialistic, it's about surviving in materialistic sense. Therefore I would yet again accuse philosophers of idealism. If they deal with ideas, rather than materialistic factors – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T15:41:11.737

Reformulating doesn't change the point. You have to get the idea that "it's about surviving" from somewhere. Furthermore, surviving isn't all there is in everyday living. – Marc H. – 2018-05-06T16:04:45.147

Are you kidding? You think a biological organism needs a philosopher to tell how to eat and reproduce and so on? – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T16:07:31.473

That's not what I wrote. If you think about how to live your life then surely you don't think, "Well, aside from surviving and reproduction nothing matters to me at all!". We can't just simply derive an ought from the facts about evolution. (Also, natural selection will apply regardless of what we do with our lifes. And it's dangerous to simply make it teleological.) – Marc H. – 2018-05-06T16:15:54.110


-----"Rather than "solving problems abstractly and in theory" and being pretentious intellectuals (which is fashionable), what should philosophers and soc. scientists do? In order to actually help and do something useful for the society?"

Let us assume here that by 'philosophers' you mean professional academics. If you look you'll see that they do not solve problems 'abstractly and in theory' or in any other way. Not one solved in two millennia of trying. To be helpful to society philosophers must solve problems. Then they will be able to explain how the world works to the lay public. Until then the public is at the mercy of a thousand unhelpful ideas with no way to choose between them.

It is a vital issue. At present religious and scientifically-minded people are allowed to believe anything they like because philosophers have let then down. The result is a chaos of temperamental and idiosyncratic world-views that are chosen on a whim and clash wildly with each other.

Society needs a healing vision and it must come from philosophy. But the profession has given up on understanding philosophy. It has found that it's approach does not work and assumes this means that no approach works. Gloom and despondency is endemic and even university chancellors are now questioning its value.

The solution would be to assume that the reason this philosophy cannot solve problems is that it grounds itself on false assumptions. One of these assumptions states that rational philosophers must reject mysticism. This self-inflicted limitation on thought and research comes at a high price. There are no unsolved problems in the philosophy of the Upanishads but this is from the Land of Woo. Best to to stick to defining problems and avoid solving them if the solution is 'not-invented-here'.

Mine is a jaundiced view of academic philosophy and it will grate with some but really, is it not about time it moved on? What sort of discipline is it that can be proud of defining problems but unable to solve any? How could it ever be useful to society?

Idealism comes in various versions and flavours. In philosophy its basic claim is that everything is an idea. In the social sciences it may have other meanings but they have little use in philosophy. At its simplest idealism is simply the opposite of materialism, a mind-only instead of a matter-only theory. It doesn't work in this form but is much closer to something that works than materialism and so is popular among philosophers even in this simple subjective form.

A more sophisticated form of idealism would be 'Absolute' or 'Transcendental Idealism'. This is 'non-dualism' and the philosophical basis of mysticism or the Perennial philosophy (Buddhism, Taoism, etc). Naturally it is largely unexamined in professional circles since it solves problems and is useful to society. It is not easy to find a pro who know much about it, the consequence being that the lay public is almost entirely unaware of it.

As for the question, what should philosophers do 'to actually help and do something useful for the society?", my proposal would be that they should do philosophy. There would be nothing more useful they could do. Society is in desperate need of a healthy philosophy department. How we create one I have no idea other than to keep chipping away at the layers of prejudice, temperament and group-think that afflict the current one.

I feel that sites such as this one, which is excellent, hold the key to initiating major changes in philosophical thinking across society because they bypasses the intellectual road-block that is professional philosophy. Perhaps one thing philosophers could do to help society is to support sites like this one.


Posted 2018-05-06T08:57:06.757


I would possibly like to edit your text to be less biased. The explanation that you give about philosophers being some sort of Gods that come to educate "stupid laymen" is elitist to say at least. And it may give unnecessary power to people who believe that they ought to be philosophers. – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T13:05:38.603

Additionally you propose that society needs vision, it must come from philosophers (that do nothing practical, they merely interpret what everyone else does!). – mavavilj – 2018-05-06T13:06:12.710

@mavavilj I don't feel is it is at all biased. Your view of philosophers supports my case, You clearly agree that at present in our society they are practically not very useful. Yet philosophy should be the most important discipline in the curriculum. Philosophers are not 'Gods who educate stupid laymen', they are specialist researchers whose work is to conquer their discipline and teach others how to do the same. At present the profession is unable to teach laymen anything much beyond a long list of intractable problems and the idea they are Gods is not what I'm suggesting. . – None – 2018-05-07T12:35:10.333