Material, Girl

In the second slice of our philosophy sandwich, a case where the answers are often more baffling than the questions.

What's the relationship between the ideas in your head, and reality out there? What's the real world actually like, and how's it different from your thoughts, feelings, and impressions about it?

People have come up with hundreds of answers, but they generally fall into two broad camps, known as Materialism and Idealism. Both these words have meanings in ordinary language, but their philosophical meanings are quite different.

Materialism is the idea that reality is material, concrete, physical. It's external to and independent of anyone's perceptions of or beliefs about it - it doesn't care what you think, and would be just the same if you had no thoughts.

In materialism, thoughts are the processing of your corporeal brain, and anything we might call spiritual has a bodily foundation. Ghosts, god and precognition probably don't exist, but if they do, they're ultimately physical and scientifically investigatable.

This last leads into the notion that reality is also consistent, precisely defined, and exact - the opposite qualities to those we tend to find in ideas, which are often inconsistent, vague and shifting.

Idealism is the converse - the notion that reality is really mental, spiritual, or a matter of personal will.

Thus the idealisms that the universe is an idea in the mind of god, that geometric shapes are more real - because they're more perfect - than the imperfect shapes of mundane objects, or even that the physical world is an illusion, generated by my mind.

So surely everyone's a materialist now? Only lunatics believe idealism in the modern world, yes? Well...

Idealism is common in the new age movement, with self-help books written on how you can change your personal circumstances by visualising hard enough. You'll also hear sports commentators telling us that an athlete didn't win a race because 'they didn't want it enough'. Faith healers point to 'the placebo effect' to support their arguments about 'mind over matter'.

If you view history as a journey towards some goal, you're an idealist. If you think there's an essential, true version of your personality hidden underneath the layers of culture and conditioning, that's idealistic.

So what about the vagueness of thoughts? If thoughts are hazy and confused, wouldn't idealism mean that the world outside of thoughts is the same way? If your willpower determines your life, and your willpower is conflicted, won't that give you a life full of irreconcilable tensions?

Some have gone down just that road, citing quantum physics and chaos theory as evidence that the material world is as uncertain and blurry as human thoughts.

The confusing thing is that, once the terms have been explained, almost everyone calls themselves a philosophical materialist - redefining the term as needed to fit their idealisms. It's pretty rare to find someone who's consistently on one side or the other.

But is it possible to reconcile the two? To bring them into harmony, or show that the incompatibility is an illusion? Some great minds have tried.

In the late 1700s, Georg Hegel tried to reconcile his old religious idealism with the new scientific materialism - by folding the latter into the former. His system of a world spirit guiding the universe towards self-awareness, and humanity toward political perfection, made scientific progress a pawn of a divine plan. Incidentally, he also wrote his own philosophy into this plan - as the final stage.

Hegel was therefore not a reconciler at all but an idealist. However, his followers continued his work - most of them trying to reinterpret his system to make it materialist. In the case of Marx, that meant recasting Hegel's warring abstract cosmic forces as the conflicting political interests of earthly economic classes. And especially in the case of his sidekick Engels, projecting these conflicts into chemical reactions and gas nebulas.

In 1914, Lenin immersed himself in Hegel's writings. The result was a set of notes and essays which he kept secret from even his closest comrades. He set out his 'radical materialism', which counterposed 'vulgar materialism' with 'clerical obscurantism', ie. idealism. He contended that each was partially true but 'one sided', and the truth was a unity of both.

For Lenin, things and categories are pale reflections of each other, and in the reality behind them, the difference disappears. And experience is not matter stimulating the sense organs, but the mind's direct contact with matter.

Whatever else he was then, as a philosopher Lenin was a throwback to 18th century mysticism. His ultra-materialism, supposedly subsuming materialism and idealism...was an idealism.

And so I tentatively suggest that whenever anyone tries to reconcile or combine idealistic and materialistic views, the result is disguised idealism.


  1. Please find a completely different Understanding of what is Real via these references.

    Reality & the Middle via:

  2. "Understanding" and "Real" are precisely the wrong words for the illucid drivel of a faux-buddhist con man.

    Sai Baba, Krishnamurti, Prabupada...same horseshit in slightly different wrapping.