Has Idealism Been Refuted?

So, I have been having a very nice and informative discussion with Brandon about Berkeley’s so-called “Master Argument” which got me to thinking. Has immaterialism been refuted? It seems to me not. Here is a brief, and no doubt sketchy, survery of some of the better known ‘refutations’.

I. Kant

Kant famously argued as follows:

I am conscious of my own existence as determined in time. All determination of time presupposes something permanent in prception. This permanent cannot, however, be something in me, since it is only through this permenent that my existence in time can iteself be determined. Thus perception of this permanent is possible only through a thing outside me and not through a mere representation of a thing outside me…(B276)

Let us leave aside the problems with applying the concept ‘thing’ to noumena. It seems clear that this is question beging against the immaterialist, for they will gladly admit that there is something outside their mind; namely immaterial ideas. Kant’s argument only establishes, if it establishes anything, that our experience is not possible if we are solipsists

2. Moore

Moore, as I understand it, argued that the nature of judgement refutes idealism. Our hudgments are about things that are outside our minds and this fact shows that not everything is in the mind. But again, this is nothing more than question beging for the same reasons as given above. What argument has been given that the things outside the mind are not themselves mental?

3. Armstrong

Armstrong identifies materialism with the view that only the postulates of physics are ultimately real. He then argues against immaterialism using something that is closer to my heart; namely the causal clusure of the physical. We have no reason to believe that there are immaterial substances because it would be utterly mysterious how they would causally act in the world. But yet again this is just question beging against the immaterialist from the get go. The immaterialist can happil;y admit that the only things that are ultimately real are the postulates of physics but then maintain that electrons and quarks are simply ideas out of which more complex ideas are composed.

So it seems to me that idealism is far from being refuted. Rather it just seems that people are sick of arguing about it…Now, I don’t mean to say that it is true (or that it is false; I am agnostic).

Are there any other refutations of idealism that I don’t know about?


13 thoughts on “Has Idealism Been Refuted?

  1. I’m not sure Kant’s arguing against idealism. Doesn’t the distinction between empirical realism and transcendental idealism do some work for him here? That is (very approximately), insofar as we are considering phenomena, then idealism is false; but, insofar as we are considering noumena, idealism is actually true.

  2. Hey ADHR,

    Thanks for the comment!!

    That’s an interesting claim…I guess I was supposing (wrongly) that Kant was talking about noumena…one thing that immediately springs to mind is that Kant says that he arguing against idealism (the section is called “The refutation of Idealism”)…but even if we take this distinction, it still shows that Kant was beging the question against Berkeley. For berkely need not maintain that ‘oibjects in space outside me are imaginary’ as Kant suggests, but just that the objects in space outside me are immaterial…

  3. Well, here’s what he says at B275:

    Idealism (I mean material idealism) is the theory that declares the existence of objects in space outside us either to be merely doubtful and unprovable, or to be false and impossible.

    He goes on to identify the former type with Descartes, and the latter with Berkeley.

    I’m not enough of a Berkeley expert to know if that’s a fair characterization of his view (nor, for that matter, enough of an expert on Descartes to know if that characterization is fair). However, it does seem clear, from context, that Kant is restricting himself to consideration of phenomena (objects in space) rather than noumena (which cannot be in space as we normally understand space, as space and time are the orders of presentation of phenomena).

    If we read Berkeley as offering a theory about noumena, then I’m not sure Kant has an objection (I’m also not sure that he doesn’t!). Unless Berkeley really does say that objects in space are immaterial. Kant is going to object then because he thinks that an object that exists in space must have a number of other attributes, including physical ones like extension. Such an object is, after all, phenomenal rather than noumenal, and thus bound by the categories.

    (I’m probably being too loosey-goosey to do Kant justice, but, hey, it’s a blog comment!)

    FWIW, I’m not sure what the difference between materialist monism and immaterialist monism is supposed to be. Once you’ve accepted that only one sort of thing/level of reality/whatever exists, then there are more interesting ways to characterize it that material/immaterial. The material/immaterial distinction is most interesting when dealing with someone like Descartes or Kant, who wants to maintain a dualism, where some things are material and others immaterial.

  4. Hey again ADHR, sorry for the delay in getting back to you!!

    I don’t believe anyone ever got loosy-goosy with Kant 🙂

    You raise some interesting points. I think you are right that Kant is talking about phenomena…but then it is strange that the world as experienced by me is something permanent…what could that possibly mean? Berkeley has a way of interpreting that claim in a way that is consitent with his immaterialism. He claims that God is always percieving ans so ordinary objects will continue to exist even when I am not percieving them. This is all that Kant’s argument gets. It is no objection that objects in space have to be extended, as in this respect Kant and Berkeley agree…

    Do you really think that Kant is a dualist? What would he say is immaterial?

  5. I think the world as experienced by me would have to be permanent in the sense that the categories do not change. Since the categories determine how I experience the world, given that the categories don’t change, the world will remain the same as well.

    The categories themselves are given at A80/B106. I don’t think they, ultimately, will conflict with a thoroughgoing idealism. More problematic are the two orders of presentation which start the process of creating experiences: namely space and time. I’m not sure how Berkeley can sensibly maintain that an idea exists in space (in particular), and yet is not therefore material.

    I’m not convinced Kant is a dualist, as such. I think his point is that objects as we experience them (phenomena) are experienced as material. However, if we consider where the phenomena come from, we’ll realize (as he argues) that they must actually be ideas. Whatever is really out there (noumena) is completely unknowable. I think he’s trying to concede something to Hume, in a way: namely that we really can’t help thinking of our sensory impressions as being of external physical objects, and yet all we really have within our epistemic grasp are ideas.

  6. But that sense of permanent will not be enough to ground his argument against idealism. His claim is that there must be something outside of me by which I judge ‘now’ as opposed to ‘later’ and so on. The kind of dispositional permanence you suggest doesn’t seem like it will do the trick…

    As to your second point, why isn’t Kant’s claim that space is itself ideal the answer?

  7. I’m not sure why the permanence of the categories won’t work. As Kant says, they have to work on sensations, which are somehow received from the outside (in an unknowable way). Given that the categories presuppose the existence of sensations, which presuppose the existence of noumena, doesn’t that get the permanence off the ground?

    If space is ideal, but space constitutes (at least in part) what makes an object material — which I believe is Kant’s point — then it seems that any spatial object, by definition, is a material object. I think that will cause trouble for idealism, at least of some kinds.

  8. If that is all that Kant means by materialism then he is not arguing with Berkeley. Berkeley means ‘exists mind-independently’ and as I have suggested, mind-dependent things could exist in space (as concieved by Kant). This is the same problem with the permanence of the categories. Kant does take sensations to presuppose the existence of noumena, but everything he says could be met by the ideal objects that Berkeley posits.

  9. Hm. Okay, let me see if I’m following the dialectic correctly here. Berkeley, as you’re presenting him, says two key things. First, there are no mind-independent material objects. That is, the traditional (e.g., atomistic) conception of a corporeal object is false or inconsistent or some such.

    Second, we can know the mind-dependent material objects as mind-dependent material objects. That is, not only can we know material objects, but we can know that their existence depends upon our minds.

    As I read Kant, he would accept the first, with reservations, and reject the second. He would agree that material objects are only material objects if there is some mind that conceives of them as material objects. However, he would reject the claim that we know these objects as mind-dependent material objects. Instead, he would say that these objects are known as mind-independent. Once we step outside the phenomenal world, we lose knowledge, after all.

    If I’ve got that right, then I think the disagreement is clear. Berkeley wants to say that we can know material objects are mind-dependent, while Kant will not accept this. So, even though Kant’s view is probably consistent with Berkeley’s ontology (i.e., noumena could be the ideal objects Berkeley describes), his epistemology is going to lead him to reject the ontology, insofar as the ontology presumes such objects can be known.

    (This is getting hardcore… I may have to reread the first Critique….)

  10. 🙂

    Hey, sorry, I seem to have overlooked this comment!!

    You say “Hm. Okay, let me see if I’m following the dialectic correctly here. Berkeley, as you’re presenting him, says two key things. First, there are no mind-independent material objects. That is, the traditional (e.g., atomistic) conception of a corporeal object is false or inconsistent or some such.”

    Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. What Berkeley, as I understand him, is really after is the claim that scientists and philosophers make that there is some stuff which we never see, which we could not possibly see, called ‘matter’ that ‘stand behind’ the appearences we have. The atomistic or corpuscular theory of matter is only at odds with this claim if it is offered as a theory of the kind of stuff just mentioned.

    “Instead, he would say that these objects are known as mind-independent. Once we step outside the phenomenal world, we lose knowledge, after all. “

    I am not sure about this. There are passages where Kant says that all it could mean to say that there are men on the moon is that ‘in the possible advance of experience’ we would see them (i.e. if we went there we would experience them). This suggests that we do experience the objects as mind-dependent. But I might be wrong about this.

    I think that the main point still stands, though, Kant hasn’t refuted idealism in the sense that I mean (the sense above). he interprets as an attack on ‘matter’ as a category of experience and so thinks that it is ridiculous. Of course we apply the category ‘material object’ to some of the things which we experience! But Berekely’s point was that there is no need to go beyond that and insist that there is something ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ the experiences…The real idealist, in this sense, would deny Kant the noumena (yes, yes, even though we shouldn’t apply the category to them).

  11. The following is from Aaron Preston (who had trouble possting his comment…should anyone else have that problem, just email and I’ll post it for you)

    Hi Richard,

    I tried to post this to your discussion of “refutations of idealism”, but I seem not to have been successful. I don’t know what I did wrong, if anything. Anyhow, thought you might find this worthwhile.

    Concerning Moore :

    You ask: “What argument has been given that the things outside the mind are not themselves mental?” But what would it mean for something to be “mental” if it is “outside the mind”, i.e. outside of every mind or act of mind? In “The Nature of Judgment” (to which you allude), this is what Moore purports to show. He claims that, in every mental act, there is a distinction between the act itself (thinking, feeling, believing, etc.) and its object, O. This shows that O is not identical to the act of perceiving O. But if O is not identical to the act of perceiving O, then it is hard to see how O’s existence can be identical to the act’s existence, which is what is implied by the Idealist slogan “esse is percipi”–which is Moore’s target in this piece.

    And in his later work, like “A Defense of Common Sense” and “Proof of an External World”, he argues (roughly) that meaningfulness depends upon the ordinary meanings of terms, and the ordinary meanings of terms like “hand” and even “philosopher” make them out to be, or to involve, material objects. So, if one agrees that “this is a hand” (as Moore waves his hand through your perceptual field), then one should also agree that “this is a material object”; but if one agrees that there is a material object, then idealism is false.

    More generally, his strategy is this: insofar as any utterance, including any denial of commonsense, is meaningful, it must depend upon the ordinary meanings of terms; but the commonsense view of the world is “encoded” into those very meanings, so that it cannot be denied without abandoning meaningfulness. So, idealism cannot be meaningfully articulated and thus should not be believed (although it may nonetheless be true).

    See here for details:




  12. Hi Aaron, sorry for the difficulty that you had…I tried to submit this comment with your name and email and it said “DISCARDED”…I have no idea why!!! Maybe try it again and if it still doesn’t wotk send it to me via email again and I will put it up here…Anyway, thanks for the comment!!

    You ask, ” But what would it mean for something to be “mental” if it is “outside the mind”, i.e. outside of every mind or act of mind?”

    Well, I didn’t mean the bit after ‘i.e.’, I guess what I meant was ‘outside my mind or act of mind’. This could be cashed out in terms of ideas in the mind of God (or maybe other finite minds) or as Kant does (as mere phenomena); my suggestion is that this is all that the Idealist needs to account for the data that Moore brings up. Esse est percepi doesn’t have to mean that the act of judging is identical to the object of the judgement. All that it means is that the object of the judgement is mind-dependent.

    Re the general strategy; I don’t see how Moore gets away with claiming that ordinary language is on his side. Berkeley is insistent that his view does no violence to common sense nor to the common usage of words. In fact, he claims to have the common sense view. I mean after all, it is Moore and company who claim to be empiricists and then go on to say that there is something that can never be seen, tasted, or touched, has no properties, and can’t effect anything in any way…I don’t know about you, but when I hear the common English speaker insist that there ARE material objects they usually just mean that the tables and chairs they see, feel and touch are real and continue to exist when they leave the room…none of this is denied by the Idealist. Who but philosophers would think that they were talking about that other stuff?

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