Realism vs. Idealism: an introduction to the debate

Nearly all of us have encountered the terms “realism” and “idealism.” In common parlance, being a “realist” is generally associated with knowing how the world works and accepting it, even if this knowledge is not always pleasant or comforting. Conversely, if someone is termed an “idealist,” it usually means that he is either a visionary with “high ideals” or else a wishful dreamer who has an unrealistic view of the world. This use of the terms is not what philosophers mean when they say “realist” or “idealist.” In this post, I will attempt to outline the fundamentals of the philosophical realism vs. idealism debate. In so doing, I hope to prepare the way for a rational investigation into Edmund Husserl’s position on this issue.

Husserl, in his Logical Investigations, called for a return to the “things themselves.”1 This statement is reminiscent of something from Aristotle, a philosopher who is often associated with “realism.” Indeed, Husserl’s vigorous attacks against psychologism and neo-Kantianism, along with his defense of objective knowledge, echo Aristotle’s refutations of the Platonists and the followers of Protagoras. Thus, after the publication of the Logical Investigations, Husserl was lauded by many (and criticized by some) for seemingly reviving the spirit of ancient philosophy amidst the idealism and empiricism of modern philosophy. However, after the publication of Ideas, in which Husserl articulated the transcendental phenomenological reduction, many saw Husserl as having abandoned realism in favor of some kind of Kantian or subjective idealism. Even some of his former students, such as Edith Stein and Roman Ingarden, argued that Husserl’s mature philosophy was incompatible with the traditional realism of an Aristotle or Aquinas. And, in spite of Husserl’s continual assertions that his “transcendental idealism” differed from traditional idealism, even rendering the modern dichotomy between realism and idealism irrelevant, the debate continues to this day.2 

This issue is made even more difficult to resolve by the ambiguity of the terms “realism” and “idealism” in their philosophical usage. Platonists, Thomists, and adherents of “scientific realism” are all called realists, in spite of the fact that their epistemologies and metaphysics radically differ.  However, as John Drummond points out, there is a certain core meaning which extends to all types of realism. This is, simply put, that the world (or at least a subsection of it) is in some sense both independent of and knowable by consciousness.  What does this independence entail? At its most fundamental level, cognition-independence means that realities are essentially other than the consciousness of them, are not created or constructed by consciousness, and are publicly available. (Cognition-independence can mean more than this—viz, that material things are utterly self-sufficient in regard to consciousness and only accidentally related to it—but it need not.) Hence, a Platonist, for example, would hold to a strong realism (i.e., both universals like man and dog and individuals like Socrates and Fido have cognition-independent existence), whereas a Thomist would accept a moderate realism (i.e., that both universals and individuals have cognition-independent existence, but the former only exist in the latter), and most adherents of “scientific realism” would hold to a weak realism (i.e., that only individuals have cognition independent existence).3   

Similarly, in spite of the vast differences in the philosophies of those that are traditionally classified as idealists, a core similarity remains. Four basic types of idealism can be identified in modern philosophy. Kant distinguishes two kinds of material idealism, one which “declares the existence of objects in space outside us” to be “doubtful and indemonstrable,” and another which declares them to be “false and impossible.”4 The first kind Kant associates with Descartes, the second with Berkley. For Descartes, the direct object of knowledge is not the independent world but our own ideas, from which we can indirectly infer the existence and structure of the world. For Berkley, there are only two kinds of beings, minds and their ideas: so, according to Berkley, objective things out in the world are simply ideas that many minds possess. Opposed to these kinds of idealism, Kant advances his transcendental idealism, according to which the phenomenal world is organized and structured by consciousness. Thus, for Kant, things in themselves are unknown to us: we only know things as they appear to us.5 Finally, Hegel’s absolute idealism essentially makes the transcendent immanent (see my previous post for an elucidation of these terms). In other words, for Hegel, consciousness and world are two aspects of the same reality.6 Therefore, historically it seems that idealists either deny the existence of cognition-independent reality, argue that it is unknowable, collapse the distinction between consciousness and reality, or maintain that consciousness is directly aware only of its own ideas. Yet, what all of these idealists have in common is the denial that cognition-independent reality is directly known. 

Therefore, the philosophical debate between realism and idealism ultimately comes down to the following questions. First, to what extent is the world independent of consciousness and what does this independence entail? Second, what is consciousness immediately, directly of? Third, to what extent is being knowable? In future posts, I will explore Husserl’s answers to these questions.

What are your thoughts on the realism vs. idealism debate? Please feel free to comment and subscribe.

1 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, vol.1, trans. J.N. Findlay. (New York: Routledge, 1970), 168.

2 Alasdair MacIntyre, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 65.

3 John J. Drummond, Husserlian Intentionality and Non-Foundational Realism: Noema and Object, (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), 253-254. 

4 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, I, 2, first division, book II, chapter 2, section III, 4, trans. by Norman Kemp Smith, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 244.

5 Kant, Critique, I, 2, first division, book II, chapter 3, trans. by Norman Kemp Smith, 257-275. 

6 J.M. Bernstein, “Phenomenology of Spirit, Introduction,” (lecture, Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit,, 27 September 2006).


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