Subjective idealism is a philosophical view based on the idea that nothing exists except through a perceiving mind. In this view, the natural world has no real existence as such. It only exists in the mind of those who perceive it and ultimately in the mind of God, as expressed in the philosophy of George Berkeley, its main proponent.
While all forms of idealism stress the reality of the mind over that of the body, that of spirit over matter, most idealistic theories do not reduce reality to the perceiving mind. From Plato’s ancient idealism to Hegel’s absolute idealism and various forms of objective idealism, the key notion is that the world of ideas has some objective reality outside the subject that conceives them. Subjective idealism’s bold move is to deny the common sense notion that things exist as such and to highlight the problems of traditional theories of cognition. It does so at the expense of a convincing account of reality.
By far the most significant advocate of subjective idealism, George Berkeley insisted that esse est percipi vel percipere (“that to be is either to be perceived or to perceive”). His idealism, which Immanuel Kant also called dogmatic idealism (and which he himself called immaterialism), was intended to defend the reality of the world of spirit and to serve as a proof of God’s existence, over and against the mechanical views of the Newtonian science of his time. For Berkeley, things gain existence from being perceived. Since things cannot come and go out of existence each time one person perceives them or ceases to do so, and since they cannot exist in a chaotic mixture of perceptions by different people, Berkeley thought that the world ultimately exists by being perceived in the mind of God. They then come into existence for us as God decides to reveal them to us. This view shares the weakness of occasionalism, in that it somehow artificially brings God into the picture to explain how things relate to each other. But, in the eyes of Berkeley, God’s role in his subjective materialism was not just that of solving a delicate philosophical situation. Showing that things only have a real existence in God’s mind was the essential purpose of his entire philosophy.
Berkeley’s view have obvious epistemological implications, since it implies that things can only be known through our mind’s experience of them, not as a priori entities. But, maybe more importantly still, it also has ontological implications. His extreme form of empiricism only acknowledges the reality of the world as it exists in the mind. In the extreme, such a view amounts to solipsism, the position that nothing exists except for my perceiving self, a view that has rarely, if ever, been seriously considered in the history of philosophy. Berkeley’s thought, however, cannot be called solipsism, at least not in its usual sense. It could be called divine solipsism, in the sense that for him, there is nothing but the divine thought of things, which puts him at odds with the traditional teachings on creation.
The philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the first of the three great German Idealists, has also been characterized as subjective idealism because, unlike his successors Schelling and Hegel, he found the source of his idealism in the “I” or Ego. However, his concern was ethical rather than epistemological or ontological. Fichte did not believe that we could find the ground of all things through theoretical knowledge of the self, but that the self could have immediate knowledge of its own ethical activity. Thus, for him, reality is found entirely in the subject of moral action, and it is something that the conscious subject has to recognize spontaneously.
Fichte’s starting point is the opposite from that of Berkeley and the British Empiricists. It is the transcendental Ego already posited by Immanuel Kant. Fichte believed that, based on the Ego’s intuitive self-perception, what he called a doctrine of knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) could be deduced. The moral self, in its action, discovers its limitation in the non-self (roughly, the external world) and proceeds further through a dialectical movement. Fichte’s method is thus highly speculative. However, there is a further common point with Berkeley’s thought. Berkeley had responded to criticism by insisting that the perceiving mind that maintains the world into existence was God’s mind and not any individual human mind. Similarly, Fichte maintained that he never meant that the individual Ego or self produced the world through its ethical action, but that the Ego he referred to was that of a cosmic consciousness, in other words, God.
Subjective Idealism has much in common with phenomenalism. The notion that our mind’s ability to perceive is limited to phenomena and does not reach things as they are in themselves (noumena) originated with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. But, Kant always affirmed the existence of actual things behind the phenomena. Hence, his philosophy cannot rightfully be characterized as a form of subjective idealism. In fact, Kant made considerable effort to keep a distance between his thought and that of Berkeley, even at the expense of fairness and accuracy.
In the late nineteenth century, a much more extreme forms of phenomenalism appeared in the view that physical objects, properties, events, etc. (whatever is physical) are reducible to mental objects, properties, or events, and that reality is ultimately made up of only such mental objects, properties, events, etc. That form of phenomenalism was formulated by Ernst Mach, and later developed and refined by Bertrand Russell, Alfred Jules Ayer and the logical positivists.
Views similar to those of Berkeley’s modern immaterialism have appeared much earlier in Indian thought, notably in Yogacara and Vijnanavada Buddhism, which stressed the sole true reality of consciousness. Generally, Buddhism stresses that the world of change that appears real to us is illusion. Similarly, Hinduism tends to see reality as the expression of the all-encompassing divine mind. However, the denial of the self and the stress on non-being found particularly in Buddhism are significantly different from the focus on the self in western subjective idealism.
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