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The Fallacy of Epistemological Idealism

Modern philosophy seems to be a maze of contradictory theories which have arisen in a relatively short period of time. Almost every thinker has his own particular brand of theory, more or less at variance with that of his fellow-philosophers. There seems to be hardly a single point on which they all agree, when they begin to expound the details of their system.

On the surface, there appears to be nothing but intellectual chaos. Viewed from a broader standpoint, however, by far the majority of these theories and systems will be seen to be more or less alike. They reveal a common parentage and show a common kinship. As such, then, they possess a uniform trait, a fundamental doctrine identical in them all, which underlies all the variants and forms the root-idea from which they derive their origin and then develop into different philosophies. This uniform trait is idealism, and the root-idea is the idealist postulate.

It would be an impossibility to submit every form and variant of idealism to a critical evaluation. Nor is this necessary. If it can be shown that the fundamental doctrine, the root-idea, of idealism is essentially fallacious, then idealism itself as a system of thought, no matter what its individual shade and shape, will also be shown to be essentially fallacious.

The Common Element in Idealism

Idealism arose out of the difficulty of understanding and explaining how the human mind can transcend itself and know extra-mental reality. The ordinary man sees no difficulty in this; for him there is no problem. He sees houses; he hears sounds; he smells odors; he tastes flavors; he touches objects: these are plain, everyday facts; what more is there to say?

The epistemologist acknowledges these facts, and he finds his problem precisely in these facts. Certainly we see and hear and smell and taste and touch; but what do we perceive in these psychical acts and how do we perceive these supposedly extra-mental things? The extra-mental objects (if there be such) cannot very well leave their location, travel through the intervening space, pierce the body, and enter the mind in their physical being; the house across the street, for instance, remains across the street, and the red of the rose remains in the rose out there in the garden. And the mind assuredly does not leave the body, flit through space, and envelop the star billions of miles away in its physical being; the mind remains here and the star remains there.

How, then, can the mind perceive things at a distance, or how can things get into the mind? It does not seem to solve the difficulty by referring to the stimuli (lightwaves, airwaves, etc.), which are supposed to leave the objects and impinge upon the sense-organs; because then we should perceive these stimuli and not the objects from which they come. That, however, is not the case: we perceive apparently objects and certainly not stimuli.

The greatest difficulty lies in the fact of the dissimilarity which exists between mind and matter. The mind is psychical, while the objects are physical; the mind is unextended, while the objects are extended. How can the mind assimilate something so diametrically opposed to its own nature? And how can physical, extended objects impress themselves upon a mind which is altogether devoid of all extension? Can the extended become unextended, or the unextended become extended? Can the physical become psychical, or the psychical become physical? Is this not a contradiction in terms?

Since the mind is psychical, it seems perfectly obvious and logical, that nothing but what is psychical can affect the mind and nothing can proceed from the mind but what is psychical. All knowledge, then, since it proceeds from the mind and takes place in the mind, must be purely mental. Physical objects are, therefore, absolutely excluded from knowledge: the objects of knowledge are mental objects, ideas. Consequently, even when we apparently perceive external and extended objects, what we really perceive are "mental objects," "ideas," "conscious states," "representations," but not physical, extra-mental things themselves.

All we can perceive is our "ideas" of things; whether anything corresponds "out there," extra-mentally, to these "ideas," is something we can never actually know. If such extra-mental objects exist, we simply cannot know them, because they are physical entities, and the mind is restricted to the mental, the psychical, the ideal, in all its processes. As far as the mind is concerned, its objects have "being" only in so far and so long as they are "perceived": esse est percipi ("to be is to be perceived").

Such "being" is then not physical, but ideal; and since it proceeds from, and resides in, the mind as its "subject," it is subjective. All objects of our knowledge are, therefore, ideal and subjective, because they are mental products. This doctrine, that the mind in its knowing can know only its own "ideas" or "percepts," is idealism; and when this doctrine is accepted as an axiom or postulate, it is the idealist postulate.

This line of reasoning, formulated in many different ways, though seldom cast into strict logical form, is basic to idealism. It can be worded thus:

Objects, so far as the knowing mind is concerned, exist only when perceived; but perception ("being perceived") is a conscious mind-state or "idea"; hence, objects are only conscious mind-states or "ideas"; consequently their existence or "being" (esse) is nothing but "being perceived" (percipi): esse est percipi.

The argument originated with the antithetical dualism existing between body and mind, as postulated by Descartes.

The Fallacy of the Idealist Postulate

Logic is not the strong point of modern philosophers. They disdain the strictly logical formulation of arguments and prefer the loose language of the essayist. And loose language often hides loose thinking. We can see this clearly in the argument of George Berkeley, if we cast his thoughts into strict form. A close analysis will reveal the fallacy underlying his argument. Here are his words:

What are the aforementioned objects [houses, mountains, rivers, and, in a word, all sensible objects] but the things we perceive by sense? and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? and is it not plainly repugnant that any of these [ideas or sensations], or any combination of them, should exist unperceived? (George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge).

A casual reading of this argument sounds plausible enough; in fact, it almost seems self-evident; and to many this line of reasoning has appeared so transparently and unanswerably obvious, that it has been accepted without question and become the dogma of idealism. It deserves, therefore, to be analyzed more in detail.

It will be evident that the conclusion of the idealist argument will have to be that objects cannot exist in reality except when they are perceived, because it is the contention of the idealists that the "being" of objects is their "being perceived." So far as we are concerned, they cease to "be" once they cease to "be perceived." Here is the syllogism:

Ideas or sensations cannot exist unperceived;

But sensible objects (houses, etc.) are ideas or sensations;

Therefore, sensible objects (houses, etc.) cannot exist unperceived.

The fallacy lies in the minor premise: "Sensible objects (houses, etc.) are ideas or sensations." The term "sensible objects" can be taken in two meanings: objects can be called "sensible" in the meaning of "actually sense=perceived" and in the meaning of "potentially sense-perceived."

In the first meaning they are perceived in the act of perception; and in the second meaning they can be perceived. In the first case we have objects which are "within" the act of perception, and in the second case we have objects which are "outside" the act of perception but are capable of being perceived. In either case such objects would be called "sensible."

The difference lies in the fact that in the first case these "sensible" objects are considered as "perceived," while in the second case they are merely "perceivable." Berkeley confuses the two meanings: he identifies the "perception of objects" with the "objects of perception."

His argument merely proves that "sensible" objects when perceived, are "ideas or sensations"; but it says nothing whatever about such objects when not perceived. All that his argument can prove is that "objects are perceived when we perceive them"; and that, though true, is plainly a redundancy and a juggling of words, but no proof that things "cannot exist unperceived."

If he contends that the argument also holds in the second meaning, so that there are no sensible objects outside the act of perception which are unperceived but perceivable, he begs the whole question by presupposing in his premise what is supposed to be the burden of the conclusion. Such a contention is an unwarranted assumption. "Sensible objects are ideas and sensations" when perceived; but that is no proof that they cannot be objects in and for themselves without being perceived.

What idealists prove is merely that "sensible objects cannot be perceived as existing without being perceived as ideas or sensations"; but this in no way proves that "sensible objects cannot exist without being perceived as existing." Because objects, when perceived, have now a "subjective existence," it does not follow that such objects have a "subjective existence only." Things could possibly have an "objective existence" for themselves and then obtain an added "subjective existence" in the subject when perceived by the subject. In order to establish their case, idealists would have to disprove this possibility; but this their argument fails to do.

The fallacy of the idealist argument will, perhaps, be more clear if we cast it into the form of a hypothetical syllogism. It could be made to read in the following manner:

If something has a purely subjective existence, it has a mental existence;

But perceived objects have a mental existence;

Therefore, perceived objects have a purely subjective existence.

The major premise contains a true statement: anything that has a purely subjective existence is mind-dependent, because it is produced by the mind; it has, therefore, a mental existence.

The minor premise is also true: when objects are perceived, they are perceived by the mind and as such exist cognitionally in the mind; they have, then, a mental existence.

But the conclusion does not follow logically from these premises. It is the fallacy of false consequent. The minor premise posits the consequent instead of the antecedent, and that is not logically permissible.

If we wish to avoid this inconsistency and make the minor premise posit the antecedent, the syllogism will read:

If something has a purely subjective existence, it has a mental existence;

But perceived objects have a purely subjective existence;

Therefore, perceived objects have a mental existence.

But now the argument does not prove enough. It merely proves that perceived objects have "a mental existence," and that is something which the realist admits; the idealist, however, desires to prove that all perceived objects have nothing but "a purely subjective existence," since it is his contention that the "esse" of all perceived objects is their "percipi." The argument does not reach that far.

Besides, in the syllogism, as now given, the minor premise states that "perceived objects have a purely subjective existence." This statement begs the question in dispute, because here the "esse est percipi" is already assumed as true, while the truth of this fact is supposed to be found only in the conclusion.

There is only one more way in which this argument can be formulated so as to be logically correct and consistent. It could be made to read as follows:

If something has a mental existence, it has a purely subjective existence;

But perceived objects have a mental existence;

Therefore, perceived objects have a purely subjective existence.

This syllogism is consistent, but the conclusion is not true. The major premise, as it stands, is again a begging of the whole question. The fact in question is precisely that which is assumed in the major premise; Is it a fact that, if something has a mental existence, it has a purely subjective existence? This is the very point which the idealist intends to prove by the argument; hence, to assume its truth in the premises is an illegitimate procedure.

It is thus seen that the fundamental position of the idealist is untenable, because illogical. He cannot prove that the objects we perceive have only a subjective existence in the mind; for all he knows, they may have a mind-independent, objective existence in nature also. And if objects can exist both in nature and in the mind (and no valid reason has been adduced to the contrary), then the fundamental idealist postulate is invalid.

D.C. Macintosh has summarized the essential fallacy of idealism in these concise words:

The fallacy may appear as one of equivocation -- the common fallacy of "four terms" -- as in the following syllogism:

What is subjective (dependent on self for existence) is not externally real, but mere idea;

all objects of which we are aware are subjective (related to a self which is conscious of them);

therefore, all objects of which we are aware are not externally real, but mere ideas.

Or, if the equivocation be avoided, the fallacy will remain as that of an "undistributed middle term," as in this syllogism:

The unreal objectively is subjective (related to a subject);

similarly, all of which one is conscious is subjective (related to a subject);

therefore, all of which one is conscious is unreal objectively (mere ideas).

Or, more simply, psychological idealism may be said to rest upon a fallacious conversion. From the obvious truth that all elements which depend on consciousness for their existence, such as pains, feelings, desires, etc., are in the subjective relation, i.e., are objects for a subject, it is inferred, by the fallacious process of simple conversion, that all that is in the subjective relation, all that is object for a subject, is dependent on consciousness and this relation to consciousness for its own existence. (D.C. Macintosh, The Problem of Knowledge).

The Ego-Centric Predicament

Every form of idealism, whether dualistic or monistic, rests upon the primacy of consciousness. Things simply cannot be known, perceived, experienced, except by a conscious mind. Consciousness is thus for them the universal condition of all knowledge and also of being. Consciousness constitutes its objects; and if this consciousness maintains its own individuality in the human mind, we have dualistic idealism, and if it is merged in a universal Ego, we have monistic idealism.

In either case the "object known" is identified with the "subject knowing." We have seen how Berkeley argues for the oneness of the material reality with the perceiving mind. Bradley argues in a similar fashion for the oneness of all reality with sense-experience.

Immaterialism, phenomenalism, absolutism, and every shade of idealism, ultimately base their doctrine on the fact that reality is somehow enclosed within the realm of consciousness, for the simple reason that we cannot perceive objects as existing apart from conscious perception.

This ultimate fact, which is the heart of idealism, thus rests on what has been so aptly styled the ego-centric predicament. Here is Ralph Barton Perry's exposition of the idealist fallacy as based on the ego-centric predicament:

No thinker to whom one may appeal is able to mention a thing that is not an idea, for the obvious and simple reason that in mentioning it he makes it an idea. No one can report on the nature of things without being on hand himself. It follows that whatever thing he reports does as a matter of fact stand in relation to him, as an idea, object of knowledge, or experience ...

This predicament arises from the attempt to discover whether the cognitive relationship is indispensable to the things which enter into it. In order to discover if possible exactly how a thing is modified by the cognitive relationship, I look for things out of this relationship, in order that I may compare them with instances of things in this relationship. But I can find no such instances, because "finding" is a variety of the very relationship that I am trying to eliminate. Hence I cannot make the comparison, nor get an answer to my original question by this means. But I cannot conclude that there are no such instances; indeed, I now know that I should not be able to discover them if there were.

Just in so far as I do actually succeed in eliminating every cognitive relationship, I am unable to observe the result. Thus if I close my eyes, I cannot see what happens to the object; if I stop thinking, I cannot think what happens to it; and so with every mode of knowledge. In thus eliminating all knowledge, I do not experimentally eliminate the thing known, but only the possibility of knowing whether that thing is eliminated or not.

This, then, is the "ego-centric predicament." But what does it prove, and how does it serve the purpose of idealism? It should be evident that it proves nothing at all. It is simply a peculiar methodological difficulty. It does, it is true, contain the proposition that every mentioned thing is an idea. But this is virtually a redundant proposition to the effect that every mentioned thing is mentioned -- to the effect that every idea, object of knowledge, or experience, is an idea, object of knowledge, or experience. And a redundant proposition is no proposition at all. The assertion that an idea is an idea conveys no knowledge even about ideas. But what the idealist requires is a proposition to the effect that everything is an idea or that only ideas exist. And to derive this proposition directly from the redundancy just formulated, is simply to take advantage of the confusion of mind by which a redundancy is commonly attended.

It may be argued, however, that the ego-centric predicament is equivalent to an inductive proof of the proposition that all things are ideas. Every observed case of a thing is a case of a thing observed. Neglecting the redundancy, which is sufficient of itself to vitiate the assertion, we remark that the induction proceeds entirely by Mill's "method of agreement," which is invalid unless supported by "the method of difference," that is, the observation of negative cases. But the ego-centric predicament itself prevents the observation of negative cases. It is impossible to observe cases of unobserved things, even if there be any. In other words, there is a reason connected with the conditions of observation why only agreements should be observed. But where this is the case the method of agreement is worthless; and the use of it is a fallacy. (Ralph Barton Perry, Present Philosophical Tendencies).

Perry's criticism of the idealist argument from the ego-centric predicament is eminently justified. The argument is essentially fallacious. The only way in which we can become acquainted with things, is to perceive them or have ideas of them; therefore, if and when and while we know them, they must be "percepts" or "ideas" in our consciousness. The very nature of our knowing demands this. But things could possibly have existence without being perceived and thus be mind-independent in their being; all that the ego-centric predicament can prove is that things cannot be perceived without being perceived, which truth, of course, amounts to a mere tautology.

If we now turn to Bradley's idealist argument, it will be evident that it is nothing but a sample of specious reasoning from the ego-centric predicament. He says:

Find any piece of existence, take up anything that anyone could possibly call a fact, or could in any sense assert to have being, and then judge if it does not consist in sentient experience....Anything in no sense felt or perceived becomes to me quite unmeaning. (F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality).

Certainly, things "in no sense felt or perceive" must be "unmeaning" to the perceiver or knower; for how could they acquire a meaning for him, if he did not "feel" or "perceive" them? That would imply "knowing" them without someone knowing them, and "perceiving" them without someone perceiving them. The very fact of cognition always involves the perceiver or knower just as necessarily as the object itself that is to be known; because an object, to be known, must be known by someone.

Wherefore, Bradley's argument only proves that objects can or cannot be for themselves outside the knowledge relation, and Bradley's conclusion that "experience is the same as reality" is thus seen to be entirely unwarranted. The ultimate nature of reality is still an open question.

The whole attitude of the idealist, of whatever type he may be, rests upon a confusion of ideas. From the fact that a being, in order to be known, must be perceived within the consciousness of the perceiver in a mental act, he concludes that the "reality itself" of the being, and not merely its "perception," is mental. Reality would thus be immanent in the knower.

The confusion is based on the identification of the "reality" and the "perception" of the object known. It is unquestionably true that the "perception" of an object is mind-dependent and immanent. To assert that an object, when known, can remain unperceived, is a contradiction; and it would also be a contradiction to assert that an unperceived object, when unperceived, can be known.

But it is no contradiction to assume that an object, which has a reality of its own, can remain unperceived by a human mind, either temporarily or forever, either in part or in whole. We would simply not know of its existence until such time when it enters our experience. To deny that such an object can exist as an "unperceived reality" means to confuse the reality of this object with the perception of its reality. This is precisely what idealists do, but it is an illogical and dogmatic procedure and therefore fallacious.

The foregoing criticism shows that idealism arises out of the ego-centric predicament and that its arguments involve a faulty logic. This, of course, does not prove than extra-mental reality actually exists; it merely shows that idealism has not disproved the existence of extra-mental objects. The question of the existence of such objects must be solved, not by any a priori, but by an a posteriori method. Facts alone, together with their proper interpretation, must settle the issue; that is the only scientific and philosophic procedure which can lead us with safety to a definite conclusion.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"