Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Defintion of radical idealism

  1. Sep 19, 2010 #1
    I am studying a particular physicist/philosopher and his views regarding reality outside of sentient beings. The term idealism is introduced and defined in his definition of terms, but I am a little confused over one of his specific variants of idealism that he defines, namely radical idealism. His definitions are as below in (1) and (2). The rest is entirely my interpretation.

    (1) Within temperate idealism the “thing in its self” notion is held to be meaningful, in spite of the fact that the said “thing-in-itself” is considered unknowable.

    (2) Within radical idealism, the “thing-in-its-self” notion is rejected.

    Temperate idealism I can understand and relate to – a rock is what we perceive, but the “source” of that rock, whilst “existing” in some scientifically indefinable form within mind independent reality cannot be said to have a one to one (or even close to that – we just cannot quantify the correspondence) correspondence to our perception of the rock.

    Radical idealism (as I understand it) does not acknowledge, even in principle, macroscopic objects as having any correspondence at all with a “source” that is external to our mind (in other words a “source” as “existing” within mind independent reality but of a form that we cannot say anything scientifically about). Rather, radical idealism would point to intersubjective agreement, our minds, and our consciousness as being the only ingredients required for a philosophical definition of our reality, there is no requirement whatsoever for any correspondence from our reality to an unknowable but nevertheless “existing” (in some indefinable form) “source” of our perceptions. Radical idealism expressed in this manner does not rest easily with me – to think of perceptions with no reference to “something” that gives (in part) rise to those perceptions seems to place knowledge as arising before existence and I find it hard to consider that intersubjective agreement can arise without reference to "something" external to our minds.

    Now I’m not sure whether I am taking this too far, is it actually the case that it is enough to say that radical idealism sees no point in taking on board a concept of mind independent reality if we can’t say anything scientific about it, but that it does not exclude the existence of “something”, or does it say (as I think to be the case) that it is a philosophical stance that does not in principle, consider there to be a need for any kind of “source” external to our reality that gives (in part) rise to our perceptions, in other words, our reality is a collection of minds connected together in terms of intersubjective agreement. This question is not just about labels, I want to be sure that there is a philosophical stance involving idealism that does reject absolutely the existence of any notion of “sources” relating to our perceptions as “existing” within mind independent reality, “sources” in this sense as not "existing" in any knowable form, but none the less, "existing" in a sense of giving rise to (in part) our perceptions, in other words, a “source” of intersubjective agreement.

    Any clarification of the above would be helpful to me – I did try googling the term radical idealism but there seemed little that was relevant to science.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 19, 2010 #2
    I don't know that I would use the terms "idealism" or "radical idealism" for this, but I understand the issue. It has to do with identifying the relationship between intersubjective communication and the referents of the knowledge being communicated. Some people recognize the composition of representational knowledge as drawing on whatever means possible to garner social power. As such, they consider correspondence-claims as nothing more than a means of endowing knowledge with social power. Some people don't like this position because they are too deeply invested in the project of making correspondence-claims themselves. As such they refuse to consider the possibility of correspondence itself being a "style" of knowing and communicating. Personally, I think you can do both - i.e. insist on correspondent knowledge AND acknowledge that doing so is a form of intersubjective social power. But doing so requires overcoming the oppositional dichotomy of knowledge and power, a la Foucault.
  4. Sep 19, 2010 #3
    Re: definition of radical idealism

    Thanks for your reply. I should say that my question is specifically related to the nature of physical reality as it may be philosophically thought to exist with and without our involvement (and by involvement, I include everything associated with the means in which we construct our reality). Not that I am suggesting your response was not relevant, I'm sure it is, it's just I have enough difficulty in using these philosophical notions within science, to extend them to social settings is to go beyond any expertise I may have.

    The philosopher most associated with idealism in relation to physical reality seems to be Kant, but I'm not sure if my definition of radical idealism could be ascribed to his philosophy. I think that temperate idealism can be ascribed to him, and that form of idealism seems to have a fairly consistent meaning across the board, but I'm not sure that radical idealism has such a consistent meaning for most.
  5. Sep 19, 2010 #4
    Re: definition of radical idealism

    Usually what I try to do when people inquire into radical constructionism is to explain how it is epistemologically to recognize "external physical reality" as ONLY a factor in discourse. To deeply understand how that works, you have to be able to bracket the issue of whether "external physical reality" in fact actually exists. This is difficult or impossible for many people because they have a knee-jerk reflex to defend the reality-status of things they deem real; so much so that they cannot even bracket it for long enough to understand what you are calling "idealist" or what I would call "constructivist" approaches.

    If you are somehow able to bracket your own assumptions about external physical realities long enough to conceptualize them purely as representations in social discourse, then you could potentially experience the epistemology that such idealism/constructivism is dealing with. At that point, you can go back and look at discourses about real external physical realities purely as discourses and see how the assumption of reality itself plays a role in social interaction.

    The problem you're going to have discussing this on a physics forum like this one is that one or more people will inevitably chime in with reasons it is idiotic to question the existence of physical realities because their bread and butter as physicists is based on assuming that such realities exist passively and ignoring the fact that they operate within social discourses where representations of those realities are the primary capital of exchange, not the realities themselves. I like explaining this point of view to people, so I am always vocal when it comes up - but I don't enjoy defending it against insistence that realities exist and therefore shouldn't be questioned, because for one thing denying anything's existence isn't the point of constructivist/idealist theory and for another it defeats the purpose of having such theory in the first place.
  6. Sep 20, 2010 #5
    So can I just press you on this issue – you refer to representations of realities being the primary capital of exchange rather than the realities themselves. That would suggest to me a notion of those realities as existing in some form, and that there is a correspondence between those realities and the representations that we use. In this particular case, framed from my mindset, I would say the representations are part constructed by us and in part derived from “something” that exists independently of the mind. If I consider that I have no idea what that “something” is because we cannot access it in any kind of scientific manner (or any manner in that sense, but of course we are free to philosophically speculate on its form) then does this position leave one with anything of substance with regards to the realities? In other words, if I adopt this position, might I just as well say there are no realities, just our representations of something that I have no idea of, therefore I may as well say that our reality is in our heads (in a collective manner since somehow we all agree on many of those representations).

    My own feeling here is that the above is incorrect - that just because I cannot access mind independent reality this does not render the notion invalid, in fact I can go further and say that the very notion gives rise to intersubjective agreement and gives rise to our perceptions – reality is not just in our heads, it has a correspondence with mind independent reality, but what I cannot do is go any further than that, I cannot step outside of my mind and my reality and make “observations” of mind independent reality, it has to remain as a notion.

    I appreciate that most physicists will have none of the above, but even so, their adherence to realism where by they consider that they can say something “true” about mind independent reality is still a philosophical stance. It is just the case that I take the extreme end of that philosophical scale whereby I consider we cannot say anything “true” about mind independent reality – but importantly I do think there is “something” that exists under that label.
  7. Sep 20, 2010 #6
    The point is that when you "think" about there being something that exists "under that label," can you reflect on the fact that this is itself an ultimately isolated thought? Likewise, can you consider that to claim that anything exists "only in your mind" and not externally to it, you would have to have some means of establishing that there in fact is a distinction between internal and external realities? If you would be rigorously empirical, you would have to recognize that when you use your senses, touching something for example, you are generating neural information that your mind interprets as material reality but that this is the extent of how much information you have regarding that reality. Beyond that, you can't really directly know what that reality is and whether it is external or internal to your mind. You can only assert that you find it reasonable to assume that sensory data originates outside of your mind insofar as you perceive your mind as having boundaries that separated its inside from its outside. You can explore these ideas, but ultimately you're not going to stop thinking in terms of a distinction between internal and external realities, so these are just thought experiments to conceptualize ways of thinking that don't assume objective referents for representations.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook