Berkeley is often sited as the "ideal" of idealism. Most of the academic arguments attack his various points, but his finer points seems to escape the academic community. Kant gives some effort in being fair to Berkeley's idealism in his arguments.

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world, yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned 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 one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived? - Bishop Berkeley

Let us go with the example of a chair:

1) If I remember a chair being somewhere it is a perception through memory.

2) If I imagine a chair somewhere then it is a chair somewhere in imagination (or hallucination, which he does make reference to later).

3) If I see a chair, then I am perceiving a chair.

Even without arguing the "reality beyond the perception", the only reality "I" am aware of is the perception.

How is this not acceptable in the current academia? The "meat" of his arguments, if taken seriously, are soundly based. I don't know of anyone that takes idealism seriously (if there are any modern writing for or against if please give reference), why?

  • Flat out? Because science. Idealism is often open to the problem of objectivity. Science as aiming at objectivity and seemingly achieving it is not questioned anymore. Reality as objective being is unreflectively assumed to be outside of our perceptions. But I am awaiting sourced answers on this question. ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2016 at 15:38
  • @Philip Klöcking Science is based upon the scientific method which is observations (perceptions) of tests. You haven't escaped idealism in science, you merely enhance it since the basis of science is perception. And you made the great observation by saying "assumed". As I said, without arguing the reality of the metaphysical nature of things/objects outside perceptions, idealism doesn't seem unacceptable. Jun 7, 2016 at 15:44
  • Well, I know, but you would be surprised how many influential philosophers are scientific or even naive realists.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 7, 2016 at 15:47
  • @Philip Klöcking would you say a fair challenge, then, for a materialist, would be to prove reality beyond perceptions (seeing as a materialist's challenge to idealism would be against the thesis: "esse est percipi")? Obviously you can't use perceptions, as a tool, to prove anything beyond. A materialist must have "tools", beyond perceptions, to prove reality to make their claim, otherwise why would they come to such a strong conclusion? Jun 7, 2016 at 17:00
  • From what I've read second hand, philosophy departments are generally dominated by atheistic materialists, so any basis for metaphysics beyond matter are generally rejected, whether that takes the form of idealism, Platonism, or theism. Jun 7, 2016 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


These are unsourced, but are too long to post as comments:

  • Idealism, when explained very briefly or over simplified, sounds too much like various New Age ideas along the lines of "it's all in the mind" and "the mind controls everything" -- anybody trying to explain Berkeley without going into the technical details ends up sounding too much like Deepak Chopra or Timothy Leary, and academic philosophers don't want that to happen. I'm not saying that Berkeley is in the same league as those guys, just that a substantial technical presentation is necessary to explain the difference.
  • Subjective Idealism per se might not have fared too well in the 20th and 21st centuries, but it has been influential - consider the continued influence of anti-realism in science, social constructivism - which is basically subjective idealism at the group/social level, the brain in a VAT experiment, and beyond academia, in the "Matrix" series, "Inception". Also, I read "Sophie's World" in high school and Berkeley is a major figure in that book.
  • Subjective Idealism, like its even weirder and less palatable cousin Solipsism, doesn't have much cash value: To be, is to be perceived, so what? How does that change the way that I engage with the world? Unless I am able to start bending spoons at will or use the sheer force of my thoughts to win the lottery, Berkeley's Idealism doesn't really make your worldview any different from other Empiricists. The most important parts of Berkeley's arguments are already covered by anti-realism.

  • Russell, despite having argued extensively against idealism, was himself a neutral monist, as opposed to a materialist - which supports my previous point, that most of Berkeley's arguments are covered by a strong Empiricist / Anti-realist view. Why bother taking that to the next step by committing to idealism, especially if it risks having you mistaken as being part of the cooky New Age spiritualist crowd?

  • Berkeley makes a lot of claims that are never addressed when Kant, and others, agrue against his point. I take his primary point, Esse Est Percipi, to be a fair, though critical view, of our access to reality. Kant seems to explore this further in his own version of idealism. Jun 8, 2016 at 11:22
  • I have no issue with stating "reality of objects exist", but no one can claim access to these objects outside the perceptions (and if there's an issue with the claim, please give reference to someone that can prove objects without strict usage of perceptions as the tool to judge existence), which are not necessarily enough to prove the nature of these objects. (this is meant to address your final question, why commit to idealism. It's not "cooky", it's just the set of tools we have, and a fair observation) Jun 8, 2016 at 11:22
  • If good (idealism) is indistinguishable from bad (spiritualism) then either both are good or both bad.
    – tejasvi88
    Nov 12, 2022 at 15:29
  • "Unless I am able to start bending spoons at will or use the sheer force of my thoughts to win the lottery, Berkeley's Idealism doesn't really make your worldview any different from other Empiricists." - meat of the criticism
    – tejasvi88
    Nov 12, 2022 at 15:30

Taking the broadest possible definition of idealism: "Idealism is the group of philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial," here are two examples:

  1. James Wilberding (and many others besides) study Platonism and Neo-Platonism, which obviously discusses non-material being at length.

  2. Theistic philosophers (Peter Kreeft and others) start with God as the basis of existence.

Outside of academia, there are practical examples of existence as an individual mentally constructed phenomena:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

According to this reasoning, not only the existence of a chair, but existence itself is for one to define for one's self (necessarily, as a mental construct).

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