I understand what materialism is, but idealism - not so much. I know however they are opposing views, and would like to know what are the differences.

Analogies would be greatly appreciated.

  • This is the question of what is fundamental. For materialism, the basic entities of reality are material and the mental is not fundamental. For idealism the converse is true. – Quentin Ruyant Feb 11 '18 at 14:18
  • "I know however they are opposing views" - to be more precise, realism would be the opposite of idealism. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 11 '18 at 15:36
  • @QuentinRuyant I still don't understand. Care to elaborate? Do you have an example? – Bar Akiva Feb 11 '18 at 18:31
  • @YechiamWeiss and how is realism different than idealism? – Bar Akiva Feb 11 '18 at 18:35
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    @YechiamWeiss I don't think this is an accurate portrayal of Berkeley's view. First, Berkeley went to great lengths to argue that by whatever standard of reality you might have, his account delivers the result that there is a real world outside of you. Second, Berkeley denies that the real world is a 'projection' of your mind, in the way that hallucinations or dreams or imaginings might be projections. Rather, real objects depend for their existence on their being perceived, but dependence doesn't entail projection (whatever exactly that amounts to) – possibleWorld Feb 11 '18 at 20:40

It's hard to give a once-and-for-all answer to this question, because what exactly materialism and idealism amount to depends largely on the historical era you have in mind.

That said, here's one way to cash out these notions. Materialism is the view that material objects exist. Idealism is the view that every object either is, or depends for its existence upon, mental entities.

Note that, as stated, these aren't opposing views, for it could be that material objects are either identical to or depend upon mental entities for their existence. (Edit: upon reflection I decided to redact the bit about Berkeley.)

However, anti-materialism sits pretty naturally with idealism, because if you deny that material objects exist you'll need some account of what objects are, and it looks like idealism offers a neat answer to that.

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  • What if somebody believes mental entities (ideal objects) don't exist. I'm asking because your answer seems to imply ideal(ism) is primary. But what if materialism vs idealism is actually an opposition (two poles which cannot be conceived of separately) rather than two streams of thought? – ttnphns Feb 12 '18 at 10:43
  • @ttnphns Sure, that's one way of characterizing out the positions. Like I said, the views I characterized aren't definitive, but are just one way you might go. – possibleWorld Feb 12 '18 at 17:05
  • @ttnphns - I'd say you're on the right track. A third choice is implied. – user20253 Feb 22 '18 at 11:44

I can offer only one angle on a many-sided question. I largely agree with the first answer. Then in my own terms :


This typically means that only ideas exist - ideas in the, or a, subject's mind. Hence Bishop Berkeley's claim that all that exist are minds or spirits and their ideas. Point to a so-called object in the external world, say a chair, and the answer from an idealist is likely to be that he chair is just a collection or complex of ideas : we say it is brown, but that means just that we have a perception of brown. We say that it is solid, but that only means that we will experience the idea - a feeling - of resistance if we touch it.

Berkeley needs careful handling. On his account ideas cannot be the effects produced in us by objects in the external world. Then how do they originate ? Among the minds or spirits is God. God produces in us all our ideas. What's more, God controls all minds or spirits simultaneously and creates the aggregates of ideas that we call chairs, the sun, and other constants and continuants in what we (or 'the vulgar') take to be the external world. Some ideas exhibit a regularity in our experience which causes us to regard them as Laws of Nature.

Though the term 'idealism' does not derive from Berkeley - Leibniz had already used it and Berkeley doesn't use it so far as I know - Berkeley's use of ideas as fundamental (along with the minds that have them) suggests the origin of the term in the notion of ideas. Idealism is idea-ism and only 'idealism' for ease of language.


Various possibilities here but most, or quite, likely the view that all that exist are physical things. Everything that exists is purely physical and can be described in physical terms where the physical is whatever occupies a space/ time region.

This is an extreme form of materialism. Materialism can also refer to the view that them material has primacy, that it is fundamental and everything else dependent on or derivative from it. (Thanks to ttphns for reminding me of the distinction.)

This gives the broad contrast and I hope it helps.

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  • I wouldn't generally equate phenomena with ideas (although it is ok in some specific traditions of thought). – ttnphns Feb 12 '18 at 10:49
  • Materialism does not necessarily claim "everything is physical". It states material things are primary reality what exists, ideas - if there are - are secondary. – ttnphns Feb 12 '18 at 10:53
  • I didn't say 'necessarily' : I qualified my definition with 'most, or quite, likely' the view that all that exist are physical things. And there are forms of materialism that do hold precisely this. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 12 '18 at 11:45
  • Left to myself I would not use the term, 'materialism', which is redolent of 19th-century philosophical controversies. I used the term only because the questioner had done so. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 12 '18 at 11:51
  • @ttnphns. You are perfectly right; I should have alerted the questioner to distinctions within materialism. I have now done so - with acknowledgement. Thank you. Please excuse my earlier abruptness. – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 12 '18 at 11:59

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