About a year ago, I had an assignment in class that asked me this question: Is perception reality? In small groups, we would arrive at a conclusion based on interviews we set up. At the time, before I was interested in philosophy, I thought the answer was obvious: No, perception is not reality. Our parents tell us “you can’t judge a book by its cover” at a young age. But, according to idealist philosophies, that may not be the case. By looking at Plato, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Hegel (only a fraction of the idealists), we might just find that perception truly is reality.
To begin, I will bring up the inverted spectrum problem. Say I live in a red house. Whenever you look at it, though, it is a different shade of red, say maroon. Do we see the same red? This is a classic problem, but to make it even more complex, how about we add a twist. What if neither of us is correct? Perhaps both of us are completely blind and the house is really blue. When I say really, I am referring to a non-subjective, purely objective reality.
Take Plato’s Theory of Forms (387 BC). According to Plato, there are two worlds. We live in a world that mirrors the ideal world. This ideal world contains every entity in its purest form. Our idea of a house — a dwelling for the purpose of habitation — is a very rough and flawed semblance of what a house really is.
Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism (1781) echoes the same idea. Kant proposed two worlds, the noumenal and phenomenal. Like Plato, Kant reasoned that our phenomenal world was a misrepresentation of the real noumenal world. Everything we sense, says Kant, is processed by our individual minds and then categorized. If this is in fact correct, then no one will have an idea of what is real. Plato theorized that the human mind was not able to fathom the perfection of such ideals, so it is impossible to visualize them.
George Berkeley’s theories added onto Kant’s, claiming, “To be is to be perceived” (1710). Berkeley thought all of our perceptions were a result of us, the perceivers. How our body is at the time or what we are thinking at the time influences our perceptions. So, anything we experience will always change. Maybe reality is not a set thing. Maybe reality is always shaping itself to our biases and there is no reality. But Berkeley greatly distrusted the mind. Again, he declared that our mind was responsible for our perceptions, so there must be a glimpse of reality. The only way to grasp this is by speaking because it is communicated immediately or by direct sense because we sense it without the interference of our brain.
Much of Georg Hegel’s work is enigmatic, but the main idea behind his philosophy is that reality is contained in an Absolute Spirit (1831). A lot of Hegel’s idealism is based on Kant, as evidenced by the phenomenal world. The Absolute Spirit is the intrinsic value of nature, and it is the complex resolution to essence and being. This Absolute idealism linked the mind to reality and time. It worked using an intricate logic system known as the dialectic, in which a phenomenon (thesis) would be tested against a contradiction (antithesis) in order to reach a logical conclusion that consolidated both ideas into an understanding (synthesis).
For further reading:
501 Things You Should Have Learned About Philosophy by Alison Rattle (2012)
Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought by Tom Jackson (2014)
1001 Ideas That Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
The Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)