Idealism, Materialism, Monism, Dualism: More -isms than you can handle!


Idealism and materialism are two opposite ways of looking at the universe. These ideas take the most  basic concepts we can possibly think of and turn them on their ends.  So without further ado, let’s dive right into these concepts.

Unfortunately, we’re going to have to cover a little bit of background information before we move on to these two concepts. Since the existence of physical objects is at stake here, we will start by explaining matter.

What is Matter?

So we have to ask ourselves, “What is matter?” This may seem elementary, but it’s not quite that easy to understand. Matter is something that exists independently of the mind. This means it has to be there regardless of whether or not I’m perceiving it or not. Sound familiar? Allow me to jog your memory. Ever hear of the common paradox of a question “If a tree falls in the woods while no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?” This is the same concept, but in this case we’re questioning “Hey, does that tree even exist when no one is there to see it?” Now that we know what matter is, we can move on to explaining what these two ideas have to do with it.


Idealism views the total nature of reality as being based on only minds and ideas. This means there are no physical objects in the universe and that everything we see, touch, taste, hear and smell is a complete product of the mind. Idealism supports the soul as the life force behind existence. The external world is, then, just a complete product of and is inseparable from the mind.

Arguments for Idealism

This idea was explained better by Bishop George Berkeley (shown in the picture above). Berkeley basically said that for something to exist it has to be perceived. If no one is perceiving it, then it cannot exist. But even Berkeley couldn’t deny the fact that if we walk away from a forest that all those trees don’t just completely disappear. He had a solution for this perception problem. The old Bishop explained that even though we as people aren’t perceiving something, someone else is and that someone is God. This is one of the things that philosophers have a problem with mainly because of the inadequate evidence for God or any type of divine being.


Materialism counts on matter being the only existing thing in the universe. This is to say that there is nothing else in existence at all besides physical objects. To believe in materialism is to believe that there is no phenomenon such as spirit or soul, which would falsify any belief in a divine being (God). Also, materialism deals with your own mind. If you’re a materialist, you’re submitting to the fact that your conscience, will, morals, and overall perception, is the result of the nerves in the brain transferring electrical energy.

Arguments for Materialism

Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, explains his belief that matter is very much a real thing. He argues that the “sense data” (sight, touch, taste, etc.) we experience from interacting with objects are not identical to the object itself. However, the fact that we can feel the smoothness of a wooden table or the roughness of sand paper is enough to believe that there is something independent of ourselves there. If you, me and five other people were sitting around a dinner table eating a chicken, we could all smell the chicken and agree it has a similar properties, such as taste and texture, but that doesn’t mean that those senses are the chicken. Since we can interact with this chicken but not necessarily know the thing in itself, then it is safe to assume that it is existing outside our minds.

What happens if I believe in Idealism and Materialism?

Thanks to Rene Descartes we have a word for one who believe in both mind and matter, it’s called Dualism. Contrary to monism, which is the belief in only one or the other exists (idealism or materialism), a dualist is someone who takes part in both concepts. This is the belief that there are thinking minds and physical matter that interact with each other. This seems like the safe bet but in all honesty it’s not looked very highly upon in the world today.

What’s wrong with Dualism?

There are two simple explanations that make philosophers uneasy in regards to dualism. They are as follows:

  • Dualism seems to violate physical laws. How can a non-physical thing give cause to a physical action without completely rupturing the law of conservation of energy?
  • The only explanation Descartes gave for exactly how this non-physical thing reacts with the physical is left up to faith, claiming it’s God’s design.

So you can see here that there are certain gaps that are left unanswered which is why dualism is put under the gun by philosophy.


Boy, we really talked about a lot of stuff today, huh? We discovered that the belief in one of these two phenomenons is called monism. Idealism is that which believes only minds and thoughts exist, and Materialism states that only physical objects can exist. We also discovered that Dualism is the idea that both of these things may exist, but it has a few problems that make it a very impractical choice. I wish I could fit more into this post but the goal of (un)Enlightened Philosophy is to condense these topics for you to understand and get the gist of. For further material I suggest reading Bertrand Russell’s Problems in Philosophy. It explains all of this in much more detail and isn’t a very hard read.

Until next time, Keep thinking my friends!

Posted in Philosophy.