Contrasting the Three Worldviews of Materialism, Immaterialism, and Idealism

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* Article: What is Materialism? What is Idealism? John Uebersax.


Contextual Quote

"To establish that there are actually two principal alternatives to materialism, one being the polar opposite or antithesis of materialism and the second being a worldview that reconciles, harmonizes, or integrates materialism with its opposite. For reasons to be explained, we will call this third, optimal worldview Idealism."

- John Uebersax [1]


"Three competing cultural worldviews — Materialism, Immaterialism, and Idealism — are described and contrasted. Materialism as a worldview emphasizes sensory experience and material concerns to the exclusion of spiritual and religious considerations; Immaterialism, the polar opposite, entails excessive concern for spiritual and religious matters. Idealism can be understood as reconciling, harmonizing, or integrating Materialism and Immaterialism. While these cultural orientations may be clearly seen in history, and also as important forces in modern society, a clear understanding of them is often lacking, partly for terminological reasons. Another source of confusion is failure to recognize Idealism as a distinct, vital, third alternative to Materialism and Immaterialism, rather than merely a mid-point or compromise between them. The distinguishing features of each worldview are concisely described with reference to traditional divisions of philosophy (Metaphysics, Anthropology, Epistemology, Ethics, Religion, and Politics). According to the theories of Pitirim Sorokin, an end to the current cultural condition of intense Materialism is inevitable, though when this will happen remains in question. We should consciously strive to move modern culture from Materialism to Idealism. Principal means of accomplishing this include orienting higher education more towards liberal arts, and placing greater emphasis on teaching Classics."


John Uebersax:


"What, then, is the worldview of materialism? We are not interested here in the colloquial sense of materialism as greediness or preoccupation with material possessions. Rather, we seek to understand materialism as a general worldview; we want to know, that is, what philosophical materialism is. We will term this worldview Materialism. When we enquire closely as to what Materialism means, we soon discover a constellation of many related terms associated with it. These include empiricism, logical-positivism, rationalism, and reductionism, just to name a few. Part of our task in defining Materialism, therefore, is to consider how these other terms relate to it. (A Glossary of relevant terms is supplied at the end of this article.) The task of understanding Materialism will be greatly facilitated by considering in succession what it means relative to several traditional divisions of philosophy, specifically: metaphysics (what is the nature of reality?), anthropology (what is man?), epistemology (what forms of valid knowledge are there?), ethics (what is the best manner of life? how does one obtain happiness?), religion and politics.

Metaphysics. In metaphysics, the central premise of Materialism is that only matter is real (materialistic monism). There is no other, spiritual reality. In a sense, then, materialism might be understood as denying metaphysics altogether; there is nothing beyond ('meta') the observable, material world. A corollary of Materialism is determinism. Every state of the universe results, merely by simple cause-and-effect, from the previous state. Just as one billiard ball strikes and sets in motion another ball, which strikes another and so on, so all events in the universe are completely determined by previous events. This is considered a modern view, but it actually dates back at least as far as the Greek philosophers Democritus (c. 400 BC) and Epicurus (c. 300 BC).

Anthropology. Man is a body — a machine, an animal — nothing more. All his thoughts and mental experiences are caused by and have no independent existence apart from biological brain states (reductionism). In keeping with the principles of determinism, man has no free will. Man has no immortal soul.

Epistemology. A person is born into the world with the mind as a blank slate (tabula rasa). The human mind has no innate ideas. The only means of gaining valid knowlege is direct observation (empiricism) and discursive logical reasoning (rationalism). Intuition, inspiration, or religious modes of knowledge (faith, revelation) are invalid because they are incapable of demonstration and experimental test (logical positivism).

Ethics. Sensory pleasure is the supreme good (summum bonum); health, prosperity, and material possessions have instrumental value in promoting sensory pleasure and are also good. The best manner of life is an uninhibited acting on instinct to the maximum extent society permits (naturalism). There are no absolute standards of right or wrong. Ethical rightness can only be determined relative to a particular situation and cultural frame of reference (relativism). The ultimate basis of right or wrong is physical pleasure and pain. What feels good is good (hedonism). The end justifies the means (pragmatism). Such social virtues as compassion, altruism, and generosity are genetically programmed; they have value because they are natural instincts, and because they produce positive feelings (sentimentalism).

Religion. God does not exist (atheism; unless, perhaps, we think of the entire material universe and God as the same thing Politics. Society is a bellum omnium contra omnes (a war of each against all, i.e., social Darwinism). There being no spiritual realities to say otherwise, we must accept this as the natural order of things and make the best of it. The best society is one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism). Altruism is focused only on improving the material welfare of others. Since other human beings and countries can be relied on to act selfishly and aggressively, the prudent strategy is to try to gain the superior position and greater power, whether economically or militarily (political realism).


As already stated, two other worldviews compete with Materialism. One, considered in this section, is the polar opposite of Materialism; the other, considered in the next section, is a reconciliation or harmonization of Materialism with its opposite (what this means will become more tangible as we proceed). As the first order of business we must decide what to call these two other worldviews. Terminology here is problematic. Historically, several different words have been used to denote each of them. Moreover, the same word, 'idealism,' has often been used indiscriminately to refer to both. This has produced considerable confusion, the clearing up of which is one principle aim here. We will herein use the generic word Immaterialism to denote the worldview that is the polar opposite of Materialism; this has the advantage of making the fewest metaphysical assumptions – it merely asserts that this worldview maintains that what is truly real is something non-material, and that matter, if it is real at all, has only some derivative or lesser form of existence. What, then, is the stuff of reality if not matter? The answer, according to immaterialist philosophers, is that reality is mental experience. There is, in other words, no dualism of phenomena and noumena. We have mental experience (phenomena), and that's all there is; there are no noumena behind some 'veil of perception'. Hence we could also call this worldview psychism. Immaterialism often comes bundled with various religious beliefs, such that God exists, that human beings have immortal souls, and so on. Therefore Immaterialism is sometimes called spiritualism. Other terms used for this worldview include radical idealism, pure idealism, subjective idealism, and idealistic monism; but, as suggested above, such terms gloss over the important distinction between Immaterialism and the third, harmonized worldview, to which the term 'idealism' more properly applies. The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (whom we will consider more shortly) termed the immaterialist worldview 'ideationalism'; however this term has the drawbacks of being both unconventional, and easily confused with 'idealism'.

As before, to understand Immaterialism it is helpful to consider its meaning relative to traditional divisions of philosophy. Metaphysics. Immaterialism states that matter per se does not exist; there is no objective material world beneath or beyond our sensory experience. Because it has no objective reality, the world as we experience it may simply be a dream or illusion (maya). In some systems, a limited degree of reality may be granted to the material world, with the proviso that it is either evil (as in some forms of Gnosticism), or only semi-real (e.g., as in some Neoplatonism, a distorted or vaguer emanation of some more real level of reality).

Anthropology. Human beings have an immortal, immaterial soul, and a body (or at least the appearance of one). The body is a tomb or a prison of the soul. Bodily passions disturb the soul and reduce the clarity of its spiritual vision. The philosopher uses spiritual practices to deny the body and subdue its passions (asceticism); death is welcome because it releases the soul. In the most radical forms of Immaterialism, a person may be a monad, a disembodied soul outside of time and space, dreaming it is embodied in a material world.

Epistemology. Sensory experience produces false, illusory, or at best highly fallible knowledge. True knowledge comes by other faculties such as intuition, pure Reason, faith, inspiration, and creative imagination.

Ethics. Since the material world is evil or illusory, one should flee it (e.g., join a monastery or live as a desert hermit) and live a contemplative life, removed from social affairs. In extreme cases, contemplation is pursued to the exclusion even of other religious activities (quietism). Virtue is the only good; a virtuous man is happy even when suffering. Specific moral precepts are often presented as absolute and unconditional (moralism). Others are harshly condemned for violating moral laws (judgmentalism). On the other hand, some forms of Eastern Immaterialism may see the world of sensory experience as so meaningless as to make ethical social actions virtually irrelevant (e.g., seeing a man being eaten by a tiger, one ignores it saying, 'the tiger is illusion, the man is illusion'.)

Religion. God exists. Other people exist as immortal souls. Other kinds of disembodied souls (e.g., angels) may also exist. After death of the body, the soul may experience rewards or punishments earned by ones life on earth. In dealing with others our only concern should be to assist them in obtaining a happy afterlife. In extreme forms of Immaterialism, ones own soul may be considered the only thing that exists (solipsism); or is a solitary Buddha, dreaming everything in ones private universe.

Politics. Government should be run by the church or otherwise ordered religiously (theocracy). Governments and churches not only have the right, but the obligation to stipulate and enforce moral restrictions (moral authoritarianism). Legal prohibitions against vices or illicit pleasures are common (puritanicalism). Religious conversion by force if necessary, even of entire nations ('benevolent' imperialism) is proper, in order to save souls; alternatively, a commitment to an absolute moral principle of nonviolence may lead to strict pacifism (i.e., the belief that aggression and war are wrong even if in self-defense).

In sum, one sees that the Immaterialist worldview, strictly interpreted, paints a distinctly unattractive picture. This is one reason it is so important to consider the next worldview, which reconciles the opposites of Materialism and Immaterialism, and for not confusing this reconciled worldview with Immaterialism.


We now consider the worldview that constitutes a reconciliation, harmonization, or integration of Materialism and Immaterialism. We cannot proceed very far, of course, until we decide what to call this worldview, which has been given different names by various writers. Herein we will use the term Idealism to describe this reconciled worldview, and base this choice on several considerations. The first is historical. This worldview can be understood as closely related to Plato's theory of Forms or Ideals (Greek: Eide).

This theory states that, in addition to the material world, there exists an eternal realm which contains immaterial Forms, of which material objects and their qualities are imperfect copies or instantiations. There are, in Plato's theory, Forms for horses, tables, chairs, right-angles and so on; but more important are special Forms associated with virtues – and highest ranking among these are the Forms of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. A true, beautiful, or good thing in the material world is so because it partakes of these eternal Forms. This composite view of reality — a temporal, material universe and an eternal realm of Forms or Ideals — is called Platonic Idealism or simply Idealism. Virtually everything implied by our third, integrated worldview follow from or are implied by Platonic Idealism. To call this worldview Idealism, then, recognizes its close connection with Platonism. Idealism was also the term Sorokin (1985) used for the worldview that integrates Materialism and Immaterialism. Sorokin's contribution to this subject is a major conceptual innovation (Uebersax 2010). Previous writers (e.g., the American Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, 1836; cf. Parker, 1907) saw, like Sorokin, in history a dynamic struggle and alternation of Materialism and Immaterialism as dominant worldviews. Implicit in this view is the possibility and desirability of obtaining an optimal balance between them. But Sorokin took the important step of explicitly identifying and describing in detail this third, harmonized state — thus moving it from the status a somewhat vague, implicit concept, to something more clear, definite and scientifically investigable.

Another reason for calling this third worldview Idealism is that we really have no good alternative, short of inventing an entirely new term. Perhaps the best other candidate term is Integralism, a word which Sorokin sometimes used as a substitute or synonym for Idealism. This term, however, is very ambiguous in that it supplies no clue at all as to what is being integrated. Weighing all options, then, we propose to adopt the convention of calling this third worldview Idealism. Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter what we call it so much as that we have a consistent term for it. Now we consider: what is Idealism? As should be evident, the colloquial use of 'idealist' to mean an impractical dreamer has little if any connection with what we mean by Idealism here. We have already said that Idealism, as we mean it, is not to be confused with various immaterialist philosophies that are sometimes called "idealist." It is also important to recognize that Idealism is much more than a mid-point or compromise between Materialism and Immaterialism. Rather, it is a distinct and rich worldview, much more than the sum of its components. An analogy might be made to focusing a pair of binoculars. When one first looks through unfocused binoculars, one sees two blurred images. But as one adjusts the focus, quite suddenly the two blurred images merge into one vivid and clear image. This is the effect when the Materialist and Immaterialist worldviews are properly harmonized: an entirely new and much better — perhaps even transfigured — way of seeing the world emerges."