Not to be confused with optimism or happy thoughts–which I also believe in–philosophical idealism is the idea that all our perceptions are mental phenomenon, rather than physical, material, external, phenomena. They are “in the mind” just like dreams. But they are real. Idealism defines reality in a very simple way: reality is what you feel, hear, see, smell, and experience. That’s it. No abstractions. A tree is how we perceive it.
Sounds crazy but think about it. While you are dreaming you have perceptions that are real. You see, feel, walk, hear, and have a range of emotions. They are, of course, mental, in your mind, yet real. So why can’t reality be like that?
According to George Berkeley (and me) reality is exactly like that. And God is the dream maker. We live in God’s dream, God’s Matrix. When we wake, we exit our world and enter Gods. It’s uniform, coherent, mathematical, beautiful. When we look at a tree, we are looking directly at one of God’s ideas; or, God is implanting an experience in us. When we do science, we are uncovering the laws and rules of the Mind of God, the Grammatical Rules of the Author of Nature. Malebranche said we “see all things in God” and he meant it. For those who believe in God, it’s an incredible, magnificent idea. Jesus said that people will look for the Kingdom of God, asking “Is it up there? Is it over here?” No, the Kingdom of God is within you, but men do not see it. God is present and immanent in a way we didn’t even expect, “in whom we live, move, and have our being.”
So does a tree make a noise if nobody is there to hear it fall? Yes, but only because God is there to “hear” it.
The metaphor is tempting. Also, you cannot really disprove it. That’s the real bitch of it. We really could be living in the Matrix right now. We also could be living in God’s dream. Or neither. Just admitting that it’s a possibility is amazing from an intellectual standpoint. So much for certainty! The point is not to denigrate the amazing world we live in; it’s to help make sense of why it’s so amazing, to put it in a larger context. As Emerson said, Idealism looks around and feels that the universe is, somehow, at bottom, in its essence, mental, spiritual, mind-like. Matter is an expression of mind, not the other way around.
Transcendentalism was a group of intelligent, socially conscious men and women walking around Massachusetts around the mid 1800’s. Think Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau (although several women were major parts of the movement). Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” the most uplifting words that have flooded my eyes, changed my life forever and continue to do so. I re-read Emerson yearly. Also Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I will warn readers that the language and writing style of these transcendentalists can be rough-going and non-sensical at times, but for me it always penetrates my soul, leaving me with wisdom that is non-propositional, felt, based in conduct.
They took their name partly from Kant‘s “transcendental idealism”. They accepted that a world exists beyond our perception of reality. There is a “transcendent” reality. Secondly, the world as we perceive it is, in part, a mental construct interpreted by our brains, “in our minds” so to speak, mental rather than physical. At bottom, Emerson says, Mind is primal, not matter; mind comes first. Thus they were “idealists”. They were not anti-science.
They were anti-establishment, anti-authority. In other words, they agreed with Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: think for yourself. They lived it. They were against slavery well before the Civil War. When Thoreau disagreed with paying taxes to pay for a senseless war, he didn’t pay them. He went to jail instead. This inspired Gandhi. When Thoreau disagreed with the materialistic consumption of America, he lived in the woods and wrote one of the most influential essays in the world. They disagreed with each other and themselves. “Do I contradict myself?” said Whitman. “Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”
They believed in the indomitable spirit of man, the amazing power of the self. We are God. “I am part and parcel of God,” said Whitman. Therefore, we can do anything. Yet, amazingly, they were humble men. Emerson, an incredible man, was also tortured by his potential and his struggle to do great things; it haunted him.
They were unabashed optimists. Emerson, whose life was a series of family tragedies and suffering, was the most optimistic among them: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
They shared the religious and moral impulse, yet a fierce individualism found most of them in the ranks of Unitarianism, a pluralistic form of Christianity at the time. They hated dogma and loved the Divine so much they could not keep a religion. Emerson was a Unitarian preacher for a time; Thoreau’s religion was nature; Whitman’s God was in daily events: “I know nothing else but miracles.”