Reply to Jason – what is idealism? 2

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643, oil on panel, Saint Louis Art Museum

Pieter Claesz, Still Life, 1643, oil on panel, Saint Louis Art Museum

Hi Jason,

You have motivated me to reconsider my definition of ‘idealism’.

By ‘inspiration’ I refer to a heightened emotional state that is conducive to creative activity in some way.

If I was lying in bed and heard something on the radio that motivated me to get out of bed (an ethical speech, music I think uplifting…), it would be to get up and do something productive – to ‘get on with the day’, to ‘get things done’.

Inspiration is an intensification of that feeling, hence the urge to productivity becomes more concentrated, more creative – I might start on that painting I had been thinking about or enrol in a photography course…

Idealism, as well as having a spiritual focus (a focus on ‘connectedness’, however one thinks of that – it may be to one’s team, to ‘God’, to the flag, to nature, to one’s community, to the world community…) is an orientation and commitment to a prolonged state of creative potential, realised to whatever degree.

The expression ‘felt to be “higher than”’ does two things – it points to and emphasises the emotional nature of what idealism is and leaves the manifestation of idealism open – it specifically avoids the containment of what idealism is by linguistic thought.

That linguistic thought both gives it direction and, in the case of philosophical idealism, appropriates it through definition, is secondary to this.

An improved definition of ‘idealism’ would then be that it is ‘the inspiration to that which is felt to be “higher than,” manifest as a prolonged and creative emotional state with a spiritual focus’.

Definitions, while most important in philosophical discussion are deceptive. Cusanus believed that our ‘minds’ (try defining ‘mind’ – after you’ve defined ‘reason’!) are the image of Divine Mind, that how the latter functions is modelled by ours.

He believed that just as we can never fully know the Divine Word and embody a complete knowledge of it in our ‘mental’ words, because the Divine Word is infinite while we are finite and therefore limited to perspectives, so too the words of the sensory world cannot fully ‘know’ and express the words of our ‘mental’ world.

And in the latter part of this, having been ‘stood on its feet’, he has a very good point.

I can give you a ‘working’ definition of any word, but there will always be much more in our thought (including memory) regarding what that word symbolises for you and me, which completes our perspectival definition of the word.

Of ‘cat’ I can say that it is ‘a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws.’ But my experience of cats inevitably completes my perspectival definition of the word.

Words dealing with the emotions further complicate the issue. Exploring what lies beyond a ‘working definition’ of words and how those perspectival ‘definitions’ inter-relate is fundamental to poetry, just as exploring what ‘lay beyond’ the material reality of a madeleine had so much potential for Proust.

Logical atomism took the drive to define and control in philosophy to a ridiculous extreme (for which Wittgenstein was well-suited).

Donald Phillip Verene countered this:

‘…we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’ (Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1985, 34-35)





7 thoughts on “Reply to Jason – what is idealism? 2

  1. It’s a nice read Phil. I like Wittgenstein’s opening quotes in Tractatus:
    “That which can be said can be said clearly, and the rest we shall pass over in silence.”

    Your mention of divine word resonated even better with me as I did a post on it today.

    Have a great week ahead.

    Anand 🙂


    • Hi Anand,
      thank you for your comment. I’ve had a few goes at the post by now.

      My compliments on your post today on divine word – its quite a coincidence that we both addressed the subject on the same day!

      With best wishes, Phil

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a thoughtful read. I liked the part were the spoke of the divine word and it’s infinitude. And your improved definition of “idealism” – I absolutely agree it. If you don’t mind, can you pls enlighten me on Logical atomism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Arcane Owl,

      thank you for your question.

      The thesis of logical atomism derived from a focus in the early part of the 20th century on finding a ‘logically perfect language’ which mirrored ‘the fundamental structure of reality’, that would enable analysis.

      It claims that the structure of true basic sentences exactly corresponds with the structure of the facts that make them true.

      Wittgenstein at that time argued for ‘atomic facts’, that the world is a totality of facts not things (in effect, a totality of products of consciousness not of objective reality), and that a logically ‘perfect’ language would contain only truth-functional compounds of ‘atomic’ sentences.

      He later rejected this, arguing the opposite, that meaning depends on contextual use – these are parroted as two of his ‘great’ ideas.(??!!)

      The key proponents of logical atomism were Russell and Wittgenstein.

      Best regards,


      Liked by 1 person

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