Jeff Noonan. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications, 2008.

Idealism as a systematic philosophy derives from thought’s reflecting on itself and comparing the integral unity it discovers with the contingent and apparently contradictory dynamics of the external material world. The outcome of this form of self-reflection is a conception of rational unity as the highest and most perfect form of reality. The internal unity that thought discovers in itself is taken to be definitive of the essential nature of reality as a whole. The possibility of meaning, purpose, and freedom in material nature is grounded, from the idealist perspective, on the truth of the universal rational order that thought discovers when it takes itself for its object. The abiding need of humans to understand the universe as meaningful and purposive and to understand themselves as free explains the enduring importance of idealism long after its methodical theorizations have ceased to be convincing as scientific expositions of the essential nature of the universe in its totality. To explain more concretely what idealism means and what it has contributed to the understanding of natural and social reality, it is perhaps best to begin by considering what the term means in ordinary language.

In colloquial English, idealist is generally used as a term of good-natured criticism of anyone who hopes for social changes that rest on principles assumed to be too pure for flawed humans. Hence, idealism typically means a form of thought that studiously ignores reality. Reality is taken to be a hard-and-fast limit on human hopes, whereas ideals are regarded as mere aspirations for a world fundamentally different from idealistic. In this ordinary sense, a hard-and-fast division between reality, on the one hand, and human ideals, on the other, is essential. This division between ideals and reality is the very opposite of their relation in idealist philosophy. Understanding the internal connection between thought and reality is the key to understanding the philosophical meaning of idealism.

The Unity of Thinking and Reality

In all forms of thinking, there is always a distinction between the subject that thinks and the object that it thinks about. In everyday human life, there is rarely occasion to investigate the relationship between subject and object. Humans open their eyes and see, open their ears and hear, touch a surface and feel its texture. These sensory experiences generate content for different mental maps of the world that humans use to negotiate the spaces they have practical reasons to negotiate. In nonphilosophical thought, people do not usually notice that what they are employing to negotiate these spaces are precisely mental maps; people simply assume (and usually there is no cause to assume otherwise) that their mental maps are accurate reproductions of a reality that exists independent of their thoughts. In contrast, the idealist, while not disputing the reality of material structures and processes, points to the necessity of the mental map as the essential condition of there being a meaningful extramental reality. Contrary to the colloquial meaning, idealism does not claim that reality is an arbitrary product of individual minds; rather, it contends that reality is a synthetic unity of material content and ideal or cognitive form. In the classical way of putting this point, idealism rests on the claim that thinking and reality are identical.

Of all the obscure propositions of speculative philosophy, this claim is the most apt to be completely misunderstood. The bald form of the assertion leads people to conclude that what is really being asserted is that reality is thought and that the subject of thinking is an individual mind. The individual mind is assumed to be posited as free from the constraints of material nature and, thus, at liberty to simply create its own reality. Because reality regularly disconfirms the best-laid plans of people, idealism is (as noted earlier) rejected as mere wishful thinking. However, asserting that thinking and reality are identical is not the same as asserting that reality is whatever each ego thinks it is. Indeed, the principle of idealism imposes the most rigorous constraints on what can count as real. To understand what those constraints are, it is necessary to investigate more closely the difference between the content and form of thought.

The content of thought is as diverse and contingent as the sensory experience and imaginations of every human who thinks, has thought, or will think. Because these experiences and imaginings cannot guarantee their own truth given that they are always changing and obscure (seeing might be believing for the idealist, but it is never knowing), philosophical reflection is obliged to investigate the truth conditions of ordinary experience. To do so systematically, the idealist, noting that there is no immediate access to material reality but that such access is always mediated by consciousness, turns inward or reflects on the subject of experience. The subject is nothing other than the act of thinking itself. Once the act of thinking itself is taken as the object of thought, the focus is no longer on the contingent and individuated content of thinking but rather is on its universal form. By form, the idealist means the common principles to which all thinking, if it is to be true, must conform. These principles are, considered abstractly, the foundational principles of classical logic. The idealist does not treat these principles simply as rules for proper inference; rather, the idealist treats them as an objective form of necessary order and unity definitive of the essential nature of thinking and reality. Because these features are common to the act of thinking and not relative to the content of this or that ego, they are universal constraints on true thought. In other words, idealism claims to discover necessary and universal conditions of truth that any and all minds, as well as that which minds know truly, must obey. The proof of the necessity of the principles is precisely the fact that they are not invented but rather discovered. Hence, individual minds not only are not, but also cannot possibly be, the creators of the reality they claim to know. All minds discover that they must obey the universal principles of thought that they discover in themselves once they reflect on their form in abstraction from the diverse contents of thought. Because all objects are necessarily objects for thought, both the object and the subject must conform to these principles.

The most basic principle of thought uncovered by self-reflection is the law of noncontradiction. In its original formulation in classical Greek philosophy, this principle asserted that it is not possible for that which is to be and not be of the same substance, in the same respect, and at the same time. If a substance is an apple, then it cannot simultaneously be an orange (not apple) at the same time and in the same respect. If this principle is interpreted in light of the basic principle of idealism, then it must hold universally both for that which is thought and for that which exists outside the individual mind. Thought is true when it corresponds to its object. If thinking operates according to necessary and universal principles, and it is true when it corresponds to its object, then it follows that the object also must conform to these principles. In other words, the identity of thinking and reality and the necessary and universal truth of the principle of noncontradiction entail the following conclusion according to classical idealism: That which must be the case according to valid deductions from necessary and universal principles must be the case, for if it were otherwise a contradiction would result, and contradictions can never be true. Generalizing from this conclusion, the basic idealist picture of reality emerges: What well-formed thinking knows to be the case is the case. In other words, reality and thinking (in its formally universal aspect) are identical. Things might exist apart from thinking, but there can be no truth, purpose, or meaning outside of rational cognition.

This conclusion has further important implications for the idealist understanding of reality. If it is the case that the form of thinking determines the content of truth (nothing that does not conform to the universal principles of thinking can be true even when sensory experiences seem to indicate it is true), then it must be the case that thinking is free in relation to the object of thought. Free here must be understood in both a negative and a positive sense. First, negatively, thought’s freedom means that it is not determined by experience. Truth does not mechanically imprint itself on the mind through sensory experiences. This negative definition implies a positive corollary: Truth is determined by rational thought discovering the operation of its own principles in a material reality that as appearance is contingent and contradictory. If it is true that reality and thinking are identical, and the essential nature of thinking is freedom in relation to the object (as superficial appearance) of thought, then it follows that the essential nature of reality is freedom. The truth of reality and the truth of thought are identical. The truth of thought is (negative and positive) freedom. Therefore, the truth of reality is freedom as well. The real, for idealism, is a self-unfolding or self-determining objective rationality manifesting itself through various contents to subjective rationality. Thus, true knowledge is a subjective grasp of the underlying rational order and purposes of reality as a whole. Superficial appearances lead rational thought beneath the surface to the underlying truth concealed within. Once one has true knowledge, one understands the universe as a rationally ordered whole or totality. In other words, one understands what it really means to say that reality and thinking are identical. In whatever manner reality presents itself to individual minds as appearance, its truth is determined by the universal necessity that thought discovers. To be true and yet not universally necessary is a contradiction, and contradictions ultimately cannot be true. Therefore, to put the point in the simplest terms, reality is as thinking determines it necessarily (not subjectively wishes it) to be.

Hegel’s Absolute Idealism

The most systematic development of this understanding of reality is found in the work of G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel’s work reconstructs the history of philosophy and the historical development of reality as a unified process of progressive knowledge of truth. In the terms adopted here, Hegel understood the development of philosophy as progressive insight into the meaning of the basic principle of idealism. Because that principle asserts the identity of thinking and reality, the progressive development of philosophical knowledge depends on the progressive manifestation in objective reality of the rational truth that organizes it. In other words, for Hegel, because truth depends equally on the subject and object of thought, progressive understanding of the truth depends on the progressive manifestation of that truth in the object. This does not mean that reality literally tears off cloak after cloak in history until finally the truth is revealed in its naked abstraction; rather, it means that human thinking progresses not only by discovering more content (through natural science) but also by gradually learning how to synthesize all of its modes of knowledge into an internally unified, systematic, and meaningful whole. On the one side, human knowledge presents itself as abstract metaphysical systems of thinking (of which the various forms of idealism are the highest expression); on the other side, it presents itself as the distinct research programs of natural science. The truth of both can be found only in their synthesis. This synthesis, which Hegel attempted to articulate in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, claims to reconcile the mechanism of nature as disclosed by the natural sciences with the purposiveness and freedom of the underlying rationality that governs the whole. In Hegel’s view, material nature is real but not independent of purposive rationality. To employ a somewhat misleading metaphor, material nature is one “level” of reality but not the most basic one. Natural science explains how nature operates but not its purpose. Because reason demands an answer not only to the “how” of things but equally to the “why” of things, there must be an object that corresponds to the question “why” on analogy with the way in which material nature corresponds to the question “how.” This object can be none other than a universal reason. Therefore, reality is the process whereby universal reason progressively realizes itself in the subjectively rational consciousness of humans (the only rational beings that exist). Thus, truth is not simply an individual epistemic achievement; it is the realization of the purpose of reality itself—to come to fulfillment by becoming the object of full knowledge. Truth really exists, for Hegel, only when it is known. Its reality depends equally on the subject and the object. The object cannot be known without a fully developed subjective consciousness. Equally, however, a fully developed subjective consciousness cannot exist without a fully developed object. The entire history of the universe in its natural and human development is the substance of the development of truth.

Hegel’s extraordinary attempt at a total synthesis of human knowledge did not survive the continued development of the natural sciences. The dominant tendency in the development of knowledge became methodological specialization, leaving a systematic philosophy like Hegel’s “on the wrong side of history” (to employ a Hegelian phrase). No one after Hegel tried to unite mechanism and purpose, empiricist and rationalist forms of understanding in the absolute systematic fashion attempted by him. Given the intrinsic links between idealism and the demand for an overall rational unity of human knowledge, it is questionable whether idealism, at least in its classic signification, is a living method of social and natural inquiry today. For idealism, the system really is essential, such that if overall systematic unity is no longer credible, then neither is idealism.

Idealism and Contemporary Qualitative Research

That is not to say, however, that the problems posed by idealism, and in particular the problems of purposiveness and freedom, have been solved either by natural science or by naturalistic philosophy. In this sense, idealism lives on in the form of human interpretation of the meaning and purpose behind events and actions. The dichotomy between natural scientific and rational explanations of events first rigorously theorized by Immanuel Kant during the 18th century remains. Kant understood human reason as being driven by an internal demand to demonstrate that what natural science understands as meaningless causal relations between material substances in a spatiotemporal continuum adds up to a whole whose reality is purposive. The sciences can never grasp the universe as a whole as organized in such a way as to provide meaning and direction for human (rational) life. Therefore, it remains the province of philosophy to speculate about that which can never be known. Thus, idealism lives on in spirit, if not in system, everywhere that humans conduct their minds to the ultimate questions of existence—whether our place in the universe is somehow special because of our intellect, whether our lives and actions amount to anything substantially meaningful, and whether our ability to decide on courses of action is an instance of real freedom or only an illusion born of ignorance of the material causes. The tremendous progress of natural science in expanding the content of human knowledge has not brought us closer to answering these basic questions. Thus, the problems that idealism sought to solve remain relevant to qualitative research today even if its historical systems are no longer credible.

Two areas of research in particular disclose the continuing influence of idealist principles. The first is the critique of reductionist and mechanistic methods in the social sciences as developed by, for example, Charles Taylor, Clifford Geertz, and Jürgen Habermas. Although none accepts any particular idealist system as such, all are concerned to demonstrate that social reality cannot be reduced to a set of objective material facts existing independent of participants. Instead, all argue in different ways (convincingly) that social facts depend as much on the interpretations and background beliefs of social actors as on the objective structures and forces operative in any social formation. This argument clearly depends on a qualified version of the key idealist principle that reality is always essentially linked to the way in which objectivity is cognized and understood by thinking beings. The second crucial area of qualitative research in which idealist principles remain important is the inquiry into the relationship between social context and self-understanding. During recent years, pragmatic interpretations of Hegel (e.g., by Terry Pinkard) have sought to release Hegel’s social philosophy from its systematic metaphysical pretensions. This effort has yielded rich insights not only into Hegel’s contemporary significance but also, more important, into the intrinsic and irreducible relationship between individual self-identity and social relations. This research has bolstered “communitarian” interpretations of the meaning and value of human action in the debate with liberal conceptions of an abstractly rational self motivated by nothing but rational calculations of self-interest. Thus, although idealism as a metaphysical system has outlived the historical context in which it could thrive, its implications for social philosophy and interpretive social science remain living elements of contemporary qualitative research.