Idealism, in philosophy, is a view of the world that reduces being entirely to thought, denying an autonomous existence to reality, which is seen as the reflection of an activity internal to the subject.
Implicit in idealism is usually a highly rigorous ethical conception, as in the thought of Fichte, which centers on man’s moral duty to conform the world to the ideal principle from which it originates.
In a broader sense, the term has also been used to refer to a number of other philosophical systems (such as Platonism) that privilege the ideal dimension over the material, thus affirming that the only true character of reality is of a spiritual order.
In contrast to materialism, realism, and similar conceptions, idealism regards matter as something ontologically secondary to the Idea, as something derivative and lacking in autonomous reality, which only receives its apparent and impoverished share of reality from the Idea, that is, from the spiritual substance. Obviously, the meaning of idealism is not univocal, but extremely complex, because it has been configured in different ways in the history of thought, according to the concept of idea or spiritual substance that was dominant in different periods and thinkers; A preliminary distinction must be made between a gnoseological idealism that makes the thinking subject, understood as a spiritual entity, the focus and starting point of philosophical thought – as in Descartes – without thereby operating a dissolution of the whole of reality external to thought, and a metaphysical idealism that, on the contrary, radically operates such a dissolution, going so far as to claim that the very act of thinking is the act of creating the external world, thus dissolving the reality of the latter in the activity of thinking, or absolutely identifying being and thinking, as in classical German idealism.
Historically, however, the earliest completed form of idealism is that represented by Plato’s thought, which sees in the immaterial Idea an autonomous and absolutely substantial reality, in relation to which the sensible world is but a deprivation of being, insufficiency, and limitation (the premises of this Platonic conception lie in all earlier thought, especially in Anaxagoras and the Eleatics).
Idealistic, too, is the neo-Platonic philosophy, according to which all worldly entities emanate, in a progressive diminution of spirituality, from the One, from true, absolutely spiritual Being, down to matter, which is true non-being, absolute ontological negativity. However prone to idealism – especially through the neo-Platonic mediation – Christian philosophy maintains a moderate realism with regard to the fundamental dogma of God’s personality, which has always been an obstacle to the reduction of its reality to thought, while the most typical form of pre-Kantian idealism can be found in Berkeley’s philosophy, which reduces the being of sensible reality to its being perceived and thought by the human and divine subject, thus granting true autonomous reality only to thinking subjects.
Modern idealism takes its cue from Kant, who is not an idealist because of his insistence on the distinction between the thing-in-itself and the knowing subject: having eliminated the Kantian thing-in-itself, Fichte places the absolute thinking subject at the center of all activity, not only thinking but also creating. With the doctrines of Schelling and Hegel, modern German idealism arrives at the coincidence of subject and object, being and thought, rational and real, and the Hegelian synthesis can be considered the most complete form of idealism, in the total dissolution of reality in the concept and of history in the development of the spirit.
After Hegel, it is impossible to speak of idealism without referring to his teachings. Later, an Italian (neo-Hegelian) neo-idealism (neo-Hegelism) (Croce, Gentile) and an Anglo-American neo-idealism arose, and before that, within German philosophy itself, a number of currents emerged that in different ways attempted to mediate the demands of idealistic thought with others of different origins (Schelling in the second phase of his thought, Spätidealismus).
The most successful pedagogical adaptation of idealism can be found in the Italian neo-idealism of G. Gentile (who ended up with the 1923 school reform that bears his name) and G. Lombardo-Radice. The denial of pedagogy as an autonomous science and its reduction to philosophy results from the recognition of the identity of spiritual reality and the educational process.
Education is then presented as an absolute spiritual activity, self-education, the fusion of the educator and the educated in a single process of self-conquest of the spirit, in which their empirical and partial subjectivity is finally dissolved. From this conception necessarily follows the most radical devaluation of educational methods and techniques. It was Lombardo-Radice who, by means of his concrete historical vision, retrained the didactic activity that Gentile had so discredited.
Following Kant, J.G. Fichte affirms the superiority of value over fact, of being over being: the practical foundation is placed at the base of philosophizing, and human freedom, and therefore the “I” as the principle of philosophy, is a belief. For G.W.F. Hegel, the point of view of the absolute, that is, of science, is not immediately attained, but it presupposes the path that human consciousness takes from the most elementary to the most complex forms until it reaches a degree of consciousness that allows it to practice science.
This description is the subject of the Phenomenology, which follows a series of experiences through which man achieves the consciousness of his freedom, i.e., he gets rid of the object as something strange and mysterious and feels this world as his own. Having attained this consciousness, he rethinks the path and enucleates from it the concepts matured by these experiences.
The logic and philosophy of nature and spirit are precisely the results of these elaborations. And this is what gives rise to absolute knowledge, a knowledge that has its measure only in itself, and that is historical knowledge, well anchored in time. It discovers that the path taken by humanity is a reasonable one, which has reached the progressive consciousness of human freedom and is therefore rational.
The concepts of philosophy are the expression of this rationality, which is therefore not the result of an act of the mind, but an objective, realized rationality reflected by thought. Of course, this does not mean that everything that exists is rational: the rational is what is most significant in reality, it is the bearer of meaning. And meaning is given precisely by the process by which man has acquired the consciousness of his freedom. From this point of view, Hegelian philosophy is an interpretation of the historical process. To philosophize, therefore, is to understand what has been: “Philosophy is one’s own time, learned by thinking”.