Philosophy, Psychology

and Humanities Web Site



Francis Garden - 1878 - Table of contents

Diccionario filosófico
Complete edition

Diccionario de Filosofía
Brief definition of the most important concepts of philosophy.


A Dictionary of English Philosophical Terms Francis Garden

Vocabulary of Philosophy, Psychological, Ethical, Metaphysical
William Fleming

Biografías y semblanzas Biographical references and lives of philosophers

Brief introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset

History of Philosophy Summaries

Historia de la Filosofía
Explanation of the thought of the great philosophers; summaries, exercises...

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Jaime Balmes

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Zeferino González

Vidas, opiniones y sentencias de los filósofos más ilustres
Complete digital edition of the work of Diogenes Laertius

Compendio de las vidas de los filósofos antiguos

A brief history of Greek Philosophy
B. C. Burt


A Short History of Philosophy




Idea, Ideal, Idealization

Idea, Ideal, Idealization. Few words have had a more singular history, or passed through greater changes of meaning than the word idea. Derived from ἰδεῑν, to see, it originally meant form, appearance, and sometimes semblance in contradistinction to reality. We have to do, however, at present only with its varied meanings in philosophy. There it is nearly equivalent to εἶδος, form, species, that which, as we have seen, when added to matter gives to the subject of such addition determinate character and reality. But in Plato, though this is comprehended in them, the ἰδέαι are something more and greater.


They are antecedent to and independent of the things in which they are exhibited, and to which they give determination. They are uncreated and eternal, the archetypes and exemplars by which God made the phenomenal existences of the world. Those phenomenal existences have reality by participation μἐθεξις in their appropriate idea. But no farther, the idea is the truth, the only real object of knowledge and science. It is but exhibited partially in the highest phenomenon, never without the accompaniment of something accidental and alien.

All this is not only important in itself, but in reference to our present purpose, for the Platonic meaning of idea was long the established one. Aristotle, dissenting from his master's doctrine, did not change the meaning of the word, which it retained in philosophy, and, speaking generally, in letters, till the time of Descartes. Thus Spenser:
      "Fair is the heaven where happy soules have place,
       In full enjoyment of felicitie,
      Whence they doe still behold the glorious Face
      Of the Divine Eternall Majestie;
      More fair is that, where those Idees on hie
      Enraunged be, which Plato so admyred,
      And pure Intelligences from God inspyred."

And thus Milton speaks of God surveying his finished world:
                "From his work
      Desisting, though unwearied, up returned,
      Up to the Heaven of Heavens, His high abode,
      Thence to behold this new created world,
      The addition of His empire, how it showed
      In prospect from His throne, how good, how fair,
      Answering His great Idea"

Nor is it merely the Platonic sense of the word that must be kept in mind. The Platonic doctrine must be remembered by those who would understand some of the finest poetry. For example, that doctrine is brought out in several of Michael Angelo's Sonnets, and in Spenser's Hymns already quoted, and to come down to a poet of lower rank, but still a genuine one, it is set forth in Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination.

Coleridge of course was faithful to this highest sense of idea, and protested against the modern applications of the word. The two following quotations will show what it reached to in his mouth. "Oh, what a mine of undiscovered treasures, what a new world of power and truth, would the Bible promise to our future meditation, if in some gracious moment, one solitary text of all its inspired contents should but dawn upon us in the pure untroubled brightness of an idea, that most glorious birth of the God-like within us, which even as the light, its material symbol, reflects itself from a thousand surfaces, and flies homeward to its parent mind enriched with a thousand forms, itself above form and still remaining in its own simplicity and identity!" (1)

The reader will not object to the next, if he considers that in this philosophy, ideas are not merely realities, but the only realities. Coleridge is arguing the impossibility of approaching God in virtue of our own righteousness or otherwise than through Christ, and winds up thus, "Oh! take counsel of thy reason. It will show thee how impossible it is that even a world should merit the love of eternal wisdom and all-sufficing beatitude, otherwise than as it is contained in that all-perfect idea, in which the Supreme Spirit contemplateth Himself and the plenitude of His infinity—the Only Begotten before all ages, the beloved Son, in Whom the Father is indeed well pleased."(2)

The word idea, however, was not always used by our older writers, any more than by the Greeks, in its exact philosophical sense. Thus we find in Shakespeare:
         "Being the right idea of your father
          Both in your form and nobleness of mind."
                            King Rich. III. act III. scene 7.

Here, though the use is not remote from the philosophical one, and though the passage might perhaps be expounded in accordance with that, it is probable that no more is intended than semblance, aspect.

Still the Platonic sense was generally attached to the word till Des Cartes introduced the first great change of its meaning, and employed it to denote our mental representations of external objects whereby perception is constituted or else which is its immediate result.

Locke perhaps made a still further deflection from the Platonic sense. He says that "it" (idea) "is the term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding, when a man thinks; I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking". In this use an idea means the same thing as a thought of any sort; it is thus that the word has since been very generally employed and understood.


This extension, however, of meaning, has not passed without censure. Reid speaks of taking idea as synonymous with thought or notion, as the vulgar use of the word, and the Cartesian sense of it or what he considered such as the philosophical one, i. e. as that in which the term is understood by philosophers, though he denies the existence of what is so understood, of ideas as interposed in perception between the mind and external objects.

Boswell has recorded of Johnson that "he was particularly indignant with the almost universal use of the word idea in the sense of notion, or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind... Yet we hear the sages of the law delivering their ideas upon the question under consideration... Johnson called this modern cant" (3) It is not apparent, however, from this that Johnson reverted to the Platonic sense of the term; indeed I do scarcely remember a single word of his, which would furnish an inference that he had ever heard either of Plato or Aristotle. In common conversation the word has now run often into a swamp of meanings, so as to denote thought, opinion, liking, or desire. Such an one tells us that he has no idea of spending September in London, while another exclaims, "The idea of his pretending to be better than other people!"

"An idea is equidistant in its signification from sensation, image, fact, and notion. The magnificent son (grandson) of Cosmo was wont to discourse with Ticino, Politica, and the princely Mirandula on the ideas of Will, God, and Immortality. The accomplished author of the Arcadia, the star of serenest brilliance in the glorious constellation of Elizabeth's court, our England's Sir Philip Sidney! He, the paramount gentleman of Europe, the poet, warrior, and statesman, held high converse with Spenser on the idea of super-sensual beauty... But these lights shine no longer, or for a few. Exeunt and enter in their stead Holofernes and Costard! masked as Metaphysics and Common Sense. And these have their ideas. The former has an idea that Hume, Hartley, and Condillac have explored all ideas but those of sensation; he has an idea that he was particularly pleased with the fine idea of the last-named philosopher, that there is no absurdity in asking, what colour virtue is of?... The latter has no idea of a better flavoured haunch of venison than he dined off at the 'Albion'; he admits that the French have an excellent idea of cooking in general, but holds that their best cooks have no more idea of dressing a turtle than the gourmands themselves, at Paris, have of the true taste and colour of the fat!" (4) Such vulgarisms can and should be avoided, but since in philosophical language the word idea has passed through the varying meanings that have come before us, it would be pedantic and difficult if not impossible to confine ourselves to the Platonic one. We must let our context tell in what sense we are employing the term. Modern usage has indeed found another resource, and the adjective ideal used substantively seems very often to stand in the place of idea in its old acceptation. We speak of the ideal as distinguished from the phenomenal of any thing or things, falling short as the latter always does of the perfection of the former, and encumbered with what is accidental and alien to that.

Idealization means the act first of viewing, then of exhibiting things in their idea or ideal. The doing so falls under the province of the imagination, and its successful manifestation is the great aim of the fine arts, each in its distinctive sphere. Where this is not attained, or not even pursued, I should deny the title of fine art to the work produced. Mere exhibition of things as they are, with all their accidents, is now indeed called realistic in contradistinction to idealistic, art. This I fancy is a very modern use of the former term, which has two very distinct applications in philosophy, with neither of which the one in question has anything to do. See Idealism, Nominalism, Realism.

Nor can such work plead greater reality or truth than that of art when, faithful to its high vocation, it aims at exhibiting the ideal. For the idea is the truth, the phenomenon veils that truth under the accidental and the alien. "It is more like than the man himself," was the compliment paid by an Irishman to the portrait before him. This is generally regarded as a ridiculous bull, but it is really the expression of a great truth. The mere facts of a man's appearance at any given moment do not constitute the highest law which governs his aspect, do not give the truest expression of his countenance and gesture. Hence as portraits photographs are seldom satisfactory. There is no substitute for the artist's mind, who looking not at the fact of a moment but at the habitual play and law of a human countenance,
          "Divinely thro' all hindrance finds the man
           Behind it;"
and thus such an artist may produce a portrait that may well be pronounced more like than the original at that instant standing before it.


(1) Statesman's Manual, pp. 63, 64.

(2) Aids to Reflection, 3rd ed., pp. 253, 254.

(3) BOSWELL'S Life of Johnson, vol. III. p. 225, ed. 820.

(4) COLERIDGE, Statesman's Manual, Appendix, pp. 36, 37.



© TORRE DE BABEL EDICIONES - Edition: Isabel Blanco  - Legal notice and privacy policy