Idealism vs. Common Sense

By Scott Roberts

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

Aristotle, the first person known to
have discussed "common sense."

It appears that many people find idealism implausible simply because it does not match up with what they consider to be common sense. Well, they are correct. If by "common sense" we mean our pre-philosophical understanding of what things are like—an understanding that is held in common with most everyone around us—then the philosophical name for that understanding is dualism. It is dualist in that it makes a distinction in our experience between controlled (or at least controllable) and uncontrolled, between what seems to come from within us and what seems to come from outside. The contents of our sense perceptions are uncontrolled, while our thinking, feeling, and acting is, or at least can be, under our control. Further, much that is not under my control does not appear to be controlled by any mind at all. Hence, common sense divides reality into the mental and the non-mental.

This was not always the case. If one goes back to 2500+ years ago, the common sense of that time was that behind every natural phenomenon was the mind of some god or nature spirit. While people now are naive dualists, back then people were naive idealists. And so we are faced with two possibilities:

  1. Modern common sense is correct, meaning ancient common sense was a bunch of made-up stories and superstitions to explain things that modern science explains very differently.
  2. Ancient common sense, like modern common sense, was a consequence of direct experience, but the nature of direct experience has changed. Ancient common sense was a consequence of the mentality of natural phenomena being directly perceived, somewhat like the way we detect the mentality that lies behind the utterances of people. But experience has changed, and we no longer have that sort of direct experience of mind in nature.

A materialist or substance dualist must of course choose the first option. But an idealist has ontological room to inquire into the second. Furthermore, that inquiry comes up with not only providing evidence for the second option, but also with an explanation of how we have changed from being naive idealists to being naive dualists.

The results of that inquiry can be found in Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn't exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes' The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then "talked" to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles' slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks' siege of Troy, so he doesn't. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that "genius" came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual's cleverness.

All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from "outside" (belonging to the supernatural) to "inside." Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much "nature" as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an "animist belief system" that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system. Even in the late middle ages, no one would think of denying that behind what was sensed there was Mind. It is only once this complete separation between human mind and nature was effected that a philosophy like Descartes' dualism could make sense to people.

Barfield calls the early peoples' common sense "original participation," in that with their sense perceptions there was an extra-sensory participation with the object being sensed. While it is difficult to know what original participation is "like," there are some indications of it in our experience. Barfield mentions feeling panic—a fear that goes beyond what the actual situation warrants. Another might be sexual attraction. Another might be the feeling of emotion from hearing instrumental music. As for what thinking was like at that time, I suspect we could relate that to the thinking of children before they acquire egos at about age six. As mentioned, something like original participation can be understood when we converse. We "hear through" the words to the meaning behind the words, and hence our minds participate with each other. In our current state, which Barfield calls "final participation," that participation with the objects we sense still exists (otherwise there would be no perception at all), but has moved from the outside into our subconscious. All we experience consciously is the surface form of the object, like words of an unknown language, meaningless to us. The mentality within, or behind the object is blocked out. We thus treat the surface form as the whole object, like worshipping a statue of God in place of what the statue represents—hence the subtitle of Barfield's book: A Study in Idolatry.

It should be noted that the above paragraphs only give the conclusion of Barfield's investigation. In the book one will find the reasoning that leads to these conclusions, from anthropology, history of ideas, and above all a study of changes in word meanings. Why is it, he asks, that all of our vocabulary for mind has been taken from the vocabulary for nature? Why did the Greeks have just one word, 'pneuma,' which we must variously translate as 'spirit' or as 'wind' (or 'breath')? And of course the Latin root of 'spirit,' inspiritus, also meant breath. The same goes for most all of our vocabulary for mental activity. The explanation is simple:  the ancients simply did not differentiate between our two meanings. That is, in ancient common sense, wind is spirit.

The "how" of the change from naive idealism to naive dualism is, then, that about 600 BCE, give or take a century or two, people started experiencing thinking as coming from within themselves. Hence there was what Jaspers calls the Axial Age, those few centuries which in the East saw the appearance of the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tse. Barfield's concern is with the making of Western common sense, and so his focus is on the contemporaneous appearance of the likes of Solon and the pre-Socratic philosophers in Greece, and in Israel the Deuteronomic move to monotheism. Although very different, both of these movements gradually caused original participation (which is to say paganism) to die out. The move to monotheism is, of course, a direct assault on paganism. The development in Greece was that people started to think about natural phenomena, which requires one to distance oneself from those phenomena. It took about 2000 years for this distancing to have the full effect of conscious participation disappearing. But it did, resulting in a second major shift that gave us the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the so-called Enlightenment, that is to say, modern common sense.

Thus the "how," which still leaves us with the question of "why." Idealist philosophy tells us that our common sense, being dualist, is wrong in how it views physical reality. But there has also been another source for that information, namely, mystics. Vedanta names this wrongness 'Maya,' usually translated as 'illusion' or 'delusion.' Buddhists call it 'avidya,' or 'ignorance.' Christianity also has a doctrine of wrongness, called Original Sin, though in its traditional formulation it is not an indictment of common sense. Nevertheless, in all three cases, the religious import is that this deep wrongness is the source of our suffering and sinful nature. This raises a serious question, which is: Why did this occur? This is, basically, the well-known Problem of Evil: If God is so wonderful (or fundamental reality so blissful), why are we suffering?

There are two common replies to this question, neither of which, especially the first one, is all that satisfactory. The first is to push it off as a mystery, that God is so far above us that we cannot assume to be able to grasp Its rationale. The second is to assert that the possibility of evil must be allowed if we are to have free will. While this makes some sense, I think it can be improved on. If we accept that consciousness has evolved, then we can ask whether this evolutionary process can tell us something about why we are in this mess. What follows is speculative, but seems to me consistent.

While not all idealists might agree, idealism generally goes from saying that all is mentality to arguing that fundamentally, mentality is One. In doing so one can then refer to that Fundamental, or Absolute, Consciousness as God. This, however, raises the risk of anthropomorphization, but the only way to avoid that is to make one's language so stilted that the story I want to tell gets lost in the stilted vocabulary. So forgive the anthropomorphization in what follows. Call it a myth if that helps.

For God, to think is to create, and every thought of God is a creation which can never be truly separate from the Thinker. Since God is all there is, Its thinking would be a manifestation of Itself, that is, acts of self-expression, a seeking to know Itself by creating images of Itself. It is a creator, and so a self-image would itself be a creator, a creature that creates. For the creature to be truly creative it must have its own will, and not simply be a conduit for God's creativity. Which in turn means that it must have a sense of itself as, if not separate, at least distinct from the totality which is God. Perhaps there are more benign ways of making this happen, but one way is to have the creature go through a stage believing that it is not God, that it is an independent entity. Which is the state we find ourselves in. It is, however, a necessarily false belief because as thoughts of God we cannot actually be separate from God. In other words, we are in a state of delusion.

This was also the case in pagan times, that is, they were operating under a false belief. Though all was mind, it was all separated minds. Because those minds were separated there was as much if not more strife and suffering as now. The person was at the mercy of those natural/spiritual forces. Overcoming that was (and is) what thinking serves to accomplish. As mentioned, by thinking about natural phenomena one creates distance from them—their power on the person diminishes, and with that the sense of being an individual increases. There was also the other factor involved, namely the influence of prophets and mystics in the gradual replacement of pagan religion with monotheism. In both cases this meant denying power to all those invisible forces in nature.

And so, by the modern age—and this is pretty much what defines the modern age—mind in nature had by and large disappeared. In philosophy, the many minds of nature had been replaced by the single Mind of God, but it wasn't long before that too was dropped, giving us mind/matter dualism or materialism. Separation between minds has been replaced by separation between human minds and nature. And while this creates a bunch of new problems (notably the tendency to despoil nature), a necessary step in the creation of images of God has been accomplished, namely, we now think of ourselves as autonomous individuals.

But it is only a step, for while we may think we are autonomous, we still have quite a ways to go before we actually are autonomous. Most of what we experience remains beyond our control, and that is not limited to our sense perceptions. Unwanted thoughts, carrying unwanted emotions continue to plague us. Hence, our continued development depends on us, to discipline our thinking further, to detach it from our selfish concerns.

And what of uncontrolled nature? Recall that "final participation," as Barfield calls it, doesn't mean the end of participation, rather that participation has moved from appearing outside of ourselves, as it did in original participation, to being a subconscious process inside of us. Hence we can consider the possibility of that process becoming conscious. We will then be conscious of the creative process that produces nature's outward forms. Which is to say that what is now a collective subconscious would become a collective consciousness. We would be experiencing how we—human minds and the minds behind natural phenomena—are collectively creating the reality we perceive.

In sum, while philosophy can tell us that modern common sense is wrong, it is a study of the history of consciousness that can tell us how we came to be in this current wrongful state, and it is religious speculation that can give us a reason why we should be in such a state.

Copyright © 2017 by Scott Roberts. Published with permission.


  1. There are many comments on this essay posted on Facebook instead of here:

  2. Great essay, Scott! It almost seems as if there was a revolution in consciousness in the axial age (not merely slow evolution), rather in the manner of the Cambrian explosion.

    1. While there was certainly a sudden infusion of new ideas, it took a long time for those ideas to spread, and then mostly just to an elite. It also took the merger of two of those processes some 700 years later into Christianity before paganism really started to decline. So for humanity as a whole, it has been a gradual evolution.

      By the way, if the merger of Athens and Jerusalem was a key event, I like to think that the meeting of East and West in the last century or so marks the start of another.

    2. OK, Scott. So you see the change in consciousness as cultural rather than individual - I mean, you don't expect that it would be reflected in a change in brain structure (as a result of a naturally selected random change)?

    3. It is both cultural and individual. The effect of "thinking about things" is to detach from nature, and this leads, on the one hand, to changes in cultural ideas (e.g., one God instead of many, logic), on the other, to the gradual disappearance of original participation -- a change in what is sensed. I doubt this has anything to do with brain structure, since it is a change in qualia, not anything at a cellular level.

  3. Bernardo, are you familiar with the work of Christopher Langan? He has developed a theory called the CTMU that, being built upon logical tautologies, he claims unequivocally demonstrates the mind-like nature of reality. However, his theory contains a lot of jargon and is notoriously difficult to read – even for certified academics – and is less than popular as a result.

    I have posted some links below. I would be very interested to hear your take on his ideas:

    Background reading: &


    56-page paper:

    Essay by Langan related to the CTMU:

  4. well when you start with a false dichotomy, does it really matter what the ramifications are?

  5. This article is interesting and provocative, but I question whether consciousness has undergone any fundamental change in the extremely short life of our species. Rather, I suspect that it is the way we understand what we experience--not WHAT we experience--that has profoundly changed. Walk in the woods at night and you are surrounded with mysterious, indeed magical voices. When we immerse ourselves in it, nature talks to us probably as much as it ever did. But our scientific dogma that nature is dumb causes us to disregard these messages as if we were deaf. And when you add in the fact that modern human beings are far less immersed in nature than their ancestors, have increasingly walled themselves off from experiencing it, all the more reason is provided for the suicidal/ecocidal separation of human consciousness from Consciousness.


    1. In other words, you choose option 1. As for being cut off from nature, in the geographical area of concern (eastern Mediterranean) people hadn't been living in the woods for millennia before the Axial Age -- they were in agricultural communities around cities, not all that different than how people lived up until the Industrial Revolution. Yet not a hint of an Aristotle or an Archimedes or a Luther or a Voltaire.

    2. I would respectfully tend to disagree with you, Newton, particularly since I'm just now in the midst of re-reading Robert Romanyshyn's "Technology as Symptom and Dream", a book-length argument dedicated to the proposition that consciousness has indeed undergone profound changes - even just since the Enlightenment era!

    3. Another way to characterize the difference between pre-Axial and post- is that prior to the Axial Age people simply did not "understand" things, as they were not thinking about things. So when you say they understood things differently you are presupposing option 1.


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