Idealism vs. Realism

“And if at whiles the bubble, blown too thin,

Seem nigh on bursting,—if you nearly see

The real world through the false,—what do you see?

Is the old so ruined? You find you’re in a flock

O’ the youthful, earnest, passionate—genius, beauty…”

Robert Browning, Mr. Sludge, “The Medium” 


Allegory of a Cave

XKCD (created by a fellow alum of the Math/Science Center I graduated from in Va.)

Society is constantly questioning: what is knowledge? What defines reality? Idealism believes that reality is constant and unchanging (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011).  The creator of idealism, Plato, believed that in order to answer these questions, students need to study the canonical books and the great works of art that each capture a piece of truth within it (Ornstein et al., 2011).  His seventh book of the Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave,” discussed humans who had lived in a cave all their lives.  One day, a man is dragged up the hill into the sunlight and, never having seen the “light” before, becomes distressed and overwhelmed.  Plato discussed what would happen when the man returned to the cave.  Would the remaining people believe him and follow him?  Plato stated, “remember that the eyes can become confused in two different ways, as a result of two different sets of circumstances: it can happen in the transition from light to darkness, and also in the transition from darkness to light,” (Plato, 375 B.C.E.).

Do we ever find the “light,” or really “know” reality?  This question can be distressing to answer in regards to the educational system.  Which books are considered canonical?  Which subjects lead us closer to the truth?  We have developed a rigorous curriculum, but have we left anything out that might be crucial in our journey as teachers to help our students find the “truth”?


If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, would it make a noise?

Realism—the theory that asserts that reality is outside of our minds—proposes that the tree DOES exist and still makes a noise, regardless if a person hears it or not. Realism was developed by another major ancient Greek philosopher, Artistotle (Ornstein et al., 2011).

I agree with Realism’s three major assertions that there DOES exist a reality full of objects not made by people, that humans can get to know this reality, and that this knowledge can be relied upon to guide individual/group social behavior (Ornstein et al., 2011).  For example,  many trees have fallen in vast jungles before humans have explored them, but have still existed prior to human exploration.  Humans have different theories and perceptions of reality, but all of these differences are all versions of the same existence.



Ornstein, A. C., Levine, D. U., Gutek, G. L., & Vocke, D. E. (2011). Foundations   of Education. (11 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub Co.

Plato. (375 B.C.E.). Republic. In V.B. Leitch (Ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001 (pp.64-67). New York & London: Norton & Company.


4 responses to “Idealism vs. Realism

  1. Allison Crerie

    Thanks for this follow-up comment, Anne! That baby thing just blew my mind a little bit, and I totally understand where you’re coming from now.

    Intellectual dialogue. Boom.

  2. Thanks for the great comments! My last sentence was a teaser to my complete, personal theory of reality’s existence. I agree with Allison that there should be a constant dialogue with the concepts of idealism and realism. The path to the “truth” cannot be found (really, in any case) with declaring absolutes, such as Dewey also refrains from making in his theories on education, as Allison has stated in her blog.

    My theories on reality mainly are based on my training at UMW through the psychology department. I took a wonderful class, Cognitive Neuroscience with Dr. Roy Smith, in which I had further time to develop my views (which I suppose are mostly based on empiricism, as I tend to gravitate towards).

    Here is one example that might explain better what I mean that humans have different perceptions of the same reality. Ramachandran (1998), a famous neuroscientist, described a case study in which a female patient developed pseudocyesis (i.e., a false pregnancy). The doctor’s perspective on reality up until this date when the prognosis was determined (in which the woman was nine months pregnant) was that the woman was very pregnant, with an enlarged abdomen, among other stereotypical pregnant traits. The woman’s sense of reality was also that there was a baby up until this moment. The “truth” of this scenario was that, according to the ultrasound (i.e., using the scientific method), there was no existing baby. However, the patient and the doctor at that point in time had divergent views on reality (the patient was unable to accept that she did not have a baby), but this did not change whether there actually was an existing baby. I use this example to further illustrate my viewpoints on how humans, in one specific place and time in space, can indeed have different senses of “reality.” Only by using empiricism and constantly debating on how to obtain the “truth” can we get closer to an accurate portrayal of reality.

    Ramachandran, V.S. (1998). “Phantoms in the Brain,” (212-226). Quill: New York.

  3. “Humans have different theories and perceptions of reality, but all of these differences are all versions of the same existence.” I also really like this part of your post. I wrote in my blog about the idea of perception and how we all have differing views as well. In mine I then drew on the impact culture has on these realities a little more, and perhaps I have differing views then you do (not sure what yours are) but, I think it’s important when we walk into a classroom we are aware that students are all going to think different things and have different views then we do. And, I also agree with you on the realist aspect that even though there are different perceptions we are aware of there is a greater reality that we need to teach.

  4. First of all, Bravo on the awesome visual aids in this post. Really good finds!

    I want you to expand on this: “Humans have different theories and perceptions of reality, but all of these differences are all versions of the same existence.”
    This is where you get to “The Meat” of your thoughts, but that’s where you end! You had me interested!

    Are you a realist or an idealist? You seem to be arguing the “different paths to the same truth” angle, which is great, but I want to read more about what YOU actually think. What is your perception, your theory, your truth?