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Criticisms of  Subjective Idealism

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Some Inadequacies of Theories

The previous article gave an overview of subjective Idealism, using the ideas of  George Berkeley and Paul Brunton.  However, this perspective has limitations, which I now explain.

Berkeley was only interested in refuting the idea that matter can exist in its own right, independent of mind. He had an inspiring insight, that the existence of an object lies in the perception of it by the mind of an observer, but he did not do very much with it. He was not a system-thinker.

And Brunton failed to take into account his desire for solitude.

Sub - Headings
Qualities of Objects
Confusions of Relativity
Confusions of Solitude

Berkeley was not interested in considering how the assumption of the primacy of mind can explain personal relationships, free will, or physical causation (that is, causation between objects, rather than causation produced by free will).

Within the field of his interest his philosophical arguments may have been good for his age but are inadequate for modern times. The inadequacy centres on two main themes.

Firstly, in his view, an object is only an idea in the mind of a perceiver. If he or another person saw a table then that table existed. If no one saw the table then it could only continue to exist if it was in the mind of god. The image in my mind of an object is transient, but the same image in the mind of god is more or less permanent. Berkeley did not speculate on why this difference prevailed. The difference is explained in the article Objective Idealism, where I use Schopenhauer’s emphasis on will (or will power).

Secondly, relativity plays a major role in many of his arguments. But such arguments are ruined because of his defective understanding of it. My understanding of relativity is given in the section on Relativity, beginning with the article Relativity of the Ego. I repeat one part of that article, under the sub-heading Perception.

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Consider the process of perception. Perception is the central feature of consciousness, since the individual engages in it in all states of consciousness (that is, waking consciousness, dream sleep, and trance) except dreamless sleep. Whatever relativity means within the process of perception will, in my view, apply to everything else within consciousness.

To understand relativity we have to consider the influence on it of both subjectivity and objectivity.

I look at a tree in the distance. It will appear small to me. The size is in the mind of the observer and so is subjective. Subjectivity means that something is only in the mind of the thinker or observer. The size is also relative : size is a relationship between the object and the observer. Hence relativity determines the format within which subjectivity operates (by this statement I mean that the way the subjective image appears in the person's mind depends on the relative relationship between the person and the object).

The relativity of the size of the tree depends on the size of the eye of the observer (a tree will appear larger to an insect than to a human). Hence the physical eye is an objective factor of perception, and so is also a factor of relativity. Here, relativity, subjectivity and objectivity are associated together.

As I walk towards the tree the size will get larger. This size is due to the size of the angle that the rays of light make to the eye of the observer. If two people walk together towards the tree, both will see the change in size. As they walk together the rate of change of the size will be equal for both of them, since the change in the angle of the light rays will be the same for both. Hence the rate of change is an objective factor to perception.

This simple illustration shows that in the process of perception, subjectivity, objectivity and relativity are all linked together.

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I simplify this illustration. Consider again the person who is looking at the tree. The image on the retina of the eye produces the subjective image in the mind. However, the size of the retinal image depends upon the optical angle subtended at the eye by the tree. This angle will be the same for all observers at the same position of observation. Hence the optical angle of the object is an objective component of perception, while the mental image is a subjective component. Both the subjectivity and the objectivity function within the overall framework of relativity.

What this illustration means is that in perception, which is a relative process, a subjective effect always goes hand in hand with an objective effect. This result is the general meaning of relativity.

In any relative relationship,
a subjective effect is always tied to an objective effect.

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Qualities of Objects

Now I can return to my criticism of  Berkeley's view.

He repeats some of the current ideas of his time about the nature of objects. He argues that secondary qualities of objects – qualities like heat, size, texture, taste, colour – are only in the mind of the observer and hence are not objective.

The arguments are repeated and explored in far more detail and with much more imagination by Brunton. But are the arguments true?   If something is relative, which secondary qualities are, does that make them only subjective too?   No. I reject these arguments as being erroneous.

There is no exclusive connection between relativity and subjectivity. Just because something is relative to the mind of the observer, that does not imply that the something exists only in the mind of that observer.

For example, colour is a relative quality, which means that it has both subjective and objective modes. The subjective mode is highlighted in dreams and in jaundice. In the usual objective mode, colours of the natural world reside in the objects and not (as traditionally accepted) just in the mind of the beholder. Colour defines objects and so is a primary aspect of them (if everything had the same colour the visible world would be a monotone and nothing would be perceptible).

Relative qualities have both subjective and objective modes, but usually one or other of the modes is dominant. Qualities such as size, heat, taste are relative qualities in the observer and their subjectivity is dominant. The objective modes exist because people can approximately agree on the size, degree of heat, and kind of taste that objects have. Qualities such as colour, temperature, weight (the typical qualities measured by science) are relative qualities in the object and their objectivity is dominant.

In general, all the other sensory modes (hearing, touch, taste and smell) are relative too, since they depend for their interpretation on previous visual experience. Even the person blind from birth is taught the way to interpret experience by a visually-normal teacher, and so absorbs relativity.

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Confusions of Relativity

The confusion between relativity and subjectivity is evident in Berkeley’s book ‘Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonus’. In it he puts forward arguments to try to demonstrate that everything exists only in the mind of the observer.

In the First Dialogue he confuses subjectivity and relativity. He denies that heat exists in a material object by bringing in the subjectivity of pain. Heat is clearly relative since its effects on a person depend upon his distance from the hot object. If the person is too close the heat will cause pain in him. Pain is clearly subjective, and so exists only in the mind of the person. By associating the pain with the heat, Berkeley argues that the heat must also exist only in the mind of that person. Here he is making a slide from relativity to subjectivity. More accurately, he is sliding from the subjective component of relative heat to the subjectivity of pain. His argument is fallacious ; the heat is both subjective (in the experience of one person) and objective (several people or mechanical instruments can agree on the intensity of the heat).

In another example Berkeley uses the taste of food. Taste is relative: the chemicals in the food provide the objectivity and the taste organs in the mouth generate the subjectivity. However, when a person becomes unwell, sweet food will taste bitter : this is subjectivity (since the food has not altered). So he argues that all taste is subjective. Again this is a slide from relativity to subjectivity. He is linking the subjective component of relativity to the subjective effects of digestive changes.

Again, Berkeley tries to dismiss the concept of motion by using a narrow understanding of time. Time is clearly relative, in that the objective component is a regular succession of units (such as minutes and hours) ; the subjective component relies on the rate of succession of ideas in one’s mind (the faster that ideas succeed one another the faster does time seem to go). Berkeley uses only the succession of ideas as the scale of time : he argues that the motion of an object will appear different to any two people whose minds are working at different speeds. He then concludes that motion cannot exist in that object. He is again conflating relativity with subjectivity.

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To prove that everything exists only in the mind of the beholder, Berkeley needs to assert subjectivity and deny objectivity. His primary means of doing this is to start from relativity, associate it in some way with subjectivity, and then affirm the speciousness of objectivity. However, I consider that the arguments that he uses are invalid, because although they may affirm subjectivity, they do not necessarily deny objectivity. In other words, an argument that solely concerns subjectivity can be used to deny objectivity. But any argument that includes relativity cannot do this.

To conclude my criticism of Berkeley I consider his analysis of vision. In his analysis he linked together sight and touch. Sight alone produces just relative (that is, relational) sizes of objects : they change in size as we approach them or walk away from them. So Berkeley argues that it is the sense of touch that gives us the real size of anything.

However, for me touch is only an indirect criterion. The true criterion of size that I use is the size of my own body. I discovered this criterion by chance. Once when I bought new spectacles the magnifying factor was less than that of the previous spectacles. When I wore the new ones, my body seemed smaller than usual, and correspondingly the world seemed smaller as well. It took me some weeks to learn to compensate for this effect. So an object is big if it is bigger than me ; it is small if it is smaller than me. Once I have made this judgement then the sense of touch enables me to form a correct estimate of the object’s size without being misled by relativity.

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Confusions of Solitude

Brunton was a better philosopher than Berkeley. He is the first modern philosophical mystic/yogi that the West has produced, and he sees through the delusions that emotional ecstasies can generate. No field of human activity is sacred and invulnerable to a rational investigation – even mysticism has to be subjected to it. Otherwise even mystical union with god will create its own delusions !

There have been numerous high-level yogis produced by traditional Eastern practice, but it is a rare event for any of them to be intellectual, let alone to be a philosopher as well. The practice of meditation in any form does not develop the intellect ; the practice develops only will power and the skill of concentration. Meditation of itself does not generate analytical ability.

Brunton’s scenario of philosophical Idealism seems to be his own blend of the ideas of Berkeley and Kant, modified by his experiences of yoga meditation. From these two philosophers, Brunton inherited a faulty understanding of relativity and space and time. Space and time are neither purely subjective, nor ‘relative’ (that is, relational), but instead they are relative in the sense that I use (they have both a subjective and an objective aspect). Hence Brunton cannot handle objectivity meaningfully.

Brunton becomes even more subjective than Berkeley and eventually argues that sensation does not come from outside the ego but from within its own soul (in his book ‘The Wisdom of the Overself ’ ). Therefore his views can be considered to be the best exposition of the monad theory of reality, the theory that only self-sufficient and self-contained egos exist in their own aloneness.

Like Berkeley, Brunton does not consider personal relationships, free will, or physical causality. His theory reflects the situation of a yogi who is not in any significant personal relationship with anyone, who in his solitude is not under the conflict of free will versus determinism, and who is uninvolved in cause and effect in the physical (objective) world. Hence his situation is remarkably like that of the state of dream. In fact, in overall outline, his theory of Idealism is actually the theory of the subjective dream state and not a theory of waking reality.

In dream the dreamer is the solitary creator of his own world, the lone ego in a world of illusion. Brunton states that his view is consonant with the views within traditional yoga theory. This statement only explains to me why traditionally the advanced meditator in his solitude sees the world as a dream, or as an illusion !

In the next article I consider the views of Arthur Schopenhauer.

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Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonus. Included in Philosophical Works, Dent (Everyman's Library), 1985.

Brunton , Paul. The Wisdom of the Overself. Rider, 1972.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of  Page

The articles in this section are :

Subjective Idealism

Criticisms of Subjective Idealism

Will and Representation

Objective Idealism

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
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