Difference between Realism and Idealism

Updated on May 31, 2017

Realism and idealism can be defined and applied in several different ways. Both terms are used to refer to a broad range of philosophical, literary, scientific, and artistic approaches, to name a few. This is article explains how these terms differ from a philosophical perspective.



Realism is a philosophical view that suggests that some aspects of reality, such as the truth about objects and abstract ideas, exist outside of what the human mind knows and perceives with its senses. For instance, a tree will exist in nature regardless of the fact that humans have or have not seen an actual tree. Furthermore, realists uphold rational thought and will only see things as they are without offering any subjective interpretations.

Realism during late-classical medieval period is rooted from Plato’s theory of Forms, which suggested that universal concepts (e.g. “beauty,” “seven,” and “white”) exists independently either in the mind of God or in a world of their own. Moderate realists believe these “universals” exist as long as they are represented in specific objects, thus they do not exist independently from the specific object.

In modern times, philosophical realism covers several movements that share a common disregard for philosophical idealism. Naive realism asserts that the human mind directly perceives objects and their attributes. This means the mind has direct access to the external world. However, the mind is limited by its inability to see through illusions, which naive realists failed to explain. Most realists argue that because various processes in the mind help interpret directly observed objects. Therefore, objects essentially remain independent of the mind even if it can distort or falsify a person’s perception of these objects.


Idealism is a group of philosophical movements that subscribe to the belief of the core importance of the spiritual or ideal in the interpretation of human experience. Idealists view reality or the world as though it exists as consciousness, that is, reality is all in the mind. They believe that laws and cognitive processes are more basic in reality than things perceived by the senses.

There are two fundamental forms of idealism: metaphysical and epistemological idealism. Metaphysical idealism upholds that reality exists as conscious ideas.This directly contrasts materialism, which suggests that the world is fundamentally made up of matter. Epistemological idealism is the belief that the mind, in its capacity to process knowledge, can only understand the psychic, or that objects are conditioned by the way they are perceived. This contradicts realism, which states that as the mind gathers knowledge, objects are seen and grasped as they are since these objects exist outside and disconnected from the mind.

Realism vs Idealism

So what’s the difference between realism and idealism? Realism is the belief that reality has an absolute existence that is independent from human thoughts, consciousness, and ideas. In contrast, idealism is a philosophical thought which states that reality, and the world, exists because of human thoughts and ideas.

A good example that can demonstrate the differences between the two is the “glass half-full, half-empty” scenario. Idealists, being able to see the metaphysical aspect of the situation, will be of the glass half-full frame of mind. Realists are pragmatists, and are not necessarily the negative thinking type. They base their decisions on rational thought and would not rather speculate beyond what they are seeing with their eyes.

Comparison Chart

Reality is independent of the human mindReality is deeply rooted and shaped by human consciousness
“What is” frame of mind“What could be” frame of mind
Objective reasoningSubjective reasoning


If you don’t mind a monotonous voice, here’s an interesting take on idealists and realists.