Platonism and neo-Platonism are frequently referred to as idealist philosophies, but given that, from the perspective of the theory of universals these philosophers are considered “realist” because of their claim that ideas are “real,” the application of the term i. to these currents of thought is questionable. It is preferable, therefore, to speak in philosophical terms of modern i. as related to nosology and metaphysics. In general, these philosophers take as the starting point for their reflection, not the surrounding (“external”) world but the “I,” or the “consciousness;“ and precisely because the “I” produces ideas and representations, with which the term i. becomes justified. From the nosological point of view, the basic question is: “How can things be known?” And from the metaphysical point of view, “to be” means “to be given in the consciousness.” I. thus turns out to be a way of understanding “being.” This does not, however, mean that i. tries to reduce being or reality to the consciousness or to the subject.
The term i. is also often used in connection with ideals, and hence it is usual to designate as “idealist” anyone who presumes that human actions should be ruled by ideals (whether attainable or not). In this way, the term i. becomes endowed with ethical and/or political connotations. In this sense, the attitude of i. is frequently contra-posed to that of realism, understanding the latter posture as placing the highest importance on the “realities,” “facts,” perceived without taking into account the perspective from which they are considered. I. is also understood as a particular focus on social life, that denies the decisive role of economic and technological factors, explaining all events or facts in terms of the subjective characteristics of populations. In this way, idealists reject the influence of patterns or regularities in the development of civilization. Regarding the latter focus, the humanist school considers the enormous power of the subjective factor, just as it places high value on concepts and myths in people’s lives, but also sees in these formations of the consciousness, the action of the conditions of social life.
A crude division has frequently been established between i. and materialism, when in fact there are exponents from both systems who share important points of intersection. At the non-academic level of information, there is considerable confusion around terms such as “idealism” and “subjectivism,” “materialism” and “objectivism.” Different ideological currents have systematically modified the scope and meanings of these words, with the intention of discrediting contrary positions; but this has ended up invalidating all sides. Today, to accuse someone of being “idealistic” or “materialistic” is of no great consequence, nor does either term have much pejorative meaning. Outside specialized circles, these words have simply lost their precise meanings.