Understanding Idealism

By definition, idealism means “the practice of forming ideals or living under their influence.”* In turn, an ideal is “an ultimate object or aim of endeavor,” i.e, a philosophical value.* Being an idealist or idealistic simply means that one adheres to one’s ideals, i.e., practices idealism.

The definitions themselves make no implication as to whether a particular manifestation of idealism is realistic or not. In fact, the connotations extend in both directions to where individuals may (erroneously) use the label of “idealistic” as a term of dismissiveness or as one of commendation depending on the speaker’s intent. “Be realistic!” is often the cry of those that see idealism of any sort, particularly the sorts that they disagree with, as irrational and not worthy of consideration or practice. On the other end, being “idealistic,” no matter the connection of one’s ideals to reality, can be used as a term of praise, especially if the person being praised shares the same ideals as the speaker. This is best exemplified by a question from Roy Harrod at a Labour Party rally in the 1930’s. “You think our example will cause Hitler and Mussolini to disarm?” Harrod asked of Britain’s disarmament policies. One of the pacifists responded, “Oh, Roy, have you lost all your idealism?”*

In fact, the dictionary example of idealistic is: “idealistic pacifists… thought that tyranny could be toppled by rational argument and mutual understanding.”* While the pacifists in this example are practicing an irrational form of idealism, those that agree with it could receive being called an “idealistic pacifist” as a compliment rather than an insult. If anything, the continued improper use and overuse of the word “idealism” and its derivatives have detracted from the legitimate definitions of these words. Instead, more precise vocabulary should be defined and employed to appropriately identify and label different forms of idealism (or lack thereof) and their relation to reality.

In order to best convey these definitions, I created a bi-axial chart modeled after the Nolan Chart* to explain under what conditions a specific label should be used. The chart itself is set up as a Cartesian Plane with the axes representing increasing value in the unit described as a point on either axis moves away from the origin. For the purposes of this article, the scale and assigned values are purely normative. Therefore, simply assume that that the furthest points from the origin on either axis represent 100% consistency for their respective traits. As a point gets closer to the origin on either axis, the the respective trait becomes increasingly inconsistent until it becomes nonexistent upon reaching the origin or the adjacent axis.

The right axis represents an individual’s “Adherence to Reality” in the formation and practice of their ideology. Simply put, this axis represents an individual’s ability to perceive the existential state of reality and consequently to act and create his ideals accordingly. An increase in value on this axis corresponds directly to an increase in an individual’s recognition of reality and responding properly to it, both ideologically and physically. A low level of “Adherence to Reality” represents an individual’s failure to act in accordance with the requirements for his own existence (i.e. attempting to fly without the aid of technological assistance). Determining where a particular point should fall in relation to this axis can only be answered by the philosophical field of metaphysics, the study of reality qua reality. However, such an exposition is unnecessary for the purposes of this essay. All that needs to be known is the connection between existential reality and the scale on this axis – defining what existential reality is and how it can be understood can be done at another time.

On the other side of the chart, the left axis represents an individual’s “Adherence to Ideals” in the actions that individual chooses to take and to argue for. This axis does not at all take into account what kind of ideals an individual holds or whether they are realistic, a factor that is measured by the right axis. Quite oppositely, so long as an individual possesses some sort of philosophical value to pursue and so long as that individual pursues it consistently, their position on this axis will be more distant from the origin than the positions of those that do not seek to attain their values consistently. Acting in accordance with one’s ideals consistently means refusing to sacrifice a greater philosophical value for a lesser one at any time. Even in cases in which the whole of one’s system of ideals rests fundamentally upon altruism, the ethical doctrine that demands personal sacrifice to something else, so long as an individual does not give up his altruistic ideals or stop actively pursuing them, regardless of whatever else he sacrifices when acting in accordance with those ideals, then he will have a high level of consistency on this axis.

However, having a high level of adherence to one’s ideals does not mean that an individual’s ideals cannot change over time. In actuality, if one’s ideals are irrational and have a low position on the right axis, then they ought to change.  But, when one’s ideals display such a high level of variability that it becomes clear that individual possesses no lasting “ultimate… aim or endeavor,” then changing one’s values becomes not a matter of philosophical thought but of indifference which segues into the first category.

The “Apathy/Ignorance” category consists of individuals that possess neither any lasting ideals nor any concern for the state of reality. These individuals ultimately act on an entirely unconscious level; their actions are not guided by any philosophical ideal, and they certainly are not determined by a recognition of the context of their immediate, concrete surroundings. Instead, those that fall into the “Apathy/Ignorance” category allow their actions to be governed by a conditioned routine or by the last precept thrown in their general direction, regardless of what it is. Sometimes, people in this category attach themselves to some sort of group or figurehead and let the ideals of that group or figurehead guide them. Even so, they are not actually adhering to any lasting ideals – they are guided by a group mentality in which whoever they attach themselves to first is eternally right, but the choice in attachment is entirely arbitrary and is liable to change at any moment for any reason. Furthermore, while the ideology of the group or figurehead could be widely variable, the ideals of the individual could change just as quickly without any misgivings. Ultimately, the individuals in this category represent the full and consistent application of total mental and philosophical default, but little else.

Moving up along the left axis, the next category is “Dogmatism.” This category contains those individuals that actively and consistently adhere to their system of ideals, but their ideals are virtually unrelated to reality. Usually, dogmatic individuals are belligerently stubborn about the ideals that they cling to. Oftentimes, using logic to sway the minds of these individuals becomes a fruitless endeavor seeing as the ideals of these individuals do not rest upon logic in the first place.

Rather than arriving at their ideals through rational and deliberate processes of thought, individuals in the “Dogmatism” category attain their philosophies and consequent values in the same way as individuals in the “Apathy/Ignorance” category – mental default or error. These individuals either acquire their ideals from memorized precepts, haphazard amalgamation through life experience, or intellectual fallibility. What distinguishes these individuals from the first category is that these individuals are consistent in the pursuit of their ideals. These individuals do not change their ideals at a whim, and the irrational members of this group will not change their ideals no matter what evidence is presented to them. If an individual is simply erring in his reasoning and is able to think rationally when his mistake is displayed before him, then he may be willing to alter his ideals to bring them more coherent with respect to reality.

On the other end of the chart rests the polar opposites of the dogmatists – the pragmatists. These individuals possess no lasting values or, if they do, they do not pursue them consistently or at all. Individuals in the “Pragmatism” category look at the state of reality immediately around them and, based off that empirical evidence, choose their actions based on variable, short-ranged goals.

Pragmatism is an entirely developed philosophical system that all of the members of this category are following, even if most of them are unaware of it. When an individual adheres to the doctrine of pragmatism, their only concern is for the range-of-the-moment, the immediately expedient, or the currently convenient. The pragmatists do not base their actions off any long-term, lasting value, but instead off the metaphysical facts and present context of a situation so as to achieve whatever short-range goal is achievable at that time – this is what individuals are really arguing for when they exclaim, “Be realistic!” to anyone that pursues an ideal that they feel is too difficult or maybe even impossible to achieve. Discovering lasting solutions to any adversity they face is not the ultimate goal of the pragmatists. Instead, the pragmatists simply seek to mitigate the effects of a temporary situation as cost-effectively as possible without any concern for the ultimate results of the tradeoffs they are making. If they fail to unite their understanding of reality with lasting ideals, they open themselves up to falter at the first unplanned challenge that confronts them.

More practiced pragmatists may attempt to argue that attempting to do what is convenient in a given situation is, in fact, an ideal. But, since what is immediately convenient is highly veritable depending on the context of a situation, the pragmatist does not actually adhere to any lasting ideals. As stated earlier, if one’s philosophical values are fluid and change frequently depending on the situation then they cannot really be said to exist at all. Yes, the pragmatist employs the same method for pursuing his range-of-moment goals, but the goals themselves do not remain constant.

The center category is simple enough to understand. Those with “Mixed Premises” use both ideals and reality to shape their actions, but they do not use either consistently. Due to an individual’s mental unconsciousness and inability to rectify the contradictions in their own philosophy, that individual ends up living in a world in which they act more consistently than those in the “Apathy/Ignorance” category but are still unable to either completely identify the state of reality or act consistently in accordance with long-term values. This leads to indecisiveness  and inner confusion as an individual’s psyche must strain itself to overlook the conflict in values, and, unfortunately, this is the category in which most individuals appear to fall into.

The least common and final category that individuals may fall into is the category of “Realistic Idealism.” The individuals in this category are able to recognize the state of reality, form lasting ideals to guide their actions in reality, and then pursue those ideals consistently. Unlike the dogmatists, the realistic idealists form their ideals from the facts of metaphysical reality rather than precepts or mental default. Additionally, unlike the cynical and the complacent, the realistic idealists are concerned with more than the context of the current situation and decide to act ethically in a manner that pursues their rational, long-term self-interests rather than their temporary whims. Furthermore, the realistically idealistic pursue their ideals because it is right, correct, and in-line with reality to do so, even if it is difficult. Why do these individuals pursue their ideals even in the face of adversity? Because, for the realistic idealists, doing so never results in a sacrifice in values.

If the realistic idealists were to be described in a single comprehensive statement, it would be this: they recognize what is, what can be, what ought to be, and then they go after it.

As it is, it is still entirely possible that individuals will misuse these terms even after this extensive examination of each of them: those that are legitimately cynics will likely continue to accuse the realistic idealists as being dogmatists, and the actual dogmatists will likely continue to call the realistic idealists cynics, and the apathetic and the ignorant will likely continue to use these labels in whatever way they choose. Nonetheless, it was not the intent of this essay to resolve all conflicts regarding the metaphysics and consequent ethics of the numerous philosophical doctrines being practiced today; as stated, even a brief overview would require an entirely new essay.

Regardless, it is the purpose of the essay to at least put these categories of systems of ideals forward so that they may be understood and used in the future. If a label is used accurately, it will have its intended effect. If not, the entire argument in which it was used becomes invalid due to the improper use of diction.

So let the dogmatists, the apathetic and the ignorant, the cynical and the complacent, and the just generally conflicted use these labels incorrectly – it will make little difference to the realistic idealists. As long as the realistic idealists understand the true implications of the words that they use, and as long as they judge openly, honestly, and accurately in all things, including when these labels ought to be applied, they will ultimately succeed; the truth is too bright a light to be darkened indefinitely by any sheet of lies that attempts to obscure it.

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