Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pragmatism is Not the Opposite of Idealism

As I've implied before, 'real' and 'ideal' are related but not necessarily opposed. The truth is that 'ideal' is what we reason or imagine the perfect to be, while 'real' is what we actually have.

In between 'real' and 'ideal' is 'practical'; it is what we can successfully work towards. Similarly, pragmatism is somewhere between realism (this is what is) and idealism (this is what it would be in a perfect world) — it is the philosophy not of settling for second-best, but the philosophy of doing something towards an ideal and thus shifting 'what is' to 'what ought to be'.

This is because 'practical' and 'pragmatic' come from the Greek praxis, which simply means 'doing' or 'acting' (or if you like, engaging in some process). When we perceive something as 'real' and do something to shift it towards what we perceive as 'ideal', we are being practical.

Being practical or pragmatic therefore cannot mean being inert or deciding to do nothing. Pragmatism is an active philosophy.

Neither is pragmatism a cowardly, cynical, or defeatist position. It implicitly acknowledges that things can indeed be done, and goes out to do them. Pragmatism is always closer to idealism than realism is.

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