Of all the labels others have tried to stick to me in my life, there seems to be one that keeps coming around, no matter what face I may choose to wear or what path I am travelling: Idealist. It seems to be the place where my discussions with those who hold fundamentally different belief systems come unravelled, the convenient expiration date on their patience. Whether the topic at hand is war, abortion, religion, or love, apparently a discussion of theory behind our decision making process is enough to be categorized as an idealist, and thereby dismissed.
The Free Dictionary defines “idealism” as follows:
1. The act or practice of envisioning things in an ideal form.
2. Pursuit of one’s ideals.
3. Idealized treatment of a subject in literature or art.
4. Philosophy The theory that the object of external perception, in itself or as perceived, consists of ideas.
It seems that the first definition is the one people most commonly like to toss about with the personal epithet. Think about that. The notion that envisioning “a standard or model of perfection or excellence”, or “An honorable or worthy principle or aim” could be considered a bad thing. If we have no idea where we want to go, how can we possibly expect to get there? Of course, we must also be able to see clearly what ground we currently stand upon, and be able to conceive of a path from our current situation to our ideal. What is worth noting, however, is that by this definition of the term, we are all idealists. The only differences between us lie in how we envision our ideals.
Take, for example, those who feel that “coercive methods” of extracting information from prisoners held for suspected terrorism is acceptable. This, too, is an ideal. The notion hidden behind the rhetoric is that, ideally, we are stronger and smarter than “the enemy”, and that in a world still bound by comprehensible concerns such as territory and defense, being stronger and smarter will be enough to ensure our survival. Buried still deeper behind this ideal is, perhaps, the desire to maintain a playing field wherein at least we understand the parameters through a long history of proving ourselves against them. This ideal may seem more approachable than one in which all men live side by side in peace and harmony, but only because it is one we have experienced before. Like reading the same book over and over, we find that though the content may become a bit tiring on the second or third read, there is some comfort in knowing what happens next. Unfortunately, the wild card in any ideal belief system is that it never takes into account the full range of experience available. Our reality is not limited to our recorded past.
Let us consider, then, the fourth definition of “idealism” offered above. As a philosophical concept, Idealism proposes that all that we can know is that which is in our own minds. You can take this in any number of directions, and quite a respectable ponderous* of philosophers have. Whether you personally prefer Descartes’ notion that there quite possibly is nothing but our own mind, or Kant’s conjecture that there is something actually out there, but we will never know what it is, it is hard to dispute that we are somewhat limited by our senses. As our scientific instruments progress (flawed tools for the flawed tools) we find more and more that what our senses seem designed to report to our brains is only one tiny portion of all the input available, and even other species of animals may well see parts of the world that we, under normal circumstances, cannot.**
The creation of our ideals is, therefore, directly influenced by which bits of input come through our filters, and how we choose to weigh them. In a sense, we are the blind stumbling alongside the deaf, trying to each explain to the other what parts of the world we perceive. Your explanation that you have felt the presence of God has no more meaning to me than if you tried to describe the color “red”. My conveyance of the true love and sacrifice I have seen and experienced in my life may mean no more to you than a description of a particularly beautiful bird song, if you have never heard the song itself. The term “idealist” means nothing more than the recognition of the fact that you are talking outside my direct experience.
Is it, then, hopeless? Are all attempts at communication ultimately doomed to failure? Quite clearly not. Occasionally the right combination of words are put in front of us, which connect some related experiences we have had in a way we had previously never considered in order to paint a picture we should not be able to see. In this way, learning and comprehension are always a creative process. The hardest task for most of us is in extrapolating from the personal to the cultural scale. If you say to me that you are a patriot, because you have heard the National Anthem and found tears in your eyes, followed by a feeling that you truly would die for your country, I have very little point of relation (seeing as I have always hated that song, and therefore have never found myself moved to tears, much less any emotion other than annoyance, by it). If, however, you continue to elaborate, and I continue to listen, and you explain that it was like an experience you had as a child where in a moment of cricket song you found harmony, and realized that you were not truly so apart from these little lives as you had previously thought, and that in fact you have since often found yourself gently catching a cricket to move it to a safer location…I just might begin to glimpse what patriotism is all about. This is the beauty of living in our own, creative minds, and the only hope for bringing some sort of peace into the world.
In a culture where we continue to create divisions between ourselves by defining our differences, perhaps we would be better served by dismissing the term “Idealist” altogether. We are all idealists, trying to bring our vision of reality to a mass consensus. When confronted with a perception alien to our own experience, we can choose to open our mind to the possibility that the gap in the conversation is simply a point of reference, and we can attempt to bridge that gap with creative metaphor and patient explanation. The concepts are not nearly so dangerous as our refusal to consider and understand them may be.
*A group of philosophers, much like a murder of crows or a arrogant of housecats.
**Yeah, yeah, assuming it’s there at all. I know.