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The False Dichotomy of Pragmatism versus Idealism.

Joshua Michail

3 December, 2011

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Ode to Pragmatism, "Idealism is seeing the problem and declaring how things should be. Pragmatism is working, negotiating, with unerstanding, so the goal is seen. Without idealism, you'd have no aim. Without pragmatism, there is no gain!"        Considering the natural struggle between pragmatism and idealism it seems it should be expected that people would define themselves as either one or the other. Of course, there are plenty of other people who have no interest in the issue. Many people don't identify as being either. But some people will say that they are idealists, while some will say that they are pragmatists. People seem to act as if they are picking camps, as if they must choose a side in a battle. I, however, submit that there is another way. I would say that I am a “pragmatic-idealist”.

        Before this discussion continues, what pragmatism and what idealism mean should be addressed. On the surface of it, the differences between pragmatism and idealism would suggest that they might well be mutually exclusive concepts. I should first clarify that I'm not talking about the respective philosophies. Idealism, in the sense that I and most people mean, is not the philosophy of “Idealism” but rather a view, or an attitude, that the current state of affairs is faulty and that we should pursue a better condition. Also pragmatism, in the sense used here and commonly, is likewise not the philosophy of “Pragmatism” but rather the view, or attitude, that in order to accomplish something we must be willing to consider the alternative options or do what is necessary. Though, 'pragmatism' in the sense I use it here and the philosophy of Pragmatism are much closer than the way I'm using 'idealism' here and the philosophy of Idealism.

NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell's quote about politics is featured on a photo captured by NASA of the Earth from the surface of the moon.         Many people who are idealistic look at those who would take a more pragmatic approach as if they were traitors to the cause. This, however, is a disservice to the cause itself. Those ardent idealists are ignoring a fundamental fact; that is that some progress is better than no progress. Also, if the idealists disavow the more pragmatic members of the cause they will diminish the power of their movement. Sometimes we cannot have the full progress we'd prefer. But if we sell out the goal for the sake of inflexible ideology we should not be surprised when we completely fail altogether. Having 'vision' alone cannot accomplish great deeds.

        Yet pragmatism, in and of itself, cannot give guidance. We can be prepared to take whatever action may be necessary to accomplish some act, but without some idea of what we want to achieve what would be the point? Pragmatism is the art of getting done what can be done. Central to this is the concept of compromise. There is a necessary give-and-take involved in just about any problem solving effort. The pragmatic person understands the need to analyze the problem, learns about the issues involved, and has an understanding of how the various possible courses of action will affect them.

A picture of President Obama, with a quote saying "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."         In a sense, the problem is that we are here and the solution is to get over there. In this way, idealism is the compass which points us in the direction, while pragmatism is the ship which makes the journey possible. So the fact is that we do not face a choice between idealism or pragmatism. The choice is between being only idealistic or being pragmatically idealistic. There is no dichotomy between the idealism which says this is how it is and that is what it ought to be, and the pragmatism that says this is the problem and this is what can be done about it.

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