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Sunday, 10.19.04: The idealist

The other day someone accused me of being an idealist about work. Well, duh-h-h! Where have you been!? The story that I have to tell about myself -- one story, anyway -- is that of the disillusioned idealist -- the failed systems reformer.

It struck me that I should define what an idealist is.

Someone with "high ideals" may simply have standards or goals that are too high to achieve -- unrealistic. But there is also a philosophical angle that I'm reminding myself of. In the Wikipedia, it says:

In philosophy, Idealism is any theory positing the primacy of spirit, mind, or language over matter. It includes claiming that thought has some crucial role in making the world the way it is--that thought and the world are made for one another, or that they make one another. (For example, Immanuel Kant held that the mind forces the world we perceive to take the shape of space-and-time; Georg Hegel thought that history must be rational in something significantly like the way science is.)

I don't want to probe too deeply into philosophy here. The Wikipedia moves quickly into discussions of belief systems too arcane for today's musing. I don't think my personal idealism has to do with the nature of matter. But I do believe that thought should be used to organize matter.

I think that human systems (government, health care, education, social services, etc.) can be designed. Think, design, build. Oh, I know they can't be planned out like the electrical system in a house. My formulation is more like this: Decide on your principles and values, design, build, check it out, adjust the design, build some more, check some more. On occasion you might have to tweak your principles, but over time they should become more stable in getting you where you want to go.

On the job, my kind of idealism was frequently contrasted with opportunism. People would argue that the world didn't always operate by my set of principles, so you really had to snatch opportunities as they came and build your new system from what you could get. I'm not a foe of pragmatism. The Wikipedia again:

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy originating in United States in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect alone accurately represent reality... Rather, pragmatism holds, it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry. [emphasis mine]

In fact, now that I've looked it up, I like pragmatists. Can you be an idealist and a pragmatist at once?

Here's where the opportunist camp throws me, however. Say your old Chevy is a mess and you need a new car, but you can't afford it. So you get on eBay and start bidding for auto parts you think would be cool for your automobile makeover -- Mercedes cylinders, BMW brakes, Toyota gas tank, Cadillac tie rods. The pieces accumulate all over your garage and back yard. When people ask you how it's all going to fit together, you simply say you are extremely proud of all your components and one of these days they'll add up to the most spectacular car in town. Believe! you'll holler at them.

Some might be tempted to say that this vehicle transformer has an "idealistic" approach to remaking his car. No. The idealist might be trying to turn her old Chevy into an electric car with a set of plans from Popular Mechanics. My opportunist is just an idiot.

So there.




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