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Pragmatists Versus Idealists

Sometimes when I’m working on a story with a group everybody will say “Let’s do this because the audience will love it” and I’ll say “It’s just not good.”  Sometimes people will say “That contract is not fair” and everybody else will say “Hey, of course it’s fair.  It doesn’t violate the law and you’ve got no clue what fair means outside of the context of our laws.”   Sometimes people will say “Hey I’m worried that God is not what our Bible and church and synagogue say He is.” and other people will say “Come on.  You wouldn’t have even heard of God if you hadn’t read the Bible — what could you possibly mean by referring to what He is outside of the tradition of what our religion says about Him?”

Let’s say in each of these situations that there is a conflict between an idealist and a pragmatic impulse.  The idealist thinks we can talk meaningfully about certain ideal categories — the true, the good, the beautiful, the just, God — outside of our best current practices for defining them.  The pragmatist says we can’t.

The pragmatist has the better argument.  What is just outside of our institutions of law?  What is a good television show outside of what the audience likes?  The pragmatist is able to reduce the idealist to inarticulacy.  Furthermore the pragmatist can with justice accuse the idealist of fanaticism.  The idealist seems to separate himself from the rest of us when he appeals to these ideals that nobody but him (and his acolytes and fellow crazies) can see.

And yet sometimes it has been crucial that we be brought to the point of inarticulateness.  Just because the pragmatist has the best arguments, doesn’t mean that he is right.  There is more to being right than having the argument that wins.  Might does not make right.

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3 thoughts on “Pragmatists Versus Idealists

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    I’m not sure that there’s really a conflict. Maybe a balancing act. We like pleasure. We also (per Gestalt psychology) like certain patterns, such as symmetry. I suspect that “ideal categories” often reflect our preference for certain patterns, while pragmatic concerns reflect our preference for pleasure.

    Making the audience laugh fulfills the pleasure side. Finding just the right words or the right balance fulfills the pattern side and satisfies our aesthetic sense. They’re both important. The only question is finding the optimal mix. IMHO.

    “There is more to being right than having the argument that wins.”

    Agreed. I always liked Dale Carnegie’s advice: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

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