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Idealism versus pragmatism - Journal of Interest
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04 Sep

Idealism versus pragmatism

Ideology versus pragmatism

A couple of days ago I was asked whether I thought a pragmatic agenda was essential for an ideological organisation to function, and whether pragmatism ever encroaches on our ideals.  I responded that I did consider pragmatism essential.

As they seem to me, ideals are a wish or a hope – if they are important, they are important in that they give us clarity in terms of how to act.  In other words, more important than our ideals is the realisation of them.  They must be followed, or else there is no use in having them.  Unless we act on them in the real world – that is, pragmatically – they become just baggage.  These ideals, however, I believe are essential too, so we ought not to do away with them totally in order to focus only on pragmatism, because how then would we know what to be pragmatic about?  Therefore, I believe a balance must be struck between the two.

There should be no conflict between an ideal and pragmatism; any such conflicts are imagined ones, where a person insists that either the whole ideal must be achieved or nothing. Such a view is dangerous and runs contrary to the ideal supposedly held. It’s better to ebb at the world little by little, to win what battles we can when we can, than to romanticise the ideal to the detriment of our ability to achieve it.

In response to the latter part of the question: I’m not aware of an instance of pragmatism encroaching upon an ideal. If an ideal is vulnerable to its own implementation, it is not a good ideal and ought to be corrected. All the ideals that I hold1 are ones that I would be happy to take even a single step towards when the alternative is to stay where I am.  If that is not the case, then it seems the ideal has not been genuinely committed to, and that pride or some other thing has clouded one’s judgement.

It can be difficult to commit to one’s ideals, and to accept concessions to it piecemeal even when the concession is so small that it is considered by others to be an embarrassment, but if the ego can be dissuaded from insisting that only prizes of a certain size are worth its time, then all that is left is progress.


  1. Although, having written this, it becomes difficult to enumerate through all my ideals to verify whether this statement is really as true as I suppose it is. 

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