Philosophy, Wisdom, and the Cultivation of Idealism

Philosophy education, at its best, instills wisdom and the cultivation of idealism. Sometimes people laugh at both concepts: wisdom and idealism. Wisdom is seen as quaint and old fashioned, and, besides, no one really knows what it means — or at least that is what those people say who think the concept is quaint and old-fashioned. And idealism is often thought to be the opposite of realism, and thus is regarded as useless dreaming: a longing after what is impossible.

Such realists often prize scientific knowledge, regarding it as the best (or the only valid) kind of knowledge. Science tells us the truth about the world. It is grounded in observation, experiment, and logical reasoning. Its trustworthiness is evident in all human advancement, especially the progress we have made in medicine and technology.

There is an important place for the study of “what is,” which is the focus of the natural and social sciences. But we need to recognize and acknowledge that we human beings are not only concerned with what is. We are problem-solving creatures. We are seldom completely satisfied with “what is.” Instead, we are constantly comparing it with “what should be,” and much of our activity is directed towards bringing “what is” closer to “what should be.”

The humanities are where we explore possibility, not just actuality. Art and literature create and explore alternative possible visions of reality. And philosophy more specifically explores ideals. Epistemology and logic investigate what human knowledge can be at its best; ethics explores ideals of human character and behavior; social and political philosophy construct theories of justice, envisioning fairer and more just ways we might organize our collective life; and metaphysics grounds all of these studies in an examination of all of the modes of reality: not just contingent actuality, but the nature of (and relationships among) necessity, possibility, and ideality.

We need to be able to construct coherent visions of what we think the world should be like. We participate in reality, and thereby change it. We can participate impulsively or haphazardly, or we can participate intentionally, guided by vision. Having vision does not guarantee that the changes we make bring our vision into being. This is why, in addition to cultivating vision, we do need also to study what is, and how it all works. Guided by vision and an accurate understanding of what the world is actually like and how it works, we then have the best chance of being able to bring about the beneficial changes we hope to bring about.

This more complex kind of knowledge, that includes both the cultivation of vision and a good understanding of what the world is like and how it works, is very similar to how Plato defined wisdom. In the Republic, wisdom is defined as knowledge of the Good. The Good is compared to the sun shining down and illuminating the world. If your education merely teaches you what is what, so that you can find your way around the world of “what is,” you are missing something. There is more to be known: how the sun shines down and infuses that world with light, color, and shadow. This more complex kind of knowledge is “wisdom.” You are aware not only of “what is,” but “what could be,” and “what should be.” You live your life not just finding your way around, but charting a course for a reason, rearranging that world that you find in order to make it better.

Cultivating a vision itself requires a special kind of education. Cultivating a vision is to cultivate idealism: understanding clearly the ideals by which you choose to live your life, and putting those ideals together into a coherent vision. Doing so well requires thought, care, attention, and dialogue with others. Our values and ideals are not just a matter of “personal opinion” that we dare not speak out loud nor question in others. Values and ideals are not just personal property: they are what link us to each other. We cannot help but be communicating about them all the time: our every interaction expresses our own values and reverberates (positively or negatively) with the values of those we are in contact with.

Initially, we inherit a set of values from the family and culture in which we are raised. But there comes a time when we need to critically reflect on these values, and test whether they really do seem right to us, and whether together they form a coherent system that we can fully trust. We need to explore why others may not agree with how we see the world, and consider the sources and implications of those disagreements. What will we do when such disagreements emerge?

Those who criticize “the idealists” are being disingenuous, because everyone lives by values and ideals. Those who scorn idealists are either unaware of their own ideals, or may be trying to hide them.

The truly wise person is both an idealist and a realist. This person understands and cares about reality, but knows that the present contingent actuality is only part of what reality is. Reality is ever changing, and the truly wise person perceives potentialities as well as actualities, and assesses the potentialities in terms of which of the alternative possibilities would be best. The cultivation of vision is the most advanced form of human knowledge. The wise person cultivates vision, grounded in an accurate understanding of what is, and devotes his or her life to trying to bring a better world into being. And philosophy is the discipline that helps cultivate true wisdom.