The real and the ideal: philosophical explorations
(This is a living document.)
The separation between the ideal — the perceived, the desired, the dreamed — and the real — the sensed, the solid, the tangible — is a catalyst for creative and intelligent behaviour in those people who are drawn, whether by inclination or experience, to reduce the separation between reality and a given desideratum. We can call it ‘wanting’, but ‘wanting’ feels inadequate to describe this emotion. The German word Sehnsucht comes close, but does not quite fit, either. Idealism comes close, too; however, it has too many associations with naïvety to be fully appropriate.
It is more basic than curiosity, nostalgia, saudade, sadness, pain, disappointment, hope, anticipation, anxiety, frustration or confusion. It gives rise to all these emotions, but it should not be confused with them. The separation I describe is perceived less consciously than nostalgia, pain, frustration or disappointment; it is a sort of Ur-emotion, rather than the more palpable manifestations that are easier to recognise and describe.
This separation is one of the reasons why some people seek answers to life’s deepest questions: what are we made of? Where did we come from?
Characterising this separation as ‘not always getting your own way’ is a superficial way of understanding the perception of disjunction between the real and the ideal and the desire to alleviate or eliminate this disjunction.
Evangelical Christians characterise Hell as being the state of permanent separation from God and his divine grace; in this sense, it is an eternal lacuna between the directly experienced and the ideal condition in which a person wishes to live. I don’t believe in Hell in the slightest, but I can see how theologians derived the idea.
When marginalised people perceive their own oppression, this is a form of recognising the difference between the ideal (equity) and the real (discrimination).
The ability to perceive the difference between the ideal and the real, and the concomitant desire to bring the ideal and the real together, are morally neutral; after all, both Gandhi and Hitler were acutely aware of this difference and went to great lengths to reduce the tension they perceived, but one liberated India from the British Empire, whereas the other murdered millions of people in the Holocaust/Shoah/Porajmos. This basic Sehnsucht can lead to good or evil actions depending on one’s moral compass.
People who do not perceive the gap between the ideal and the real, dismiss the importance of that gap, or believe that it is impossible to even attempt to turn the ideal into the real, may be more likely to tolerate the status quo or to support policies or ideologies that contribute to the oppression of marginalised people. People who do not perceive those gaps are less likely to understand the experiences of those of us who do. The rejection or dismissal of this gap’s existence is what produces conservatism in some people—after all, that’s just the way it is and there’s no point in fixing anything if they don’t feel a difference between how they are, and how they should be, treated.
Similarly, the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon reflects an inability to perceive the difference between the ideal and the real; people cannot appreciate the extent of their ignorance if they do not know they are ignorant in the first place. People who are aware of their ignorance are more likely to remedy that ignorance.