Wendell Berry On The ‘Real’ And The ‘Ideal’

In ‘The Loss of The Future’ (from The Long-Legged House, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004 (1965), New York, p. 48) Wendell Berry writes:

One of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the  ideal or the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other. Where there is no accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification. Where there is no disciplined idealism, the sense of the real is invaded by sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism and by fraudulent discriminations.

Berry seems to employ both meanings of ‘idealism’ here. It may be understood as ‘systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind’ and, of course, ‘the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, especially unrealistically.’

Be that as it may, Berry is on to something here in his suggestion that the ideal–a kind of non-substantial, immaterial counterpoint to the real–acquires the form that it does because it is informed by our impressions of the real. (Plato thought of course that the sensibly real or the ‘apparent’ was informed by this ‘ideal’ as a kind of imperfect, incomplete, and prone-to-decaying manifestation of it.) Our sense of what the ideal is formed by a kind of extrapolation from the real; the ideal suggests in turn how the real falls short. In the second sense of the word, idealism informs us of possibilities and horizons and limits visible from our actual placements in the here and now; and in doing so, it lets us demarcate and circumscribe the immediately tangible and realized. The real in turn suggests what ideals we could possibly aspire to.

Berry’s claim that without an ‘accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification’ is now clarified; here, our idealism becomes a kind of solipsism, uncorrected by any contact with the real; our ideals, always straining under the burden of their elevated rhetoric, now begin to fall apart; we seek and find confirmation within ourselves for their validity; with nothing substantial to map on, or be applied, to, the ideals become incoherent. An ideal aims to elevate the real world; with no sense of its ‘target of improvement,’ the ideal runs blind, and aground. (A reformer must know what he or she aims to reform; a prophet must have a sense of his potential flock, of what it is that is to be corrected; otherwise their sermons become mere fantastic ramblings.) Conversely, without the elevating ideal, we remain mired in ‘sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism’ because these offer us easy compensatory consolations in its place. Each is readily available at most turns in our lives; without idealism to draw us up and away from them, we are content to wallow in their depths.

William James on the Selectivity of Consciousness According to Human Interests

A couple of days ago, I noted humanism‘s affinities with pragmatism, and quoted William James to cement that claim. Today, I want to point to James’ treatment of consciousness to show how fundamental human interests are in his philosophy of mind. (This post is cribbed from Patrick Kiaran Dooley‘s Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of Willam James, Nelson-Hall Publishing, Chicago, 1974, pp. 42-52. All James quotes below are taken from Dooley’s citations from Principles of Psychology.)

For James, our consciousness influences our behavior and our actions by selection from data presented to it (via attention); what guides and regulates this selection and attention are our practical, aesthetic, religious and ethical interests. We first become aware of the world via sensational contact with it (these sensations are already knowledge for James). This data of awareness of the world around us is then enriched by differentiating it and noticing relationships among its different aspects. But these relationships that we notice, the aspects we attend to, are not just those that are presented to us most frequently; they ‘stand out’ because they are of interest to us. We perceive that which we attend to and we attend to that which interests us. In sensory attention:

The only things we commonly see are those which we preperceive and the only things we preperceive are those which have been labeled for us, and the labels stamped on our mind.

In perceiving, consciousness is selective in isolating a group of sensible qualities which, because ‘they are most constant, interesting or practically important, we regard as the most essential constituents of the thing.’ It also selects among these to appoint some as typical or ‘correct’ representatives of the object in question:

Out of all the visual magnitudes of each known object we have selected one as the real one  to think of and degraded all the others to serve as its signs. This ‘real’ magnitude is determined by aesthetic and practical interests.

Some representations are promoted to the status of ‘true’; others to that of ‘signs.’ This follows simply from the fact that ‘true representations’ are perceived from the most practically advantageous positions.

For James there is no such thing as a pure sensation; all is interpreted first. We do not experience the world passively but actively act on the data available to us. Our attention does a great deal of work: by settling again and again on the most ‘useful’ presentations it turns them into ‘experience.’ But it is driven by our interests, which determine the how and the what of our experiences.

And this then further leads to our construction of what is real, of what we consider reality – the ‘common sense world.’ Here objects appear of interest and importance to us. To call an object ‘real’ is merely to indicate a reference to ourselves because our cognitive relationship to the world is ‘affective’, not dispassionately objective:

[We] give what seems to us a still higher degree of reality to whatever things we select and emphasize and turn to with a will.

The affective component of our selves thus determines what we consider ‘real’: the objects of our beliefs are related to our interests. This extends to all levels, so that even the most ‘basic’ entities of the world are those that bear an acute relation to our interests, ranging from the most practical to the most sublime. In our conceptions of the world, we are constantly selecting and rejecting according to these:

Whichever one of these aspects of its being I temporarily classify it under, makes me unjust to other aspects. But as I am always classing it under one aspect or another, I am always unjust, always partial, always exclusive. My excuse is necessity–the necessity which my finite and practical nature lays upon me.

   Our purposes determine our conceptions of the world, its so-called ‘essential properties’ but:

Reality overflows these purposes at every core. Our usual purpose with it, our commonest title for it, and the properties which this title suggests, have in reality nothing sacramental. They characterize us more than they characterize things. 

Thus even in the most basic sizing up of the world, in our determinations of ‘what is,’ we cannot eliminate the human. We are mixed up in the cement of the universe.