IMAGINATION AND IDEALS
by Gordon L.
1. We are now in a position to summarize some characteristics
associated with ideals.(1) First
of all, ideals are works of imagination; and their material, both
positive and negative, is drawn from experience. They are not
unchanging and flawless metaphysical essences contemplated by
a superempirical or "pure" reason. Secondly, they are linked to
improved or "idealized" versions of existing situations. They
indicate a unity, a completion, a fulfillment suggested by present
tendencies. Specifically, ideals are marked by stability and harmony
infrequently found in everyday experience. For this reason, wishful
thinking, both philosophical and generic, often finds these idealized
situations more congenial and "more real" than ordinary life.
Thirdly, ideals are inclusive, out-leading, expansive wholes.
Observable data, the given of experience, are often piecemeal;
conditions are selected and situations are bounded by limited
frames of interest and perception. Fourthly, ideals are qualities
of lived experience; they are not separate entities. Like light
which appears only in the things lighted up, so an ideal makes
sense only as the quality or meaning of ongoing activity, its
direction, its vitality, its hoped for resolution. Ideals modify
life as adverbs modify verbs.(2)
Justice, for example, is an ideal. Justice is not a thing; it
is a quality of activities and relations. Thus, an imagined course
of action may be deemed "just" or "unjust" depending upon its
relation to a whole network of conditions and consequences. What
makes imaginative projections ideal in the revered sense of ideal
is their thoughtful rearrangement of actual conditions in ways
that bring the greatest possible unity to situations having the
greatest possible diversity. What ideals "have in common" are
order and stability, cooperation and consistency, unity and wholeness.
What is hoped for in the ideal is that unified and harmonious
experience both recur and last.
2. None of these characterizations, however, does justice
to the aesthetic, religious, and even mystical quality attributed
by Dewey to aspiration and faith with regard to ideals. The sense
of the whole and the feeling of unity associated with the ideal
bestow peace and contentment upon the seeker and adventurer; they
give the restless and fragile act a significance which is inexhaustible
and infinite. It is this sense of the local as the ultimate universal
which must be further explored. The ideal is a quality or meaning
attached to the act, which places it in an imaginative setting
of a universe of natural energies and a human community of shared
and communicated experience. This imaginative setting is a whole
partly as it is and partly as it might be, one recognizing actual
ties with nature and with persons, yet suggesting possible improvements
of these ties.
3. In the Ethics, Dewey distinguishes specific ends
from comprehensive and inclusive ideals. The ideal is what is
present to thought or imagination, but not to observation. Every
end, as thought possibility, is ideal; not every end is an
ideal. Special ends are not ideals, because they are limited;
they are individualized or localized; they belong to specific
situations. The ideal has to do with the unlimited, the inclusive,
the general in the widest sense. But this general is not a class,
of which specific ends are instances; it is the inclusive whole
of possible interacting conditions. Reflection, the thinking of
possible connections, gradually reaches farther and farther, takes
in more and more connections. The moral agent begins to see that
the effect of an act is without an end, that connections and consequences
multiply and grow out of one another. The value of an end or act
is its bearing, its continuity with other conditions and consequences.
Since this continuity is potentially endless, the positive value
of a good end or act is seen to be endless. Conversely, the negative
value of a "bad" end or act, an overt mistake, is conceivably
equally endless (thus the need to rehearse actions in imagination
in order to minimize potential ill effects). The "circle" of significance,
the "ripples" of consequences, go farther than even the eye of
imagination can see. This unlimited range cannot be foreseen or
defined (to define is to circumscribe), but it can be imagined
as an horizon; the image of an horizon is that of a limit which
suggests the limitless.
4. Take for example the kindly act, where kindness
is regarded as an ideal. Dewey indicates that one can only imagine
the possible long-term consequences of a single kindly act; a
whole life may be transformed. These possible consequences confer
inestimable meaning upon what might seem here and now to be an
insignificant gesture. These values go beyond the intentional
planning of the moral agent; he is only trying to make things
better right now, to do what is right in the matter at hand. When
he thinks imaginatively about the context of his act, he becomes
aware of its possible far-reaching significance. The end is "something
definite"; but surrounding it is an atmosphere of extended values.
The end is unique and uniquely placed in a broader context of
connections and relations. It is what it is by virtue of these
connections and relations. It participates in a broader meaning-horizon
which includes unseen consequences, i.e. possibilities. The breadth
of meaning that surrounds the end or rather that comes together
in the end is the ideal. This meaning-horizon is the consequence
of growth, as well as the nurturing atmosphere of new growth.
The ideal is what is possible, what is hoped for, what can be,
what might be. In other words, imaginative vision of the possible
heightens the value of present worthwhile acts.
5. The ideal is not a thing alongside or above other things.
It is not a superior value that eclipses and downgrades particular
acts. It is the superior value of particular acts, because
they are conditions having impact within a larger whole. As isolated
fact, a particular act is a small thing. As condition that sets
consequences rolling endlessly, the act has inexhaustible significance.
An ideal is the quality of an act insofar as it is seen to have
unique importance and significance within a possible whole.(3)
To say that an act is kind or just is to say that
its value extends far and wide into a future of possible consequences.
Doing something right increases the range of imaginative vision;
it opens and suggests new meanings and relations. The right act
creates opportunities and suggests possibilities; the wrong act
obscures this vision. Moving in the right direction clarifies
the imaginative view of a possible whole where things work together,
where there is harmony and fulfillment.(4)
This overall view is not a closed and limited circle, but an horizon
which seems to end, yet not end, at the limits of imagination.(5)
It is a limited picture which suggests the unlimited, the boundless.
Thus, the ideal is the boundless horizon suggested by the particular
good end or act, an horizon which clarifies and intensifies focus
upon the end or act (enhances its meaning). One does not look
away from the particular or forget the particular to find the
ideal. The endless possibilities which make up the ideal are none
other than the endless possibilities of the actual, the close
at hand. Ideals are not fixed, remote goals; they are far-ranging
values of the here and now. The universal is not superior to the
local; it is the extended meaning of the local.
6. In Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey describes the
indefinite whole of the ideal as the "supporting background" of
the immediate line of action or axis of conduct. The end is the
definite object; the ideal is the indefinite context. The end
is the focus; the ideal is the fringe. Intelligence lights up
the path (course of action) contemplated and chosen. The sense
of the vague whole which trails off from the brightly lit course
of action to the dimly lit and even darkened horizon is the ideal.
We feel that it is there, imagine that it is there; we sense there
are conditions and consequences beyond those chosen or directly
experienced. We follow a narrow path, circumscribed by the needs
of the situation as well as the limited capacities of intelligence
developed through past endeavor. But we feel that more is possible,
more than meets the eye; this sense of unlimited possible connections
is the ideal. Some hidden consequences are collateral; they operate
alongside conditions we observe. Some hidden consequences are
remote; they extend farther than the reach of foresight. The sense
of the vague whole of obscured collateral and remote consequences
is part of the meaning of the activity.
7. The felt and imagined unity with a larger whole has its
basis in the fact that things really are connected; events and
persons are associated -- interacting and transacting. This does
not mean that all interactions and connections are harmonious
and mutually supportive; it only means that existing individuals,
including human beings, are tied inextricably to one another.
They are attached. Even the smallest particle is modified and
transformed in continual transactions with other particles. Thus,
a single act, whose impact is imagined to go on forever, does
in fact have a widespread and long-term influence. Every redirection
of natural energy has repercussions throughout nature. From the
standpoint of selective interest and attention, events may appear
to be disconnected or isolated. The "infinity" of events cannot
be immediately observed; we may not even see how cultivating our
own garden can help or hurt our neighbor. But we can think or
imagine this connection. The ideal is imaginative vision of infinite
connections that makes up for the inability of observation to
focus upon more than a limited set of conditions. We see here
that it is the sense of the whole that sustains the moral agent,
even in times of defeat. The sense of the whole reveals the "large"
meaning of the small act. At the same time, the sense of the whole
suggests the waves of conditions and consequences that, despite
our best effort, are not under our control.(6)
The single act, unlimited in significance because of its unique
importance within the whole, is nevertheless limited in its power
to modify real conditions. Of the many complex factors that enter
into a situation, only some can be redirected through our effort.
Success depends in part upon the support of collateral conditions
not observed or not under our control.
8. In the face of the ideal or imagined sense of the whole,
there is both confidence and humility, a feeling of importance
and a feeling of dependence. Doing the right thing moves things
forward, however slightly; doing the wrong thing disrupts events,
however minutely. Yet the dependence of human beings upon nature
and upon one another, their reliance upon the support of natural
energies and the cooperation of human beings (social conditions)
in their planning and doing, implies that control is never completely
in their hands, that nature and associates are partners in their
successes and failures. Wishing things does not make them so.
Human beings and their ideals are part of nature, not standards
or "yardsticks" for judging nature, and activity bathed by the
light of imagined possibilities may or may not work out in the
broader scheme of things. But human acts can and do "carry the
universe forward." Even limited success reveals that what is thought
to be possible can often, with the cooperation of knowledge, be
worked into new actuality. This confidence in the efficacy of
the act, tempered by humility and thankfulness in the face of
supporting and sustaining conditions, is the source of peace and
happiness within action. As we have seen, recognition of and interest
in social ties constitutes concern for the inclusive ideal of
the common good. Human beings are interdependent. The range of
possibilities considered in socially concerned imagination is
further extended, or rather deepened, to include possibilities
of cooperating with and redirecting the physical energies of nature.
A sense of the whole includes a sense of the human community operating
within a natural universe.
9. The sense of the whole, intensified in aesthetic or religious
experience, is the background or context of every normal experience.
The here and now stretches out both spatially and temporally,
into a distant present as well as a remote past and future. This
sense of the whole is a quality that unifies experience
as a whole, just as a particular quality unifies a particular
situation as a self-contained whole. Once again, the healthy is
the generous, the inclusive, the whole. The unhealthy, the insane,
is the egoistic, the exclusive, the isolated. To see things aright
is to see them in a broader context, to see how they connect with
other affairs. This sense of a unified whole, like the projection
of unified and inclusive ends, helps unify personal character.
It is a condition (means) for the consequence (end) of maintaining
and deepening personal integrity. The sense of the whole is a
sense of context.
10. The role of imagination in projecting a sense of the whole
and in maintaining sanity as well as hope in the ideal or possible
is unquestionable. Without imagination, there is no whole. The
whole, whether that of the self, of the human community,
or of the universe, is an imaginative idea, an ideal.
Imagination extends the parameters of observation. Observation
provides a limited view; imagination extends this limited view
by putting it in the context of an imaginative unlimited whole,
an horizon. Neither the self nor the universe, as imaginative
idea, is a closed or finished whole; each is open and unbounded,
by virtue of unrealized possibilities. The totality of conditions
which is the ideal of the universe is not a fixed number.(7)
The unification of the self, itself an ideal of the integration
of ever-expanding energies, is linked to the idea of the universe
as an organized whole. The ideal is not the "actual," but rather
the possible whole. The most comprehensive imaginable whole
is the universe as it might or could be, which includes necessarily
the human community as it might or could be, which includes in
turn individuals as they might or could be. And none of these
possibilities, according to Dewey, is preordained. There is room
in this open universe for many possible alternative paths of improvement
11. There is no sanity without imagination; there is no meaningful
action without imaginative vision. Imagination gives experience
the sense of the whole. We see it in the projection of unified
experience which underlies and orders particular acts and ends.
We see it in a negative way in the absence of opportunity to frame
purposes in dehumanized workplaces, where the context of particular
acts is missing. Imaginative vision, whether artistic, practical,
or scientific, rearranges and orders the material given in experience;
it fills in the gaps and extends its range; it broadens the circle
of actualities to include possibilities. It binds acts into courses
of action (foresight of a series of acts), and particular situations
into a universe. What is lacking and absent is filled in as possibility.
Imagination traces conditions out to consequences which coordinate
and cooperate, resulting in new unified forms. Harmony of personal
desires, harmony of social activities, and harmony of natural
energies are ideals, not in the sense of preordained or
preexisting cosmic agendas, but in the sense of freely imagined
possibilities of ever-expanding diverse individuals cooperating
in new and inclusive ways. We saw the importance of imagination
for social interest. Imagination extends the range of the given;
it breaks up rigid actuality and habit. In a word, it "possibilizes"
the actual. It runs ahead of the actual and imaginatively diverts
it from its routine course. Imagination is the idealizing and
expanding capacity of human intelligence or mind. Possibilities
are openings revealed by imagination within facts. They are pictured
re-directions of present energies. Increased possibilities mean
better possibilities, increased capacities, the ideal of better
cooperation of energies. The sense of the whole projected by imagination
is the sense of a better whole, where better means more inclusive
and more unifying. This better projected whole is fashioned in
the face of improved, yet still deficient, actual conditions.
It stays close to the facts, illuminating and interpreting them
in a broader context of possible achievements. Dissatisfaction
and disappointment with the way things turn out stimulates "imaginative
vision." The interpretation of the status quo in the light of
imaginative vision of new possibilities (new directions), provides
a critical standpoint for redirecting conditions which are going
the wrong way and accenting conditions or valuing acts which move
affairs in a forward, expansive, and harmonizing direction. Once
again, the sense of the whole as a possible whole (ideal)
reveals the inexhaustible significance of the particular "fitting"
or appropriate act, the one that is positively connected to other
acts and conditions in an idealized whole. And, once again, this
idealized whole is framed out of unity insofar as it is really
experienced in ties with other humans and nature. Possibilities
are always possibilities of the actual, not entities having nothing
to do with the actual; and it is imagination that springs these
12. This leads us to the question of Dewey's conception of
moral faith and the "religious" quality of experience. Faith,
for Dewey, means faith in possibilities, possibilities
of both human and non-human nature. The religious is a quality
of composure of the self in devotion to inclusive ideal ends.
Loyalty to ideals that unify ends and acts unifies and composes
(harmonizes) character. The inclusive and enlarged self (generous
and sympathetic) is further unified by his inclusive and enlarged
imaginative vision of possible social and natural fulfillments.
Conviction means submitting to the authority of an ideal, letting
one's conduct be guided by an imaginative vision of a cooperative
whole. It is not the authority of an existing human or supernatural
being, not even the authority of a codified custom; it is the
authority of ever-expanding and ever-deepening possibilities or
ends projected by the existing individual. It is loyalty to the
future, to the "can be," to possible change and foreseen alternatives
to the status quo.
13. One must not understate the importance of the emotional
quality of devotion to ideal ends. In order for any end or ideal
to influence conduct, it must "grip" the individual; it must be
a matter of individualized interest. The emotional quality of
loyalty to an ideal depends upon the degree of interest, the personal
stake one has in the ideal. The ideal which grips and unifies
the individual must be one of his own making, one that arises
from his own consciousness of the possibilities latent in what
surrounds him. This ideal can not be imposed from without; it
has to be one's own, made one's own or taken to heart, though
much of its content be proposed and suggested by others or by
custom. No one can believe for another; no one can be unified
in the face of unifying ideals for another. It is the individual
who submits to his own projected ideal.(8)
The essence of freedom is the capacity to frame one's own purposes
and to live in accordance with them, as slavery is subjection
to the purposes of others. The individual lets himself be directed
by a vision of his own making, wrought from the common fabric
of culture, accumulated meanings shared with others like himself.
The same holds true even of social purposes, which are not to
be imposed on the many by the few, but which must be worked out
by, from, and for individuals thinking and working together.
Effective ideals come from individuals, not "at" them.
14. Devotion to the ideal or possible means concomitant piety
towards the real or actual. Moral or religious faith in the ideal
does not mean worship of ideas and denigration of facts. Once
again, facts and ideas are correlative partners in the guidance
of life. Devotion to the ideal brings us home to the facts, turns
focus to the facts. Neither nature nor humanity is worshiped.
Yet both are due "heartfelt" piety as the domain wherein ideals
are projected and realized. The ideal of unified experience arises
from and returns to engagement in real and overtly lived experience.
Nature and human associations are the source, the material, of
imaginative ideals; and they are the medium of the fulfillment
of these ideals.
15. Imagination is the link between existence and ideas, facts
and ideals. All possibilities are presented through imagination,
but their content is derived from actual existence. In a clash
between old meaning and new fact, imagination adapts and transforms
the old meaning in a new way to produce a new idea, a new possibility,
which serves the present need for change of existing conditions.
The idea or ideal has power to effect change, not through some
mysterious supernatural causality, but through the intervening
power of imagination. The unseen, as possibility, has power. What
"is not," but "can be," is really present as an ideal and really
operates among other conditions in the redirection of energies.
The religious attitude is one wherein conduct is composed and
harmonized by the many ends gathered into one (without losing
their individuality) in the inclusive ideal.
16. The operation of the ideal within conduct, insofar as
this real cohesion and cooperation is achieved, Dewey gives the
name of "God." "God" is ideals at work here and now, the merging
of the imaginative vision of the ideal whole with the present
fact. "God" is the meaningful this or that, the act or the thing
seen in connection with the indefinite or unlimited envelope or
horizon which surrounds it. Not the isolated here and now is what
is "holy," but the here and now of the present humble fact or
act, seen as uniquely participating in and furthering a wider
scene of associated humanity and supportive nature. Practical
idealism treasures and reveres the present act as the home, object,
and incarnation of projected ideals. Everyday experience, including
that of the "common man" who refuses to separate ends conceived
from means handled, is "aesthetic." This is the transforming work
or art of imagination, to show in objects and actions their unique
beauty and importance within a horizon of interconnected possibilities.
17. An ideal, then, is the funded meaning radiating from a
particular end or act, a sense of the connection of this particular
with a wider range of actual and possible affairs. An ideal, like
a projected end, suffuses a particular act with a feeling of a
continuity, of a unity of a broad range of acts and interests.
In this sense, the particular act or end is felt to belong to
a larger whole, a whole which does not detract from the unique
importance of the particular act, but adds to it. Its particularity
becomes more vivid and important by virtue of its suggestion of
the whole. In other words, the distinctive importance of acts
or ends waxes or wanes when viewed (evaluated) in the perspective
of an imagined continuity or whole. Acts are seen to fit and further,
or be at odds with and inhibit, an imagined broader scope of important
conditions and consequences. The choice of the uniquely right
act culminating in the uniquely right dynamic unity of cooperating
conditions, evokes a sense of participating in a larger whole.
Moving in the right direction gives one an imaginative sense of
the meaning of the right direction (expanding growth) as a whole.
The appropriate deed suggests an imaginative universe of human
and natural affairs shining in their distinctive uniqueness and
diversity, yet working together in harmonious interaction. Thus,
the ideal refers to the quality of interaction or association
of individuals. Imaginative vision of the whole compensates for
deficiency in observation, by projecting extended possible relations
on the basis of observable relations; these possible relations
are given completeness or wholeness lacking in present observable
affairs. This is what is meant by an ideal, not an end separate
from other ends, a good separate from other goods, but an imaginative
vision of the very resplendence of unique individuals harmonized
within themselves as irreplaceable particulars and harmonized
with one another in mutually perfecting association. Real unity
with nature and with one's fellows, incompletely grasped by observation,
is projected by imagination in an idealized and reworked form.
Human associations are idealized in an imaginative vision of cooperative
relations conducive to distinctive individuality, and relations
with the natural environment are projected as mutually supportive
and secure. The imaginative vision of the common good as a "whole,"
including the unique fulfillment of individuals through cooperative
and mutually reinforcing activity, within the context of nature
as a "whole," is the moral and social ideal of democracy.
1. It should be admitted that not all
of these characteristics fit together easily. Some, such as that
of a projected view of a better situation and that of the quality
or direction of an activity or relation, even seem to contradict
one another. Yet both characteristics are marked by imaginative
vision of a path undertaken. One focuses on the path and the possibilities
or meaning-horizon which surround it; the other focuses on the
way one walks, the quality of the steps taken.
2. Philosophic tradition has accustomed
us to see forms, intuit essences -- in a word, grasp the structure
of "nouns." But adverbs are something altogether different.
They cannot be intuited at all except in the concrete processes,
activities, motions, or "verbs" they modify.
3. This is not to say that the whole
is above or better than the particular. Imaginative vision of
the whole, of extended possible consequences, augments and calls
attention to the unique and irreplaceable quality of the particular.
4. This would imply that habitually good
people are better able to frame inclusive ends in the context
of imaginative vision.
5. Recall that even generous thought
6. There are obvious comparisons to be
made with Stoicism, at least in this regard that we do not have
complete control over what surrounds us.
7. For both Kant and Dewey, the universe
is too big to observe. But for Dewey, unlike for Kant, the universe
is pregnant with new possibilities; it is open and expanding.
The totality of conditions, actual and possible, is increased
with each success in inquiry or action.
8. This sounds like Kant's self-legislating
practical reason. There are indeed similarities, but one must
keep in mind that for Dewey the test of the ideal is not a formal
principle, but actual consequences as these are played out in
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Copyright © 1992
- 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12
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