Idealism and realism are opposing views. Their more extreme versions are irreconcilable because they are intended to be. Each is defined by the denial of the other. The extremes of idealism, transcendentalism (in the mystical sense) deny the tangible, and pragmatism, realism or objectivism in its extreme expression denies the existence of spirit and mind as anything but a side effect of random- and hence meaningless- materialization.
Extreme as these views are, they each have a certain merit, but only when mitigated by the other view. This is a paradox because we can make sense of it when we look beyond the obvious- or toward it depending on one’s perspective. The views are interdependent and each can balance the extremes of the other, when they are taken as two sides of the same coin.
I want to, therefore, suggest looking at the merit or attraction of the two views. Why are we drawn to one over the other? Can there be a happy medium between them, or are we limited to flipping the coin back and forth to access only one side at a time?
Let me approach this by my own example. For years I had been an advocate of pure spirituality, and the more I practiced the more spiritual and focused on mind and consciousness I became. That was not, however, how I saw and felt things as a child. I remember that the world mattered, and that my thoughts and feelings mattered, and that the two were cohabiting, with the lines between them being ever more blurred the further back my memories went.
Conventional wisdom might say the blur was a product of my immature psychology. Memory, or the feel of it at least, tells me that this was a healthy state. It made sense, and was free of conflict. Everything was embraced, and everything was experienced in a more direct manner because of that. It was only as I was growing up that polarization between “objective” and “subjective” was rather imposed by the words and actions of people around me.
Following the conditionings of childhood and the turmoil of adolescence, I found myself on a quest to heal the damage that growing up appeared to have inflicted upon me. Part of that included the quest to reconcile the idealistic, transcendent states of subjective coherence, with the worldly, sensate focus of objectively powered reality evaluation.
This journey was far more chaotic and disorganized than its initial referencing might suggest. As I approached adulthood, my concern was holding my own in social relations, be they causal, intimate or formal. The quest for truth wasn’t idealistic, but driven by a desire to use truth as a sort of tool, if not a weapon, to enhance my position in the group, as it were. Nevertheless, being more an introvert, my attitude was rather defensive.
In academics I found myself majoring in physics, even though I strongly continued to question he extremes of radical idealism and what I came to know as reductionist materialism. These are labels, since idealism can be an oversimplified bottom line of nihilism, just as materialism can be revolutionary in its meaningless assertions. My view that idealism was for those of intuitive bent, with realism/pragmatism for the more rational was also overturned over the course of time and experience.
Analytic reasoning can support either view, just as feeling based-intuition can advocate the sensual world (if one is hedonistically motivated, for example) as the abstract and transcendent divorced from it (as is the case for the disgruntled aesthete). It became apparent even further down the line that the situation was even messier. Whatever one’s motives, both reason and intuition could be used to justify them.
Even when the bottom line is the adage that the truth will set us free, what matters is not so much the truth itself, but the acquisition of freedom. If we are convinced that a certain view is the truth, it is at the very least interesting to consider that freedom may be seen to come not so much from the view itself, as from our vehement support of it. We may be passive in that support, resisting opposing views, or end up fighting for it. As we do, we can consider that our struggle is to be free from whatever oppressive or harmful influence we may feel the contrary view represents.
For some the door to freedom from whatever oppresses them in life might take the form of supporting a view because it is popular or collective accepted. For others the opposite can hold; resisting the popular view is how one can be truly liberated in life. Or maybe the collective voice gives one courage to join with it or makes one desperate to resist.
In my case, and after deliberation over several decades, I have settled in a place where I don’t feel I am coddling myself, nor beating myself up. I can grow through challenge, while maintaining a sense of integrity and self-respect through minimizing conflict.
My motive is the love of life. I am not speaking of the way things are in the world, but of the very nature of life and its broad horizons of possibility. Life is tangible. Life is free. Life is the magnetic force of desire for more, for deeper, for greater, for less, for higher. Life is beauty and love and challenge and fun, and creativity in all its aspects. Life is the fulfillment of what matters, and all that is meaningful.
To be more specific, there are few things that can be concretely said about life and the experience of being alive without falling off the mark in some way and distorting one’s own intended meaning. It may appear that scientific description of life is accurate, but subjectively poetry appears to have more authority when it comes to resonating a sense of meaning in the human breast.
Even so, the proverbial left brain has its place. Thus, to navigate the existence in which- of which- we find ourselves, as human beings we need to distinguish this from that, to identify, to speak, to formulate, and to analyze. It doesn’t mean we proceed with stuffy academic or theoretical complexity either.
Life is the big picture and all the little ones as well. What may lie beyond the furthest horizon need not negate what is in from of our noses. More importantly, what we feel as meaningful need not be treated like so much psychic trash just because the feedback we get from the world is disappointing. As such, the child I used to be would be well justified to kick me in the shins if it realized how much I contributed to trashing its felt ideals over the years.
If that child were savvy with its intellect, it might even tell me I am making a mess of things in confusing my copping out for growing up. It might aggressively explain that a hardening against life is nowhere near the same as maturing in accordance to its reality. On the other hand, if it could that ever sagelike child-me might patiently explain that so long as my motives represent all of me, all that I was and all I will be- and nobody ever said self-knowledge was easy- I can be as intuitive as I need, as intellectual as I need, as emotional as I need and as spiritual or materialistic as I need to be without beating myself over the head for being “selfish”.
In my experience selfishness only appears to benefit the selfish, and generally harms those around them. Ditto for self-denial, because the two are also sides of the same coin of dis-integrity. All in all, truth is not easy to pin down, but we can make friends with it. Perhaps we might even be lovers. But if we are denying ourselves or accepting something that we only mistake as our-selves, then truth is nowhere near what we think we are befriending.
Let me then be so bold as to assert that these days it matters not what I believe so much as what it means and where it takes me. It matters not so much to discover or live truth than to be true and genuine, to myself, all my relations and ultimately to the existence in which and of which I am. If there is any mode of becoming that may approach a “path to fulfillment”, I believe this might be it.