For a long time, I have been struggling with whether to call myself an idealist or a realist. But as soon as the concept of “barefoot philosopher” came to my mind, I grabbed it immediately.
Maybe one thing I can do as a “barefoot philosopher” is to figure out the dilemma about being an idealist or a realist.
As a functional human, one has to have good understanding of reality, and being a human means that one would have a set of ideas on how things should be. So, does the distinction between “idealist” and “realist” even make any sense?
Actually, it does not. The problem with avoid things like “philosophy” is that people can all seem to be making perfect sense in things that people do, but fundamentally, or from big picture point of view, it is a completely different story.
The talk about “idealist” vs. “realist” is a classic example. The problem really begins with the basic contradictions in the society, culture, or whatever you call it. To begin with, there is very little agreement on what is reality, especially the social reality. Ideas? That is even worse.
There is a common saying that people should not discuss politics, religion or sex in public, because getting into these types of discussions will get you into all kinds of troubles, because it is very messy in these areas.
Let’s start with politics. First of all, what is politics? By my own definition, politics is an attempt to establish a system that tells people what to do and not to do, either by consensus or by force. Assumedly, democratic political system is a system that the majority will consent to what to do and not to do.
The question, then, is, can people really consent on anything, and, whether the things they are consenting on are good for them? Or, in other words, whether there is such a thing called “common good”?
This is really what politics comes down to, at least in democratic politics. If there is no common good, people simply cannot knowingly agree on anything that is good for them, because otherwise, they would agree on something that is against their interests.
On this, you call me an idealist, or an optimist, as I think there is such a thing called “common good”, just as I think there are such things called truth, beauty and goodness.
Needless to say there is a long debate about whether people are fundamental bad or good. Interestingly, Confucius claimed that people are initially good, while Christianity famously declared “original sin” on all humans.
But the problem, in my view, is that they all simplified the problem. I have long held a theory that declaring something is good or bad is basically meaningless without any context. When people are talking about good or bad, people need to specify in what context, for what purpose.
It is no difference with the judgment of human nature. In fact, I would prefer to talk about human nature in a different way. I would rather say that humans are fundamentally self-centered. I did not use the world “selfish” because it often comes with a negative tone.
I just want to talk about human nature in a matter of fact way first, and then make my judgment on what is bad and what is good.
As a living being, the function of the mind is to best assure the survival of the individual. Thus, being self-centered is our “default setting”.
But before you jump into conclusion that human nature is bad to begin with, I also like to point out people mostly believe that children are more innocent than adults. So, obviously being “bad” is not exactly a human nature, but learned behaviors.
Here, I want to go back and think about what exactly the word “bad” means here. If there is no standard, nothing to be measured with, then there would not be anything bad. The simplest definition probably would be doing something that one should not be doing.
If we assume that people are making conscious decisions when they are doing things, then we can assume they are doing things with certain purposes, mostly that they will benefit themselves. So, the only logically reason they should not do these things would be that they will harm other people.
When people are making judgment on what people should do, and what they should not do, we are talking about a society here.
If we think about what an ideal society would be, then it would be a society that no one should be permitted on doing things that will harm other people. But is it possible?
We started with a society we have now. Needless to say it is not an ideal society. But what is different? At least in theory, we are living in a democratic society, and in a democratic society, everyone is supposed to be treated equally. Therefore, it does not seem to be too much to ask that no one should be permitted to harm other people. But, needless to say that this is not the reality.
But, is it possible to do so? It seems that whenever people talk about things that are “impossible” in the “real world”, they often give the same reason: people are too selfish. But is it really the reason?
My answer is no. This is pretty much the chicken and egg type of problems. If no one is permitted to harm other people, and the consequence is not good for the person who is doing so, then no matter how selfish people are, they would not do so.
The problem really is lack of this kind of consequence, and reason is more like that people are not selfish enough. That’s right. If people really are selfish enough, then people will make sure that people who are harming them will face the consequences, so that they would not dare to do so.
Or, we can say people are selfish in a wrong way. In my last post, “A Heart in Winter”(somehow it just keeps disappearing in the front page), I talked about that modern era is an era of that lacks principles. This is a very interesting thing! Just when the democracy, political system that requires people who can agreed on certain principles established, culturally, the desire to agree on any types of principles just seemed vanished.
If I can just have one firm belief, it will be that any kinds of concepts must be with certain context. Case at point, freedom. Can freedom ever be a bad thing? Yes, it can, if without certain context. One should not be free to do just anything, because they should not be free to do things that will harm others.
In other words, if you think that democracy is not about “truth, beauty and goodness”, but about freedom, then you are wrong, and you are not alone, which is the reason we don’t have the ideal society.
Plato envisioned an “ideal society” that is ruled by “philosopher king”, and he was not very optimistic about democratic society. Here, I have to say, he is wrong. He put his hope on a selfless wise king, which is quite improbable, because being completely selfless is against human nature.
Instead, I will say an ideal society is a society where at least majority of the people are “philosophers”, or “bare foot philosophers”, which is not entirely impossible.
The reason I use the term “barefoot philosopher” is because philosophy as we commonly know it has basically become an academic branch that focuses too much on all sorts of ideas related to philosophy. What I am interested in, and suggest that everyone should be focus on, is the way of thinking. Not too much on particular ideas, but on developing a way of understanding and analyzing ideas, and use it in everyday life. This is the tool everyone needs in pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness.
I believe it is absolutely possible for everyone to know how to think, as long as one has the desire to do so. But if people think their goals are freedom (or in other word, happiness), not “truth, beauty and goodness”, they may not have the desire to do so.
Here, let me go back to my thoughts about “realist” and “idealist”. I want to say that social reality is a moving target. Ideas can be reality if enough people believing them and make efforts to make them reality. With this, it seems that “realist” is pretty much a dirty word. Yes, one cannot be completely ignorant of the social reality. But if one accepts the reality and embraces it, one becomes part of it, and a force against change for a better future. In other words, one becomes the problem.
If politics is about establishing a system to force people not to harm others, then religion is about persuading people not to think about harming others (I am not doing an in depth analysis of religion, so, what I am talking about here is the possible positive effects that religion may have). But we probably can see, religion can actually lead people to harm others.
This is has a lot to do with my confusion about whether I am an idealist or realist. And, at least in my view, this is the problem with religion. I am pretty sure there are good ideas in all religions. But the problem is there are some bad ideas in all religions as well, and pretty much all religions require people to hold all their ideas as sacred, without any doubt.
In modern terms, religion basically tries to install a set of ideas to people’s brains, as a “packaged deal”. But in my view, they are doing things backwards. Trying to understand this attempt most sympathetically, I will say the reason for doing so is for trying to introduce morality into people’s brains. But I think morally can be and should be introduced based on reasoning.
Morality is basically a system that introduce a set of rules that one might not necessarily see the immediate benefit of. But I believe these rules must be justified by certain ends through reasoning. Basically, these are about things people should be doing or should not be doing in order to maintain a well-functioning social system. In other words, there are things that might not benefit or harm particular person, but will benefit or undermine the well beings of the social system. Therefore, if people are really become “barefoot philosophers”, then morality need not be implemented by mechanisms such as religion, it can be accepted by people through reasoning.
When talking about morality, sex often comes to mind. Although I think people should focus more on integrity in general. For example, honest, trustworthiness, purity, love, etc. In fact, morality can be best accepted as a higher calling, based on belief on the core concepts of human existence, that are truth, beauty and goodness.
When we are talking about sex, we are really talking about sexual relationships. Basically, we are talking about emotions circling around the word “love”. We cannot talk about sex without talking about emotions because sexual actives are closely related to emotions. Case on point, I do not think machines need to have sex no matter how sophisticated they are (people are trying to make machines that will have emotions, then it might be different. However, I just cannot see the point of making machines having emotions at all).
To be honest, I don’t think I can claim I fully understand the concept of love (in fact, I don’t think I can claim I fully understand anything, but I am constantly trying), and love is probably most complex concept in the world. Think about it, it basically contains truth, beauty and goodness all together.
But the good news is, in practice, love comes quite naturally (at least for most people). Most people talk about the purity and strength of first love with fondness. For me, I don’t see why anyone needs to lose them. I don’t think people need to adjust the way they love based on “reality”, but only on who and when to love.
Now, it seems that one really do not need to spend all the time to decide whether one is an idealist or realist, but one should focus on being a “barefoot philosopher”. To start, it is actually very simple, start with love, start with the love for truth, beauty and goodness, and questioning all other ideas using simple logic. To change the world, one needs to first change oneself, and it is never too late to start now.
P.S. This piece originally was posted on Touserv.com. But the site was deactivated due to “virus”. So, I am posting this here.