On the Futility of Ideas (Or, Oh Great, Another Blog)

I’ve decided to give blogging another try. “What’s the point?” you might ask. “You’re just going to stop updating it in a few weeks anyway, and it’s not like anyone is going to read it.” Both very likely, but beyond my tendency for giving up on projects shortly after conceiving them (I swear I’m still going to write a novel – right after I finish my screenplay) what’s the point of anybody having a blog? Beyond providing an outlet for procrastination, that is.

Perhaps the purpose of a blog could be to express and communicate ideas (a novel concept, I admit.) In my case, this would assume that people are interested in my ideas – an unlikely state of affairs. But that might just be because I have bad ideas. Maybe if I had good ideas this would provide sufficient reason and purpose for having a blog. But what of ideas? What good are they? When has an idea ever done anyone any good – let alone an idea that originated on a blog?

I’m being facetious, but only slightly. Intellectual-types like to think ideas are crucial for social change. Anti-intellectual-types think intellectual pursuits tend to be trivial, purely academic, impractial. We should instead focus on doing rather than prolonged theoretical discussion. Time is money, after all. Other intellectual-types might also view much reflection on ideas as moot or unpracticable, but still like to talk about ideas – as a self-satisfying (perhaps indulgent) excercise. I find myself fluctuating between these different positions – between views of the necessity, impracticality, and self-satisfaction of intellectual discussion.

But I suppose this all depends on precisely what ideas we’re talking about. In my more optimistic moments ideas indeed seem crucial. Democracy, human rights, equity, happiness, freedom – these are surely concepts that guide action and have “practical” consequences. (They also happen to be ideas – or ideals – that I find particularly appealing or important). In my more apathetic 0r pessimistic moments, intellectual discourse seems futile, and I would rather spend my time doing something else, like fixing a bicycle or planting flowers. This happens after trudging through a particularly scholastic text, or becoming aware of the vast amount of time and resources contributed to solving insoluble disputes. In my more decadent, Rorty-esque moments I derive a certain personal satisfaction from engaging with philosophical ideas, but am struck by the inconsequentiality of it all (see, e.g., realism vs. idealism).

More than this, my pessimism or apathy stems primarily from a sense of futility that seems to inevitably follow a critical engagement with history or society. I think a great historian once said, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” For example, democracy sounds great – but looking at the state of most democracies (pun 100% intended) it leaves a lot to be desired (more on this in the future). But really, to what extent do the so-called democracies (for a particular example of a supposedly good idea) of the world demonstrate governance by the people and for the people? To what extent are citizens of democratic states equipped to effectively participate in such a system? At best we have somewhat benevolent oligarchies – typically plutocracies, with checks and balances ensured by the establishment of two, or maybe three, ideologically entrenched groups. (Though, it could be that democracy is a stupid ideal anyway). Of course, this probably is not cause for unequivocal disappointment – democracy might not be perfect, but it’s still pretty good – and I’m probably exaggerating how big of a failure it has been. There are certainly many countries that I don’t think are altogether terrible. But once we put things into global perspective, such pessimism becomes less exaggerative. It becomes increasingly evident that democracies really are just oligarchies or aristocracies, and that so-called democratic countries only represent the people insofar as they are members of a very privileged group.

However, this post isn’t about democracy, per se; it’s about the linkages between ideas and their practical, tangible manifestations. Our actions seem to inevitably fall short of our ideals. Why is this? Why do so many good ideas go unrealised?

My apprehension about intellectual discourse (I mean this merely in the sense of pertaining to ideas, not that there are particular kinds of ideas that belong to the intellectual – intelligent things can be said about the mundane) goes beyond the realisation that humans often wish things beyond their capacity to enact them. It also has to do with the very limits the discourse itself.

Even if we do think that democracy or human rights (or freedom of speech or habeas corpus or whatever) are great ideas, it’s quite apparent that not everyone in the world thinks so – certainly the majority of those with disproportionate amounts of power don’t (it might be the case the majority of the people in the world don’t think democracy is the ideal form of government). Here we begin to run up against the limits of rational discourse, and this is enough to cause an apathetic crisis. (Again, I am probably  being overly pessimistic). So, back to the original question – what’s the point?

The events in the Middle East over the past few months, for example, provide a clear example of how crucial ideas are for fuelling practical, tangible, change. History is rife with such examples. And while it is somewhat unfashionable to locate the roots of the privilege of those living in democratic countries in particular sets of ideas, there is little doubt that the works of various thinkers have had tangible consequences (part of which are the privileges that I, and most of you, tend to take for granted today).

But, there is also cause to be pessimistic with regards to Arab Spring. Certainly, history is also teeming with instances where good ideas fail to yield practical consequences. The reasons for these failures are complicated and varied, but it certainly has something to do with societal conditions – the possibilities for an idea to take hold, which depends on a variety of technological factors – means of communication, and also social apparatuses – possibilities for political organisation and assembly, and the relative power of antagonists or interests groups threatened by new ideas.

To ask another question, what’s my point? What am I getting at here? First, the societal conditions – the possibilities for change, for ideas to take hold and make a tangible difference, seem to me, to be rather infertile at the moment – especially if one demands what will strike  many as radical change. And what is me writing a blog going to do about it? All of this can lead to a certain degree of pessimism, which, I expect, will be a reoccuring theme on this blog. Of course, this is a relative judgement. Certain societal groups find the current socio-economic state of the world favourable to precisely their kinds of ideas. I’m just working under the assumption that their ideas are bad and mine and those of people like me are better. The next, more crucial, and more personal point, is that I am just trying to come to grips with the apparent futility of all this analysis, all this writing, all this philosophising, all of these ideas. And I’m trying to set up the reader with low expectations. This blog isn’t going to change the world. But, of course, I am still writing this, and still posting it, which means, of course, that I haven’t lost all hope. Finally, knowing something well, and doing something well are complimentary, but fundamentally different things. This thus forces one to confront the luxury of philosophising for the sake of philosophising. Should intellectual discourse always be conducted with practicality in mind? And if not, am I just another jerk with a blog?

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