Idealism and Rationalism

| July 6th, 2012

Reading through Christopher Hitchens’ memoir I was struck by this quote (among many others) about idealism and rationalism, and the sometimes challenging ability to change one’s mind.

To announce that one has painfully learned to think for oneself might seem an unexciting conclusion and anyway, I have only my own word for it that I have in fact taught myself to do so. The ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting, though, just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think. I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.” I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.

I don’t profess that this relates to any particular aspect of my design philosophy, to which, in regards to the need for radical approaches to the problems of production and consumption, I remain committed, but it does put a beautifully poetic slant on the rather mundane decision to think more pragmatically about complex problems, a decision which often takes a drubbing from the ideological position in arguments of worth.

Incidentally, I read in the paper today that the former Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla has been finally convicted for his part in stealing children away from his imprisoned dissidents (the “disappeared”), which I think would have caused the late Hitchens to feel remarkably vindicated. Hitchens actually met and interviewed Videla in 1977, on the same trip in which he met the great writer Borges. The following picture appears in his memoirs with the caption,

Swallowing vomit while greeting General Videla of Argentina in Juan Peron’s old palace

Later in the very last paragraph of the book, he clearly states the unalterable problem of history:

It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them.

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