by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

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 and growth.

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 loose.

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 has limits.

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 human interaction.

Direct inquiries and comments to:

Copyright © 1992 - 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.