Some of the answers and comments to this question got me thinking about the problem of personal inadequacy. By this I mean, people seem to regularly hold values/ideals/morals beyond anything they could hope to achieve.

On the one hand, this wouldn't seem so strange except that it seems that a lot of people hold values that no one has or could hope to achieve. It's one thing to aspire to be an Olympic athlete, it's totally different to aspire to have the ability to fly.

Not being the most widely read Philosopher of all time, I wondered if formal Philosophy has attempted any answers to this seeming problem or if, as stated in one comment on that question, it's so obvious it's hardly ever thought about.

  • The real question is, is the "problem of personal inadequacy" a problem, or just an ugly truth? I mean, is there any inherent contradiction there?
    – cHao
    Nov 10 '15 at 8:09
  • I guess that's a question in itself - (is it a problem of existence that we have ideas above our possibilities of obtaining or just a weird quirk of humanity) but again, I'd like to know if there's any formal philosophy on the subject.
    – CCarter
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:12
  • I can imagine C.S.Lewis did something on that topic, but I do not have a specific text at hand.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:24
  • I think you're right - I think there's a bit in Mere Christianity where he talks about this issue as an evidence for a higher good being in existence than humanity. A reference anyone? Also, anyone else who discusses this?
    – CCarter
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:51

To speak with Hegel, as in his Phenomenology and his Philosophy of Law, you are adressing a certain feature of normal development being stuck in a certain stage:

Ideals and presumably moral principles are, as @NelsonAlexander stated, not achievable per se. They are "mere perceptions", not necessarily perceptions of a certain being/achievable status. That is what brings Hegel to state that these principles/abstracts/thoughts are one-sided, as they have the reality as their negative.

What has to follow is therefore to revoke this negativity by instating a certain being (Dasein) that is concrete (one-sided), but only as an instance of the abstract concept (Begriff).

To apply this to your objection, it means that it is in fact foolish to have concepts/ideals/moral principles where no concrete actions can be subsumed under. Like the person that has the ideal to fly like a colobri. This is an empty perception.
But in another sense, values/ideals/morals cannot be achieved by definition, that is, put into concrete being as they are. Only as instances, as defectives.

BUT, as an objection against a too narrow understanding of this (not against Hegel himself), Otto Lilienthal (and, hundreds of years before him, Leonardo da Vinci) is a perfect example of someone who was inspired by the ideal of being able to fly. As long as your values/ideals/morals are as abstract as they should be, there is enough room for realization. The counterexample has been "able to fly like a colobri", which presumably is impossible, at least at our technical level.

If we do not make this difference, it is not possible to make a difference between values/ideals/morals and "the end of a concrete action" (direct or indirect) anymore.


Admiration seems to be a sensible riposte:

I can never hope to rival Mohammed Alis boxing genius, but I can admire the fight in him.

I can never hope to rival Gandhis moral courage, but I can admire his fortitude.

I can never fly like a humming-bird, or sting like a bee - but I can admire them.

Etc, etc, etc.

(& Etc, etc, etc)

  • 1
    I take this to be a great answer, perhaps you left out the concept of "ideals" deliberately, but it could be completing the answer.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:07
  • @klocking: I left it out 'willingly', as I wanted to say something else ;). Nov 10 '15 at 9:10
  • screw you, english language! ;) edited! But don't you think admiration and idealization are closely linked?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:13
  • That's a reasonable possibility, but as I said in the question, I want to know if there's any formal philosophical discussion on this subject.
    – CCarter
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:13
  • Also, I'd suggest that I'm not asking about admiration, but aspiration - this is the very essence of the problem. I know that I cannot fly and think it's amazing the way that hummingbirds do but I don't beat myself up internally at my lack of ability to fly. However, I hate my inability to be completely truthful all the time despite the fact that no human has ever been.
    – CCarter
    Nov 10 '15 at 9:15

In a sense, this question is the root of all Western philosophy, via Plato. Plato observed that people were always striving towards ideals they never seemed to be able to reach. He addressed the problem by postulating that there was a deeper, more perfect level of reality, compared with which our own reality was just an imitation.

This concept was tremendously influential in the history of philosophy, and retains currency in the realm of mathematics, and (via the Neoplatonists) in Christian and Islamic theology.

The "Allegory of the Cave" is generally considered the most accessible explanation of this philosophical concept. Within the allegory, there are two groups: Those who are satisfied with the world as it seems, as contrasted with those who somehow sense that their experiences and achievements are only a debased and inadequate version of ideal versions, towards which they can strive, but can never achieve.

  • While this is a good reference in regard to "ideals," I am wondering if it can really cover the questioner's emphasis on "personal inadequacy." While individuals in the dialogues fall short of "The Good," it is noticeable that the whole framing shifts quickly, by analogy, to justice and the polis. The sense of "personal inadequacy" that marks the Christian or even Capitalist traditions, for example, does not seem to characterize the ancient way of addressing human ideals. Nov 10 '15 at 15:35

An "ideal" is an idealization. It is generally conceived as a universal principle, even where stated in personal terms. Thus, while it may serve as a guiding principle for many or even "all" rational beings, it cannot be completely actualized by any one particular person. When it is so particular as to be achieved--like the five-minute mile or a human on the moon--it is no longer an ideal. What was "ideal" about it recedes.

The same would hold not only for our "highest ideals" but for social norms and "averages." It is not possible to be perfectly, completely "average." The principles are general, the lives described or guided by them are singular and particular. For this reason, the "ideal" recedes even as it is approached, like the "horizon." And where the "particular" life comes closest to the "ideal," the tragedy of this universal inadequacy is vividly rendered.

The paradigmatic case is Jesus on the cross, rendered "ideal" yet still suffering and filled with doubt. Or, as with Achilles or Faust, achieving one ideal may only reveal inadequacy under a greater ideal. When the mythical "ideal" is achieved, as with Buddha, say, or the "risen" Christ, a transformation occurs and the "person" is no longer a particular person, but a newly advanced ideal to all other persons.

There is nothing abstract in this, it is the way we largely feel about ideals and ambitions in practical endeavors. And it defines us. Our ability to imagine and communicate ideals beyond what actually exits must always exceed our actualization of them. So we are driven by conscience, by the ceaseless "ought." Kant proposed that "ought" implies "can." But not perhaps for anyone in particular. The tragic disparity you describe is, as much of our literature testifies, necessary to a human consciousness beyond mere existence.

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