Looking for the ideal word.
December 26, 2010 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the word for an certain kind of ideal.

1.) There are ideals that can be reached: "My ideal body weight," or "Ideally, I'll pay off all my credit cards by March."

2.) Then there are ideals that can't be reached, so you shouldn't even try. Teaching a pig to sing, for example.

3.) Then there are ideals that can't be reached in practical terms, but for which you should keep trying in the face of inevitable repeated failures. Depending on your ethos, this might include "Be nice to everyone," "Always tell the truth," or "Never kill a living thing."

Is there a word or nice succinct noun phrase for the third type of ideal?

I don't like "guideline" or "suggestion," because those imply that it's okay to break it for your own convenience. I'm looking for something that says "You should be sorry and try not to do it anymore, but you should also move on and keep trying."

I thought "incremental ideal," might be good, but apparently I just made that up.
posted by lore to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
These sound like aspirations to me.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:01 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The word is "ideal." Your #2 above isn't an ideal, it's an aspiration.
posted by sinfony at 5:02 PM on December 26, 2010

posted by foursentences at 5:03 PM on December 26, 2010

1) isn't an ideal. It's a goal.

2) Isn't an ideal. It's a dream, or an impossible goal.

3) These are ideals.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:07 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aspiration, goal, intention.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:17 PM on December 26, 2010

posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:18 PM on December 26, 2010

posted by AugustWest at 5:18 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Saying "#1 isn't an ideal" is mere logic-chopping, as the word "ideal" is commonly used to describe things like "ideal weight" or "ideal behavior." Clearly, if the community of English-speakers uses the word "ideal" to describe something, it's perfectly cromulent for lore to call that an "ideal".

The third thing is a behavioral ideal, a precept, a tenet, a principle, a credo, a standard, perhaps an article of dogma?
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:27 PM on December 26, 2010

Categorical Imperative?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 PM on December 26, 2010

The Platonic Ideal?
posted by mephron at 6:15 PM on December 26, 2010

Aspirational ideal.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:34 PM on December 26, 2010

"Polestar" or "lodestar".
posted by Flunkie at 6:47 PM on December 26, 2010

What you may want here is "prima facie" value or "pro tanto" value -- meaning, it needs to be taken into account in your moral calculus, even if it may in any given instance be overridden by some more pressing consideration.
posted by foursentences at 7:03 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

English makes this distinction in a fuzzy way. If you use "ideal" as an adjective ("ideal weight," "an ideal situation") you're usually referring to the first kind or ideal. If you use it as a noun, referring to, say, a person's ideals, you're referring to the third type. You're also using it this way if you accuse a person of being idealistic.

If you say something like "Ideally, I'll pay off all my credit cards by March," you are actually, by using the word, hinting that that may be unrealistic (or idealistic). You want to, but there are a lot of contingencies. Just saying "I want to pay off my credit cards by March" wouldn't imply that.

The word comes from the ancient Greek word ἰδέα (or εἰδέα) "pattern." Philosophers used this word to talk about the difference between the idea of something and actual things. (See mephron's link.) Part of the idea of a ball is something like the idea of pure roundness. Actual physical balls are never perfectly round, and are, of course, made of different, specific kinds of physical stuff, which the idea of roundness isn't, and, course, imperfectly round in different individual ways. The word was taken over by philosophers into Latin, and then into English and other European languages. The noun use of "ideal" sticks fairly closely to the philosophical usage.

So basically, there isn't a separate word for what you're asking about that I know of. But you can make the distinction depending on how you use it, and there's a history behind it.
posted by nangar at 7:29 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:35 PM on December 26, 2010

posted by two lights above the sea at 11:30 PM on December 26, 2010

Quixotic ideal/quest? I think that skews more to #2, but I sometimes phrase it like that - "I have a quixotic ideal of doing something life-enhancing every Saturday.". I've just searched and came up with "Scalia, also dissenting, wrote, “The court today continues its quixotic quest to right all wrongs and repair all imperfections"
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:13 AM on December 27, 2010

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