"The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real." So said Wallace Stevens, a poet. What is true for a poet, one would think, should be true for those of us who indulge in pontificating regarding what is real.
But if true it is ignored by many of those who advertise themselves as being in the business of reality, which is to say some of those we call intellectuals. Especially, it seems to me, those who hold themselves out as such but seem in purporting to know what is "really" real make a point of not adhering to it. This is because of their disregard of the ordinary, the everyday; the what, where, why and how in which we live, in favor of an imagined realm of their own creation.
Sadly for them, and for us as they live among us, albeit grudgingly, their imagination perforce lacks vitality, as Stevens noted. This is due in part I think to the fact that their imagination is wholly academic, not merely in terms of its pertinence (given its disassociation from our lives) but in its source, i.e. the Academy. That place seems less and less real itself. The further away from it one gets, the less one even thinks of it. Of course, I'm rather far away from it now. But it seems in some way a part of one's childhood, which is a curious thought but strikes me as unsurprising.
That particular thought brings on others. Do those who devote their life to it prolong their childhood, after a fashion? Probably not. There is a difference between being a teacher and being a student, and it's difficult to think of teachers as children. But it was questionable even in the far off days of my youth whether teaching is the goal of those in higher education, at least in the larger universities. Research, and publishing, seemed even then to be of primary concern, though happily not in the smaller school I attended.
Even law school has little or nothing to do with the practice of law, I've found. I suspect it's the same with medicine, and the other professions. What accounts for this disconnection between our schooling, and school men and women, and our lives?
I think it results from the fact that other people and their problems, and their impact on us and our problems, are more of a concern in life than they are in school. The school is a very simple, limited environment and is peculiarly focused on issues and concerns which are temporary for most of us and have little relation to life in the world.
In life we encounter problems which are sometimes sources of desperation and despair. They must be dealt with, one way or another. They can't be made the subject of mere speculation; people and their demands cannot be dismissed in real life, or usefully pigeon-holed in such a manner as to render them of only a kind of literary interest. They intrude on us constantly and can do so violently. They can cause physical harm. There is little opportunity for abstract contemplation, and little cause for theorizing, in the real.
So I think it regrettable that a distinction is drawn between the everyday and the "really" real or significant. From that distinction we get such musings as--that's all well and good for ordinary life, but not profound enough otherwise. We see this attitude sometimes among those very strange bedfellows who are willing to accept that science and reason provide the best guides for everyday life or knowledge, but otherwise insist that God, or cultural construction, provide the better way to understand what is truly the case. The strange alliance of religious fundamentalists and academics in the denigration of reason and the fostering of the irrational has been noted before, of course, and cannot be said to be a new insight. But I think there may be more involved than mere science-baiting.
Of greater concern is what I feel is an impulse to avoid the hard work of thinking about the problems we encounter in everyday life. This impulse can be gratified by relying on God to solve our problems or thoughtless adherence to well known divine decrees, or by the comforting belief that no one way of addressing problems is necessarily better than another.
There is something medieval, scholastic, about the disassociation from the everyday which is disturbing in itself. Far more disturbing, though, is the attitude that everyday life is simply not worth thinking about, or that thinking is not required as God has and will provide. We have so many problems, and it's at least possible they can be resolved intelligently if we were willing to recognize that everyday reality is the only reality we have, and that all else is a diversion at best, a delusion at worst.