It is possible to have ideas without action. It is not possible to have action without ideas.
In my personal habits I am a very action biased person to the point of impatience and occasional recklessness. Yet in the bigger scheme I place far more importance on the role of ideas over action, theory over practice. Not because I think theory without practice is good, but because I know action without ideas is impossible. Thinkers can not act. That’s a tragedy. But actors can never not think. If they believe they are just acting and not philosophizing they’re simply doing bad philosophy.
All action is based on theory. My friend Steve Patterson summed this up nicely:
“Human action is an expression of philosophy. Every decision we make is inescapably framed and guided by our ideas about the world. Sometimes these ideas are clearly communicated by our actions; we write a book or create meaningful art. Other times, our ideas are so silent we aren’t even aware of them; they become a kind of subconscious framework for our actions.”
When you act you do so because you have ideas about your present condition, beliefs about a preferable future state, and beliefs about how the action will bring it about. Those who brag about acting over thinking are admitting to taking actions based on unexamined ideas.
There are two main ideas underlying all action, and both need to be examined. The first is an idea about an end state one wants to reach. The second is a theory of causality about what will bring that end state. An end state that is actually bad, or that the actor wouldn’t actually enjoy if they reached is is troubling. It’s the dog that catches the car. Many activists or “doers” imagine they want what they are chasing but they have not put any difficult, disciplined philosophical work in to examine their desired end, and to get to know themselves and see if it’s truly a desirable state.
Theories of causality are even less examined. So many well-intentioned people imagine a better world. Even if they’re sure they’d want to get there, many lose patience with theorizing and want to just do something. Doing something can be an integral and valuable part of forming a theory of how to get there the way experiments help shed light on physical phenomena. But if the actor doesn’t regularly stop to theorize, incorporate experience as feedback, adjust causal assumptions, and repeat, the action is useless or worse.
In our society you get points for doing something. If what you want is noble and you’re doing something, you’re applauded. Never-mind that you may lack any understanding of physical, economic, or social realities that can cause your action to result in nothing or even the opposite of your goal.
It is for this reason that I cringe when I hear people praise either ideas or action at the expense of the other. In fact, I think the only camp that really does this are the activists. The thinkers talk about the importance of ideas, and many may be too fearful or lazy to do any real-world testing, but they don’t typically claim that action is worthless. The self-proclaimed doers often vociferously vilify philosophizing as a waste. They do not realize that their denunciation is simultaneously an announcement that they are acting on unexamined and often bad ideas. By decrying philosophers they don’t separate themselves from philosophy, they just become bad philosophers.
Practice without theory is not an option. For this reason it is incumbent on all action-biased people to engage ideas with ferocious seriousness. Ideas not acted upon may be sad, but action not contemplated can be utterly disastrous.
Think clearly; think boldly; think big and you can achieve big results.
Agere sequitur credere.