Ideal and Nonideal Theory: Untangling the Debate
In reviewing some of the literature, ideal and non-ideal theories are presented as opposing or
at least competing theories, in the same manner as are liberal and progressive theories of
education. Some scholars suggest that ideal theory ought to precede non-ideal theory, while
others suggest just the opposite. This is referred to in the literature as ‘the priority objection.’
Some suggest we don’t need ideal theory at all and should exclusively use non-ideal theory.
Others focus on how this scholar misses the point, that scholar leaves something out, or this
scholar has it right and here’s why. My objective in this paper is to argue that aside from
important and scholarly discussions, ideal theory and non-ideal theory are artificially
polarized. Further, and more radically, characterizing ideal and non-ideal theories as two
separate enterprises and as ‘theories’ are category mistakes. Not surprisingly, because of the
artificial polarization and category mistakes, the debate is rather confused and stuck. This
paper attempts to untangle the confusion and open up the dialogue.
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