People unfamiliar with IF sometimes ask if our “conceptual” discussions are at all “practical.”  The answer isn’t straightforward.  One could say that they’re practical “in the Aristotelian sense” or that they’re not practical in the “immediately or strictly instrumental sense,” but that wouldn’t be much help to most people; it’d only be re-labeling the issue.  So here’s a fuller, if necessarily longer, answer.

Being “Practical”—The Conventional View

Here is a list of things people typically associate with being “practical”:

  • focusing on self-interest
  • addressing pressing problems
  • thinking about “how to’s”
  • applying specialized knowledge
  • hard-headedness, realism, sticking to “the facts”
  • having all the relevant “facts.”

The Costs of Being “Practical” in the Conventional Sense

IF’s discussions are based on the idea that while these notions have a place in public discourse, they tend to crowd out all other considerations—including an entirely different and broader understanding of what it means to be “practical.”  More than that, the conventional way of being practical may produce some underappreciated negative side effects, as I suggest in the table below.

Conventional View of Being “Practical” IF’s View of Being “Practical”
Participants’ Qualifications
  • Interest in making decisions
  • Technical expertise
  • Willingness to develop possibilities
  • Practical intelligence
Pace Hurried Deliberate
Control of Discussion Leaders Citizens
Role of Facilitator Director Guide

What’s “Practical” about Discussing Conceptual Possibilities

Just because IF discussions don’t focus on immediate problem-solving doesn’t’ mean they aren’t “practical.”  One can be practical about even relatively distant things; one can be practical about things other than problems—such as developing and acting on possibilities, for example.  Here, then, are five senses in which IF discussions are “practical”:

  • Their very purpose is not to encourage citizens to agree about “where they are” or even where they should be going, but to broaden citizens’ view of where they might be going in the short term and improve the usefulness of public policy in the long term.
  • They allow citizens to explore what various possibilities might be like in general rather than specific technical or administrative terms: who has responsibility and for what; institutional arrangements; citizens’ habits and thinking; group interactions (e.g., “vigorous government protection of basic liberties combined with non-governmental means for dealing with other invasions of privacy”).  They thus allow citizens to explore the forest before they get lost in the trees.
  • To the extent they succeed, they will pose a challenge to citizens to consider multiple possibilities they might not otherwise have considered.
  • The conceptual possibilities that are at their core are not “neutral,” but are based on morally charged memories, perceptions, beliefs, habits, and emotions—all of which have practical consequences (however difficult these may be to discern).
  • The conceptual possibilities that are at the heart of IF discussions represent coherent and plausible alternatives for public policy in the “real” world of practical politics.

None of this is to suggest that the conventional view of being practical is “wrong.”  I’ve already said that at IF we believe it has its place in democratic discourse (and decision-making).  It is only to suggest that there is room for an alternative, complementary view.  It is that complementary view that supports our mission.  And that brings up one last point.  The more you think about being “practical,” the more you are likely to appreciate the interactivity between the conventional view and IF’s more conceptual approach.


* For more extensive discussion of this topic, see essay A-1 at: