Investing in Pragmatic Ideas
Society relies on hard concepts. They’re what make language and mathematics so effective. By extension, we rely on them for all of our moral and legal codes, scientific methods, religious doctrines, and literary canons — everything we associate with civilization.
The more rigourous and precise our ideas are, the more effectively we can use and correct them. This is why scientific values and methods have flourished — not just in science but in engineering, business, education, and other fields as well.
But it only goes so far. If the value of rigour and precision is largely in our ability to test and correct, then if we’re not open to identifying mistakes and opportunities for improvement, the whole process will start to undermine itself. We might develop very efficient processes for achieving specific ends while lacking any means to assess whether those ends are valid or sustainable.
For example, a professional bodybuilder might use steroids to build muscle more efficiently, while efficiently hastening his own death at the same time. Likewise, financial engineers have become adept at maximizing trading efficiency but it remains to be seen what all the effects of that efficiency will be over the long term of the global economy.
How do we measure and assess not just the effectiveness of our means to specific ends, but their relation to other ends — and the value of pursuing those ends at all? We need better ways to apply a science-like mindset to questions that temporarily defy scientific rigour and quantification. This is where we can use a more pragmatic attitude.
Pragmatism isn’t just about “being practical,” it’s actually a term that originates from philosophy, specifically American philosophy of the late 19th and early 20th century.
William James, who popularized the term, was educated as an M.D. but had no tolerance for the actual practice of medicine. After drifting for much of his late twenties he went on to become a philosopher — hardly a hero to the practical men and women of today.
The old pragmatists like James and Charles S. Peirce were serious scientists and philosophers. They were more concerned with getting things right than getting things done. For Peirce, pragmatism meant making meanings more defined:
“In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception.”1
However, pragmatism is commonly taken to mean the reverse of that — instead of “getting our ideas clear,” it’s about “getting clear of ideas.” One of the definitions of pragmatism I found via Princeton Wordnet is: “guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory.”
That intellectually naive attitude can be used very effectively by many personalities who happen to live and work in the right conditions, but those conditions can only be stable for so long, and as things change we need the ability to understand exactly why certain practices worked in the past, what factors they depend on, and what kind of events might render them less (or more) effective in the future.
This is precisely the challenge we face today. A lot of the conditions that made things work a certain way in the last half of the 20th century have changed. It isn’t enough just to make a factory or office run more efficiently every year. It isn’t enough just to step on the accelerator (or the brakes) when we confront a challenge. It isn’t enough to use the same old, mechanical metaphors.
Read history carefully enough and you’ll find that many of the things we take for granted in business, government, and day-to-day life, were once articulated and argued over by philosophers. We don’t have to think about them because, centuries ago, someone else already did.
In this way, the so-called practical or action-oriented attitude that renounces reflection doesn’t really reject theory, it’s rather an unconditional acceptance of theories inherited from the past. To “be practical” means putting absolute, blind faith in someone else’s ideas — ideas meant for a different time and place. So ironically, the person who reads and reflects on philosophy is actually more skeptical of philosophy than the person who says it’s a waste of time. The untheoretical practitioner trusts ideas blindly, whereas the theoretician tries to get on top of them, to take ownership and manage them more effectively.
Metaphorically, action-oriented people “lease” their theoretical frameworks rather than buying into them directly. This enables them to focus on what they’re good at — getting things done — by providing mobility and freedom from the risks and responsibilities of ownership. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being unreflective when it’s properly appreciated as just another division of labour in our society. Remember, “do what you do best and link to the rest.”
For example, accountants can’t afford to worry about a pipe bursting or a roof leaking at tax time; they need to focus on their business and let the property owner take care of the facilities. And most businesses will eventually grow and contract; such periods of change are precisely when a business can least afford to be distracted by peripheral concerns. It’s usually preferable to pay an outside specialist who can take care of all the real estate, facilities, groundskeeping, and property matters so you can focus on doing what you’re actually paid to do.
Now consider that we also work and live on conceptual grounds, in conceptual facilities that need to be regularly maintained and occasionally renovated or reconstructed.
By “conceptual grounds” and “conceptual facilities” I mean all the ideas, theories, assumptions, expectations and conventions that surround us, including all of our assumptions regarding the aims of enterprise, conventions of success, rules and unwritten codes of conduct, cultural values and norms, vocabularies and points of reference, the meanings of words (such as “goodness” and “truth”), favourite metaphors and models, objective methods and techniques, subjective preferences, even the “meaning of life” — anything we can’t see or touch that nonetheless influences our actions and decisions.
Everything we do is saturated in thought and suspended in language. We can’t do anything without some kind of conceptual framework or background, and we can’t do anything with these frameworks and backgrounds without words and symbols to represent and manage their many components. These conceptual facilities and grounds are just as important to working and living as our physical environment and material tools are; they influence everything we do, and we can never get completely away from them.
But in comparison to physical facilities, our conceptual facilities tend to be largely neglected. We can’t see and touch them in quite the same way (or rather, we can’t see or touch them at all), so they’re difficult to recognize and grasp — doing so requires yet another set of conceptual facilities and tools. This is especially true of those conceptual facilities that touch deeper, more general levels of life — the stuff that has been maintained by religions in the past but is increasingly neglected and shoddily worked over by an ongoing parade of feel-good books.
Discussing thoughts and knowledge in this way — as if they exist on a separate level or in a “conceptual sphere” — isn’t necessarily true but it’s a practical necessity. Remember the notion of spatial bias from an earlier chapter: we evolved to work more effectively with ideas framed in spatial terms. After all, it isn’t the abstract notion of truth that matters most, it’s whether or not the idea tends to survive and reproduce — and help us do the same.
This in itself demonstrates the point of the chapter. Pragmatism means working with concepts to develop better “for now” solutions to theoretical challenges — equipping them with practical bearings we can observe and use to continue the process through future iterations. Pragmatism isn’t just about addressing problems we have now, it’s also about being more prepared for those unexpected problems and opportunities we’re creating for the future. There’s never an expectation of finality. As William James said, by following the pragmatist method,2
“Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets one at work.”
This may seem to contradict my earlier claim that new kinds of challenges may need to be addressed by “stiffening” our ideas. But pragmatism doesn’t call for a rejection of all rationalizing, it doesn’t mean we may not occasionally have to “stiffen” a theory in order to find clarity or generate leverage, it simply calls for a new “attitude of orientation”:
“The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”
Now if looking towards fruits and consequences happens to be most effectively done using principles, categories, and supposed necessities as temporary facilities and tools, then it is pragmatically acceptable to do so — as long as thinking doesn’t get re-oriented back towards “first things” in the process, mistaking an instrument as an ultimate or absolute purpose.
At the same time, pragmatism shouldn’t be mistaken as an excuse to walk away from theory and logic altogether; that would assume that pragmatism is a priori the best way of thinking, that our best practices are already worked out and settled — which is exactly the kind of assumption that pragmatism is meant to root out and overcome. To take pragmatism as absolutely the best practice would present it as an absurd contradiction. An absolute principle that advocates rejecting all absolute principles must itself be rejected, according to itself.
Whereas if we learn to appreciate pragmatism as an attitude or disposition, and we outgrow the reliance on principles and rules to grant us permission to get on with things — in other words, if we learn to appreciate the process as an end in itself, not requiring rational validation — then the contradiction becomes relatively unimportant, personally.
The pragmatist appreciation of truth-in-the-making is a realization by the pragmatist individual that they have grown beyond absolute reliance on principles; their mind has developed enough to move about on its own legs; principles have become internalized as a part of that movement instead of being external supports.
Pragmatism means taking ownership of one’s own conceptual facilities and grounds, accounting for them objectively, putting them “on the books” as assets.
This in turn incurs a lifelong obligation or debt that pragmatists must pay. To get away with saying that truth is in the making, you’ve got to actually keep making it, you’ve got to keep working with it and maintaining it, continuing to cover the costs, paying down the mortgage, and reinvesting. Owning your own knowledge is an ongoing commitment, not an instantaneous achievement.
If you claim to be a pragmatist but don’t accept this attitude of ongoing ownership and responsibility by continually updating, maintaining, and buying into your conceptual facilities — if you become too carefree about the pragmatist contradiction (i.e. if you say, “Truth is in the making, the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth, so let’s not bother”) — then you end up with nothing sustainable.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. You can walk away from all this intellectual stuff and be purely action-oriented if you like, but you can’t claim it’s because you took possession of some ultimate knowledge, principle, or rationale. If you walk away from the truth and truthmaking altogether, you can only claim specific practical or arbitrary reasons, not superior knowledge or understanding.
You could claim you simply feel like letting it go, or you could say it’s because you’re already in the habit of letting others take care of theoretical concerns, or you could say it’s because you’re just going along with everybody around you, or you could claim that your decision is based on some immediate necessity or benefit (i.e. “I don’t have time for that; there are other things I should be doing”), but any general rationalization of the decision not to care about theory and truth would be absurd.
I’ve heard self-identified “practical” people make general statements about the superiority of “practice vs. theory,” but it’s absurd to give theoretical reasons for not being concerned with theoretical reasoning.
Theory is itself a kind of practice, in the most general sense of the word. Theory and practice aren’t opposed. Being concerned with theoretical knowledge, truthmaking and thought does not necessarily mean being impractical. Theory is a different, more general kind of practice aimed at designing and maintaining the conceptual facilities through which we work, learn, and live.
As I use the term, theory is the practice of using language to make our ideas manageable and clear. It’s about seeing. A theory works like a lens to help us focus only on features that will make us most effective. Like any other practice, it can be done with varying degrees of competence. Mastery requires sustained practice through a variety of challenges. It’s like trying to draw a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional scene. There are techniques and principles of perspective that need to be learned to depict the world realistically, and to indicate where different objects are in relation to each other.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with neglecting theory for the sake of focusing on real action; but there is something wrong with presuming to have a firm grasp of both aspects,
claiming to own knowledge that you never had to pay for and don’t actively maintain.
It becomes a kind of intellectual vagrancy. It’s dangerous because it puts blind trust in mysterious and unaccountable sources of ideas. When things start to change or go awry, intellectually vagrant individuals (or organizations) get pushed around by events and have almost no recourse but to hope the system becomes somewhat stable soon so they can find another bit of shelter to occupy.
By “intellectually vagrant,” I have in mind stereotypical business people driven by short-term results or dreams of fast financial freedom. The business realm isn’t the only place we find these people (politics comes to mind as well), but they’re easiest to tell this story about.
What sets them apart from more honest executives and practitioners (or “tenants,” who lease their conceptual facilities because they openly admit it isn’t their business to manage them), is that vagrants actually claim to know their actions are grounded in truth.
Here I’m thinking especially of certain gross simplifications of pseudo-Darwinian ethics — i.e. “everything is governed by the profit motive,” “greed is good,” “eat or be eaten,” etc. Enron’s CEO Jeffrey Skilling famously admired Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, falsely interpreting the theory to mean that societies ought to be organized around selfish motives.
Ultimately Enron became a lesson about what “survival of the fittest” really means: not necessarily survival of the strongest, smartest, and most aggressive, but survival of the most suited to circumstances — which often means kindest, most cooperative, and luckiest.3
Paradoxically, what intellectual vagrants claim to know tends to become a supposed excuse to not have to learn any more. They don’t ask hard questions, they don’t sympathize with other viewpoints. They just tell themselves they’re right and blaze on, creating dangerous social and ethical structures that put others at risk as well.
The big problem with such false claims to owning knowledge is that honest practitioner-tenants get fooled into working and living in the same derelict conceptual facilities. When the pipes burst and the roof starts leaking, nobody’s going to fix it. At best, problems might get a temporary patch or cover-up, which may keep the facilities operational and seemingly in good order; but they might get repaired in a way that makes them less functional in the long run, so one day the whole thing could just collapse and leave nothing behind where the tenants once thought they were safe.
Of course, to say these collapses leave nothing behind at all is an exaggeration. They often leave behind pieces of infrastructure, resources, and knowledge to benefit former competitors, successors and other emerging enterprises. At the very least, such collapses educate survivors and observers, who may learn something from the mistakes, and might even find a few good pieces of ideas in the debris.
But it’s important to recognize that knowledge — like any other kind of resource or infrastructure — is most beneficial when it’s functionally integrated into a larger system. Specifically, events are most educative when they confirm, refute, or refine knowledge we already have.
Without existing knowledge, events will occur to us merely as a few disconnected anecdotes and facts — which will probably soon be forgotten without any context to relate them to. Someone who had never thought much about business (or ethics, or culture, or psychology) is unlikely to learn much from the Enron fiasco, or the tech bubble, or the housing bubble, or the credit crunch, or the investment banking collapse, or whatever comes next. Whereas someone who already knows a lot about an event’s context might learn enough from it to fill a whole book — or even a whole academic career.
To fully understand events, it’s especially important to articulate assumptions, expectations, or speculations about how things might turn out in the future — before they turn out — and why you think that way. By doing so, the future becomes a kind of objective scorekeeper that provides indications of how well our ideas are performing, helping us overcome the subjective weaknesses in our knowledge, notifying us to ideas and assumptions that need to be improved, refined, expanded, updated, opened up, or shut down.
Think of how much life goes by without being harnessed for educational or intellectual use. There are ways to turn anything towards more generative, sustainable, and manageable ends. All experience is in a sense learning experience, but it is predominantly undisciplined and unproductive; we tend to let most things come and go without affecting our theories.
Meanwhile, we allow ideas and habits to become important parts of our lives without accounting for them. We learn some of our most influential habits, preferences, and beliefs by accident. Most people have no clue how these were formed, nor would they know how to evaluate or correct them.
When these habits, preferences, and beliefs are challenged, people will stand up for “who they are,” they’ll go to war over “what they believe,” but they are hardly able to make any account of the sources of their identity or beliefs, nor make the even the minutest adjustments needed to turn a destructive confrontation into a generative conversation. Instead, most people are content merely to be “who they are,” and “agree to disagree” with anyone who’s different. This goes nowhere.
The ultimate good of pragmatism isn’t profit or truth; the ultimate good of pragmatism is found in social aspects — i.e. conversation and collaboration — which are ultimately what life is all about.
Pragmatism is the attitude by which we humanize the organizations and institutions where we work, learn, and live. As these institutions become more humane, it becomes easier to be humane ourselves. As we “unstiffen our theories” we become more able to communicate and collaborate — resolving differences, overcoming challenges, and addressing new opportunities, both in our private lives and as part of larger public enterprise.
A pragmatic plasticity is required to be both tough and soft — rigid at times and malleable at others. On one hand we need to use hard facts and rules to avoid or overcome subjective excesses. On the other hand, the desired aim of life is subjective well-being and freedom.
So I’m going to suggest a couple of terms to describe two complementary aspects of my pragmatic approach: “open objectivity” and “temperate subjectivity.” Temperate subjectivity is the desired end, and open objectivity is the means to that end. Or relating them to the terms of a previous chapter, we ought to conceive a good life as a regulated and steady current flowing through clearly defined yet open and adaptable frameworks.
Open objectivity recognizes that we can’t accomplish anything together unless we have hard structures and facts to serve as common points of reference. When disputes arise, we need to be able to say, “Well, let’s see how X turns out, then we’ll know if either one of us is right.” But this is no way to enjoy life; merely knowing what’s right and following hard rules is not the whole point of living, so this objectivity needs to be open-ended, incomplete, liberating.
The aim is to condition ourselves to make intuitive, spontaneous decisions and evaluations that are just as valid and effective as those calculated by the objective instruments we design. This is what I mean by temperate subjectivity, whereby free thinking has been informed by objective structures and facts, and those structures and facts are always readily available to check ourselves against the possibility of repeating past mistakes.
Creative freedom is experienced as enjoyable in itself, and it also serves practical necessities — just like owning your own home. At its simplest, a good and happy life is about having the freedom (which, don’t forget, also means having security and stability) to enjoy spontaneous moments of beauty, discovery, laughter, and love.
At the same time, emergencies and surprises inevitably occur, whether we want them to or not, and these can’t be totally accounted for, objectively, in advance. The most effective decisions are often made by people who have been conditioned through objective frameworks to intuitively know what to do without being paralysed by analysis and deliberation.
Ultimately, a society of human minds is smarter than anything we could ever design. But our minds can’t function without conceptual facilities — ideas, concepts, theories — and these facilities are designed. If they’re designed poorly, we think poorly; if they’re designed well, we think well. Pragmatism reframes the world so instead of “problems” we see opportunities to learn.
When thinking is done well, we can use it to turn even more of life into a fulfilling, generative experience.
1“Pragmatism” (1905). Collected Papers: v. 5, p. 6.
2This quote and the one following are from Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907).
3See “Darwin Misunderstood” by Michael Shermer for Scientific American (February 2009). For an account of this error’s role in Enron’s downfall see Enron: The Smartet Guys in the Room (2003, 2005 film).