This morning I want to take you an a brief philosophical journey around John Key’s new favourite word.
That word, as you might have noticed after the weekend, is “Pragmatic.” Or, if you prefer the proper noun, “Pragmatism.” In recent months, for example, if you’d been paying attention you would have heard:
- Tax breaks to encourage investors and fund managers down to New Zealand? “In theory it sounds like a good idea but in practice the time and cost involved - you would have to take a pragmatic view…”
- “…not selling Kiwibank shows the govt is now taking a far more practical and pragmatic approach to state asset sales…”
- “Key said today the compromise is a ‘pragmatic solution…’”
- “Key’s reign is marked by his pragmatism and optimism…”
- And over the weekend, “The word ‘pragmatic’ was also on high-rotate in the Prime Minister's vocabulary. In Key's dictionary, ‘pragmatic’ is not a dirty word.”
How, you might ask yourself, did an obscure word invented by a now largely unknown pair of nineteenth-century philosophers come to so thoroughly litter political discourse. Because it’s not only not a dirty word, it was used three times in John Key’s keynote speech at the National Party conference, hardly the place to present a philosophical treatise! Said Key:
- [This] package of amendments to New Zealand's labour laws … contains pragmatic solutions to real issues facing real businesses and employees;
- “…a package of changes that I believe is pragmatic, credible and effective”;
- “… we will [govern] in a pragmatic and balanced way… guided by the values and principles that have underpinned this great Party for so many decades…”
Clearly an important idea, then, since as recent experience would tell you it has clearly done something important to those very Values and Principles that, as Fran O’Sullivan pointed out on the weekend, used to encompass “the principles of personal freedom, individual responsibility, a competitive economy and support for families and communities,” but now encompass … well, based on recent experience, what they encompass is Backflips, Backdowns and Doing Just What Labour Did.
And if you understand what pragmatism really means, why would anyone be at all surprised at that outcome?
Bear with me a moment as I explain why. But first, let’s check a real dictionary—or, since pragmatism is a philosophical term, a philosophical dictionary—to see what kind of a word ‘pragmatism’ is, because what you’ll find out there about pragmatism is highly illuminating.
The philosophical doctrine of pragmatism was really invented in the nineteenth century by Americans C.S. Pierce and William James to do away with what they understood to be obscure metaphysical speculation, (they’d been reading a lot of heavy Germanic philosophy, you understand, in which obscure metaphysical speculation has never been more weighty). In Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy, they described, in the language that nineteenth-century gentlemen used, how their new philosophy would (they hoped) clear away the metaphysical tickets. First, James:
Pragmatism: The doctrine that the whole ‘meaning’ of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences…”
And now Pierce:
Pragmatism: The opinion that [the abstruse speculations of] metaphysics are to be largely cleared up by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of apprehension: ‘Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’”
What they’re saying is that their new philosophy is not a search for truth, but for something they call “practicality.” But observe that since truth has been dispensed with (“truth” is just another name for what you think you can get away with), this is a very unusual view of “practicality,” because their “conception” of reality is not about the stuff of reality itself, but only of the “conception” of the “effects” that some stuff may or may not make on other stuff (“perception is reality”).
In other words,* it is a “practicality” that consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards, and treating reality as so much malleable stuff that may (or may not) allow itself it be tricked into helping one’s goals.
But if you dispense with absolute principles and standards, then what’s left? Not truth; not honesty; and sure as hell not “the values and principles that have underpinned a great Party for so many decades.” All you’re left with instead is something called “practicality”—but a very fluid kind of practicality, in a strange and complicated world, in the service of some unnamed and undefined goals.
Because, if you think about it carefully, ethics is simply the science of goal-setting, and this is a philosophy entirely without an ethics. No wonder it proved so attractive to politicians (Q: “How do you know a politician is lying?” A: “Their lips are moving.”)
These are the sorts of reasons more honest philosophers talk about “The Menace of Pragmatism,” because:
Pragmatism is not a substantive set of doctrines so much as a way of thinking, a unifying approach that helps to sustain an array of doctrines that are, in their content, irrational. Because it is a method, however, and informs the way that a practitioner tackles any issue, it proves much more difficult to unroot than an erroneous conclusion. Moreover, thanks to its positive image, pragmatism tends to give harmful ideas a good name, bestowing them with the misplaced aura of reason. It thereby makes people who wish to be rational all the more susceptible to those ideas.
The menace is a live one.
Now, I don’t suggest that every politician goes to bed with the dusty tomes of Messrs Pierce and James. But the teachings of these two have certainly got into the culture, (not least because their apprentice Pragmatist, a young John Dewey, was the founder of the Progressive school system in which the west’s education system is still enmired). No, in Key’s dictionary—and the dictionary of very working politician, I suspect—being “pragmatic” simply means ignoring principle and doing what you can get away with. But if by this reasoning principles are taken off the decision-making table, and they have been, then what’s left? If principles are off the table, then how on earth do you decide what to do?
The answer is that you’re left being blown around by whatever ideological wind more principled people can whip up. As they do.
No wonder this pragmatic Prime Minister always seems to find himself simply Doing Just What Labour Did.
I’ll discuss the single most important, eloquent and disastrous, expression of Pragmatism in modern political history.
Can you guess what it was?