I recently saw a brilliant slogan on a t-shirt. It read “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” What a wonderful inversion! It made me laugh. And think. And that’s a dangerous thing.
Pragmatism has become the iron-clad law of this age. Anything can be justified if it is done as an appeal to practicality. The most artless, destructive, useless activities can be passed off as strictly necessary. The most idiotic, contemptuous, miserly, and shallow behaviour in corporations and institutions can be justified to infinity through an appeal to practicality.
Don’t be idealistic, don’t be a dreamer. After telling children through their childhood that they “can do anything they want,” after filling them up on films and media that encourage them to dream big and be ethical, we dump them in early adulthood into the grown-up world of shallow, cut-throat sociopathy. Ideals? Theory? That’s for the kids. Grow up.
Consequently we live in a time where the art of deep reflection is disappearing. University degrees are little more than vocational tick-a-box exercises that seek to turn fresh new students into mentally stereotyped drones. Gone are the days when educated people knew about literature, or poetry, or history, or art, or philosophy, regardless of their vocation. Now all they know about is Facebook, and Xbox, and television sitcoms so poorly conceived that the audience needs a laughing track so they can figure out which bits are meant to be funny.
Why does theory matter? Who really cares? Because “what works” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider the case of milk pasteurisation, for example. What hey, we start pasteurising milk and people stop getting sick. Since that procedure “worked” we conclude it must be fine and don’t both to think through the larger context.
Of course milk making people sick was a new advent in the early 20th century due to the adoption of unsanitary farming practices and the feeding of cows with waste sludge from breweries which they could not digest. Sick cows = bad milk. Yet organic, free range raw milk, when tested against industrially prepared, pasteurised milk, actually resists infection and bacteria more effectively!
But in our limited paradigm of “that works, do that!” we never pause to consider whether it only seems to work because we have no theoretical imagination to look beyond the immediately obvious.
Theory, then, enables us to consider the limits of our interpretation of the meaning of events. To say that something “works in practice” is not an objective description of a circumstance; it is a more or less subjective value judgement. It implies we have thought through other possibilities. Yet if our only criterion is pragmatism then chances are we have not.
The invocation of practicality is all too easily a tool to silence dissent, or even to suppress open communication. “Well,” we are told, “it just has to be this way because that’s how the real world works.” Who said? When? Why? Should we therefore endure miserable consequences? We are all too willing to cover over life’s fleeting passage; in the name of practicality we make and conform to frivolous and wasteful decisions at a societal or technological level without the slightest hesitation or sense of irony.
Yet there is a more important point at stake here: aesthetics. Who cares about aesthetics? What practical value does aesthetics have? Aesthetics is about acknowledging the fragile and delicate art of existence. It is about remembering our uniqueness and our transience. An aesthetic approach to life recognises the mysteries and horizons of our existence; it offers no room for the false confidence and clumsy bravado of pragmatism.
Who says that efficiency is best? Who says that “getting it done ASAP” is the best attitude? Why? Did the world miraculously not function before we had the Internet? Mobile phones? Faxes? Even land lines? No, no it didn’t. Some things took longer and people were a lot more relaxed, which meant it was easier for them to fill their bodies and minds with knowledge and experiences of useless but soul-nourishing character.
I’m not saying that an aesthetic approach impels us to disregard practicality of course. I am saying that it tempers it by reminding our will to automation and haste that there is a bigger picture: “we do not know who we are or where we are going in this ocean of chaos” (Tim Leary). Is anyone really, seriously going to argue that claim? Good luck trying.
Taking our time, seeing how things interlock, tracing out the subtle webs of thought and implication, asking whether something is artful, these are not frivolous undertakings. They cause us to make more rational decisions, individually and collectively, because the hysteria of haste has no purchase. The mad panic of money markets, for example, would be impossible in a world that accorded theory and aesthetics as much status as pragmatism.
In fact, one could say that the obsession with pragmatism was a major contributor to the global financial crash, which is infinitely ironic to say the least, but also, I suspect, rather paradigmatic of the effects of the pragmatic mentality.
Obsession with “getting results” can very easily produce anything but results, or produce only the most shallow semblance of results (consider again those tick-box university degrees, in which students learn how to go through the exact motions of learning in order to satisfy university administrators, without actually developing a deep grasp of either thinking or of their course content).
Hegel proposed some two hundred years ago that the will has two “moments,” the first which is finite but active in the world, and the second which is infinite but powerless. He proposed that when we draw these two, action and thought, together then we begin to be human. Pragmatism unchained from human understanding, however, can produce only disaster, for action without the guidance of reflection on a mass scale weaves little more than chaos.
It is necessary for change to begin. It is necessary for one-sided pragmatism to be recognised for the self-defeating shibboleth that it is. It is time to reject the “faster, faster” sleight-of-mind that all-pervades the world today. And perhaps as we learn how to think again we might realise that much of what we thought “worked” in our practicality-obsessed mania was little more than water-treading and back-sliding anyway.