Pragmatist consulting: The art of bullshitting well

‘Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.’

–David Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’

Philosophers spend far too much time focusing on providing defensible views of their own and on knocking down the views of their colleagues when more attention is surely owing to the social phenomena and ‘public philosophies’ that define the shape of our modern culture. One example is pragmatism. One could either canvass pragmatists’ view of epistemology and philosophy of science (all the positions, unworkable arguments, modified views, damaging counterexamples, etc.), or one could cast a critical eye on the figure of the pragmatist consultant.

It is worth understanding why in business culture and at business schools the question that seems to trump all others is: ‘How useful is this? Tell me: how much practical value does this have in the context of our general pursuits?’ Enter the pragmatist consultant–McKinsey or anyone coming after. The pragmatist consultant is the figure who gets paid to tell others these very helpful, useful, and efficacious things. Or he gets paid to provide theories and models–typically represented in these rather silly-looking charts–that are meant to serve as tools or instruments for getting things done more effectively. Or to fire up the PowerPoint slides about business strategy.

He does not get paid to tell the truth, to be skeptical of an organization’s overall aims, to challenge its basic assumptions, or to show that what is useful to believe may be manifestly untrue. He does not take care of truth and, for him, value talk is best when it is relativized: it ‘works’ when it is ‘valuable to member P’ or ‘good for department Q.’ He likes values because they sound pretty good, but he does not know what they are and I doubt that he cares.

(‘What is the cash value of this idea? What’s working for you?’)

One has to wonder with the philosopher Harry Frankfurt about something fairly elementary: ‘Why is there all this bullshit around?’ It’s an excellent question to which I have no immediate answer. Still, it seems in the end that pragmatist consultants are chiefly good at bullshitting. That is their art. Their excellence is saying what is useful to say and useful–or thought to be useful–for others to hear. Indeed, in some cases it may be useful to speak of the virtues that are now floating about–integrity, gratitude, appreciation–without knowing what they are, what they mean, or how it feels to actually be grateful. A nice quote by Aristotle might get the juices flowing for brainstorming… In other cases, it may be efficacious to give managers the ‘hard facts’ or the ‘simple truth’ without in any way coming to consider whether the subject is of even minor relevance or passing interest, let alone whether the final aim of the company is remotely defensible. Come on now: isn’t he getting paid just to play along?

The sort of everyday pragmatism that I have in view is full of bullshitting, insincerity, slipperiness, make-believe, hustling, and servility. Of course, this ongoing game of subterfuge puts off indefinitely the basic questions that will, so long as pragmatism reigns, be unasked. Thus, paradoxically, pragmatism has all along been about buying time and wasting time. At the latter it is topnotch. And as for those basic questions I alluded to–‘What is going on? What are we actually doing here? Do we have sufficient reason for doing what we are doing? Can we for once cut out all the bullshit, the nonsense, and the buzzwords and speak plainly and directly with each other?’–well, these questions get endlessly deferred.

P.S. What Graeber left out of his vision of hell was that pragmatist consultants may not only like but also be good at what they do. Theirs is the art of bullshitting well.