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.

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What Dancy’s Late Late Show appearance has to say about the philosopher’s disappearance

On April 1, 2010, the professional philosopher Jonathan Dancy, who happens to be the father-in-law of Claire Danes, appeared on the Late Late Show to speak with Craig Ferguson about moral philosophy in general and about moral particularism more specifically. Let it be said from the first that I am quite sympathetic to Dancy’s view of moral particularism, an account of ethics according to which the right thing to do does not require a ready supply of moral principles to equip one with reasons for acting morally. In his book, Ethics without Principles, he defends this view that the moral agent acts by paying attention to the salient features of the case at hand and does so with a logical rigor for which analytic philosophy is well-known. Daoism and Aristotelianism also, though in different ways, give one to understand that the morally virtuous person is a person who has learned to act spontaneously (wu wei) or to sharpen his moral perception. In the ethical life, no moral principles are required and when they are offered, they offer us no help in our moral deliberations.

Still, Dancy shows his professional philosopher’s hand. The turning point of the interview occurs around the 6:30 mark. Ferguson presses Dancy to say something to the effect that moral philosophers know better how to live than their fellow layperson, yet Dancy refuses to play along. (One would have thought, Ferguson seems to assume, that a life spent considering questions of right and wrong would make one fit for acting rightly and for not acting wrongly.) Dancy replies,

As a philosopher, I’m not in the business of telling people how to live. I’m in the business of trying to understand something. What I’m trying to understand is what it is for actions to be right and what it is for actions to be wrong…. Most moral philosophers are singularly ill-equiped to do that [i.e., to tell individuals how to live].

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On the continuing appeal of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism

I’m just getting back from a 10-day trip to Scandinavia. The first five I spent in Stockholm and Vaxholm at Future Perfect, a festival focused on the subject of sustainability; the second five in Denmark at Kaos Pilots, a social entrepreneurship school based in Aarhus. At Kaos Pilots, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry in the context of social enterprise. It was a joy from beginning to end thanks in no small part to the inquisitive students and to Pete Sims, the team leader who invited me to teach there.

As I reflect on my experience, I return to one kind of reply that I heard frequently and found bewildering. One example will illustrate the kind of experience I kept having. On the second day, I asked students to consider what makes a wrong question wrong, and one student asked, at the very outset, whether this question isn’t already assuming that I’m making universal moral judgments concerning right and wrong. I replied, in the spirit of Aristotle, that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are said in a number of ways. “Wouldn’t we say that 2 + 2 = 5 is a wrong answer? Don’t we hear, ‘I put in two teaspoons of nutmeg, right? Can’t we say that someone has done a good job? And didn’t Michael Jackson teach us to ask, ‘Who’s bad?'” Quite possibly, right and wrong answers, as well as good or bad answers, also admit of this variety.

The student was, I believe, satisfied with this reply, but it still left unexamined the ‘public philosophy’ (cf. Walter Lippmann) that many young Europeans have received: some admixture of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. By ‘public philosophy,’ I mean both the general scaffolding of someone’s or some group’s thought and the reception of a set of lived-out ideas. Mind you, this ‘reception of lived-out ideas’ may bear only a passing resemblance to a robust conception of, say, relativism or pragmatism, but even in its attenuated form it suffices for an individual to make sense of a set of lived experiences.

I do not see it as my task to provide knockdown arguments against the public philosophy whose main ingredients are relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. So, in what follows I do not weigh in on the merits of more robust, more defensible versions of relativism, postmodernism, and pragmatism. Rather, I find it more prescient to examine their hand-me-down appeal to young persons: what, after all, draws young people to these philosophical ideas, and why might it be crucial to let go of them once one has arrived at greater intellectual maturity?

In a word, the appeal of relativism is that it gives the young person reason to reject traditional forms of authority such as parents, educational institutions, and political organizations. None of these can be the ultimate arbiter over my life, I think, and so I am able to distance myself from these standards by which we determine the value of things. In this space of transition, I also admit the variety and complexity of human life: the values we ascribe to lives, persons, and objects can vary, based on a number of factors; the value that one person affixes to one object may not be the same for another; the things one used to value may not be those that one now values; etc. In the odyssey of self-understanding, relativism turns out to be an important way station whose purpose is to permit me to reject old forms of authority and to think seriously about the nature of values.

Postmodernism provides further buttressing for relativism. In Richard Rorty’s version, the postmodernist perceives that there is no ‘final vocabulary’ (or way of speaking or set of values, etc.) that can trump or outweigh all others. The postmodernist, accordingly, takes seriously the Death of God thesis and manages to live, or so it is said, with a greater sense of play and possibility. Where the relativist has time to put to question old values and think about moral complexity, the postmodernist–one step farther down the road–has a chance to say that no values are ultimate or backstop or, let’s say, worth dying for. The postmodernist is an ironist till the end.

Pragmatism, the last received philosophy, leads the young person to identify what is true with what is useful. ‘What can I do with this?’ or ‘How far can this take me?’ become relevant questions for him to ask. No more need I consider Truth with a capital T or knowledge as justified true belief or whatever. Far better to think about the tools with which I have been equipped, the uses to which they can be put, the practical changes I can effect.

There is considerable appeal in this public philosophy: rejection of the old, relief of metaphysical burdens, and usefulness in connection with one’s plan for life. The appeal seems to be that I can get on in this all too human world and find a place within the existing social fabric. (Alasdair MacIntyre might quip that it is an education for middle managers or consultants and he would be right.) I needn’t challenge others or be challenged in turn (relativism); I needn’t be puzzled about questions concerning what matters most because nothing anymore matters most (postmodernism); and I can be a hired gun whose task is to consider what works for this organization or what is useful in terms of bottom lines or what can be delivered on deadline (pragmatism).

But what if the world were crumbling?

Tomorrow, I want to explore why this public philosophy is out of step with the unsettled age in which we live. We are in need of big thinkers to help us navigate through a space of uncertainty–let’s think again of Kaos Pilots, of pilots navigating through chaos–and this cannot happen unless we are staked (pace relativism) to something of ultimate importance (pace postmodernism) without resorting to what is to be done forthwith (pace pragmatism).

Of parabolas, East of Eden, and biting philosophies

A scene: Late afternoon at the playground. A boy, towheaded, with eyes the color of turquoise, and a man, early 30s, with pelo dorado and eyes of wolf-blue. Green jacket against green tire swing against red corduroy pants.

The man pushes the boy at regular intervals. The boy’s eyes draw a parabola on the way out, retracing the shape on the way back. The boy feels hands on his back at regular intervals, except that the pushing varies in force as the air varies in temperature.

A thought: a mundane exercise in loving.

Joan’s asides while sitting and watching East of Eden, a film released in 1955 and starring Julie Harris and James Dean. (Julie Harris used to live in the same neighborhood, and not infrequently they’d run into each other at school.)

Of Americans’ antipathy toward Germans who’d emigrated to the United States before the war: “I had a German tenant living with me during World War II. It got so bad that she finally had to move upstate. No one would serve her.”

Of James Dean: “I don’t know, I don’t like him. I’m always aware of the person he’s trying to play.”

Some of the best public philosophy interviews are available in 15-20 min. podcasts at Philosophy Bite’s website. David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton are providing an excellent public service.

The interviews with Edward Craig (no. 9) on the nature of philosophy, Raymond Geuss (no. 80) on real politics, and Brian Leiter (here) on the analytic/continental distinction are all good and engaging.

Public lectures on philosophy as a way of life

Peter Adamson, a professor of ancient philosophy at Kings College London, is in the midst of recording an extensive number of 20-25 minute lectures addressed to the generally educated person on the “history of philosophy without any gaps.” His lectures on Aristotle’s ethics are fine and lucid as are his talks on the Cynics and the Cyrenaics.

To his credit, Adamson emphasizes the fact that Hellenistic philosophers, those philosophers who flourished from the time of Alexander to around the 2nd C. AD, were oriented toward the vision of philosophy as a way of life. His delivery, be it said however, is much like Jerry’s in the early Seinfeld episodes. Eloquent he is not.