Pragmatism, vision and strategy

The pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty, who died last year of pancreatic cancer, took a critical view of scientific knowledge, particularly as it is used in relation to social interaction and ethics. For him, human relationships and their ethical implications were always emerging, never fixed. Taking the traditional pragmatic interest in language as the basis for the emergence of self and society, and at the risk of being dualistic he compared how it is used from the standpoint of those with a desire for objectivity and those with a desire for solidarity. Those who adopt the former position are ‘objectivists’, metaphysicians, who try to describe themselves in relation to a non-human reality, meanwhile the latter, committed to solidarity, like to tell their story of a contribution to a community. In the late 20th and early 21st century, Rorty argues:

We are the heirs to this objectivist tradition, which centres around the assumption that we must step outside our community long enough to examine it in the light of something which transcends it, namely, that which it has in common with every other actual and possible human community (Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, 1991: 22)

An objectivist and metaphysician always aspires to something which transcends current reality as we might understand and experience it. We could understand an organisational vision as a transcendental statement in the way that Rorty is describing it. Rorty sees this tendency as part of the legacy of the Enlightenment, where those guided by objectivism will appeal to the need to follow explicit criteria as a way of arriving at reality. For Rorty, metaphysicians are always looking for ‘final vocabularies’ a small part of which are made up of ubiquitous but flexible terms like ‘true’, ‘good’ and ‘right’, but also more rigid terms like ‘professional’ and ‘standards’ and ‘the Revolution’, which do most of the work. One way of understanding the visioning process as commonly undertaken in organisations is as a way of aspiring to a final vocabulary with a conviction that this is done so on the basis of a strong moral claim.

However, those seeking solidarity, or ironists see everything in relational terms:

If we could ever be moved solely by the desire for solidarity, setting aside the idea for objectivity altogether, then we would think of human progress as making it possible for human beings to do more interesting things and be more interesting people, not as heading towards a place which has somehow been prepared for humanity in advance. (op. cit.: 28)

An ironist position is one which seeks an ever-expanding sympathy towards others, rather than convergence with an abstract and idealised pre-formulated end state. This involves always being open to redescribing our current understandings of the world, informed by an exchange with other people’s points of view. This puts ironists in a position of never quite being stable because they are aware of the contingency and fragility of their understanding of the world, and thus of their sense of self. I understand Rorty to be making the point here that an ironist is always in a state of becoming, able to stand somewhere, but continuously open to reinterpreting what they understand because of the constant ruptures and destabilisations of trying to engage with others.

Rorty is aware that his position is open to accusations of relativism, from a ‘common sense’ view of the world:

Metaphysicians think that human beings by nature desire to know. They think this because the vocabulary they have inherited, their common sense, provides them with a picture of knowledge as a relation between human beings and ‘reality,’ and the idea that we have a need and duty to enter into that relation. It also tells us that ‘reality’, if properly asked will help us determine what our final vocabulary should be. (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, 1989: 75)

But for Rorty in human interactions there are no absolutes, no final vocabularies that will hold true for all time and for all peoples, merely a dialectical discovery of new appreciations of our interrelationships. In privileging the continued expansion of our sensitivity to the needs of others, Rorty is partly trying to reclaim scientific method, which with the language of ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’, is usually claimed by the metaphysicians. Both in physics and in ethics, writes Rorty, there are no end points. Rather than uniting our efforts towards a just society under one big idea, Rorty prefers a broader and broader appreciation of the contextual and the contingent:

Solidarity has to be constructed out of little pieces, rather than found already waiting, in the form of an ur-language which all of us recognise when we hear it. (op. cit. 94)

Rather than seeing it necessary to unite around one big idea, he suggests that we merely need enough degrees of overlap in our understandings of the world to see that we are engaged in a common project. In doing so I think Rorty poses a significant challenge to the consensus-seeking instrumentalism of much current management theory.

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