Tag Archives: pragmatism

Navigating a polarised world – perspectives on radical difference

Lots of people are currently thinking about how we might talk to each other differently, particularly when politics seems to have become so polarised, and what it is that gets in the way of our fully recognising each other. In an interesting article on what he terms ‘denialism’ in The Guardian the other week, Keith Kahn-Harris treats sociologically contestation over what we think to be true. Denialism goes beyond every day denial, of which we are all guilty, but is both ‘combative and extraordinary’, he says. In some ways, Kahn-Harris argues, denialists are like the rest of us: they just want the world to be the way they would like it to be, and to make actual sometimes unspeakable desires. However, where formally denialists tried to emulate the careful work that goes into making an argument that climate change is happening, in other words they spent time and energy building a careful argument, now we encounter post-denialists who might say one thing one day, and another the next. If you like, they feel no need to entertain science-envy by mimicking scientists’ methods, and can speak, like President Trump, off the top of their heads. This has an insidious effect of contributing to an environment where everything is contestable and no-one believable.

One of the interesting things Kahn-Harris does is to kick away the liberal myth that if denialists would stop denying we would necessarily share a common moral view:

‘Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly.’ Continue reading

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Organising as conversational activity

‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps which have gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument, then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress.’

Burke, K. (1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, pp110-1.

The above quotation encapsulates for me what it’s like joining an organisation, as a consultant, or as a new employee, understood from a pragmatic perspective. On entering an organisation you pitch into an argument which is already going on and in which there are several threads of heated discussion. It’s a struggle to join in, to understand what is being said and what it might mean for what you do next because you don’t yet have enough history with this particular group. You take up a role and become part of the action, influencing and being influenced. Once in the organisation, not to participate is as significant as participating, because people have already noticed you. Do you have anything to say? There’s no ‘safe space’ that people sometimes crave in team away-days, and nor is there a view from outside what is going on where you can make sense independently, somehow uninfluenced. The moment you speak your ‘truth’ you have become part of the discussion; you have taken sides in organisational politics.

For the pragmatists groups of people talking together, arguing, making alliances, trying not to make alliances, clarifying what we mean by what we say, is how knowledge if produced. It is fallible knowledge, good enough for now until circumstances, and the turn the heated debate takes obliges us to think differently. In doing so, thinking differently, we understand ourselves and the argument we are part of, anew. We have to decide how to take the next step, but having taken the next step, everything looks slightly different from the new position.

There might be some advantage for those engaged in this situation of flux if they can use their reflective intelligence. Although there is no stepping out of the discussion it may be more or less possible to participate but at the same time to notice how your participation influences things, and how you are influenced. The ability to notice the repeated patterns of this particular episode of hurly burly may offer different options for you and the other discussants. But it may also not be an advantage for long. It is hard to maintain an understanding of plural points of view, particularly if they are changing as the discussion changes. Is it possible to maintain your own argument and be radically open to other arguments both at the same time?

These, then, are some key ideas from pragmatic philosophy which are helpful for thinking about organisational life. Organising is a conversational activity which has no beginning and no end and which takes place in a group of groups. It is often heated because our valuations matter to us: we cannot stand outside our commitments, although we only fully realise what they are through articulating them and encountering others’ difference. In struggling together as a conversational community we discover how to take the next step, which may then give us a new perspective to keep going with our inquiry. Practising intelligent reflection, noticing the patterns of our habitual engagement, may offer potential for thinking and behaving differently. But there is never just one thing going on and taking in plural points of view requires work.

Groundless hope

In the recent general election in the UK in May the political discussion sometimes turned on the idea of hope. Each of the political parties was keen to convince the electorate that their particular plan for the UK, their ‘vision’, was the best recipe for hope. They each promised UK citizens a better future (although the vote may have come down to people’s perception of the least worst option). Equally, the current leadership election contest in the Labour Party which has been triggered by the party’s humiliation by the Conservatives, has provoked some jostling amongst the candidates. Each has been arguing that their particular platform offers most hope particularly to the poorest in society who have been most severely hit by government initiatives which target benefits.

To a degree you can see how politicians are caught in something of a double bind. One the one hand if they fail to set out some kind of transformative ‘vision’, a promise of hope, then no-one will follow them (even if it is as simple as ‘yes we can’, or ‘change we can believe in’). On the other hand, and because we have come to distrust politicians with their grand promises, any grand narrative is bound to be met with a sceptical response. Nonetheless, each of the candidates seems to be setting themselves the impossible task of coming up with a ‘clear vision’ for the future. Continue reading

Visioning backwards

On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.

‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’ Continue reading

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) Continue reading