Fantastic Pragmatism (published version)

My article on the need for pragmatism to be metaphysically inventive is now published in Nóema (No.13, 2022). Many thanks to the editorial board and readers for their comments and support.

Fantastic Pragmatism (PDF)

Introduction: pragmatism as fantastic, metaphysical and self-critical

The everyday sense of pragmatic involves ideas of sensible practice, cautious realism about current situations, flexibility allied to technical knowledge, and the prioritisation of what works, as opposed to unrealistic and damaging ideals. I argue against this technical and sensible flavour of pragmatism, present in many of its historical and contemporary versions. This also implies that I am arguing against much of pragmatism’s perceived political and social attractiveness, as an effective, reasonable and grounded approach to problems. Pragmatism can be taken as technically-minded, realistic and practical, thereby avoiding the excesses of abstract ideologies. Instead, I will defend the thesis that pragmatism should be fantastic, in the precise sense of metaphysically inventive. In making this latter argument, my main critical point will be against the metaphysically «quietist» version of pragmatism, in particular as de-fended by David Macarthur. My claim is counter-intuitive, since it seems to commit pragmatism to the forms of idealism that it has sought to criticise and escape. If metaphysics propose ideal pictures of the world, as opposed to detailed, local and evidence-based descriptions – allied to rigorous experimentation – then the fantasies of metaphysics are exactly what pragmatism should avoid. In response to this critical counter, I will argue that pragmatism should be metaphysically inventive because it cannot avoid being metaphysical. However, I also argue that it should be self-critical in its fantastic creativity. The idea of a philosophical approach free of metaphysical presuppositions and assumptions is a lure, but so is the idea of metaphysical innovation free of critical anchors in experience, practice, rational review and democratic scrutiny. The challenge for pragmatism is therefore neither how to remain practical, sensible, realistic and yet technically adroit, nor how to avoid metaphysics through kinds of metaphysical quietism. It is how to develop its own metaphysics, while remaining pragmatic as a form of invention. In this latter usage, pragmatic means a constant critical vigilance around the dangers, flaws and necessity of metaphysical creativity.

James Williams, Fantastic Pragmatism, Nóema, 13 (2022): La filosofia in pratica,, ISSN 2239-5474, p 62, pp 62-75

An impression of the background to the argument can be taken from the recent use of ‘pragmatic’ to describe the UK’s current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, on pressing political issues such as the Northern Ireland Protocol, immigration policy, economic relations with the EU, energy policy and diplomatic relations with China:

Sunak pledges ‘robust pragmatism’ not ‘grand rhetoric’ with foreign policy

Rishi Sunak is ‘pragmatic’ about imposing windfall tax on soaring energy profits as Brits’ bills skyrocket

The new prime minister will, declared Theresa May, provide the ‘calm, competent, pragmatic leadership our country needs at this deeply challenging time’

Rishi Sunak, the UK’s pragmatic new prime minister, doesn’t believe impossible things either

The Government expects that Rishi Sunak, who will become Britain’s prime minister on Tuesday, will introduce a more “pragmatic” approach to the Northern Ireland protocol, opening the way to a possible deal with the EU which would end the stalemate on the issue

The idea that this pragmatism is not ideological and hence not based on contentious world views is contradicted by one of its main considerations. It is designed not to be directly practical about each of the issues outlined in the linked articles, but rather to keep the different entrenched factions of the Tory party sufficiently in line to keep the Prime Minister in power (and not suffer the rapid demise of his three most recent predecessors).

This pragmatism is a vehicle for holding politically extreme views together. It is also an expression of those views. The point isn’t whether one agrees with them or not. It is rather that Sunak’s practical approach is ideological, in the sense of having ideologies as main considerations for how it is to be practical.

My argument is that this ideological and metaphysical aspect is unavoidable in any pragmatism, not only those coming from a political position. It even applies to philosophical positions that profess to be forms of ‘metaphysical quietism’, since quietism is itself a metaphysical position, with world views, values, arcane historical practices and antecedents, and a panoply of interlinked images, metaphors and concepts.

These metaphysical considerations can be hidden or denied. They frequently are in philosophical pragmatism and in supposedly ideology free practical political forms of government, such as technocracies. Part of the ‘pragmatic’ label applied to Sunak stems from his background as a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs, as a Stanford MBA and as a hedge fund partner. Professional investors are supposed to be technically minded and pragmatic in their approach to investing.

Yet we keep having serious financial crashes that are traced back to irrational investments. Active investors frequently underperform passive market trackers. Markets often perform more like herds and gamblers than the result of carefully researched pragmatic decisions. The case for pragmatism in market professionals is moot, except in their pursuit of high fees.

Metaphysical and ideological presuppositions lurk. They come to light when we contrast a position with others over time and across world views. If we unpack the values, methods and goals of any pragmatism, we discover its metaphysical basis – its timebound and position-relative world view. Greed is good. It is always about the individual. Markets are rational… Markets always fail. Communities are cohesive. Abstinence is good.

What about a more middle-of-the-road and purportedly non-ideological political pragmatism than current wings of the Tory party? When viewed from other positions and historically, ‘third way’ politics are in no way uncontroversial or lacking in political, ideological and metaphysical presuppositions. It’s just that these only come out when the third way is placed in ideological context over time.

Tony Blair was praised for his pragmatism and lack of entrenched principles. Nonetheless, when tested by world events, his politics and those of his allies such as Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson, Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw turned out to have fixed and deeply held values and principles. At the core was a ‘grand strategy‘, that lead to war in Iraq.

A similar commitment to British nationhood – and to electability on the UK scale – led to perhaps less principled opposition to Scottish independence, in the case of Darling and other Labour figures. Against the stated aims and concerns of Labour, the failure of independence led Scotland into years of regressive Tory rule and Brexit, overriding vote results in Scotland at every election since the independence vote.

For the purpose of my argument, it doesn’t matter whether those values and the war are agreed with or not. It is rather that time and history, political opposition and alternatives, and the extreme nature of the acts committed and agreed to, indicate much more than a simple pragmatism at work. There was always an ideology and a metaphysics there, but it took time and events to draw it out into the open.

In the article on fantastic pragmatism, I go on to argue that, firstly, any pragmatism must be alert about and critical of its metaphysical presuppositions (something that is not open to modern political pragmatism, given the taboo against admitting actual rather than sham flaws in public).

Secondly, given the tendency of middle-of-the-road pragmatism to express a range of already established, implicated and failing political, metaphysical, cultural and social positions, I argue that pragmatism needs to be self-critical while opening up new and thoughtful ways forward. Pragmatism must be metaphysically inventive, with caution, or it is condemned to represent vestiges of ideologies merely mocked up to seem natural.