First Principle of Pragmatics: Everything Evolves Amidst a Shared Problem

This is an edited text from the Pragmatism and the Analytic-Continental Split Conference, University of Sheffield, ​09/08/17 – 11/08/17. I’d held it back, partly due to my reservations about the idea of a split, but I’m returning to it here, since its definition of pragmatics prepares for a later post on ‘fantastic pragmatism’.

I’ll begin with a definition. Pragmatics is a practice following the first principle that ‘Everything evolves amidst a shared problem’.

The primary nature of the principle implies that pragmatics should never depend on a timeless foundation, for three reasons.

First, this foundation will be evolving amidst a shared problem. To claim it is timeless is to misunderstand it. Second, if taken as timeless, the foundation becomes obsolete as things evolve around it. The foundation no longer applies to its environment. Third, the problem is also evolving, so an unchanged foundation is liable to be dealing with the wrong problem.

You knew your goal and how to reach it. Then the goal changed. Knowledge shifted. The means became useless. And you stopped being you. Nonetheless, the need to respond to evolving and shared problems remains.

My definition and its principle can be understood through a model; this is a guiding picture rather than a function to be applied by pragmatics. The model owes a lot to my work on Deleuze’s timed logic. It comprises two fields with asymmetrical, irreversible and open operations of transformation working between them – like a set of ships churning a channel.

By asymmetrical, I mean that the transformations do not mirror one another (they are not symmetrical and behave quite differently despite being causally connected, like waves undulating versus ships yawing and pitching). By irreversible, I mean that the transformations cannot be reversed so that the fields return to an earlier state (you can’t refloat the boats by shaking the waves backwards). By open, I mean that there will always be new and unpredictable transformations (new types of keel; more extreme weather).

Changes in one field bring about changes in the other, which in turn feed into the first, but this feedback alters the initial conditions, leading to new phenomena and challenges. The sea sustains and shakes the ships; the ships churn, exploit and pollute the sea; earlier ideas of stability and sustainability lose their effectiveness as problems evolve in these interactions.

Pragmatics fits this model because problems in one field depend upon others – problems always retain an element of the unknown, even when they come from within – but fields emerge together according to asymmetrical, irreversible and open operations. These operations undo settled patterns that could serve as solid foundations for reliable action over time, forcing us to rethink problems.

This is the essence of pragmatism: awareness of the necessity to rethink problems in every way; to start anew; to abandon ideas we may have cherished; to take chances on unlikely suggestions, because everything evolves amidst a shared problem.

Everything is always thrown back into the mix, inviting reassessments of actions, aims, understanding and rules. It’s like a fishing industry facing overfishing but constantly forced to reassess the nature of fishing due to changes in fleets, competitors, fish stocks, food fashions, increased wealth, political imperatives. The pragmatic need to reassess explains the evolution of shared problems expressed by the question ‘How to fish sustainably?’

We encounter such problems constantly. Like a container industry made to reconsider its main supply routes due to the reopening of the North West passage, growing climate disruption, changes to economic and political views of globalisation, pandemics, shifts in the fortunes of nations and continents. ‘Which supply routes are the best?’ Or like swimmers adapting to changes in styles, bodies, rules, understanding of stroke phase, distances, courses, competitors, costumes. ‘How to win swimming races?’

There is something paradoxical about the first principle. If everything evolves, what about the principle itself? What about its firstness? Or the idea of principles? Do they evolve too? I favour the following way round these paradoxes. The principle applies to its own concepts but, so long as we are working within the boundaries of pragmatics, it continues to hold as a first principle. Pragmatics is always about problems and evolution, even as these concepts are reinterpreted.

The workaround implies that concepts of ‘evolution’, ‘things’, ‘amidst’, ‘shared’ and ‘problem’ change and are up for grabs, but to count as pragmatics a practice should, firstly, wrestle with the principle and these concepts.

This leads to two corollaries that have been in the background of my definition and model. First, truth and knowledge are secondary to the principle and to the interpretation of its concepts. There is no truth and no knowledge that isn’t put in play by pragmatics. Whether that is the case for evidence is a very difficult question that I will return to in a later post about data (I have also considered the question of evidence in my book on the sublime, in a discussion of method, microhistory and Carlo Ginzburg).

The second corollary is that the nature of pragmatics is itself open to changes, reinterpretation and disagreement. These are the lessons that interest me in this post. Before considering them, I’ll make a couple of quick remarks about truth and knowledge. That they are in play does not mean they do not exist or that they are hopelessly relative.

How we understand concepts such as ‘problem’, ‘thing’, ‘share’ and ‘amidst’ will give us a wider context, a methodological basis and critical tools for defining truth and knowledge. These concepts determine the worlds in which truth and knowledge operate and make a difference.

When turning to interpretations of the principle, further features are important for understanding the nature of pragmatics. Firstly, the principle is permissive, since its core concepts can be understood in highly varied ways. For instance, the concept of thing (as in everything) could be taken to refer to objects, processes, physical particles or possessions – among many others.

Secondly, though the principle leads to a great range of versions of pragmatism due to this permissiveness, there are also strong constraints, since the principle has to be minimally understandable and maximally applicable. It has to make some sense and should make as much difference as possible.

There are constraints of consistency; for instance, in terms of the logical structures connecting the concepts. There are constraints of relevance, between the concepts of principle and the worlds where it will be applied. And there are constraints set by priority, since the principle cannot be defined in such a way as to no longer be first.

The range of versions and their differences underpin my interest in the interpretation of the principle. It is possible to examine past, current and prospective definitions of pragmatism as fitting versions of the principle. Here, the point is to show how that fit might work and the number and variety of positions that can arise.

The concepts belonging to the principle can seem quite straightforward. This could lead to the conclusion that there is only one good interpretation and hence only one line of pragmatics. However, if we take the apparently most simple concept ‘share’ and begin to look at it closely the notion of simplicity collapses.

‘To share’ varies greatly as a qualification of a problem depending on who shares it and how. We could limit the sharing to competence – experts, for instance – but then expertise about sharing is highly controversial and divided, as shown by the range of positions in economics around social justice.

Or we could extend sharing to a group of humans – those capable of being conscious of the problem, for example. This would bring us up against longstanding questions of exclusion, with their shameful history around slavery, the rights of woman, often arbitrary ages of political and legal participation, the horrors of the attribution of reason to some humans but not others.

Maybe sharing should extend to all life forms concerned by the problem. After all, animals have suffered most from human problems and their botched solutions, like battery farming as a false solution to food scarcity masking profit motives.

Contemporary extensions of rights to rivers and landscapes imply that they too share in the problem of pragmatics. Against, the claim that neither animals nor rivers can communicate their sharing, it is hard to deny their ability to express distress to us, even if we are very good at ignoring it.

The ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of sharing are strongly linked, as shown by the reference to consciousness. The idea of competence implies a test determining how something is shared. Experts are defined by their expertise as a power to act in a particular way (for instance, whether they have the right qualifications, circumstances and experience to examine the science associated with a given problem). But the extension of sharing to all humans (humanism) or to animals (through rights, for instance) show how competence with respect to understanding is far too restricted, if we take sharing in a problem to include suffering from it or having an interest in it.

This partly explains why pragmatics can be strongly connected to democracy. If to share in a problem means to be caught by its consequences and by the consequences of responses to it, then a whole population can be said to share in the problem. Democracy, as well as a full flow of information, become mechanisms to recognise this sharing and to translate it into joint decisions about the problem and how to answer to it.

Given the idea of a shared problem, pragmatics will always have an uneasy relation to forms of restricted government, including technocracies. Even if we accept greater competence around a particular problem on the part of a subset of a population (aristocrats or scientists or medics or people who have been to Eton or to an elite university, say) the problem they are wrestling with invariably goes beyond that group. It is shared much more widely.

Those who share in the problem can and should participate in pragmatic thought, according to the definition of pragmatics. The problem isn’t a pleasant conundrum. It’s an existential imperative – a call to act on evolution. ‘To share’ is to be transported by the problem, with the chance to influence it, before everything changes again.

The fact that you might be able to claim greater competence in dealing with a problem does not imply that you have a greater claim to be pragmatic about it. Pragmatics is about involvement, not about competencies. The great strength of democracy is that it is able to bring competence and involvement together and to provide a mechanism for coming to decisions that do not impose one upon the other.

‘Share’ is the most political concept of the principle. With its focus on what there is and what things become, ‘anything’ is the most ontological. ‘Evolves’ is the most historical and teleological, in carrying the past through to a different future. Harder to fit into familiar practices, I would say that ‘amidst’ is the most spatial, in the very broad sense of situational (as in environment, milieu, orientation). Finally, ‘problem’ is the most philosophical and metaphysical. The best pragmatism will respond to all of these aspects. Very few do.

As the practice of questions, puzzles, enquiry, critical reflection and sceptical scrutiny, philosophy is misnamed as the love of wisdom. It is the love of problems before and as a condition of any cautious and temporary love of wisdom or knowledge. Bringing these concepts and practices together through its guiding principle, pragmatics is an unsteady combination of philosophy, politics, ontology, history, teleology and situation.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll look at a definition of pragmatism by William James as a version of pragmatics. The idea is not to assess the definition – taken out of context it lacks the detail necessary for accurate close analysis. My aim is rather to illustrate how there can be a range of versions and to draw out the stakes of different interpretations of the principle and its main concepts.

According to James’s definition of pragmatism, in general terms, pragmatic theories are means helping us to make a practical difference as a contribution to progress: ‘Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.’ (James, ‘What Pragmatism Means’ – 1906)

James moves away from ideas of ‘enigma’ and ‘rest’, of a metaphysical puzzle with a satisfactory solution. Instead, his references to ‘instrument’, ‘making’ and ‘work’ shift pragmatism to a different type of problem, as practical hurdle requiring the right tools in order to be overcome and for effective work to take place.

By positioning the work of pragmatism within a forward movement and as a transformation of nature, James connects the evolution of the problem to an evolution of nature for human good. It has to be an evolution because the problem is not solved once and for all – there is no rest – but rather the tools we have change and must adapt to new circumstances they have themselves brought about. This is a progressive philosophy in the deep sense of a joint progress of theories and nature, rather than progress in nature due to unchanging truths and knowledge.

By extension from the ideas of work, progress and making, this practical concept of problem sets the concept of sharing as belonging to those who think practically, who apply theories, benefit from them and pass those benefits on to others. It is a social idea of sharing based around collective endeavour and benefit. Theories of pragmatism are to be ‘cashed out’, James claims, not only in terms of what they are for, but also in terms of how they are compared and judged (against each other and against other philosophical positions).

Significantly, my earlier model is overcomplicated for James’s version. His definition is better-suited to an analogy; for instance, with a practice such as medicine or building. A doctor acts to make a difference for the better in a practical situation in response to a shared problem. Architects are judged according to how they respond to the many different challenges of a brief, in order to design a practical building that improves the lives of those who will live in and around the building.

I am wary of these analogies, of ideas of work and making, of sharing as human-centred, and of the measures implied in cashing out theories. They restrict the definition of pragmatics to practicality and to effectiveness according to prevalent human and social standards. Pragmatism becomes sensible, dominated by practicality and accountancy. Against this image, I want to argue that the definition of pragmatics points to a different and more experimental and metaphysical sense. In the next post, I will therefore defend the thesis that pragmatism should be fantastic and as far from sensible as it dares to stray.