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Pragmatism, a philosophy for our age?

Written by Ashwin Rattan Sunday, 22 January 2012 12:50
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Simon Deane-Johns, author of the recently published Lipstick on a Pig, and a practicing pragmatist, explains the philosophy behind his work.

A pragmatist is simply someone who acts in an informed way to control his or her personal environment, using a combination of theory and practice. Or as John Dewey put it, "intelligent practice versus uninformed, stupid practice". As a lawyer working on innovative solutions to consumer problems, I see plenty of examples of both types of practice.

A pragmatist does not slavishly follow rules, or political dogma, or "positive thinking" or the herd. To do so would assume a world that is somehow ordered, whereas almost all significant events in history are Black Swans - surprise events that have a huge impact and which we rationalise by hindsight. Rules and dogma can turn out to be badly wrong. The herd is eventually caught out. So it's dangerous to follow. Instead, we must rely on experience and critcial thought to minimise our exposure to the downside of these surprise events, and maximise our exposure to the upside.

The combination of theory and practice that qualifies as "intelligent practice" involves trial and failure. It involves being sceptical and "contrarian". It encompasses the aggressive "tinkering" of entrepreneurs - facilitators - who have helped us wrest control of our own life experiences from the one-size-fits-all experience offered by the established music labels, book publishers, retailers, package holiday operators, banks and political parties. These facilitators make the difference between us 'raging against the machine' in a lone, fragmented way and acting together as individuals in a highly concentrated fashion. And this giant, boundaryless online community of practising individuals and facilitators characterises the "architecture of participation" that lies at the heart of "Web 2.0".

It's perhaps no surprise that the rise of Web 2.0 has coincided with a decline and low levels of trust in our institutions, and findingsthat "the level of alienation felt towards politicians, the main political parties and the key institutions of the political system is extremely high and widespread [yet...] very large numbers of citizens are engaged in community and charity work outside of politics. There is also clear evidence that involvement in pressure politics – such as signing petitions, supporting consumer boycotts, joining campaign groups – has been growing significantly for many years".

In other words, it may be that institutions are being marginalised by people pragmatically engaging with each other in their own digital communities, not only for retail purposes but also political,environmentalhealth, and economic reasons.

Big questions arise. 

How do the institutions get it so wrong? How do facilitators succeed where institutions fail? How can we bridge the gap between what institutions say is right for us, and what is actually right for us personally? Could today's successful facilitators become tomorrow's institutions? Are today's institutions doomed? Or can they respond, re-organise and align themselves with how "we" individual citizens and consumers behave?

... and if you do have any questions for Simon, a good time to nab him is Thursday 26th January at the Society Club in Soho.

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