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Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

I warn you now, I’m not sure this posting will be of any use to you.

I can’t help but notice that many who come to spend time at Henley arrive with a particular outlook on action, and a particular attitude toward thinking. I’m going to label that outlook “pragmatist”, though in truth this is just a piece of second-guessing on my part. That I venture an opinion on this at all is merely and partly from crude, subjective observation, and only with some hesitation.  I shall try to defend this by defining how I think a pragmatist thinks, and then counter that view by suggesting a shortcoming or two, as well as (not surprisingly) a hint at a different outlook.

The term ‘pragmatist’ has a reassuring allure to most managers (arguably, less lustre for those identifying themselves as leaders) because it holds the promise of getting things done, and done in a way that is neat, doable and matter-of-fact. It is almost shorthand for no-nonsense, if not quite common-sense. A pragmatist is a realist, conscious that the world is complex, yes, but equally aware that too much contemplation can get in the way of getting to the next thing. And there is always a next thing to be got to. The pragmatist will tolerate intellectual dilly-dallying only for so long, and will press sooner or later (sooner, actually) for reason to prevail and action to follow.

But the word has a long and fine history in thought, and a deserved place in the story of the philosophy of science. It has in its time been the informed view of many management thinkers and educators, especially in the US, where the term was coined in the late 1800s.

I take the four basic premises of pragmatism to be:

1. A focus on human action in any given situation

2. A view that knowledge is learned, remembered or acquired only according to its utility (or usefulness to action).

3. Humans respond to their environment indirectly, and through a process of interpretation (a big one, this, because it follows that descriptions are abstractions of experience, not experience itself).

4. in any given situation, the usefulness of objects influences what humans select to notice.

Pragmatism is important because it  wants to show that knowledge (which is the focus for action) is open to a scientific method of enquiry. The route for this is inference from empirical sense-data. This is clearly an attractive idea in the world of management – which wants to exert control over a world understood to be concrete and measurable. Enquiry, thought leading to action, becomes the process of better getting to grips with (and better getting control over) one’s environment. Whether or not what one believes to be true is in fact, or in someone else’s opinion, ‘the truth’ matters only so far as it affects that goal. Pragmatism is realist, but only as far as is minimally necessary in that particular ecology of inquiry to inform an action. In the last 100 years, and just as forcefully today as in the periods of social upheaval before and after the Second World War, pragmatists have influenced the formation of policy in science, education, democracy and public policy (including the formation of laws and norms that dominate the context of nearly all global trade, commerce and business). At an individual level, our identification with material gain, consumption, our views of what constitutes ethical practice in business, our tolerance of work practices and acceptance of the functional superiority of a ‘belief’ over a ‘truth’ all owe something to the legacy of the pragmatist tradition. We all go along with the prevailing view because we believe that, all things considered, it works. Whether it is in some sort of abstract or meta-level way true is less important.

In terms of drawbacks, I would like to suggest three.

First, a pragmatist has nowhere to go in terms of explanation other than to the linking sense-data and experience. In other words, they are limited to the forms of inference that rely only on the links between empirical data and events.  By this (and as mentioned in several previous musings on the blog) I mean induction and deduction. What is absent here is abduction. It is worth stating that the early proponents of pragmatism coined and were very interested in abduction, but something seems to have been lost along the way.

Second, this brings me back to whether or not a Business School has any business to disavow someone of the view that it doesn’t really matter how the world really is as long as how YOU believe the world is seems to produce results. I suspect not, but doubt that others do.

Third, and the original point of departure for this whole rant, the usual mantra of “the purpose of contemplation is action” ought to be turned round.  Reframed “the purpose of action is contemplation”, it changes everything.

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