COMMENT: This entry is prompted by the frequency with which I have encountered endorsements of pragmatism in recent research. My goal is to describe briefly reasons for this (re)turn to pragmatism and to consider connections with and/or disconnections from WPR.
I feel impelled to pursue this topic due mainly to the links I perceive between positions on pragmatism and conceptions of critique. I am also interested in and concerned by the ways in which a governmental problem-solving paradigm, targeting “what works”, is aligned with a kind of pragmatism (see Bacchi 2009, Chapter 10, pp. 238-241).
Pragmatism, like all concepts, has many meanings. There are versions described as “philosophical pragmatism”, “sociological pragmatism”, French “pragmatic sociology” (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006) and “classical pragmatism”, associated with the American philosophers William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce.
Each version requires careful analysis that cannot be offered here. My major interest at this time is the association between some STS (Science, Technology and Society) theorists, connected with Actor-Network Theory, and pragmatism, with common invocations of John Dewey (Latour 2007a, 2007b; Marres 2007). Certain themes in classical pragmatism, specifically its anti-foundationalism and anti-dualism, explain these associations (Keulartz et al, 2002, pp. 14-15). On whether an affiliation with those themes makes one a pragmatist, I share Ian Hacking’s (2007, p. 48) repudiation: “those selfsame perspectives do not owe much to pragmatism, and do not define one as a pragmatist unless one so chooses”.
My major concern, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the pragmatist’s anti-skepticism, defended on the grounds that skepticism (questioning or problematizing) “forms an obstacle to a creative tackling of problems”: “Anyone who puts everything up for discussion will simply have no time left for the real problemsof the moment” (Keulartz 2002, p. 15; emphasis added). It is of course the very presumption in these statements that “real problems” exist as self-evident “things” or conditions that WPR sets out to challenge.
On similar grounds I am hesitant about Dewey’s defense of a problem-solving approach to education and public policy. Questioning in Dewey is restricted to occasions when you find yourself “in what Dewey called ‘a problematic situation’ – a situation in which you are no longer sure of what you are doing” (Rorty 1996, p. 44). It seems to be that this “problematic situation” is presumed to have a taken-for-granted existence that requires critical analysis through application of the WPR questions (see Bacchi 2016, p. 4 Bacchi The Turn to Problematization).
It is on this point that there appear to be connections between stances on pragmatism and approaches to critique. Latour’s (2004) classic piece addressed to why, in his view, critique has run out of steam,expresses disquiet with the tendency in contemporary critique, in his words, to “debunk” and a desire to replace that tendency with “assembling”. This stance affirms the link I have described between pragmatism, which Latour espouses, and anti-skepticism.
At one level I would want to challenge a dichotomy between “debunking” and “assembling” but, more seriously, I worry that such a dichotomy undermines a much-needed critical skepticism towards contemporary governing technologies. This need is particularly apparent in the trend over at least the last two decades (in western countries and in international organisations) to promote a “pragmatic” public policy focused on problem solving, evidence-based policy and “what works” (including “nudge theory”; see entry 26 November 2017).
I am pursuing links between this ubiquitous and influential paradigm and the endorsement of problem solving in John Dewey and other classical pragmatists. I want to ask – how are these positions compatible and perhaps even reinforcing? Bellman (2006) shows that Dewey is drawn upon in Germany to defendtechnocratic education reforms such as standardized testing, whereas in the United States, Dewey is put forward as a criticof these reforms. It seems important to ask how these contrasting positions came to be and how pragmatism can be invoked to support such divergent political projects. To this end I am currently involved in producing a genealogy of problem-solving models and theories. Such a project demands a healthy dose of skepticism!
Bacchi, C. (2009).Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education.
Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) . On Justification: Economies of Worth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (translated by Catherine Porter).
Bellman, J. (2006). “The Reception of John Dewey in the Context of Contemporary Educational Reform – a German-American Comparison”, Studies in Educational Policy & Educational Philosophy,5(1): 1-15.
Hacking, I. (2007). “On Not Being a Pragmatist”, in C. J. Misak (ed.) New Pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Keulartz, J., Korthals, M., Schermer, M. and Swierstra, T. (2002) “Ethics in a Technological Culture: A Proposal for a Pragmatist Approach”, in J. Keulartz et al, (eds) Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture. Dordrecht: Springer-Science+Business Media.
Latour, B. (2004). “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry,30(2): 225-248.
Latour, B. (2007a). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. First published in 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Latour, B. (2007b). “Turning Around Politics: A Note on Gerard de Vries’ Paper”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 811-820.
Marres, N. (2007). “The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy”, Social Studies of Science, 37(5): 759-780.
Rorty, R. (1996). “Response to Simon Critchley”, in C. Mouffe (ed.) Deconstruction and Pragmatism. London: Routledge. pp. 41-47.