Ideas as Tools: Pragmatism for the Unintroduced

Whether you notice it while watching tv or reading news, sometimes words get used and their meanings seem slippery. There is often a lack of clarity with important concepts, like: freedom, democracy, socialism, rights and politics. One reason likely to be cited by a social scientist or historian might be that each is an abstract concepts whose meanings depend on socio-historic context. For example, what a 21st century North American considers freedom likely varies considerably from what an ancient Athenian considered freedom; for example, those who did not participate in elections were not free, as they were not exerting control over their fate through a political institution. The same goes for democracy: in ancient Athens, free citizens were allowed and expected to vote and by their estimation, a representative democracy would have probably been quite unacceptable. The thing is that ideally representative democracy tries to reconcile the shortcomings of the Athenian system(imagine the chaos of some of their political assemblies), while maintaining its strengths.

What a pragmatist might say about the asymmetries between Athenian and American notions of democracy is that of course they are different, as both are in the abstract collections of ideas that try to deal with certain problems. While a politicians are sometimes called pragmatic, this implies a fairly shallow definition: one who uses X to achieve Y. Often, this accompany consequentialist calculations too; or ends-justify-the-means logic. In truth though, while the idea of pragmatism that I offer is simple, it goes deeper than instrumental logic.

What anyone unfamiliar with pragmatism stands to gain from it is the perspective that problems are opportunities to perform experiments in problem-solving. From what scientists can tell so far, what sets humans apart from other animals is that we wonder about unobservable phenomena and apply knowledge therefrom to problem-solving. This is a fairly incredible thing that at some point, a human recognized patterns associated with things like approaching storms or which implement was best for which task…eventually applying this to other problems that may have been seemingly unrelated too; creating an expanding body of knowledge. It is quite remarkable, really.

Fundamentally, pragmatism holds ideas to be things that can be modified and/or experimented with to meet the challenges posed by life. With this in mind, consider what pro-social politics are at their most basic level: a project of fulfilling human needs; a mechanism for flourishing. Democracy, republicanism, socialism, conservatism and so on are not concrete, but change and adapt over time, based on outcomes. The antithesis of the project of developing ideas to better suit our needs is becoming too attached to shallow, pernicious, or otherwise bad ideas.

Being a Canadian, I must take an opportunity to write about [neo-]Conservative and neo-Liberal political camps: both have routinely proven themselves to be handmaidens to corporate interests and generally disregard the best interests of citizens. It has become abundantly clear that serious changes to taxes, market regulation, political representation(ex: rep by pop, in Canada), foreign policy and other areas need to be made. Ample time has been given to the socioeconomic elite to pay their blessings forward in the form of good governance, higher average household incomes(not just fucking GDP calculations) and sustainable types of development…to name a few minimal targets.

Forty-six years ago, a very influential political philosopher reasoned that great inequalities can only be justified if they are to the maximum benefit of the worst off. Subtly, this argument provided the justification throughout the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney eras, which constructed much of the institutional architecture of the economic-oligarchies/corporatocracies that, us Westerners live in today.

The time is nigh for citizens to recognize that the purpose of politics are to meet human needs; not preserving systems that prove time and again to do the exact opposite.

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