Microsoft has just introduced Vista – its new operating system. Change an operating system and you change the context – change an application and you only change the problem before you. An application can be wonderful but if it is not compatible with the operating system, it is ineffective.
Right now civilization faces the problem of climate change and all the attempts to begin addressing this problem seem to be as ineffectual as trying to load an application into the wrong operating system. Indeed, our current philosophical context – civilization’s operating system if you will – is incompatible with this problem.
We simply won’t be able to address the problem of climate change (or any of a number of other problems) without first changing our operating system. Civilization’s current operating system is pragmatism. Until we realize that pragmatism is no longer pragmatic, we’re likely to find ourselves stymied by this problem of climate change.
Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy during the last century. The pragmatist is less interested in universal truths than in solving a specific problem in a specific context. For the Enlightenment philosopher, the holy grail of thought might best be represented in the laws of physics as articulated by Newton – the laws of gravity or “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For the pragmatist, the holy grail of thought might be articulating the legal argument that wins her case before the Supreme Court or writing computer code that becomes a best selling application. The pragmatist lives in a shifting world and doesn’t really expect to trip upon any universal or eternal truths. The pragmatist, in the words of William James, is literally interested in the “cash value” of idea. Pragmatism has become the dominant philosophy in circles where it matters – scientists, knowledge workers, and policy-makers (whether in government or business) are all pragmatists.
There is, of course, at least one problem with this: in a world full of pragmatists all focused on specific solutions to specific problems in a specific context, the system as a whole is neglected. Some intelligent experts are hard at work trying to understand how to sell cars, some on how to sell political candidates, others on how to understand climate warming, but none are at work trying understand how the interaction of all these (and other) pieces come to together to inexorably move us towards a calamitous collision of culture and climate. Working towards such a solution is terribly un-pragmatic, suggesting a course of action that is both improbable and implausible. Intelligent experts are unlikely to pursue the solution to such a problem set.
What is needed are groups of people who think through what it means to transform the foundational philosophy of our modern world. What would our corporations, government agencies, and schools look like if civilization’s operating system were systems thinking rather than pragmatism?
This is not merely a rhetorical question. Just such a transformation is exactly what happened about two to three hundred years ago when our notion of government was transformed.
Our founding fathers were deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. The historian Walther Kirchner went so far as to write:
“The first great assault upon the traditional social system occurred in England’s thirteen colonies. They were comparatively free and prosperous and subject to rather generous, progressive government. The assault was not led by the oppressed, but by those who had little to gain except the fulfillment of certain ideals rooted in the spirit of the Enlightenment.”
How do we address problems that spill across boundaries and seem to thumb their nose at our current institutions? I’d argue that the solution to how we transform society begins as it always has – with a transformation in our philosophical operating system. The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and Pragmatism all represented upgrades to civilization’s operating system – a transformation to the philosophy and paradigm of society. It’s time to upgrade again. Before the system crashes.