09 July 2008

Enlightenment, Pragmatism, Deconstruction & The Future as Context

It is not enough for the next generation of politicians to give up on old ideas. It is time to give up on old ways of thinking.

Enlightenment thinking, perhaps best characterized by the ideas of friends Isaac Newton and John Locke, suggested that one could rely on universal laws, or principles.

Pragmatism, pioneered in part by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James, emerged about two hundred years later and suggested that the broad universality of general principles might be over-stated. Specific problems needed to be solved within a specific context. The specialists of the last century pride themselves on being pragmatists.

It might seem odd to put deconstruction within this tradition. Comparatively speaking, deconstruction is a minor philosophy and generally thought of in regards to text. But deconstruction, it seems to me, takes pragmatism a step further, pointing to the importance of context in determining veracity. But context can easily be arbitrary: the psychologist might see the relevant context as one's childhood, the sociologist as one's community, the economist as the one's labor market, etc.

Deconstruction proved unsatisfying to most because it pointed out two things: context is key and context is arbitrary.

To me, it seems as though the relevant context for policy is a shared vision. Typically this will take the form of a desired future, but it need not. (Some really powerful exercises in vision can imagine a different now – not just a different later.) A shared context can create the cohesion of enlightenment thinking's universal principles (and it is worth remembering that it was Enlightenment thinking that brought us the modern nation-state, perhaps the defining community for most people living in the West). A shared vision can suggest goals for pragmatists who will necessarily be working on specific problems.

In the world of politics, we generally hear policy framed in Enlightenment terms: in vague generalities that suggest little in the way of specific solutions. Meanwhile, specialists - pragmatists - are busily working within corporations to solve specific problems and are making progress. So within the public arena, universal truths of little relevance are espoused (e.g., "Education is vital." "We must not let greedy executives rob us." "We must not unnecessarily burden businesses." "We should engage only in just wars."). Within the private sector, a thousand separate and conflicting goals are pursued.

Conflict will always define communities, but a measure of cohesion allows alignment of resources and effort. And ultimately, the public arena is defined by what is common, not individual. It seems to me that our politicians and policy makers need to move beyond Enlightenment era platitudes to the point of providing context for specialists, for pragmatists, in the form of a shared vision.

This vision need not - indeed, will not - be monolithic. It is probably more useful to think of visions than a vision. Visions that could provide a context for specialists might include such things as
• Reliance on alternative, or renewable energy, or a world where the cost of energy drops every year just as information processing and storage has.
• Transforming massive swaths of education into digital and interactive content - eliminating the need for teachers to duplicate efforts across the globe. Using teachers liberated from such rote tasks to do things now ignored (e.g., setting the context for learning with individual life goals for each student, making the definition of a career an iterative process that unfolds over years).
• Creating community centers that enhance feelings of engagement and purpose, dramatically mitigating levels of anomie, depression, and alienation (that is, taking the pursuit of happiness seriously).
• Institutions that enable individuals to realize goals that matter deeply to them rather than goals that simply matter to the leaders of those institutions - or even matter simply to the masses.

Ultimately, this role of creating a context by vision is one that calls for something other than Enlightenment, Pragmatism or even Deconstruction. It requires systems thinking - the leader in a role of facilitator and connector rather than dictator (even if by popular consent). Realizing a future vision generally requires the creation of a new system rather than modification of the old one.

We are acutely aware of the importance of changing technology like trains or cars or planes. We are generally less aware of the importance of changing technology like how we frame problems, model our world, or define possibility. Yet these kinds of technologies, too, have to be changed. How we think about the world sets the context for what is possible, even in the world of technology like planes and cars. It is, sadly, hard to see the glasses one sees through. Yet I can think of no technology change more important than a change in how we think. I would argue that just as this country's founding fathers could not have defined this democracy had they clung to Renaissance-era thinking, so will our generation be unable to create what is next by clinging to Pragmatism or Enlightenment thinking.


ThomasLB said...

Personally, I'm rooting for nihilism to make a comeback. Not that it matters.

Lifehiker said...

Thomas, you are a card! Fortunately, it matters.

Regarding your post, Ron, I think the most important sentence is "Realizing a future vision generally requires the creation of a new system rather than modification of the old one."

That's the rub. The inertia embedded in all societies resists this kind of change, and only a generally recognized crisis can result in the "new system".

We need a communicator who can describe our various crises and motivate the groupthink needed to develop the solutions. T. Boone Pickens is trying to be that kind of person on energy policy, and I applaud him.

I hope Obama will be this person, and maybe there are reasons to be optimistic about the possibility.

Ron Davison said...

You know, that just might work. (And yes, that is hilarious.)

Thanks for joining with me in the optimism. And I think that you are right that so often these things just get moved along by crisis. I still have this notion that it could be different.

Kalynne Pudner said...

LOL, Thomas! Thanks for commenting on my Wittgenstein post, Ron. I'm fascinated by what you've got here. Two questions: (1) Do you really think about things like private language and deconstruction just for fun, without having it entailed by your job description? and (2) How old are Maddie and Bernard, anyway? They're a great deal more articulate than my kids.