The pragmatist and the ideologue

A couple of weeks back, I happened to catch a few minutes of Hardtalk where Sackur was interviewing French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou whose fixation with Nicholas Sarkozy and his politics led to his writing a book which was later translated into English as “The Meaning of Sarkozy.” It isn’t much of a surprise when Badiou labels the politics of Sarkozy and his colleagues across the channel, Brown and Cameron as, as Guardian describes it, “variations on a theme of liberal, free-market capitalism.” (Follow the link for a review of the book). What surprised me was Sackur calling Sarkozy and his ilk pragmatists, and immediately after that, opportunistic. Which is exactly what they are. And Badiou calls them capitalists. Its a rare event, a journalist besting a philosopher, in an age when a majority in either profession spouts nonsense.

Another piece on a similar topic, the turmoil in the BJP, this one by Swapan Dasgupta took a dig at ideology and praised pragmatism. He writes-

In evolving a strategy of recovery, the BJP has been hamstrung by a series of pre-conceived notions. The first is a communist-like belief in the supremacy of ideology. That a worthwhile political party must be grounded in a loose set of values and a sense of mission isn’t in any doubt. The problem arises when there is an attempt to codify ideology into scripture. The BJP began its innings with a commitment to a nebulous cultural nationalism. This was a framework of Indian nationhood which, while intellectually contested, allowed the party to demarcate itself from the Congress’s constitutional patriotism and socialism. Since the connection between cultural nationalism and governance was illusory, it also permitted the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to embrace pragmatism without too much fuss. When in power, the BJP paid ritual obeisance to the party’s distinctive facets and then proceeded to focus on issues such as robust foreign policy, an open economy and rapid modernisation.

Thus an ideologue is a kook aligned with the communist left or the communalist right.

The problem, I guess, lies in the meanings ascribed to the terms—theory vs. practice, idealism vs. pragmatism. If a theory is impractical, if it is not based on facts, of what use is that theory? Of what use is a theory of gravity which states that people jumping off a cliff will fly, not fall? Can it be called a theory at all, in the scientific sense of the word? If not, its nothing but gobbledygook. Putting a theory into practice might be difficult, but not impossible, not impractical. An impractical theory is no theory at all. As for “pragmatic,” which is often used as a synonym for “practical,” its origins lie in the philosophy of pragmatism whose founding fathers are the Peirce-James-Dewey troika, a philosophy which is often stated as “the truth is that which works.” Facts are secondary, its only the consequences that matter. Someone who follows this philosophy is not being practical, he’s being unprincipled.

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  • Varuna  On September 5, 2009 at 10:24 am

    “Principles”, if you notice, is a word that is never used in any public discussion or forum involving the media (particularly TV news channels like NDTV) or a political party. You could say it’s a word that has conveniently been deleted or perhaps never existed in the first place, and that, i think, is the tragedy of our times. And it’s not only them. You find individuals – supposedly intelligent, liberal, etc – who also never use that term or think in those terms. When did you last hear someone argue: But it’s the principle of the thing that matters?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 5, 2009 at 9:32 pm

      # “When did you last hear someone argue: But it’s the principle of the thing that matters?”
      Outside of some (very few) discussions of an academic nature, never. However, regardless of whether people use it or not, the word “principle” still carries with it an aura which is missing in mere “ideology.” Most people would love to be described as being “pragmatic.” However, they won’t tolerate the label “unprincipled.”

      This is the strangest headline I have seen in a while. Apparently, Kennedy was a “principled pragmatist.”

      Tibor Machan’s article explains why dismissing principles as ideology/ dogma suits some people.

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