17 Nov 2005

Is Singapore Pragmatic?

'Singapore works' claims the pro-Peoples Action Party commentator. Singaporeans have no real need or desire to question the workings of the PAP because Singaporeans are more concerned with bread and butter issues, economic success as opposed to 'Western' notions of liberal democracy and human rights viewed through the prism of Western values.

The 'whats works' argument is closely equated with pragmatism, one form of pragmatism. But just what is pragmatism, what are its limitations, are there other interpretations, how has pragmatism evolved? Is it really devoid of conceptual or value based considerations? How important is evidence based decision making to the pragmatist's agenda?

If empirical evidence was able to invalidate a so-called current pragmatic social policy how important is that in shaping future social policy implications to the argument of the pragmatist?

Download the programme originally broadcast by BBC Radio 4.
In Our Time / Pragmatism (43 Minutes)


"A pragmatist ... turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power". A quote from William James' 1907 treatise Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.

William James, along with John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, was the founder of an American philosophical movement which flowered during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years of the twentieth century. It purported that knowledge is only meaningful when coupled with action. Nothing is true or false - it either works or it doesn't. It was a philosophy which was deeply embedded in the reality of life, concerned firstly with the individual's direct experience of the world he inhabited. In essence, practical application was all.

But how did Pragmatism harness the huge scientific leap forward that had come with Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution? And how did this dynamic new philosophy challenge the doubts expressed by the Sceptics about the nature and extent of knowledge? Did Pragmatism influence the economic and political ascendancy of America in the early 20th century? And did it also pave the way for the contemporary preoccupation with post-modernism?


A C Grayling, Professor of Applied Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford

Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

Miranda Fricker, Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

1 comment:

BE said...

The 'pragmatist' may have the advantage of adjusting with the context (hence, changing values) than an ideologue who is stubbornly attached to his dogmas despite changing currents.

Seriously, I don't know which form of "western" we are talking about when we bring up phrases like 'western notions of liberal democracy and human rights'. Do we mean the French version (no pun intended), or the American version, or the British version, or perhaps the Dannish model? I am quite sure there are things which are quite liberal in Singapore which is not in many of these countries.

As Ortega y Gasset once said about pragmatism, there is no other truth beyond success with things. If there is an obvious limitation to the Pragmatic model here, then it is the silence that comes after one asks this question: to whom should the success be attributed to and to what extent should it be chosen over other things?

So I guess if we pursue material success over many other equally important things like mental progress or social harmony, this may warrant another thorough review of our pragmatist stance.