Words: Pragmatic

THIS YEAR'S A-level results had the traditionalists wagging their wise old heads again. Overall pass rates were up, so overall standards must be down, they said. Well, they have been saying that for some years now. But they could be right in a way, because it seems that more candidates this year went for the "easier" subjects where there might be less chance of their shortcomings (say, in spelling and grammar) being noticed.

Why shouldn't they?, asked David Hart on behalf of the National Association of Head Teachers: if schools wanted to do well in the league tables, encouraging their pupils to switch to easier subjects was "totally pragmatic".

At least, that is what he is reported to have said; and I'm not sure that it was much help to his cause. Pragmatic sends out a dubious message. It hints at short cuts, at the neglect of those principles and ideals and solid virtues that parents have traditionally expected to hear talked about from the platform at Speech Days.

It was Harold Wilson, I think, who did as much as anyone to give pragmatism a bad name. He often represented himself as a sort of left-wing Baldwin, complete with pipe, the practical man, reliable, no nonsense; and pragmatic was one of his words. He was a proper Socialist, but he realised that too much ideology did nothing for the prices index. Pragmatism ("and I say this sincerely") was the thing. The trouble was that he looked somehow shifty with it. Politics, as Bismarck had said, was the art of the possible, but Wilson sometimes made it sound like the art of the expedient.

I am not accusing Mr Hart of shiftiness, only of giving the wrong impression. In philosophical terms he was right on the button. My Everyman Encyclopaedia does, it's true, define pragmatism as "the philosophy of the expedient", but Thomas Mautner's 1996 Dictionary of Philosophy is kinder, calling it "the theory that a proposition is true if holding it to be so is practically successful or advantageous" - or, to put it another way, it's the results that matter.

However, when the word first came into the language it had little to do with philosophy or politics. The philosophical meaning dates from the 1870s, the political one from later still. Pragmatic came from the Greek verb prattein, to do (as in "don't just stand around, do something"), and pragma was its noun, meaning business. A pragmatikos was a man of action.

The English, being rather more laid-back than the excitable Greeks, viewed pragmatical people with suspicion. (Correct speakers use pragmatical of persons, pragmatic of things.) Early definitions offered by the OED include "meddlesome", "opinionated", "dictatorial" and "conceited". Harold Wilson may have been some of these things some of the time, but by then such meanings had faded. Another definition which crops up occasionally is "dogmatic", which, in modern politics at any rate, makes for a contradiction in terms, since the whole thrust of political pragmatism is towards getting things done, even though the manner of doing them might not be ideologically correct. The truth is that pragmatic is a thoroughly ambivalent word. Much better to avoid it altogether.