Words: Pragmatic

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee