Practice Rationality


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a great first sentence promises an enchanting read. I was a social entrepreneur for working families in the poorest state in American. My career should read as one enchanting story after another.

I could tell you about organizing our state food bank. I was a young entrepreneur, full of my first big success. At a celebratory dinner with the national inspector, who had just certified our ramshackle warehouse against his better judgment, I puffed out my skinny chest and asked, “How many other states have food banks?” You could have heard the air whoosh out of my inflated ego when he looked at me in amusement and said, “49.”

Or I could tell you about creating the only youth center for our our distressed neighborhood. But I can’t stop remembering Isaiah. I put him out of the youth center when he joined a gang, only to go to his funeral two weeks later when he was gunned down. No. That story is far too painful.

Or I could tell you about my successful work as the state director lobbying Congress to add a million preschool kids to America’s child nutrition program. But even this policy success had little effect on hunger in my benighted state. Every year, no matter what I did, the number of families without adequate food got worse and worse.

Or I could tell you about landing the big grant to advocate for teens in foster care—the kids with the worst life chances in America. Advocates have been trying to reform foster care ever since we created it a century ago. Not until after I accepted the money did I realized nothing the funder would allow could ever change this hellish system. I gave back what was left of the money, hoping to redeem a little of my soul. But the devil’s cut on pawned souls is fierce. I am definitely not telling that story.

Only too late did I realize my picayune successes and failures closely parallel the great triumphs and fiascos of late modernity. Insight into the contradictions of one would have been insight into the contradictions of the other. Now that a bit of mendacious paraleipsis has gotten you this far, will you help me crack open the contradictions we face in all our lives?

The things we thought were the foundations of modern life have not held: 1) Scientific technology no longer engenders the belief in progress it fought so hard to create. 2) Market capitalism and 3) the romantic ideal have failed again and again to perfect our work and personal lives as they promised. 4) Liberal democracy is not sweeping the world. And 5) much of mass culture is a cesspit breeding insurrections and massacres.

Contradictions emerge in practice as people use human-created things to make a life for themselves and a self for their life. (“Things” for these essays can be categorized as ideas, such as “liberal democracy,” relationships, such as “two people in love,” or materiel, such as the “Interstate Highway System.”) The more that these things are developed and used in modern life, the more that contradictions controvert the formal logic that governs the things’ approved use. Late modernity is riven with such contradictions.

This seems not to bother most people very much. Liberal democracy has been challenged by populists in every political generation since the very beginning, but we keep repeating the cycle. Patients do not fill half of all medical prescriptions, yet we continue to tout medical science. Jane Austin’s romance novels end before the daily work of wedded love, and still we long for the romantic ideal she helped create.

Every competent person in late modernity has a practitioner’s feel for the innumerable contradictory practices essential to human life. We all greatly exceed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 90-year-old test of a first-rate intelligence: holding two opposing ideas in mind while continuing to function. We know what not to think, what not to say, and what not to do so we can keep our jobs, our relationships, and our positions in life. Never mind that not thinking and not saying keeps us from critically examining our not knowing.

Unfortunately, I am no longer one of these competent people. I have lost the ability to ignore the gaping contradictions that people spend their lives so carefully skirting. It is obvious to me that taking the formal logic of human-created things at face value led both my career and the entire modern project to quick successes and slow failures.

All that is left for me now is to make a virtue of necessity. I have become a theoretical social entrepreneur to develop a rationality of practice, or I would be if these were not both oxymorons.

The time is right for such a fool’s errand. We are well into the metamodern era, combining the modern belief in progress and the postmodern critique of power, with a willingness to take otherwise contradictory things to make a world we might, just might, be able to live in. Fool’s errands are all the rage.

Plus, the metamodern era includes a dash of ironic sincerity, a natural home for my defective sense of humor. Beware the linguals: deadpan wordplay I intended to slip right by our less intelligent compatriots. Catch me at it, and you get a smug point. Let it slip by, I get the point. Enough points and one of us gets to enjoy 15 minutes of smug. (Who needs fame when you can be smug.) Just don’t complain when I back myself into a preposterous sentence. Or take offense at my left-handed compliments. They may be gauche, but they aren’t sinister.

Even so, the challenge is too much for one person. It requires the expertise of many every-day practitioners willing to think critically about life as we live it. So I am asking for your help.

My first step is to publish this initial essay so that people have something to discuss with me. I will add other essays in regular order outlining the emergence of practice rationality in the development of the five foundations of modernity: scientific technology, capitalist economics, the romantic ideal, liberal democracy, and mass culture.

I am indebted to the American Pragmatists, Martin Heidegger, both early and late Wittgenstein, Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of liquid modernity, the many academic philosophers working on embodied cognition, and the nascent community of experimental philosophers. But I cannot succeed if I try drag practitioners into the conventions of these academic communities. So I will make no attempt at academic rigor. Expect errors. Help me correct them.

I will launch additional project as they meet minimum viability. I am committed to the emergence of the metamodern era, so expect contradictory artifacts that take odds and ends from here and there to make this and that. Expect successes and failures. Your critique will be valuable here too.