Practice Rationality


A great opening line promises engaging insights into life as we live it. I was a social entrepreneur in the poorest state in American. My career should have been one engaging insight after another.

I could tell you about organizing our state food bank. I was a young social worker, 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 sideways 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. I am not telling that story.

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 social workers 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 discount rate on pawned souls is fierce. So I am definitely not telling that story.

Only too late did I realize my picayune successes and failures reflected 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 modernity’s contradictions to search for the insights within?

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 thought of as ideas, such as “liberal democracy,” relationships, such as “two people in love,” or materiel, such as the “Interstate Highway System.” The more things are developed and used in modern life, the more 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 even 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 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: two oxymorons in a row. Success in such a fool’s errand 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.

This blog is the first step toward a practice rationality. 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 experimental philosophy community. 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.

My first step is be to publish this initial essay so that people I approach 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 will launch additional projects as they meet minimum viability. I am committed to the emergence of the metamodern era, so expect contradictory projects that take odds and ends from here and there to make this and that. Some projects will be useful. Some, not so much.

What I need from you is critique, any critique you can give in any way you can give it on any of the subjects you are willing to address.