On The Dogma of Practicality

Suvayu Sengupta

July 26, 2020

 

Amongst the observed virtues of modernity is the idea of practicality. Right from our school days, we are expected to gain proficiency in practical skills and subjects. Once out of high school, one is expected to take the practical decision of choosing a discipline that is most likely to get one placed in a reputed firm; in choosing careers, one must be practical enough to choose one that pays well; when looking for company, one must be practical enough to prefer those in our “league”, and even when suffering heartbreaks, one must be practical enough to be able to move ahead without much hassle. On the other end, we have the phenomenon of impracticality, exemplified in acts, like say, in quitting a job that pays well simply because it no longer satisfies; in pursuing someone very different from ourselves, or choosing not to be shrewd and calculative with friends and colleagues, but rather wearing one’s heart in one’s sleeves. Such behaviours are scorned at, scoffed at, rebuked and reprimanded for being irrational.

The impractical contradicts the utilitarian rationale behind the insistence on practicality: the avoidance of pain and maximisation of pleasure. It is a maxim that most of us would like to swear by or perhaps aspire towards. Certainly, most of us would want a strong income; surely, we would want to secure for ourselves an enviable status, avoid the pain of heartbreaks and enjoy a steady relationship. But if one casts a more critical and incisive look, one should be able to identify a number of mischiefs inherent in the norm of practicality. It leads to a rather dry and restricted conceptualisation of activity. Given the predominance of empiricism and positivism in the modernist discourses, only those activities that are realised and produce results that can be empirically evaluated are deemed true and worthy.

Needless to say, it then leads to an absurd hierarchisation amongst activities, including within intellectual activity itself, where only those intellectual exercises that produce ideas that can be translated into empirical, observable products are selected as useful. This attitude militates against the practice of philosophisation and pristine thought – thought exercises that are not aimed at any particular end or goal, but that which empowers, enriches and deepens the subtler, finer qualities of the human personality. It devalues such acts, if not declare them utterly redundant. One can easily gleam such a crude attitude off of comments that arrogantly demand practical solutions to problems, rather than theories about them, as if providing practical solutions were the only true end of an intellectual exercise.

This leads us to a far more sinister conclusion: practicality has transcended the realm of utility and has secured itself within the realm of dogma. In other words, practicality and impracticality are no longer two alternatives. The importance of practicality then comes not from the fact that it has utility or serves an interest, but because it is seen to be the only and true, necessary and desirable option we have left. Being a dogma, practicality has set many standards for itself, including that of rationality, which in its case is a particularly commercial one.

An act is practical only if it serves the interest of the actor, but mostly in some relation or comparison with another. But one would find that defining the interest of the actor is more difficult than it sounds. One is practical if s/he chooses a high paying job not because they might need or even want it, but because they need to fare better than their neighbour in the competition for jobs; it is practical to find someone similarly situated or move past a heartbreak not simply because a steady, stable relationship is valuable or because one deserves and needs to be happy, but because the market society cannot afford an ill motivated, heartbroken and forlorn worker roaming it’s streets.

It is in the same context that one may situate the preference for populist policies and populist leaders whose claim to success rests particularly on hyperbolic claims of practical answers. Practical answers are convenient, comfortably comprehensible and are therefore, of great attraction to an electorate that is preoccupied with the simpler economic burdens of their everyday existence. The greatest victim of this dogmatic practicality, therefore, is not creativity or spontaneity, but rather the more essential liberty that would have allowed a person the space to pursue a certain course of action, or not to: to choose a modest paying job despite an excellent education that satisfied his/her intellectual proclivities, or that allowed a person to lament a broken heart until it healed, or to philosophize in abstraction from the surrounding, visible reality or to provide a critique on a subject without necessarily having to provide resolutions for the same . Having such a liberty implies a tendency for taking risks that might not appear practical, but that carries great educational potential.

For example, normative questions about human happiness, interpersonal relationships and the role of administration in the pursuance of the previous two are almost absent in present day popular discourses of politics and administration. Even when they are considered, they are treated as tangential or obvious consequences of the more practicable goal of economic prosperity and such, relieving the administration of any educational role and reducing it to a mere service provider. Its obsession with answers, with observable, tangible ends and purposes, empirically translatable products and commitment to commercial ideals make practicality a dominant norm in modern society.

But it’s intolerance for deviance from its standards, the sheer aversion to abstraction, the romantic or the ideal, the consequent sinister devaluation and victimization of the contrasting positions and normalizing it’s repressive standardizing exertion makes it even more formidable, but as a dogma. A dogma, regardless of any observable, testable utility, remains a hindrance to free intellectual exercise. Then to expect practicality to be the penultimate end of such an exercise simply exposes this hindrance and resultant crudeness of thought that threatens to mar all matters of beauty, joy, grief, anxiety, torment and hope that may not find a visible, tangible form. If after having read this article, the reader finds themselves wondering about the point and utility of it, they should know how firmly the dogma of practicality has their threads wound around its fingers!

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