Why I hate calling myself "pragmatic" but do

For many years, I resisted calling myself “pragmatic”, even though the evolution of my personal philosophy as well as my concrete actions have for much longer been one that broadly should be called pragmatism.

The thing is that for much of my life, I was not a pragmatist in any sense of the word. I think it was only about twenty years ago that I began my journey toward some of the characteristics of pragmatism, both in the broad popular sense and in the philosophical sense, and it was only in the past couple of years that I’ve finally embraced the adjective as an accurate description of my attitude toward not only philosophical issues (about which I will not say more in this post), but also to living and decision-making.

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of pragmatism, because for some reason, I was born with a propensity for everything that is not pragmatic. I’ve taken the official Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a couple of times, including the MBTI Step II, and each time I come out as INFP, which some call the Idealist, ha! (Note: I don’t actually take the MBTI terribly seriously, but mention it because a lot of people know about it.)

False “pragmatism”?

The main reason I resist the word “pragmatic” is that all my life, I have seen it used by people to justify anything in the world they do, usually in conjunction with calling critics “idealistic” or some other such name. The word therefore not only lost its meaning for me, but even acquired a negative connotation.

Very often, for example, someone in power will use the word “pragmatic” in order to shut out dissent and maintain the status quo, as though considering “other” ideas or implementing them is by itself suspect. My personal definition of “pragmatic” includes objectively weighing costs and benefits, opportunities and risks. So when I hear someone emotionally and angrily calling himself a “pragmatist”, I completely discount that person, whether it’s a politician justifying not taking a stand or whether it’s a bureaucracy unwilling to experiment with some changes.

Also, I have found that a lot of people who call themselves “pragmatic” have a very cynical view of human nature and don’t believe in people, don’t believe in possibilities. So “pragmatic” for them means not speaking up about injustice, discouraging their children from pursuing some “impractical” talent, etc. For me, a real pragmatist wouldn’t be negative all the time about change or risk, but would confront it head on and look at all sides, not just the side that conveniently maintains the status quo.

We see people lie and cheat all the time in the name of pragmatism, justifying what they do by simply stating that everyone else is doing, that you can’t beat the system so you should learn how to win for yourself within it, etc. I think it’s a dangerous slippery slope if you rightfully see and acknowledge the negatives in the world but then decide that the correct thing to do is always to just play along. Is this “idealistic”? I don’t think so. I think the pragmatic thing to do is to pick your fights, rather than not fight at all.


Another reason I have resisted the word “pragmatic” is that I was once academic-oriented. It turns out that I was very badly suited to academia, in large part precisely because I have pragmatic interests and priorities that I finally concluded are hard to shoehorn into an academic environment. But a lot of people I do respect for the quality of their work and their desire to change the world for the better are in fact academic in nature, and are idealists fighting the good fight. I respect this so much that I wanted to be one of them. So it was one of those situations in which I lacked the courage to be my true self. I faced a lot of cognitive dissonance when I was in academia.

In fact, I’m writing this post because sometimes I wonder whether I still “pass” as an idealist, even over a decade after leaving academia permanently. I decided it was about time for me to officially come out as a pragmatist.


Everything that I think and do these days comes from a pragmatic point of view, and so I’ve decided to embrace that rather than half-hide it.

comments powered by Disqus