Intellectuals vs. Pragmatists

by Isaac


Should you focus more on theory or practice? The logical answer is that you need them both, and that you can’t separate the two. But we see constant opposition between people who focus on theory and people who focus on practice — between intellectuals and pragmatists.

Intellectuals resent pragmatists; they see them as amoral, greedy, and undeserving of their success. Pragmatists despise intellectuals; they see them as useless, ungrounded and annoying.

When pragmatists talk, intellectuals dismiss them. When intellectuals talk, pragmatists ignore them.



The archetypical intellectuals are professors living the life of the mind in academia. The archetypical pragmatists are career strivers in the corporate world.

That college professors are impractical intellectuals is a common viewpoint. But are corporate strivers really anti-intellectual? Investment bankers and management consultants certainly aren’t dumb: their work is, in fact, extremely mentally taxing. But, when journalists (another breed of intellectual) write about evil capitalists, they’re sure to mention their ignorance and lack of culture. It’s as though they go to special lengths to exclude certain undesirable people from the intellectual club.

The tech startup world contains a mixture of both tribes. At one extreme are the “idea guys”: people with a long list of elaborate and half-baked ideas and a short track record of actual success. At the other extreme are the guys running sketchy-sounding online businesses in areas like affiliate marketing or black-hat SEO. No-one would call the idea guys pragmatists, nor would you describe the online marketing hustlers as intellectuals.


People tend to follow a mixture of these two impulses. But it’s assumed that pragmatism and intellectualism pull in opposite directions: that the more intellectual someone is, the less practical they are, and vice versa. The absent-minded professor is a well-known trope, as is the street-smart, uneducated wheeler-dealer. Over-thinkers are advised to get their heads out of the clouds and to come down to earth.

These examples also imply that pragmatists are more respected. But compare the common perception of people in intellectual professions — academics, journalists, artists — to those in pragmatic professions — businessmen, military officers, policemen. Intellectuals are commonly seen as more morally pure, more detached from worldly concerns; whereas pragmatists are seen as vaguely dubious, assumed to be involved in questionable activities.


So we have a seeming contradiction. The more removed someone is from reality, the less real-world success we expect them to have — which makes sense. But the closer someone is to reality, the more ethically dubious they seem. And, as noted earlier, intellectuals are assumed to be more intelligent — though, on closer inspection, this doesn’t actually hold up.

Maybe not all pragmatists are anti-intellectual, and not all intellectuals are impractical? In point of fact, we do see people who combine the best traits of the two groups. So why do people tend to fall on one side? Why is there a split between the two?

I think the split arises from the tendency of intellectuals to create elaborate, ungrounded theories, and from the tendency of pragmatists to over-react to this by abandoning theory altogether. This creates the notion that theory and practice are opposed: that theory is impractical, and that practice refutes theory. Let’s look at this in more detail.


Theorising is fun for intellectuals. Academics and idea guys all enjoy building abstractions on top of abstractions, and combining ideas in clever and elaborate ways. Theorising tends to depart from reality because the mind prefers to work with things which are clean, precise and predictable, yet the real world is messy, unclear and volatile. Think of chess; it’s warfare, simulated for intellectuals.

Amongst academic intellectuals, this tendency appears when thinkers attempt to shunt reality into some abstract framework — words on a page, symbols on a blackboard — and then proceed to build further abstractions on top of the framework, while ignoring reality. Sometimes they take this a step further, and declare that reality is invalid if it doesn’t fit their abstract theories. [1]

Amongst more enterprising intellectuals, the tendency manifests as the belief that problems should be solved in the cleverest way possible. [2] In the for-profit world, people try to combine multiple buzzword trends into one “disruptive” product. In the non-profit world, people try to solve multiple issues with one TED-worthy big idea. [3]

Notice that in all these cases, intellectuals succeed or fail based on convincing some third party funders of how clever they are; not on whether their ideas are actually effective in the real world.


Pragmatists adopt anti-intellectualism as a defence against unrealistic theorising. If you can’t refute the intellectuals, but don’t want to follow their wonky recommendations, one obvious move is to avoid abstract theories as much as possible, and to keep your focus on the concrete and tangible.

Pragmatists tend to ignore or dismiss any information which doesn’t relate to their current goals. If the prime directive is to hit the quarterly revenue targets, that’s simply a fact of reality, like the Sun — and any whittering that chasing short-term sales will hurt long-term profits is perceived as distracting noise.

Short-termism is therefore a common trap for pragmatists. Enron, Zynga and Groupon kept working until they didn’t, but, while they were working, the fact they they were built on shaky foundations wouldn’t have been obvious from their sales figures. You would have had to examine their fundamentals to have seen the cracks. [4]

The other trap is assuming that practicality implies chasing certain goals: e.g. sex, money or power. Reality never tells you what to do. In some situations you’re essentially fighting for survival, and it’s easy to prioritise (think of Israeli or Singaporean foreign policy). But, at other times, you find yourself faced with excess capacity and many possible routes forward, and deciding which to take requires thought. If you only chase short-term, “pragmatic” goals, you flop around, get in trouble and squander your initial advantage (think of American foreign policy). [5]


So, we have one group who excessively focus on theory, and another group who abandon theory altogether. Both lead to pitfalls. What about the people who successfully integrate theory with practice?

In the 19th century, Prussia rose to become one of the Great Powers of Europe. The ideal Prussian military officers was half thinker, half man of action. They would analyse past campaigns and form theories of military strategy — and then put their theories to the test in real-life combat. They certainly saw no split between theory and practice, and their new concepts of military organisation and strategy helped the Prussians dominate Europe militarily.

We see a less hardcore version of the same mindset amongst the genuinely innovative entrepreneurs who first develop a solid understanding of their target markets and their industry, and then use this knowledge to launch products which are both novel and valuable. Poker players, traders and engineers (especially those with experience managing large projects) also seem to naturally develop this mindset.

I call the people who combine theory and practice — who are both smart and get things done —executives.

The executive approach is to begin pragmatically, but to then slowly build up a theory as you proceed. You spot similarities between different events, identify the common patterns, and form new concepts based on your own analysis of the underlying causes. As you form new ideas, you constantly put them into practice, scrapping them if they prove unrealistic.

As with the Prussian officers, you keep yourself in a position where reality will punch you in the face if you start believing bullshit. Ultimately, you aim to build a rock-solid theory that’s been hit hard from every angle, but which has managed to remain standing.

Executives beat pragmatists by thinking long-term. They don’t simply act on the range of the moment; they notice when the fundamentals of a situation tell a different story to the surface details.

Executives beat intellectuals by understanding that abstract ideas are just tools for dealing with reality. Experience doesn’t have to be shoe-horned into existing concepts; concepts can be revised to fit experience.

But not all executives think the same way. Next week, I’ll analyse the fundamental beliefs of three very different executive minds.

Picture credit: Chetan Menaria


[1] This basic tendency is Platonism — the belief in an abstract world of truth more real than the real world — and it has sprung up constantly amongst intellectuals throughout history.

[2] The mistake here is confusing cleverness with intelligence. Intelligence is identifying the fundamental reality of a situation and a sensible plan of action; cleverness is building the most elaborate theory for a situation and a complicated, fragile plan of action.

[3] One example of this was the idea of building water pumps in African villages, powered by children’s roundabouts. When the children played on the roundabout, water was pumped up — a classic “two-birds-with-one-stone” idea. But when the roundabout-pumps were installed, it transpired that they had to be used constantly to produce sufficient water, and adult women ended up having to spin the roundabouts manually. In effect, the charity had built a very expensive, very inefficient pump.

[4] Yes, these companies did have models — smart pragmatists do use abstract frameworks, but they exclude certain pieces of data from their analysis, and ignore slippery issues of interpretation. (This is how pragmatists can end up flopping over and becoming pseudo-intellectuals. Zynga, for example, followed pure behaviourism — the idea that humans can be modelled as pure stimulus/response machines).

[5] Specifically, to make decisions when faced with open-ended possibilities, you need a concept of value. Some people assume the Darwinian drives (survival, sex, money, power) are the only source of values, but this assumption is also questionable. More on this is a future post.