The Limits of Ottoman Pragmatism

In this paper I reflect critically on the concept of pragmatism as it is used in Ottoman historiography. Pragmatism has gained increasing currency over the last ten to fifteen years as one of the defining features of the Ottoman polity. I argue that unless it is properly defined from a theoretical-philosophical perspective, and carefully contextualized from a historical perspective, pragmatism cannot be used as an explanatory or comparative category. When used as a framework of explanation for historical change, pragmatism blurs more than it clarifies an essential aspect of the Ottoman polity that it seeks to define, namely, the political. It is essential to reflect on the difference between the political and politics because whereas the political refers to the configuration of the power relations that organize a society as a legitimate entity, politics refers to the strategies, practices, institutions, or discourses whose purpose is to construct and retain hegemony within a polity. Through an analysis of the concept of pragmatism in Ottoman historiography, I show that for most proponents of Ottoman pragmatism, pragmatism pertains to politics rather than to the political. From a perspective rigorously confined to political theory, I argue that much like the discourse of modern tolerance, pragmatism in Ottoman historiography posits a problematic periodization, relegates the political to the background, and depoliticizes essential power relations.