Why Pragmatism Doesn’t Work

During the last session at the conference I tried to weave things together into a practical structure that people could take home and think about and implement. Maybe the most important idea in the whole conference for me was the contrast between propriety and pragmatism, justice and utility, nature and abstract object.

Modernist thought found its clearest and fullest expression in two late 19th century philosophers whose teachings have dominated 20th and 21st century practice: William James and Friederich Nietzsche. James was a Pragmastist. It’s hard to say whether any principle ordered Nietzsche’s thought. He once said that he despised the great systemetizers. For him, it was about experience, not thinking (though he did the latter a lot). I would probably call him a Perspectivist (one who believes that truth is not knowable as a thing in itself – we all just have a perspective or worldview), but even that implies a rational structure to his thought that he would laugh at.

Both of them are, strictly speaking, anti-philosophers, or at least, anti-metaphysicians. James wanted to know the “cash value” of an idea. Truth is what works. Nietzsche wanted to know how an idea would lead to life, to flourishing.

I’m sympathetic with both of them. They lived at the end of the “Age of Ideas” that had been launched by the Enlightenment, especially Kant and Hegel. Ideas had become ideologies, and no ideology had been big enough to order souls or society.

So they directed thought away from thinking and gaining knowledge to acting and gaining power.

I can see the sense in what they did. The trouble I can’t escape is this big question of Nature. James and Nietzsche (and virtually all Enlightenment and 20th century thinkers) didn’t believe in the Idea of Nature.

Reality is not determined by (is not equal to) a thing’s nature. It is determined by personal and social constructions, which is what they believed ideas are. So rather than focus on the appropriate ways to treat something based on its nature, they were concerned with adapting to one’s environment.

John Dewey, a good friend of William James and a co-Pragmatist, went so far as to develop a philosophy of education that was rooted in the concept that the world around is not knowable in the Christian classical sense. Instead, knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment.

As this played out over the 20th century, it led to some stark ideas. For example, knowledge isn’t the end we should seek, but practical applications. We shouldn’t contemplate ideas, we should produce measurables. We shouldn’t read old books burdened down with Christian classical assumptions about reality (most of all, that things have a nature); we should read books that are “relevant” to immediate issues for children.

This isn’t the place, and it would take too long to develop this thought, but I will simply assert here that these commitments fall horribly short of the aspirations of the Christian classical tradition.

  • The pursuit of virtue is replaced by adapting to the environmnent, which is a polite way of saying, “seeking power.”
  • Reverence for human nature is replaced by the use of schools to bring about the Darwinian and meaningless world these philosophers believed in.
  • Love of learning (i.e. of knowledge) is replaced by fear of testing.
  • Great books are replaced by, forgive me, twaddle.
  • Liberal arts and classical sciences are replaced by subjects, all equal, all disconnected, all meaningless.
  • Christ the logos is replaced by …
  • Contemplation is replaced by production.
  • Ideas are replaced by constructions.
  • Nature is replaced by permanent change.
  • Propriety is replaced by utility.
  • Purpose is replaced by utility.
  • Wisdom is replaced by skillful adaptation.
  • Being as the foundation of thought is replaced by utility.
  • Change is exalted to the status of divinity.
  • Whatever cannot be measured is reduced to what can be or disregarded as irrelevant.
  • Personhood is swallowed up in futility.
  • Freedom is replaced by compulsive efforts to satisfy instincts.
  • Justice is replaced by measurable social criteria, under the guise of equality.
  • Community becomes an effective marketing buzz word because everybody wants it but nobody knows how to get it.
  • Truth is what you make it.
  • Goodness is what you determine it to be.
  • Beauty is what you like.

In the classical tradition, all these ideas were considered independent realities. In other words, truth was truth whether you discovered it or not. You could construct an idea that was wrong. But look at how reading is taught now, both to children and to college students. It’s seriously influenced by the philosophy of constructivism, which says you create your own meaning.

It’s not that they are entirely wrong. Of course, we see things from our perspective. Of course we construct meaning from our experiences. But that doesn’t mean that there is no knowable reality beyond our perspective and no knowable meaning to which we can compare our constructions.

We see through a glass darkly. But there is something that we see. And as our vision more closely aligns with what is actually there, the better we perceive truth and the wiser we are.

There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a child that what he sees is all there is to see and teaching a child that he can improve his vision through training.

But the educators who dominated 20th century practices systematically undercut the students’ capacity to perceive truth and their confidence that it was knowable.

As a result, we have schooled our children into the least educated people in the history of the world.

Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.

It seems un-American, but if you want to train a mind, the only way to do so is to give it ideas to contemplate.

(recommended resource: 2009 CiRCE conference CD’s)

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2 Responses

  1. “Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.”

    So, to repair ourselves after pragmatism we need to revert to being wholly unpragmatic? We arrived at pragmatism because all the talk about transcendence and the nature of things turnout to be useless or worse.

    • JJ

      I’m afraid I can’t see the logic in what you are saying. As to your first sentence, I have been very careful to argue that we need to be practical, but that Pragmatism is an error. This is a statement that corresponds to observable reality and is therefore true. Truth is incredibly practical, while utility is short sighted.

      “We” arrived at pragmatism because “we” made a metaphysical commitment to being anti-metaphysical, because we tried to use the tools of physics to do metaphysics, and because we wanted to be unbound by the demands of nature.

      I understand and sympathize with the emotional draw of Pragmatism. I feel the same draw sometimes. The problem with it is that it overthrows the human spirit and with it human communities and it leads, necessarily, to tyranny.

      I repeat, “we need to absorb what it had right,” but truth is more important than immediate applications and propriety is more important than utility.

      I will acknowledge the danger of “transcendence” and “the nature of things.” I will not acknowledge that the danger they entail makes them “useless or worse.”

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