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)

Nature and Health Care

The great eneny of nature is utility. Power finds the restrictions nature places on it obnoxious and irritating. Marketers play on this frustration when they present products with “no limits” and other meaningful language. But nature won’t give in. It always wins.

That realization enables one to anticipate developments in health care.

Whether we switch to a gigantic bureaucratic nationalized health plan or we continue to be controlled by the gigantic bureaucratic corporations (who would provide the employees of the nationalized health care plan), we should realize by now that health care is run, not by respect for human nature (i.e. the patient) but by utility.

In time, if not yet, that creates this simple application: Utilitarian health care: efficiency demands letting people who are old die sooner.

However, nature demands reverence, altogether apart from “usefulness” or cost effectiveness. And reverence is particular, not abstract, immersed in context, relationship, love. It constantly screws up the actuarial tables. That is why Burke famously and importantly said:

The age of chivalry is gone. That of calculators, sophistors, oeconomists has come.

So where does that leave us? In a bind that arose when we handed health care to the utilitarians in the first place. Follow this out.

If we don’t revere our elders, what will happen to us? Are dying parents a nuisance or part of what makes us grow up into adulthood ourselves? That would seem pretty useful. Just not utilitarian.

What cures will we never discover because the government directs the health care resources toward their arbitrary and ever changing values, which are always rooted in power politics, not nature? (This alone explains why we need to limit and define the powers offered to our government.)

If people who were invested in the ethics of health care read this blog, I would urge them to debate what nature has to say about health care priorities. But I wonder if the categories would mean anything.

Natural Law and the Will of Men

To speak of nature is inevitably to speak of the natural law, perhaps the west’s greatest contribution to political thought. Yet, we only discussed it in passing during the conference. I regret that omission, though of course we only had two and one half days.

In the Preface to Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, Edward McLean writes,

Each chapter [of this book] is predicated on the desirability of replacing the dominant school of positive law and its majoritarian legitimating principle with a  commitment to natural law doctrines, which alone are capable of providing the informing principles necessary for a vital, free, and virtuous society.

As is so often the case, even in my own writing, this sentence could be clearer if it contained fewer prepositions and nominalizations. But what it says carries the weight of an age, so we must read it closely.

Modern legal theory¬†roots its legitimacy in majority rule, which effects its rule through something called positive law. We should, McLean suggests, replace positive law with natural law. Only then can we have a “vital, free, and virtuous society.” In other words, modern lawyers, judges, politicians, and rulers look to positive law to maintain order and their own authority, but if we are going to be free and virtuous we need to look to natural law.

Natural law can provide the principles we need to build a society that matters, that moves and lives, that is free, and that is virtuous. There is, McLean suggests, no other source for those principles.

Perhaps you have read the first book of Plato’s Republic. If so, you might remember Thrasymachus, the Sophist who wanted to recruit Glaucon and Adeimantus for his school and to corrupt them into sophistry. When he and¬†Plato argued about the meaning of justice, he posited that it was “the interest of the stronger.” His point was that laws were made by people in power and they made the laws so they could hold onto their power or whatever else was in their interest.

This argument continues today. The sophistic argument now calls itself “Legal Positivism.” There is no “natural law,” they insist. There is simply the law that people make. We turn to the majority for law in our society because the majority has the power to make laws.

Socrates and any other lover of mankind and therefore of freedom finds this notion horrifying. If the positive law (i.e. laws that have been posited) is subordinate to no higher law, then it is only a matter of time before the rulers become tyrants and the people are enslaved.

Furthermore, while human consciousness is always inclined toward freedom, recognizing that freedom is the condition of its realization, the human appetites are always inclined toward immediate satisfaction, which is the sure-footed path to slavery.

Liberty, therefore, arises from natural law and nowhere else.

That being the case, I hereby seek to rectify the failure to adequately present the natural law with a list of books and materials that you can read or study to become reacquainted with what it means to be a free person.

  • Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Edward B. McLean and including essays by Ralph McInerny, J. Rufus Fears, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Hittinger and others. Highly recommended, published by ISI books.
  • Natural Law. Heinrich Rommen. Maybe the best book on the historical development of the idea of natural law. I think Liberty Fund publishes this book. Somewhere close to essential.
  • The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, by Russell Hittinger. ISI books. Stimulating and insightful.
  • Natural Law and Human Nature, a lecture series by Father Joseph Poterski of Fordham University¬†from The Teaching Company.
  • Sophocles: Antigone. You can’t be an educated person without reflecting on the matter of this play.
  • Cicero: The Laws.
  • A very fine article from Villanova posted on their website ¬†(great first read – nice and brief).

In summary, let me urge you to make a recovery of freedom possible again by reminding yourself what “the law of nature,” upon which our fathers built this country, is by figuring out how to live it yourself and to see it restored in your communities.

Because remember, the only alternative to the law of nature is the will of men.

And they aren’t known for setting people free.

If not Nature, What?

Schools teach students about the facts of life.

The assumption, I suppose, is that the facts of life are so basic that you can ask an administrator of information on behalf of a government agency (we call such folks “teachers”) to deliver them to the students, regardless of context, personal experiences, community commitments, family values, etc.

How, one asks upon thinking about this matter for 11 seconds, did we get to this point?

The answer, of course, is power politics, but that’s only the more immediate answer. How did we get to the point where a parent would allow a government agent, and then later an indirect government agent – one not paid by the government but doing its work for it¬†– to teach something so wonderful and intimate and personal and life-building and glorious in the context of a classroom with a bunch of peers and in interpretive isolation (i.e. even though he is surrounded by his peers, none of them have the wisdom to interpret the information and the agents of the state certainly won’t remove their veil by admitting what they are really about)?

To figure that out requires a non-linear mode of thinking. One has to ask the question, “what is the foundation of their teaching?”

Clearly it is not nature. It is rather obvious by the fact that these teacher stand in front of a group of teens to teach them about their reproductive systems that they don’t know the first thing about sex or human nature.

But if not nature, what?

You’d better sit down for this, because the answer bears implications that extend into every domain of modern life. Literally.

The answer is utility.

We don’t think about the nature of things because we don’t, culturally, believe in the nature of things.

Instead, we think about how we can use things to get what we want. We will go so far as to evaluate the cost of things – i.e. the effects and consequences of a given action.

But we won’t think about those consequences as they concern the eternal soul and family relationships and spiritual state of the child.

We think about utility. Not nature; not purpose; not propriety.

A challenge: did any of you¬†who took a “sex ed” class ever learn about the “nature” of sexuality? Did you learn about its reach into the wider relations it would affect? Did you learn about it as anything more than a physical act?

Did you learn the first thing about the purpose of sex?

I didn’t think so.

What did you learn about the appropriate use of your glorious sexuality? Or was it reduced to “the sex drive,” that abominable, instinctual, animal based concept that cut out your soul when you weren’t looking?

Of course, if propriety was an issue, they wouldn’t have been discussing it with you in the classroom setting.

Oh if only this joke were funny.

It will have to be paid for. It isn’t natural, and nothing good will come of it.”

JRR Tolkien LOTR P. 1

A Prayer for all the Meanies

One conferee told me this year’s conference may have been the best money he’s ever spent. I can testify that I had an extraordinary experience, out of which I learned too much to record. I won’t have a lot of time during August to write about it, especially with the apprenticeship just around the corner, but I need to express what I can and I’m dying to hear from attendees to learn what they took home.

A brief note: I realized as never before how ideas are not puzzle pieces that we piece together so we can “know” the truth. They are flames of fire that, when true, purify the soul. They are dynamic, energies, rivers that nourish and transform. The soul rises and falls on the ideas it absorbs. The community grows and diminishes on the ideas it embodies. The nation rises and falls on the ideas it incorporates.

The idea of ideas, the principle of principles, is the idea of nature. It gave us Christian classical reailities such as freedom, virtue, truth, beauty. It’s loss and neglect have given us slavery, self-indulgence, radical relativism, despair, and death.

We ended the conference with the prayer of St. Ephraim:

Oh Lord and Master of my life
Take from the spirit of
lust for power
and idle talk

But give rather to your servant the spirit of
and charity

T.S. Eliot on Egotism

I am not myself very much concerned with questions of influence, or with the publicists who have impressed their names upon the public by catching the morning tide and rowing very fast in the direction in which the current was flowing, but rather that there should always be a few writers preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.

T.S. Eliot, quoted in the Journals of Father Alexander Schmeman



Hints on Assessment

Reading Postmodern Metaphysics by Christos Yannaras. What an amazing reassessment!

We assess everything using modernist (enlightenment) assumptions, and it ruins everything it touches. Yannaras points out that

our perception of reality can change in accordance with our instruments or our method of observation. Observed reality can be transformed by the fact of observing it: Measurement chooses one or more of the possible states which exist originally within a system, and after the measurement the system remains not in its original state but in that which the measurement has chosen.

No big deal, perhaps, in industry. But apply that statement to economics, or even more, to child-rearing or education. We alter by assessing! We need to be more humble and responsible.

Nine pages later:

Measurement is possible only when the measure is appropriate to the object measured.

The reason so much education in the modern world is either a scam or a self-deception¬†is because they measure it with devices that they actually believe (some of them) are objective – i.e. detached and not harmful. Those who don’t believe the measures are objective play along because the system demands it.

That has created a whole vast system of schools that sustain themselves with an error so fundamental the system cannot possibly succeed except within its own self-referential delusion.

Which is fine for a closed system. But the schools are not a closed system. They are the leading cause of the destruction of freedom and responsibility in America.

If only I could level that charge exclusively against the state run schools…