Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Brief Foray Into Pragmatism

If you all had been reading this blog for some time - hi, my regular 8 readers! - you might have noticed I occasionally rail against the "-Isms" of the world. By that, I mean the philosophical ideologies that drive people to commit to certain acts and thoughts towards themselves and others.

I made a big deal ranting against Libertarianism from time to time, for example.

One of the reasons why I don't ascribe to an -Ism (even though I probably do, everyone has at least one -Ism) is that it can force a person to adhere ENTIRELY to that belief system - almost like a religious faith - to where they exclude any rational thought or healthy skepticism (uh-oh) that could help them out of a philosophical argument they can't get out of. A person can become an Absolutist about an -Ism to where they deny the Reality that -Ism can't resolve.

That is where planned Utopias go to die: the -Ism becomes more important that the practicalities of daily living and the tiny moral (and amoral) compromises that one requires to survive.

I even argue that Pragmatism has its' flaws. Yeah, I went there.

But what exactly is Pragmatism in the first place? Good question, self.

This is coming up by the by because of a brilliant article by PM Carpenter about American Pragmatism and the Republican Party's current logical dilemma of backing an outright fraud like Trump, even though supporting him AND denying him would destroy their party no matter what. He mentioned a fellow I hadn't heard of before - William James - and that peaked my interest.

Anyway, just to start off, Pragmatism is (thank you Merriam-Webster) "a reasonable and logical way of doing things or of thinking about problems that is based on dealing with specific situations instead of on ideas and theories." Another explanation would be that a Pragmatist would focus on the problem-solving required of an idea rather than reflect over or promote the idea itself.

It has - much to my delight - an American origin as a philosophy, beginning in the 1870s by the likes of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey (not the guy who invented the Dewey Decimal, that was Melvil you fools).

Let's focus on James as Carpenter refers to him directly:

That phrase, "whatever works," is often embraced as the essence - the singular essence - of American Pragmatism. The embrace, however, is a degradation of the ism. William James would be appalled to see his seminal philosophy reduced to the practical politics of enduring a human blight such as Trump.
(James) meant, in his early 20th-centiry lectures and writings, to locate an intellectual space between Idealism (often, Dogmatism) and rootless Materialism. He borrowed from both, which is to say, he and another principled pragmatists saw their philosophy of practicality as one nonetheless endowed by human decency, human values, even by what I'm reluctant to call human morality (possibly inspired by the ethereal). What's more, none of it was worth a bucket of warm whatever if it wasn't geared toward the humanly productive.
And nothing could be less conceptually productive than the incontestable horror of a President Trump - the very definition of blighted humanity...

I'm with Carpenter about the subversion of "whatever works": that passes more as an excuse for "expediency" which usually results in a sloppy, half-hearted patch job that falls apart when its logical fallacies bump up against the Real World. A Pragmatic solution is one that thinks towards long-term resolution, something that when fixed stays that way, or is open to further revisions down the line.

One of the elements of Pragmatism - if we refer to Peirce's founding practices - requires the use of the "Scientific Method": That is, Observation, Measurement, Testing, and Modification of a hypothesis towards establishing a theory, rule, or law. Most other -Isms won't even look at modifying anything if it meant disrupting the core principles of that -Ism. It gives Pragmatism a flexibility other ideologies don't have.

Where James comes into the equation is his application of his career in psychology - Peirce and Dewey were mathematicians and logicians - over establishing Truth and Facts: That the mind would accept certain things about Reality but not others. James' version of "the Pragmatic Theory of Truth" which differed from Peirce's went like this:

(James) begins with a standard dictionary analysis of truth as agreement with reality.  Accepting this, he warns that pragmatists and intellectualists will disagree over how to interpret the concepts of “agreement” and “reality,” the latter thinking that ideas copy what is fixed and independent of us.  By contrast, he advocates a more dynamic and practical interpretation, a true idea or belief being one we can incorporate into our ways of thinking in such a way that it can be experientially validated.  For James, the “reality” with which truths must agree has three dimensions:  (1) matters of fact, (2) relations of ideas (such as the eternal truths of mathematics), and (3) the entire set of other truths to which we are committed.  To say that our truths must “agree” with such realities pragmatically means that they must lead us to useful consequences.  He is a Fallibilist, seeing all existential truths as, in theory, revisable given new experience...

How would this apply to Carpenter's invoking James to rebuke the current Republican disillusionment? Carpenter tells us:

In brief, authentic pragmatism can't always mean "whatever works." It must be grounded in principles. And not even Herr Hegel (note: never mind him, he's an Idealist) could synthesize Trump's boundlessly unprincipled character with Republican strategists' exultation of others' fundamental principles. These just can't be squared. Trying to square them or defend the attempt is unproductive, which further means pragmatically oriented, Trump-tolerating Republican strategists are, paradoxically, being quite un-Pragmatic.

Contrast what the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article says to what Carpenter points out: "They must lead us to useful consequences" vs. "the attempt is unproductive".

A real Pragmatist among the Republican ranks would not be trying to twist him/herself into knots defending the indefensible. The Pragmatists would be working on fixing the whole damn Republican Party to ensure this sort of shit - preventing the hater factions from seizing control of the primaries, adding regulatory practices to campaign financing to clamp down on the rampant greed that consumed most of their candidates (and their managers), end the constant lying to themselves and the public by popping that hermetically-sealed media bubble of theirs - never happens again.

But how many Pragmatists are left among the Republican ranks? The Idealists - the Utopian-driven fanatics worshiping at the Altar of St. Ronnie - have done such a masterful job driving out the more moderate and skeptical members of the party - where most of the Pragmatists would reside - over the last twenty-five/thirty years.

This is where -Isms suck: the fighting over ideology that disregard more practical matters at hand. And we as a nation allowed the Idealists of one party - hi, Republicans! - to take control of the car, driving it over that cliff into the ocean all because their -Ism told them so.

As been said before, we will be lucky to live through this...


Okay, so I hate all -Isms, what negative things can I say about Pragmatism?

The biggest dissent against it revolves around "What IS Truth" in the first place. The more Progressive/Left philosophers of the 20th Century also attacked Pragmatism because it "fails to offer significant moral and political resistance to the existing set of social and institutional relations. For (Randolph) Bourne and his followers, pragmatism came up short when it came time to articulate new values and new ideals in response to that system. Pragmatism, in its insistence on the practical cash value of ideas, had reduced ideas to mere expediency..."

I think Carpenter and myself would disagree about the "expediency" part (the current Republican dilemma is a clear example), as long as the Pragmatists remained dedicated to the process of modification and problem-solving. As far as "cash value" - that is, the Real-World Experience of the -Ism - being a millstone, I would argue the Left-leaning critics were - like any other adherent to a Utopian ideal - ignoring the practical realities to pursue a potentiality.

Damn. I *am* defending an -Ism here. Quick, slap me with a trout, see if that resets my leanings towards Skepticism!


dinthebeast said...

To me, pragmatism means supporting things that will actually help, even in the face of competing things which may answer to a higher ideal, but have little chance of actually happening. The tranquilizing drug of gradualism (ism!) may not have been even pragmatic back in 1963, but often is all you can actually achieve, and if it works in the service of social progress in a more reliable fashion than out and out revolution, I'll take it. (Take it meaning fight for it to the best of my ability.)

-Doug in Oakland

Infidel753 said...

Interesting points. It was actually the extreme inflexibility and commitment to rigid purism shown by so many libertarians that put me off too much emphasis on ideology in the first place. Any ideology could be followed in an equally rigid way, but libertarianism seems to attract the most people who commit themselves to mindless rule-following.

I dislike -isms partly because they can become an end in themselves at the expense of practical results, but also because anything named as an -ism can be defined in some detail, and that which can be defined in detail can be the subject of endless debate and haisplitting about whether this or that "is" or "is not" true libertarianism or true socialism or true whatever. It becomes like religionists debating the exact meaning of this or that scriptural passage -- a pointless distraction from what really matters, which to me means achieving practical results. Whether my attitude has a name or not doesn't much concern me. I just want to see certain things get done.

Rigid ideologists may achieve some power and success for a while (the USSR, the Republican party), but in the end they're too prone to "drive the car over the cliff into the ocean" because the ideology tells them they just can't turn the steering wheel too far even when it's obviously necessary.