The Menace of Pragmatism

Author’s note: This essay is based on a lecture delivered at the Objectivist Conference (OCON) held in Newport Beach, CA, July 2008, and retains some of the informal character of an oral presentation.

While people commonly disagree about competing world views and substantive ideologies—arguing the merits of different religious creeds or value systems, for instance, of environmentalism or dominant business practices, of volunteerism or the specifics of political platforms—many are blind to the fact that nearly all these ideologies are fueled by a single, more basic philosophy: pragmatism. As people increasingly complain that political candidates are “all the same,” in fact, many of the ideas and approaches supported by these candidates do reflect a shared method. It is important to understand this common element not simply because of the breadth of its influence, but because of its destructiveness. While pragmatism presents itself as a tool of reason and enjoys the image of mature moderation, of common sense and practical “realism,” in truth, it is anything but realistic or practical. Pragmatism has become a highly corrosive force in people’s thinking. And insofar as it is thinking that drives actions—the actions of individuals and correlatively, the course of history—as long as a person or a nation is infected by a warped philosophical approach, genuine progress will be impossible.

In this essay, I seek to demonstrate the stealth but all too live menace that pragmatism poses. Pragmatism is not a substantive set of doctrines so much as a way of thinking, a unifying approach that helps to sustain an array of doctrines that are, in their content, irrational. Because it is a method, however, and informs the way that a practitioner tackles any issue, it proves much more difficult to unroot than an erroneous conclusion. Moreover, thanks to its positive image, pragmatism tends to give harmful ideas a good name, bestowing them with the misplaced aura of reason. It thereby makes people who wish to be rational all the more susceptible to those ideas.

I will begin by clarifying exactly what pragmatism is and proceed to supply evidence of its prevalence. I will then consider the distinctive appeal of pragmatism, as well as the heart of its error—where its goes wrong. Next, I will explain its destructive impact, the principal means by which pragmatism is, indeed, corrosive. Finally, I will offer some thoughts concerning means of combating its influence.1

What Pragmatism Is

As a formal school of philosophy, pragmatism was founded by C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) in the late 19th century. Its more renowned early advocates included William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952). Primarily, pragmatism is a way of tackling philosophical questions. This, according to its founders, is what made pragmatism different from all previous philosophy. James wrote that pragmatism does not stand for any results or specific substantive doctrines; rather, it is distinguished by its method of “clarifying ideas” in practical terms by tracing the practical consequences of accepting one idea or another.2 The meaning and the truth of any claim depend entirely on its practical effects. The mind, accordingly, should not be thought of as a mirror held up to the external world, but as a tool whose role is not to discover, but to do, to act.3

What, then, should we make of the concept of truth?—or the concept of reality? Don’t we need to respect those, in order to achieve practical consequences? Well, of course truth exists, says James, but truth is not a stagnant property. Rather, an idea becomes true—“truth happens to an idea.” Truth “lives on a credit system” in his view; what a truth has going for it is that people treat it in a certain way. The true is the “expedient,” “any idea upon which we can ride.” Any idea is true so long as it is “profitable.”4

All truths do have something in common, then, namely, “that they pay.”5 The question to ask of any proposed idea is: What is its “cash value in experiential terms?”6 The traditional notion of purely objective truth, however, is “nowhere to be found.”7 The world we live in is “malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands.”8 As Peirce memorably put it, “there is absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing so long as they are not brought to the test.”9 In the view of a much more recent and influential pragmatist, Richard Rorty, truth is “what your contemporaries let you get away with.”10 To call a statement true is essentially to give it a rhetorical pat on the back.11

In short, for the pragmatists, we find no ready-made reality. Instead, we create reality. Correlatively, there are no absolutes—no facts, no fixed laws of logic, no certainty. . . .

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Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Craig Biddle for very helpful suggestions on an earlier draft.

1 As an adaptation of a lecture, the level of argumentative detail in this essay is somewhat less rigorous than it would be in a more scholarly piece.

2 William James, Pragmatism, edited by Bruce Kuklick (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981; original published 1907), pp. 31–33.

3 Ibid., pp. 28, 87.

4 Ibid., pp. 92, 30, 92, 95, 100, 30, 36.

5 Ibid., p. 98.

6 Ibid., p. 92.

7 Ibid., pp. 32–33.

8 Ibid., p. 115.

9 C. S. Peirce, Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, edited by Philip P. Weiner (New York: Dover, 1958), p. 124.

10 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 176.

11 Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism—Essays: 19721980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xvii, quoted in Susan Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 65. Haack argues that Rorty dilutes the more rigorous pragmatism of Peirce.

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