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What Pragmatism Is

by Matt Kundert


The meaning of pragmatism as a tradition of philosophical thinking has been contested by those on the outside, and also intermurally by those within it. I think the time has come for both sides, critics and purveyors, to move beyond the idea that 'pragmatism' means 'practicality.' There are many linguistic landmines having to do with common usage, common sense, original usage, philosophical usage, etc. The classical pragmatists, Peirce, James, Dewey, amongst others (Schiller, Mead, etc.), surely had their reasons for using various rhetorical framings. But the core of pragmatism as it has been worked out through the years has nothing (and everything) to do with 'practicality.'

The parenthetical is there to remind people that the classical rhetoric isn't completely worn out. The insight they had was that things can only be said to be true or false in practice. Pragmatism is the thesis that theory, thinking, metaphysics, philosophy, academics, poetry, math, education, school, business, baseball, everything — everything is useful if it has a use. Tautological, yes, but notice the shift in focus: truth is what works, but what is it working for? What is its use?

We can probably isolate two main, contemporary reactions to pragmatism. The first is felt more by laypersons, non-academic appreciators of philosophy, and is connected more with the classical pragmatists, particularly James. This reaction revolves around the rhetoric of 'practicality,' which produces the suspicion in some that not everything under the sun should be judged according to how practical it is. Is going to church on Sunday mornings practical? Is it practical trying to read Spenser's Faerie Queen, spending 10 minutes a stanza on just deciphering its archaic English? However, wouldn't our lives be impoverished somehow if we didn't do these things? This negative reaction revolves around the mood produced by the rhetoric of practicality.

The second reaction, almost entirely relegated to professional, academic philosophers, is partially connected with the classicals, but also with their children, the neopragmatists, especially (or only, depending on your frame) Richard Rorty. In the first instance, the professionals are concerned about the so-called 'pragmatist theory of truth': truth is what works. Their concern is that this theory of truth itself does not work and, even further, leads to relativism. In the second instance, academic philosophers are concerned with a kind of 'end-of-philosophy' rhetoric, a concern that hardly needs further enunciation — what the hell sense does it make for a philosopher to end philosophy?

The first reaction by laypersons is entirely understandable. When confronted with the notion that truth bows down before practicality, our noses may wrinkle a bit when we consider all the idiosyncratic things we do for pleasure or spiritual fulfillment. Is watching football all day really a practical use of our time? Is reading trashy romance novels? Is re-reading Michael Crichton's Congo? Is praying, when there's no sure way of telling whether there's any use to it? Is meditating practical, or is it just sitting there, thinking about not thinking? And what's the use in that? Is it really practical to buy a copy of Sir Phillip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, adding another to the growing pile of books you'll probably never get around to finishing, when you can find the poem online?

Maybe none of these things are practical. So why do we do them? Why, indeed — why is the question. Why do we do the things we do? This is the immediate question that even a poor, first reaction to pragmatism should cause because, if our response is that there is more than just practicality, if we bite the bullet and say, 'Yeah, watching football all day isn't practical, but I still like to do it,' then we've already gone so far as to distinguish between the need for practicality and the need for something else, and it is to the defense of that need, that purpose, that one has already at the least begun by the very act of countenancing it. In other words: the very act of being suspicious of pragmatism forces one to consider that there are different reasons and motivations for doing things.

It is my contention that that is actually what lays at the heart of pragmatism — the forced act of considering why it is we do the things we do, and wondering if we should continue doing them — and not necessarily about how practical an idea or activity is. The central idea of pragmatism is that everything is grounded in practice, indeed, everything we do is a practice. Pragmatism grew as a tradition within the philosophical community, as a response to the philosophical community as it was largely composing itself, because one of the pervasive inheritances bequeathed us by Plato was the idea that there was a difference between theory and practice, the distinction between theoria and praxis.

Theory was supposed to be an arena of contemplation uninfected by practice, by the conflicted affairs of people. Socrates looked around himself and saw people behaving as if they knew why they were doing things, people like Euthyphro who thought they were doing pious actions — but did they really know what piety was? Socrates took the Delphic maxim, 'Know thyself,' and made it into a way of life: 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' Socrates wanted us, all of us, to not live our lives without considering why we do the things we do, without examining our motivations and purposes, without knowing the consequences of our actions.

What happened next is complicated and much debated, but the happening was Plato. In an effort to honor Socrates' memory, Plato took up his mantle and his cause, writing about why we do the things we do and exploring better ways at going about them. We should perhaps distinguish, though, between the way of life embodied by Socrates and that codified by Plato. Socrates was what we lovingly refer to as a 'philosophical gadfly,' somebody who's always picking at us, making us think about what we are doing. As a way of life, we can see it as a sort of skeptical attitude towards what is happening around you, a kind of looking askance, always with an eye out for perhaps a better way of doing things. Socrates wandered around making people think, and that's a cultural practice we would do well to continue.

Plato, however, produced something a little different. Whereas Socrates looked at actual activities, actions, and tried to make us think about what we were doing, Plato thought that what Socrates embodied was a whole new thing, called 'philosophy,' that lay to the entire side of all individual activities, actions. Plato envisioned philosophy as an activity that was pure of all the muddiness that Socrates asked us to examine, an activity that could then inform us as to the proper practice of any particular, individual activity: the division between theory and practice. Plato created a way of life that could, in effect, rule on all other ways of life — the philosopher-king.

On the story the pragmatists tell, in particular Dewey in The Quest for Certainty, that was the beginning of the end of a good idea. The 2500 year long tradition of philosophy, the ironing out of what it means for theoria to pronounce on praxis qua praxis, as opposed to particular suggestions built out of the individual practices themselves, has led to scholasticism, to quarrels that don't mean a whit to our lives.

This was the point of James' formulation of the 'pragmatic method': what is the difference that makes a difference? Only if an idea, a stand on a particular philosophical issue, makes a difference to the living of our lives can that idea, that issue, be considered important enough to spend time on thinking about. James, in his lectures on pragmatism, then famously took up a couple of classic problems and attempted to show how it doesn't matter whether you believe, for instance, in free will or determinism — we still behave as if we need to make decisions.

James liked to talk, in this regard, about the 'cash value' of an idea. That kind of rhetoric is just what puts some people off — the whole idea that an idea or practice has a marketable, public value that goes up and down according to what other people think is just pure crap: I watch football because I love football, the gods be damned if they or anyone else like it. An idea is true whether people believe in it or not. A fact is a fact.

There is, indeed, something here that needs a little clarification, something the professionals have been going on about, but before I leave off for that discussion, I want to remark that James' idea of 'cash value' isn't really about a public market of wares that we can pick from willy-nilly. It is about consequences, what are the consequences of thinking this or that. To what use is a belief that we hold to us — what is it doing for us, what does it mean to us?

James' Pragmatism is famously dedicated to John Stuart Mill, father of utilitarianism and modern liberalism. I believe the heart of utilitarianism is as often misunderstood as pragmatism, and I think the core of them are basically the same, promoted in similar, perhaps worn out ways. In the opening short chapter of Mill's Utilitarianism, he says,

All action is for the sake of some end; and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.
J.S. Mill Utilitarianism Ch. 1

I see in these lines what James was thinking of when he dedicated his general philosophy to Mill's ethical one. The opponent of these lines is the same opponent Socrates had: one who would carry out judgment or action mechanically without ever considering whether the end, the purpose, was a good one.

Mill's opening remarks pave the way for his second chapter, 'What Utilitarianism Is.' I take James' second lecture, after his own opening remarks on the present state of the philosophical scene, 'What Pragmatism Means,' to be itself a remark on Mill and what their common endeavor was. When we confront a statement, and we aren't sure how to take it, we ask, 'What does it mean?' Pragmatism is the philosophy that asks after meaning, the one that wants to know how this idea effects how we behave, 'What does this idea, this philosophy, mean to us, what does it mean to believe, how does it change us?' It is the philosophy that doesn't stop in its pursuit of wisdom, but continues, always wondering after meaning:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.
William James Pragmatism Lecture 2

The professional may, at this point, interject that this setting into the flow of life the consequences of our philosophical positions might all be very well and good as a goal. But the fact of the matter is that, in practice, pragmatism's theory of truth, 'truth is what works,' doesn't itself work. And worse, all this rhetoric about the malleability of reality is damaging to our sense, our correct sense, that reality isn't something to be just pushed around — we can't just make up any damn thing we want, get people to agree with it, and call it true.

This brings us to contemporary reactions to pragmatism, the technical working out of the pragmatist theory of truth and pragmatism's seeming road to relativism. The web of debate surrounding truth is thick, but I believe the proper response for pragmatists is the one Rorty has taken: pragmatism's 'theory of truth' isn't really a theory at all, but the suggestion that we avoid one. (This has the added bonus of avoiding, in my current exposition, the technical tangles.) Pragmatism always got into trouble because it formulated this avoidance in ways that suggested it had a theory about when and where we can find truth, a way of circumscribing the area that would certify our thinking something is true. For instance: ''The true'... is only the expedient in the way of our thinking.' So James doesn't out and say, 'this is my theory,' but we can see where the trouble began.

The trouble comes from the fact that the pragmatist formulations seem to reduce truth to justification. If truth is justification, then what is true is relative to a particular audience because we justify things in front of people, to people. But the whole point of truth, as opposed to justification, was that it was supposed to be the same for everybody. This is why people start to smell relativism. Who are we to say that the Greeks were wrong to hold slaves? After all, they were able to justify it to themselves.

The best move for pragmatists is to just admit that truth is separate from justification: truth is an absolute notion, whereas justification is relative. What pragmatism suggests, however, is that our practices of justification do, and have done, just fine in guiding our action, in giving us grounds for believing this or that to be true — we don't need an extra practice, the search for a working theory of truth, that certifies practice itself. The continual act of justification, of justifying old and new practices to new and old audiences, is the process by which we get our current resting positions. Might I be justified, but wrong? Sure, but admitting that doesn't spell out what else we could do other than our normal processes of justification. It isn't clear how one could short-circuit the path to truth by going around practices of justification and it isn't clear what else we need to do or how it might be done.

This leads us back around to Plato again. Rorty picks up the story that Dewey and others tell about how Plato attempted to create a super-practice, theory, that would certify the effectiveness of a particular, individual practice. But 1) a super-practice is a practice, so what certifies that? And 2) if our practices are already effective, if theory doesn't itself add to the justification, then... tell me why, again, they need to be certified? If they are already working, then... what?

Since a dominant theme in philosophy since Plato has been the working out of the search for absolute certainty, the search for a foundation upon which to set the scaffolding of our thought, Rorty — as incautiously as his predecessors — has suggested that philosophy may have played itself out. (Or rather, Rorty himself occasionally admits to such an incaution in the final pages of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which is funny considering the final paragraph of the book begins, 'Whichever happens, however, there is no danger of philosophy's 'coming to an end.'' ) What is meant is that a certain kind of philosophy, sometimes called foundationalist epistemology, has shown itself to be a waste of energy. Rorty's work in particular has been to question, in true Socratic spirit, the use of some of our energies, particularly the amount of energy philosophers pour into the pursuit of, what could otherwise be called, a justification for the fact that we justify.

The pragmatist spirit, its function, has been to wonder, for instance, about the use of trying to solve the problem of free will and determinism. Without a doubt, there is a purpose, there is an end. But like Socrates being suspicious of Euthyphro's certainty in carrying out the demands of piety, pragmatists wonder if the philosopher chasing after the perfect solution to free choice in a world of cause and effect might be doing it for the reasons they say they are. The specter of relativism makes us afraid of the consequences of giving up certain quests, and fear is a true motivator — but should that be the reason we do something? Out of fear?

There's a lot more to be said about the various philosophical positions individual, self-identified pragmatists have taken against their opponents. But the central insight of pragmatism is not that everything has to be practical, but that everything is a practice carried out in real time, these practices have histories, these practices can be made better and better, and that everything gets grounded out in our experience of life.

Everything is relative to a purpose. Theory and philosophy have uses. They are true, they are worth keeping, if we can figure out to what purpose they are useful for. Pragmatism is antithetical to Kant and Plato and essentialism because they deny, not the thing-in-itself, but the thing-for-itself, like Aristotle's Prime Mover, contemplating itself. Everything is related to something else and how it relates are the questions we should ask and answer. No wheel spins entirely free of life, but the question is not 'does it spin,' but 'should it spin?'

Pragmatism doesn't destroy philosophy, nor does it let the Relativist or Amoralist win. Pragmatism is the core of Socrates' message — it cuts out the bullcrap created over the last 2500 years and gets back to the reason Socrates started up his cross-examinations in the first place: know thyself; the unexamined life is not worth living. At the core of pragmatism is the call to examine the purposes to which we perform various activities. Know why you are doing them. If it serves no purpose, cut it out. If it does, could anything serve it better? Is the purpose it serves a good one? Might there be better purposes?

Pragmatism is a return to philosophy as it should be done. Pragmatism returns us to the practice of life, to the experience of life. There are many purposes that aren't 'practical,' not at least in the common usage of the term. When James said that truth is the expedient in the way of thinking, he added, 'Expedient in almost any fashion.' We just need to be cognizant of what is being made expedient. Pragmatism isn't simply about being practical, it is about knowing why we do things. It is about asking, 'Okay, it works. But for whom?'

© Matthew P. Kundert 2008

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