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Pragmatism

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

On this blog, I often refer to something called “pragmatism.” What is this pretentious thing? In short, it’s my way of making sense of the world. The term comes from philosophy, but the ideas underlying it are pretty simple. In fact, you may be a pragmatist and not even know it.

Pragmatism is an (some say, the) American philosophical tradition. It’s associated with people like poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, social reformer John Dewey and always dapper, “bluesman of the mind” Cornel West. It was first popularized around 1900 by William James, ghosthunter and brother of novelist Henry James. More recently it was championed by philosopher Richard Rorty.

So what is a pragmatist? How does such a person think? Well, first off, there’s no such thing as pragmatist dogma. Two people can have opposing views about a topic and still both be pragmatists. Instead of telling you what to believe, in other words, pragmatism is a mindset, a disposition.

As I see it, the pragmatic mindset has three key features. #1: Pragmatists believe that value can only be determined by looking at the consequences of an object, action or idea. A belief is true if you can act on it. An action is good if it has positive consequences. This is a simple idea, but the impact is huge. It means that pragmatists disregard essences. We don’t care what a thing is, we only care what it does.

#2: Pragmatists view ideas as tools. As James puts it, all humans exist within a constant, overwhelming flux of sensory inputs. Ideas are just tools we use to cut this flux into manageable bits. They help us do stuff. When an idea is no longer useful, it needs to be discarded. In practice, this means that pragmatists value experimentation, flexibility and openness. We don’t fetishize ideas.

#3: Pragmatists recognize that all people, having had different experiences, will cut up their sensory flux in slightly different ways. In other words, people will always have varying beliefs. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, diversity of opinion is good because it gives us more ways to solve problems. Of course, it can also cause conflict. That’s why pragmatists promote respect for, and understanding of, differing belief systems. You have your beliefs, I have mine– recognizing that neither is “wrong” (or at least can’t be judged as such from an outside perspective) is the first step towards compromise.

Of course, the above traits are valued by many individuals and cultures. That’s what makes pragmatism, as William James said, “a new name for an old way of thinking.”

So who’s not a pragmatist? In my opinion, basically anyone who thinks they have access to some fundamental Truth. This includes religious fundamentalists (Truth = word of God), unreformed Marxists (Truth = Marxian economic laws) and certain dogmatic believers in logic or the scientific method (Truth = logical formulas or “objective” scientific observation). Of course, all these groups have access to limited, localized truths. The key, from a pragmatic perspective, is not to let them push that truth on others. We must politely remind our fundamentalist friends that ideas are tools, not fetish objects.