What is Pragmatism?

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.

The Lesson of Nabokov’s Father

This summer I happen to be tutoring a young, upwardly mobile Chinese woman. In trying to explain to her, in the limited vocabulary of an ESL lesson, my understanding of democracy, I could do no better than cite the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s father. With compliments to Richard Rorty, I’d like to share this story and my interpretation.

Nabokov’s father, so the story goes, was a nobleman and liberal politician in pre-Soviet Russia. He died defending his political rival from an assassin’s bullet. This, Rorty notes, is the action of a true liberal. How so? As I understand it, Nabokov’s father valued the democratic process above all else. He rather die than allow another’s voice (even that of his political rival) to be silenced.

What ideas about the world could underpin such a belief?   First, there’s immense faith in the wisdom of the community, i.e. a recognition that all knowledge is social and that open debate and discussion is the best way to generate such knowledge. There’s also a willingness, to use a term from my last post, to disavow the role of the “subject who knows.” Instead of dictating policy, Nabokov’s father, through the promotion of democratic institutions, sought to create an environment in which policy could be cultivated. The most important thing was to get the conversation going and to keep it going, even if it meant getting killed.

I think the story of Nabokov’s father, and the great epistemological humility which underlies it, are something everyone should consider. The core idea– of respect for process rather than per-determined product– can also be applied to realms of action far removed from politics. As an example, consider rhetorical ethics, a theme which underlies much of this blog. What is the goal when we speak or write? Do we seek to make our mark upon the world like some petty vandal? Or do we seek to work with others, through reflection, and careful, respectful listening, to construct new knowledges? Nabokov’s father would believe the latter. And I certainly agree.