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: 1972–1980 (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.
12 James, Pragmatism, pp. 29, 38.
13 Hillary Clinton shrewdly cultivated a moderate profile from the time she arrived in the Senate, aiming to recast her earlier image as firmly to the left of her husband. Indeed, on leaving the White House, the couple chose to reside in New York for the nakedly pragmatic purpose of enabling Mrs. Clinton to quickly run for a Senate seat.
14 “Boycott Beijing,” compiled by Evan R. Goldstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 2008, p. B4.
15 For a clear discussion of the basic tenets of Minimalism, see Cass Sunstein, One Case as a Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). Also see my discussion of Minimalism in “Why Originalism Won’t Die—Common Mistakes in Competing Theories of Judicial Interpretation,” Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy 2, 2007, pp. 159–215.
16 Cass Sunstein andRichard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Sunstein has been called the “pre-eminent legal scholar of our time” by the dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan (Evan R. Goldstein, “The New Paternalism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2008, p. B10) and has also served as an advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The book has captured international attention, as well, reportedly winning acclaim as a serious basis for policy from the British Conservative party leader David Cameron. See “Wink, Wink,” The Economist, July 26, 2008, p. 68.
17 Sunstein and Thaler, Nudge, p. 5.
18 Steven D. Levitt, “Nudge,” New York Times, April 11, 2008. For a good overview of the book’s theme, see Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, “Easy Does it—How to Make Lazy People Do the Right Thing,” The New Republic, April 9, 2008, pp. 20–22.
19 Ayn Rand discussed a mixed economy’s pretense that “might and right can be safely scrambled together if we all agree never to raise the issue” in “Have Gun, Will Nudge,” The Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 3, March 1962, p. 9.
20 See “Nearer to Overcoming,” Economist, May 10, 2008, pp. 33–34 and Elissa Gootman, “Mixed Results on Paying Students to Pass Advanced Tests,” New York Times, August 20, 2008, p. C-10 of national edition.
22 Alan Greenspan, quoted in Michael Kinsley, “Greenspan Shrugged,” New York Times Book Review, October 14, 2007, p. 13.
23 See Helene Cooper, “For Some Foes the Chat, Some the Cold Shoulder,” New York Times, July 6, 2008, p. 4 of Week In Review, national edition. Beyond negotiating with the three states he once condemned as constituting the axis of evil (Iran, North Korea, and Syria), Bush’s willingness to cooperate with such oppressive regimes as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and numerous others is well known.
24 For a good discussion of the morality (and implicitly, the proper legal status) of abortion, see Ayn Rand, “Of Living Death,” The Voice Of Reason, edited by Leonard Peikoff (New York: New American Library, 1988), pp. 46–63, and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 357–58.
25 I base this on standard conceptions of the basic nature of religion. Among the definitions of religion provided by the Oxford English Dictionary are: “Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this”; “A particular system of faith and worship”; “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.”
26 For clear demonstration of this, see Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1964), pp. 19–25; Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 193–98.
27 Neela Banerjee, “A Fluid Religious Life is Seen in US, with Switches Common,” New York Times, February 26, 2008, p. A12, national edition; and “Brand Disloyalty,” Economist, March 1, 2008, pp. 34–36. For a report on related later findings, also see Neela Banerjee, “Survey of Religion in US Finds a Broad Tolerance for Other Faiths,” New York Times, June 24, 2008.
28 Jeffrey Rosen, “Card-Carrying—The First Civil Libertarian President?” New Republic, February 27, 2008, p. 4.
29 Abner J. Mikva, as quoted in Jo Becker and Christopher Drew, “Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side,” New York Times, May 11, 2008, pp. 1, 18–19, national edition.
30 Becker and Drew, “Pragmatic Politics, Forged on the South Side.”
31 See, for instance, Bob Herbert, “Lurching with Abandon,” New York Times, July 8, 2008; and “New and Improved,” Economist, July 12, 2008.
32 See the accounts of Obama’s views in Cass Sunstein, “The Visionary Minimalist—Toward a Theory of Obama-ism,” New Republic, January 30, 2008, pp. 13–15; and Noam Scheiber, “The Audacity of Data,” New Republic, March 12, 2008.
33 For elaboration on the distinctions I am invoking here, see Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Manmade,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), pp. 28–41; and Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 23–30. On the primacy of existence as opposed to the primacy of consciousness, see Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), 2nd ed., pp. 23–24, 245–51; and Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 17–23.
34 James, Pragmatism, p. 132.
35 A term coined by Peikoff in his lectures “The DIM Hypothesis,” delivered at OCON, July 2007, Telluride.
36 For discussion of the contrast between human consciousness and that of lower animals, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 19–23; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 10–18; “The Missing Link,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 42–55; “For the New Intellectual,” For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1961), pp. 9–57; and portions of Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged (New York: Dutton, 1992), especially pp. 1012–14, 1016–18.
37 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p.1015. Also see discussion in Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 4–12.
38 See Aristotle’s formulations of this principle in his Metaphysics IV, 3, 4.
39 See Aristotle’s discussion of this inescapability in the Metaphysics; Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 9–12; and for a brief, essentialized explanation of how this holds for the law of non-contradiction, Matthew Kramer, Objectivity and the Rule of Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 23.
40 For a discussion of the condition of Americans’ thinking habits, see Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008).
41 ADD is the familiar acronym for widely diagnosed attention deficit disorder.
42 Quoted in Caroline Wyatt, “Bush and Putin: Best of Friends,” BBC News online, June 16, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1392791.stm.
43 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.
44 On man’s need for reason and for rational values, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”; Peikoff, Objectivism, chapter 7; and Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), chapters 2 and 3.
45 See Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh, “Moral Health Care vs. ‘Universal Health Care,’” The Objective Standard, vol.2, no. 4, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 9–41.
46 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 1054. Note that this does not condemn all compromise, but only compromise with the irrational.
47 For related discussion, see my treatment of sanctioning evil in the chapter examining justice in Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, pp. 159–64, as well as the book’s discussions of principles and integrity, pp. 33–38 and 176–97. Also see my “No Tributes to Caesar: Good or Evil in Atlas Shrugged,” Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: Lexington Books, forthcoming in 2009).
48 Rand explains a sense of life as “the pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.” She elaborates on this in “Philosophy and Sense of Life” and “Art and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1971), pp. 25–34 and 34–44.
49 For a brief but instructive discussion of this difference, see Kramer, Objectivity and the Rule of Law, pp. 84–86.
50 For much more on a rational morality’s practicality, see Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics”; Peikoff, Objectivism, chapters 7–9; and Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics and Viable Values—A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), chapters 4–6.