A New Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a distinctly American ideology, rooted in the American psyche and way of thought.  It’s early proponents, William James and John Dewey (thanks to Adrian for catching an earlier error as I mixed up Thomas Dewey with John!) rejected the navel-gazing internally complex world of European philosophy for an approach that engaged the world directly, without trying to determine absolute truth.  Modern neo-Pragmatists like Richard Rorty take it a step further, arguing that after 2500 years of searching for the “truth,” only to find a variety of ideas that can be defeated just by questioning main assumptions, we should give up.  Maybe truth is not able to be discovered in any philosophical sense; maybe we make up our reality as we go.

In a sense, pragmatism is liberating.  We don’t rely on some scholar to come up with some theory, necessarily a vastly oversimplified version of reality relying on unfalsifiable assumptions, to give us the “right” approach to life or politics.  The idea that reality has an answer key that we can figure out if we “correctly” understand the world is rooted in enlightenment era arrogance and the fact that it’s really easy for people to build theories that internally seem persausive — especially if you agree with core assumptions.

This fetish with theoretical simplifications of reality in order to determine what is politically “correct” has led to some of the worst conflicts and inhumane actions in history.   America is an inherently pragmatist country, both in its origin and history.  Pragmatism requires compromise between people with different world views, and our history is dotted with such compromises.  These may not always be ones we are proud of — considering blacks to be 3/5 of a human is one many Americans wish was not part of our history — but they reflect sentiment at the time, and allow social change as ideas change.   Pragmatism is a shield against ideological extremism, as well as a tool for progressive, rational development.    Pragmatism is essentially American, and reflects the spirit of our history and ideals.

This generation is, I believe, seeing a shift away from ideology-driven thinking to one of pragmatic change.   Ideologies have led to mass suffering, and cannot be proven right or wrong.  People caught up in ideological thinking, like this person, sustain their faith primarily by ridiculing others, proclaiming superiority, and avoiding ideas that threaten their faith.  But theirs is the ash heap of history, ideological thinking is the great error of the post-enlightenment era.

Pragmatism is a way to build cooperation between right and left.  It is an effort to compare different conceptions about the nature of the problems we face, compromise, and come up with efforts to solve them.  Rather than seeing politics as ideological warfare, it becomes one of trying to understand and solve problems, learning from mistakes and adapting.

The idea that a complex world like ours can be understood through a human constructed ideology takes a leap of faith completely unwarranted.   True believers in Marxism ignore the way history has proven much of what Marx thought wrong in order to redefine terms and reinterpret history.  On the other side you have people like Ayn Rand, a far better fiction writer than philosopher (in fact, her philosophy is usually considered pretty second rate), who inspire emotional devotion to a world view that one simply accepts on faith.  Ideologies are like secular religions.   But, while religion can remain a personal choice or way of life, ideologies attempt to spread and control how others live their lives.  Ideologues are, in essence, the functional equivalent of the religious zealots of the past, convinced they have the true faith, and others are simply ignorant, corrupt, or blind.

America’s response to Obama’s inauguration — a response of hope and even joy at a time when economic news is bleak — is not just a reaction to him or the fact we finally have a black President.  Rather, it’s a kind of relief that we have a President who wants to move beyond partisan ideological divides and focus on practical solutions to what the country faces.

This doesn’t mean people should automatically agree with him or support him.  I disagree with his expensive stimulus package (even if I hope it works), and Republicans are also noting that while they’ll work with him, they will push their view that smaller government is better.   And you know, that argument need not and usually is not ideological.   Republicans aspire to smaller government because they see it as less dangerous, more in line with America’s core value of liberty, and ultimately more effective than larger governmental bureaucracies.  Democrats see a more active role for government in helping expand wealth, work against inequities, and promote social justice.   These are different perspectives, but not ideological straight jackets, and certainly leave a lot of room for compromise.

Moving away from the age of ideology is difficult, especially for the baby boom crowd who came of age during the intensely ideological Cold War.  They learned to see the world as “ism” vs. “ism,” with different core principles, with one right world view.   Politics was a kind of war, fought in the precincts, newspapers and airwaves.   Clearly, no one expects that to go away completely — nor should it.  Pragmatism does not mean an end to disagreement, or that people will have similar views on what should be done.

Rather, a move towards pragmatism over ideological conflict means that people will be more open to testing how policies work, than relying on abstract theory to tell them what to do.  It means that rather than different world views colliding, compromise and trail and error will be possible.   Instead of grand visions of how the world “should be” or whatever forces operate to make the world what it is, we’ll recognize there is a diversity of cultures, perspectives and ways of life, none of which can be objectively proven as “right.”  However, we make our calls, make our choices, and construct the means through which we measure how well these choices work, allowing us to change course or try something new.

Ideology was, in some ways, the pinnacle of human arrogance, a belief that an individual is smart enough to have figured out the right way to organize the world and attempt to force others to live by those rules.   The fact of the matter is that reality is far too complex for our tiny human minds to grasp in the framework of an ideology.   Moreover, meanings and understandings change as cultures change.

Barack Obama’s election is celebrated in part because he embraces that traditional and truly American value of pragmatism.  That doesn’t mean he’s right.  That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed.  That doesn’t mean that the Republicans should simply defer to him — not at all.  It does mean, however, that we as a country are starting to move beyond the ideological conflict of the 20th century to a set of values more in line with what America is all about, a new pragmatism.

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  1. #1 by Adrian on January 21, 2009 - 21:55

    “It’s early proponents, William James and Thomas Dewey…”

    I think you meant to say John Dewey. The only Thomas Dewey I’ve ever heard of was the governor of New York and unsuccessful presidential candidate.

    I really like your blog; it’s taught me a lot. I also like your pragmatic approach to the the world. It’s refreshing to read someone with so much sense. Thanks.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on January 21, 2009 - 22:40

    LOL! Of course, John not Thomas!

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