William James and Walter Lippmann

As my on line course ends and my research sabbatical begins, as I delve into a project which is both exciting and intimidating.  I made the decision not to stick with German foreign policy or the European Union for my next research project, and instead focus on my current interest: why are we in the industrialized West in the predicament that we are in?

The predicament is multifaceted, and my research won’t touch all of it.  It includes militarism and warfare, degradation of the environment, hyper-materialism, high levels of depression and anxiety, consumerism, and a desire for ‘something for nothing,’ as if being in the world entitled us to luxury and security.   It shows itself everywhere from greed on Wall Street to desire for the government to protect us from everything.   It’s crass capitalism and stifling socialism.  It’s amusement park religion and cold atheism.

A core assumption I make is that reality, being a social construction, reflects how we think.   Our thoughts guide our acts, our acts create our world.   That is true at an individual level, and it is true at a societal level.   Moreover, at each level there are shallow and deep ways to think about it.  “Positive thinking” at the individual level is often shallow, and used as a way to “make yourself wealthy” or “get what you want through creative visualization.”  There the effort isn’t really to reflect on life, but to delude oneself.   The deeper way to think about it means to question values and anxieties and find a true positivism, one where values rather than external conditions provide meaning.   At a cultural level the pop approach is politics — Obama will bring change, Bush will keep us safe, etc.  The pop politics approach is superficial, and generally does not solve the deeper societal problems any more than happy thoughts will send money pouring our way (and even if it does, that money will probably only yield an unquenchable desire for more).

If our cultural “way of thinking” is warped, why is that so?   One possible answer is to look at the general way of thinking we’ve embraced — enlightenment style rationality.   Do we simply worship reason and science, yielding a materialist approach to life that defies true value reflection?   Perhaps.   But then again, the famous atheist Denis Diederot saw reason and rationality as having an ethical core — if we are responsible for our world, not God, then don’t we have a responsibility for doing what is necessary to have the world we want?

Perhaps it’s reason combined with something else.   Thinking theoretically about this, my first glance was at the Frankfurt school, and the work of Adorno and Horkheimer.   They were German Jews who managed to escape before the war, and were horrified by what their country had embraced.   How could the center of culture and enlightenment philosophy so wholeheartedly embrace the essence of anti-rationality, fascism?   The enlightenment was supposed to be about liberation, why did it go wrong?   Their argument was complex, but what I got from it was this: the enlightenment itself does not provide a true sense of what to value.  There are no first principles that give you a clear answer, and thus the discourse is inherently open to interpretation.  In that realm the powerful — those who control political parties, the media, and of course advertising — are able to manipulate people to think a particular way.   Instead of liberation, there is a new form of enslavement, albeit at least in capitalist societies, a kind of gilded cage.

Alongside Adorno and Horkheimer (along with a dose of neo-Freudian thought) I looked at the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Communist jailed by Mussolini between the wars in Italy.   Gramsci realized that Marx had made fundamental errors, most importantly his ignorance of culture and politics.  For Gramsci, the fascists won because they had created a ‘hegemonic discourse’ that defined reality in ways that seemed to be “the way things are ” and “common sense” to the masses.   In short, the discourse constructed their understanding of self-interest and meaning, thus making it seem natural for laborers to support the fascists, even as their income declined and the business class blossomed.  I find this connection between the Frankfurt School and Gramsci relatively compelling.   It avoids the “hypodermic” model of media studies which says the media simply injects ideas into the public, for a broader sense of a socially constructed discourse, wherein people have their understandings of reality subtly manipulated in order to serve the needs of the elite, governmental or business — capitalist or socialist.

Yet for a long time I could not figure out how to find a way out of this.  Adorno ended up simply turning to the arts as his solace, while Gramsci’s idea of creating an ‘alternative discourse’ seemed uncompelling.   That simply would be to create a battle of discourses or narratives fought out on the political realm — people would remain manipualted, but they might be manipulated by side “X” rather than side “Y.”

Lately I’ve realized that while the Europeans have defined the problem well, American philosophers may have the best take on the answer, developed in a uniquely American philosophy, pragmatism.  In fact, pragmatism may be the American philosophy, sharing many roots with the more exotic Nietzschean perspectivism and Foucaultian post-modernism, but avoiding a slip into the abstract world of philosophical naval gazing and arguing over how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin.  Instead, pragmatism provides a means of coping with the issues of values and social communication.

James was a physician turned philosopher, who was often mistrusted by the philosophical elite because he spoke in ways that every day folk could understand.  He thought philosophy was useless if it could only be understood by a small cadre of well educated elite.   His pragmatism and cosmopolitianism reflected a fundamentally open mind — he would look at every claim and statement fairly, assessing its worth and core values.   Yet in so doing he did not give up his own capacity to hold positions with fierce conviction, standing on his beliefs with as much strength as a dogmatist.  He could accept that he might be wrong, and yet still fight for what he held true.

Lippmann (who I’ve written about before) was a student of James and others at Harvard, but found the ivory tower world a bit too boring, and went into the action-packed world of journalism.   Lippmann was critical of propaganda and media manipulation (though he worked during the war making propaganda for the US government), and shared James’ cosmopolitanism and belief in open-mindedness and open communication.  That pragmatic approach evades the “enlightenment” desire to find a “true” system of ethics or values based on some kind of rational argument.   Rather than seeking ultimate truth, one compares ideas and examines results, and makes a pragmatic choice about what works in the world.

However, that kind of process requires thought and is time consuming.   Politics as a product for the masses, political campaigns run on slogans and competing narratives works against the kind of thoughtful approach people like James and Lippmann promoted.   Ideological jihad is the antithesis of pragmatism.  So I feel like part of my research is to both define how the media operates to construct discourses (hegemonic or competing), how this manipulates, and to critique this from a pragmatic perspective.

So at least I feel like the research has theoretical (if not yet methodological) direction.  That direction may change, but for now, it’s underway…

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  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on January 19, 2010 - 13:24

    Wow! That sounds very interesting. I am intrigued by much of what you wrote here and find myself nodding in agreement at many points, particularly in regard to the problems in the West and in regard to their underlying causes.

    I really like “It’s amusement park religion and cold atheism.”

    However. . .

    I can’t agree that reality is a social construct. Reality is what it is. That’s the nature of reality.

    “But then again, the famous atheist Denis Diederot saw reason and rationality as having an ethical core — if we are responsible for our world, not God, then don’t we have a responsibility for doing what is necessary to have the world we want?”

    Yes, of course. However, people are conflicted within themselves and with each other about what kind of world that they/we want.

    “Instead, pragmatism provides a means of coping with the issues of values and social communication.”

    I don’t know. Pragmatism doesn’t work as a worldview or life philosophy unless there are more fundamental principles guiding it. One must have a basis for determining what is or is not pragmatic, and what limitations should be placed on folks’ doing what is pragmatic. (For example, it would be very pragmatic for me to kill my neighbors and take over their property, but not so pragmatic for them.)

    “Rather than seeking ultimate truth, one compares ideas and examines results, and makes a pragmatic choice about what works in the world.”

    Again, how does this system figure out what it means that something “works”? Works to accomplish what? For example, it would work to make a more peaceful world to kill every person in Sudan, but something inside me says that such a solution, though pragmatic, is not exactly right.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on January 19, 2010 - 14:47

      I was unclear — social reality (our culture, ideologies, traditions and customs) is a construct, not physical reality. It’s social reality that we wave goodbye or that the middle finger is rude — that is the constructed part. I like to think of it this way. We have subjective reality (our own experience of reality), objective reality (the world that is, which we can only experience mediated by our senses and interpretive ability), and social reality (shared and contested understandings, traditions, etc.)

      Pragmatism in some ways is the ultimate philosophy of freedom. Each individual has to make a personal decision about what is right. I believe (and this is my own leap of faith) that reality (whether through a God, karma or just nature) rewards right behavior and punishes bad behavior. In that I mean that if people were to kill all in the Sudan, the unintended consequences would perhaps be dire, it could precipitate a wider war, major crises, and people would be worse off. So for me pragmatism means using real world consequences, as well as their impact on me subjectively, as a measure of what is right or wrong. I can not prove that killing people is wrong. The sun will someday go nova, the planet has billions of people, everyone dies. I cannot prove with any system that killing is wrong in pure rational terms. I could point to a religious teaching, or (via pragmatism) argue both that killing harms a polity (places where murder is prevalent are unpleasant — most people seem to think that), and that seeing people needlessly die hurts me inside. That subjective feeling is real to me, and I don’t like it.

      And that’s all I really have to go on. It’s interesting that there is a lot of agreement across religious and mythical traditions on core human values. Pragmatism also doesn’t require me to deny your belief in God (I may not hold it, but I wouldn’t condemn it or say absolutely that you are wrong), nor does it require me to deny any belief. I simply analyze it, give my perspective on it in pragmatic terms, make my own call and act on my own convictions. I may be wrong, but as Frank Sinatra would say, ‘I did it my way.’

  2. #3 by Jeff Lees on January 21, 2010 - 02:53

    I really admire your thesis, it’s philosophical, it’s practical, it’s revealing, and it somehow digs deep into what it means to be a Westerner, what it means to be ‘enlightened’.

    I hope you will be around campus on your sabbatical, I would love to sit and chat about your research!

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