Monday, November 1, 2010

Pragmatism and The Harvard Professor

Pragmatism is a philosophy fostered during the nineteenth century by several Harvard professors who sought to establish a way of thinking that on the one hand was, in their minds, resonant with the scientific method as then understood and at the same time allowed for the continuation of their then religious beliefs. William James was one of the founders of this movement and he was aligned in a manner with Peirce and of course Dewey. We argue here that pragmatism is less than a philosophy than a means to justify desired ends.

In the recent work by Kloppenberg on the current president, the author, another Harvard Professor, attempts to place the current president as the current day intellectual heir of the Pragmatism movement. To understand what this means we first investigate pragmatism and then we return to Kloppenberg and his words on this matter.

To start we present an excellent summary by Bertrand Russell on James and Pragmatism. Russell states (i):

"The principle of pragmatism, according to James, was first enunciated by C.S. Peirce, who maintained that, in order to attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve. James in elucidation says that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this world-formula is true. In this way theories become instruments, not answers or enigmas…Ideas we are told by James become true in so far as they help us get into a satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience: "An idea is "true" so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives." Truth is one species of good, not a separate category….He adds that "the true" is only the expedient in the way of our thinking…in the long run and on the whole course."

Russell then continues:

"In a chapter on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. "We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it". "If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, then it is true." "We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own."

To further clarify the Pragmatism of James we focus on comments made by Ayer. In many ways using Ayer is a contretemps to Russell, and in essence fleshes out the dimension in the Pragmaticists views. Ayer states (ii):

"In the course of explaining "what pragmatism means", James defined its scope as covering first a method and secondly a theory of truth. The method is based upon a principle which Peirce had put forward in a paper…called "How to make our ideas clear"

In James reformulation it runs: "To attain a perfect clearness of our thoughts of an object … we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve - what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. ….he speaks of the pragmatic method as forbidding us to rest content with a 'solving name" like "God", "Matter", "Reason" …Rather, "You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience….If we apply the idea of cash-value to statements rather than to individual words, the cash-value of a statement may be taken to consist in the experiences that one would have if the statement were discovered to be true. …

James Theory of Truth:

For James, the central feature of pragmatism was what he took to be its theory of truth. … James introduces (truth) by the application of the pragmatic method. "Grant" he says, "an idea or belief to be true … what a concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life. How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? … "The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact a event, a process; the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its validation"

This is interesting in that truth is what is derivative from the existential result of some act. If it feels true then it must be true, and truth is not in and of itself an external and abstract reality. For example if we want 2+2 to be 5 and by doing so we are all happy, say we ask for 2 green candies and 2 red candies and we receive 5 candies total, then we may be quite happy and deem the sum of 2+2 henceforth as 5. Namely the result makes us feel better. Pragmatism is situation ethics in the 19th century and indeed it has evolved into the 21st century as Kloppenberg so states. Specifically Kloppenberg states (iii):

"Obama is drawn toward the ideas of anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism. As an anti-foundationalist, he questions the existence of universal truths. As a historicist, he doubts that any ideas transcend the particularity of time and culture. Finally, as a philosophical pragmatist he insists that all propositions, positions, and policies must be subjected to continuing critical scrutiny. Whereas many activists on both the left and the right proclaim their incommensurable principles with the fervor of true believers, Obama sees things differently. He believes that anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism are consistent with the principles of civic republicanism and deliberative democracy on which America was built and for which it should stand. In his speech marking the end of U.S. military engagement in Iraq, on August 31, 2010, Obama declared, “The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, and to learn from our experience as we confront the many challenges ahead.” That single sentence encapsulates Obama’s commitments to deliberative democracy and pragmatism, the signature features of the approach to American history and politics he adopts in his writings and his speeches. Where did it come from? Obama was educated in two of America’s leading colleges, Occidental and Columbia. He earned his law degree at Harvard Law School…"

Indeed if one looks at James through the eyes of either Russell or Ayer one sees that the pragmatist had no basis for truth, as an anti foundationalist he sees no truth in the abstract and yet as a pragmatist the truth is found by the result. There is thus a contradiction in Kloppenberg which he somehow fails to clarify or if he even recognizes as existing. Thus the good professor seems bent on using both sides of the argument failing to understand in my opinion the underlying philosophical underpinnings of pragmatism.

In many ways the Pragmatism of James was a philosophy developed in New England at a time of change, a change where the religious beliefs of men such as James were being challenged, and his philosophy allowed him to create a justification for God, a god of his own making, by examining the result of such a belief. The belief would be true if the result was efficacious, it somehow was beneficial. He did not however extend that logic to the overall field or moral behaviour, such would immediately result in situational ethics; if it feels good to me, and me alone, it is correct.

He continues:

"Balancing the historicism of cutting-edge constitutional scholarship against his lingering desire for something more substantial than quicksand, Obama makes use of the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism: we should debate our differences, and test provisional interpretations of principle, not by measuring proposals against unchanging dogmas but through trial and error, by trying to solve problems creatively and then democratically deliberating, yet again, on the consequences of our experiments. “We hang on to our values, even if they seem at times tarnished and worn,” even if we realize that “we have betrayed them more often than we remember.” Our democratic values, deliberation and truth testing, constitute the American people as a nation developing over time. Our commitments to freedom and equality are “our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people.” As individuals and as a nation, we are constituted by the values we cherish, the principles we seek to realize, and the democratic process whereby we attempt to reach those goals. "

Pragmatism is not trial and error, it is the establishment of truth, albeit at the same time denying that there is even an absolute truth which can be achieved. Pragmatism per James and Peirce, and to an extent that of Dewey is a philosophy personal justification of personal beliefs. The above quote also demarcates the boundaries of Individualism and Communitarianism, the respect for the individual and their rights, and the need to reach a community based consensus. Deliberative Democracy, as written by Amy Gutmann and others on the extreme left, is communitarian in nature and destroy the Individualism which was a part of the fabric of the Founders. For it was Locke and not Hobbes toward which the founders looked and it was Montesquieu that they sought guidance. Not that they rejected Individualism with their Government structure but their compromises were inherently an acceptance of that very belief.

The author ends the article with:

"For that reason no straight lines run from philosophical pragmatism or deliberative democracy to Obama’s positions, strategies, or policies—or any others. One of the characteristic features of pragmatism, in fact, has been the incessant disagreements among its adherents. Every major debate in American politics in the last century has seen self-proclaimed heirs of James or Dewey lining up on opposite sides, usually on multiple sides. Getting pragmatism right does not dictate a certain political position, although the connection between philosophical pragmatism and an experimental, democratic approach to politics is hard to deny.

But the forms experimentation and democracy should take are not only appropriate subjects for debate. Wrangling over such questions is what a commitment to pragmatism and democracy means. Obama has demonstrated such a commitment himself, and spirited debates about all aspects of his presidency, from its overall thrust to its tactical maneuvers, are not only bound to continue whatever he does, they are fully consistent with the conception of democracy he has outlined and embraced."

The author depicts that pragmatism was the philosophy of the founders, especially Madison whom he idolizes. In reality it was Individualism, with a Coasian flavor, the desire to protect the individual, their rights and property, that was the foundation of the founders beliefs and that they believed that there were underlying truths, not the pragmatists view of situational ethics. Kloppenberg I believe has contorted what pragmatism is and the historical facts to meet his desired end.

In the Introduction of his book Kloppenberg states:

"If philosophical pragmatism informs Obama’s political outlook, the history of pragmatists’ engagement in politics also suggests the reasons why pragmatism may be particularly ill-suited to our own cultural moment. At a time when partisans left and right vie to proclaim rival versions of certainty with greater self-righteousness, the pragmatists’ critique of absolutism and embrace of open-ended experimentation seems off-key, unsatisfying, perhaps even cowardly. Pragmatists have debated the political consequences of the philosophy for over a century. There is general agreement concerning the tight connection between philosophical pragmatism and democracy. Both are committed to open-endedness and experimentation."

It can readily be argued that the pragmatist is focused on process, yet the process of their reaching some conclusion, and doing so in some scientific manner, using the scientific method, as viewed in 19th century fashion by non-scientists. That is some give and take but using the empiricists facts. There are world views and one of those world views, amongst many, states that there are fundamental principles; the rights of man and the like. However to the pragmatist there are no fundamentals, only the process. Thus any discussion with a pure pragmatists means that somehow you must get in their psyche and determine what makes them feel good, since it is that feeling which determines their process of reason, if one were to call it that.

Kloppenberg states the following:

"…so Obama explicitly echoes the arguments of Madison— and, strikingly, of Hamilton in Federalist number 70—concerning the importance of encouraging the “jarring of parties” because such differences of opinion could “promote deliberation and circumspection.” He points out that scholars now agree that the Constitution was “cobbled together” from heated debates and emerged “not as the result of principle but as the result of power and passion.” The ideas of Madison were never identical to those of Hamilton. No unitary meaning or intent can be found. Instead the Constitution shows traces of competing arguments drawn from sources including the Bible, the English common law, Scottish philosophy, civic republican traditions, and the Enlightenment idea of natural rights…"

Somehow Kloppenberg seems in my opinion to confuse the normal course of human discussion with some form of existential pragmatism amongst the founders. They had principles, just read Montesquieu and Locke. Were there competing points of interpretation, the answer has and will always be the affirmative, the Constitutional convention was not a love fest. It was a battle of interests, of philosophies. The Federalist Papers are proof themselves of the disagreements. The Bill of Rights, an evolving statement penned less as an afterthought than and continuing thread to require and description of those very basic principles that Kloppenberg and the current president seem to reject. They are the principles of the individual and the rights that the individual has per se and in his property.

To Pragmatists there are no basic or fundamental principles. There exists only results of following the argument or the process and if it fells true or goo than it is. But that begs the question of good or true, themselves ephemeral constructs to themselves. Thus what is good and true today may not be so on the morrow. The Pragmatists argue from Darwin that things change and that we should flow with the tide of evolution. They totally misinterpret evolutions. They used evolution as people have subsequently used DNA, entropy, the uncertainty principle, the theory of information, cybernetics and a boat load of good technical theories applied by those with no knowledge to things which have little merit and no truth. Pragmatism is not flexible, it is foundationless. The Pragmatist acts and then judges at the moment of the result. Then the Pragmatist acts again. There is no set of underlying principles, even ones to be tested and then rejected, the result is the sole determinator. The result judged by a single person at a single point in time.

The pragmatist seek truth but at the same time denies its existence. Truth cannot exist since what is true today may not be true on the morrow. Thus the true Pragmatist has no principles, much to differ from the Founders despite the protestations of Kloppenberg.

The shadow of Dewey is over much that Kloppenberg writes. One must remember that Dewey was a pragmatist. He was at Columbia University and was in a continual battle with the Catholic Church. He saw them indoctrinating students and he believed it was the states duty to mold the student and not the Church. This dislike turned into in my opinion rabid hatred evidenced as he aged. The a significant portion of the academic community at Columbia University in my opinion and in my personal experience as documented from time to time have demonstrated a certain degree of arrogance combined with outright hostility to Catholicism.

Dewey saw himself and his camp followers as puppet masters, those who held the truth and those who held the strings to make society, not individuals, do what they felt was the correct thing to do. For Dewey the individual, as embodied in his view of the student and education, was a singular and immeasurable entity whose very existence depended solely upon belong and contributing to society.

As Martin states:

"…Dewey insisted that education be society-centered, for children are destined to become not isolated individuals but members and citizens of society. He saw and stated clearly that children's inner nature and mind grows from within but must be completed through relationships."iv

Fott states:

"…Dewey insists …that there is no conflict between the good of a fully developed individual and the good of society. The child naturally wants "to serve" his fellows in society and educators must understand that the "law" in intellectual and spiritual affairs is "cooperation and participation"".v

Thus for Dewey the child and perforce of age the adult, is there to serve his fellow servers. The individual is there to serve the society and perforce of that has no rights unto themselves.

This is also the framework of the communitarian views of the current administration all too easily sloughed off by Kloppenberg in my opinion.

Thus what does one make of Kloppenberg and his president. It appears as an opportunist, a man without principles. Yet the facts seems to counter this view, since he has principles if one deconstructs his actions, even in a Derrida manner, and attempts to see what makes his do what he does. He is not just trying things and seeing if they feel good, he has had too much grief for that alone. It would be good to have a book by a new generation Freud, for Freud did Wilson, who then will do the current president decades from now.


i Russell, B., A History of Western Philosophy, Simons and Schuster (New York) 1945, pp 816-817.

ii Ayer, A.J., Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Vintage (New York) 1984, pp 74-81.

iii Kloppenberg, J., "A Nation Arguing with a Conscience", Harvard Magazine, Nov Dec 2010, pp 34-41

iv Martin p. 199.

v Fott p 36.