Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, January 07, 2005
I rise to defend Pragmatism from Jonah Goldberg's vicious, unwarranted and unprovoked attack!

Well, not exactly. The column's not bad at all, and I agree with it on many points. It is a reasonable critique of something. But is it a critique of Pragmatism?

Before I get into that, let me quibble with his first quibble. "Pragmatism" is always used as a positive? Yes - of people you disagree with or have to negotiate with. But was National Review trumpeting, 50 years ago, a "pragmatic" response to the Communist menace? Did - do - so many Republicans love Reagan because of his "pragmatism"? Or pick someone from the other side of the aisle - did Russ Feingold win reelection (on the backs of many Bush voters) because Wisconsinites admired his pragmatism? Did Paul Wellstone elicit such affection because of his pragmatism? Heck, do people admire John McCain for his pragmatism? Maybe he is a pragmatist - but is that why people like him?

In this ordinary-speech context, the opposite of "pragmatic" is "principled" - another positive-association word. If you want negative associations with "pragmatic" they are "unprincipled", "political", "compromising" or "mercenary." People who liked Bill Clinton praised his pragmatism. Remember what people who didn't like him thought of that character trait?

Next, I'm going to quibble with his conclusion and how it relates to his premise. I agree with him that free speech has gone off the rails; he's absolutely right that we now think of it as freedom of expression, and hence are more interested in protecting obnoxious or bizarre speech rather than protecting the freedom to disseminate political arguments. But it's not at all obvious to me that this has anything to do with Pragmatism. If I can compress his argument: the Pragmatists drained us of belief in Truth, and once we stopped believing in Truth we no longer could make distinctions, and once we could no longer make distinctions all hell (also known as the 1960s) broke loose. And this explains McCain-Feingold . . . how? I suppose because a degenerate people like ourselves will no longer jealously defend our ancient liberties. We're a long way from Pragmatism by now, and a long way from an interesting argument.

But Pragmatism is an interesting thing to argue about, and a topical one.

So: to the meat of the matter. Richard Posner and Louis Menand, each in their own way, have sown a great deal of confusion about Pragmatism. Mind you, they've each written great books and said very interesting things in the process. But Posner has conflated Pragmatism with Utilitarianism (something Goldberg does as well) while Menand may have misunderstood the concept entirely.

Pragmatism is ultimately a theory of knowledge. It's central contention is that we know something about an entity if we can distinguish it from other entities. Knowledge isn't about defining but about categorizing; to that extent, Pragmatists are just a variety of Aristotelians, and their enemy is Platonism. But Pragmatism goes further, arguing that knowledge isn't something you have at all, but something you demonstrate. Indeed, for a Pragmatist the meaning of any statement, in fact, is limited to the consequences of that statement in terms of action.

I find this concept very appealing - indeed, more appealing than other explanations for what knowledge is or where meaning comes from. I understand that Pragmatism is out of favor with cognitive scientists; apparently, the brain doesn't work the way a Pragmatist epistemology suggests it might. But it still is a very persuasive account to me of how I think. Pragmatism in this sense provides good warrant for, for example, reasoning to a premise from a conclusion, which is something I do a lot very consciously and a lot of people who are wedded to a more deductive, Platonic model claim they don't do but, in my opinion, do all the time behind the scenes. In any event, when I tell people I'm a Pragmatist, this is what I mean. I don't mean that compromise is always the best policy, or that nothing is worth dying for, or whatever. I mean that knowledge means sorting one thing from another, and meaning is something demonstrated through action.

But the consequences of Pragmatism in this sense can be disturbing, and these disturbing consequences will return us to one of Goldberg's main points. I'll give you an example of what I mean. What is science? Most people would say that science is the repository of our knowledge about the empirical world. Or they would say that science is the method by which we accumulate and organize that knowledge. Or they would say that science is the opposite of magic or religion - a way of understanding the world that limits itself to the natural. Or something.

Very few people would say what a Pragmatist would say. A Pragmatist would say that science is a method of making relatively accurate predictions about the material world (relative, that is, to other methods). Science is not an ideology (a way of understanding the world), nor is it a body of knowledge. Science, like everything else to a Pragmatist, is what it is good for. What science is good for is predicting the future.

Phrased this way, it's easy to see that Pragmatism is, in fact, far more radical than Goldberg is giving it credit for. Goldberg's complaints about Pragmatism as practiced by Oliver Wendell Holmes' jurisprudence (and since Holmes rejected the label, it's rather questionable that Menand calls him a Pragmatist) are mostly complaints about Utilitarianism, which is also the main reason to object to Posner's jurisprudence. Goldberg argues that grounding everything in efficiency leaves people with no grounds for morality. But Pragmatism isn't about grounding everything in some utility-maximizing equation. Pragmatism argues that the meaning of statements resides in their utility; it doesn't argue (necessarily) that the purpose of politics or law is the maximization of general utility.

Here I think it's worth a detour to someone who actually coined the term Pragmatism - William James. James is of towering importance historically as one of the founders of the discipline of psychology. And his philosophical work, his philosophy of Pragmatism was itself very psychological in tenor. What's particularly interesting about him to many of his admirers is that his philosophy is, in large part, an attempt to "make space" for religion and religious claims in an age of science. Pragmatism, as I've said, argues that the meaning of statements resides in their utility. So if, for example, belief in the eternity of the soul pragmatically enables you to get up in the morning, go to work, save for the future, behave morally, and vote Republican, then the doctrine of a life after death is pragmatically true for you. It's meaning is not a scientific one; you're not actually predicting that you will be around after death, not in any way that could be empirically tested. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

This line of thinking has a definite appeal to most people who are not wedded to a kind of tub-thumping atheism or an especially blinkered religious literalism. But it may be entirely specious. It's not obvious to me that one can actually think like a Pragmatist. That is to say: once you are conscious that your beliefs are only pragmatically true, as opposed to Platonically, capital-T true, do those beliefs still work? Is it pragmatic to believe pragmatically in the eternity of one's soul, or is it pragmatically necessary to believe such things to be Platonically true?

Let's look at the same kind of question on the political level. A variety of political ideologies have vied for modern man's allegiance. We are told, among other things, that we are individuals with inalienable rights; that we are equal citizens of a Republic of which We the People, collectively, are sovereign; and that we belong to a nation that has an organic identity in space and time. All of these entities - individuals, rights, people, sovereign, nation - are reified concepts. They are not things; they are beliefs that we treat linguistically as things.

And science, certainly, poses serious questions about the empirical reality of any of these things. We know something about how our minds work and while the individual self may be an impregnable fortress, the siege engines are arrayed around it right now to test its impregnability. And even if the self exists, we know enough already about genetics and neurochemistry to undermine our faith in a sovereign, freely-willed self. The other concepts are even weaker; we know enough about how politics works in our own Republic and elsewhere, and how historically-bound a concept like "nation" is, to know that the sovereignty of the people and the organic nature of a nation are fictions, not facts. As for rights, Matthew Arnold pointed out well over a century ago that such things manifestly cannot exist; they are, rather, merely the flip side of duties and obligations, nothing inalienable about them.

So if these concepts - individuals, rights, the people, the nation - are real they are only pragmatically real. They have meaning inasmuch as people behave as if they were true, inasmuch as people's behavior can only be adequately explained by reference to these beliefs.

And again, the same objection obtains. Is it pragmatically true that it is only pragmatically true that we are rights-bearing individuals? Or is it pragmatically true that it is Platonically true that we are rights-bearing individuals? Does the notion that we are rights-bearing individuals still have the power to explain things - do people still behave as if we are rights-bearing individuals - once we are aware (or have concluded) that we only adhere to the notion pragmatically?

This is what brings us back to Goldberg's point. You don't have to be a vulgar utilitarian to be a Pragmatist; that is to say: you don't have to say, "we execute murderers because that deters murder, and murder is inefficient," to keep your membership in the Pragmatists' Union. You can say, for example, something like the following. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short, and that's where we'd be if murder were rampant. We don't want that. Executing murderers conveys the message that murder is wrong, and this belief - that murder is wrong - prevents people from committing murder. If we don't execute murderers, people will come to question whether murder is really wrong. Hence we must continue to execute murderers.

This account sounds like a principled account of why we have capital punishment. But it isn't. A truly principled account goes like this: murder is wrong because we are all made in the image of God/it denies us our inalienable right to life/etc. A murder must be expiated, and the only possible expiation that is proportionate to the crime is for the murderer to lose his life. Hence, murderers must be executed.

You see the difference? Neither account is vulgarly utilitarian. But the latter account presumes that the moral code - murder is wrong; blood must be paid with blood - exists outside of society and its needs. The former is psychological; it justifies the moral code pragmatically, as something true inasmuch as it it has consequences in human behavior. The latter is, in effect, an account of the belief that the former account holds is useful to believe and hence pragmatically true.

I'm frankly not sure that Goldberg isn't, deep down, a Pragmatist to a considerable degree. The political philosophers he likes - Burke, for example - are extremely congenial to a Pragmatist. His arguments tend to be pragmatic - indeed, the argument of his essay on Pragmatism is pragmatic - in that he's ultimately concerned with the consequences of our beliefs rather than their Platonic truth-value. This is one of the reasons I find the Pragmatist account so appealing: it corresponds to how even many people who vehemently reject Pragmatism seem, to me, to actually think.