Pity the Poor Pragmatist

Pragmatism eliminates both real freedom and real bravery



America, it’s said, is the land of the free and home of the brave. It’s also said, and might well be true, that America flies the flag of pragmatism. But if we are pragmatists, then the star spangled banner is at risk. So is our freedom, and our bravery is negotiable.

A quick review. Pragmatism tells us that both truth and meaning are all about consequences. The pragmatism of William James—and who has a better claim to be its founder?—maintains that the true is the expedient in the way of belief. The pragmatism of John Dewey—and who has more influence on educators?—claims that moral principles are akin to security blankets. The pragmatism of Richard Rorty— and who has had more intellectual cachet in recent decades?—contends that the task of philosophy is to produce metaphors that keep our cultural conversations in tune with the needs of the times.

So what’s wrong with pragmatism? For a start, as one wag quipped, “it works in theory but not in practice.” Of the writing of books on pragmatism there is no end, and in that sense it might be said to work in theory. But it doesn’t work in practice. If we are free, and not just unrestricted, we are persons who act for an end. If we are brave, and not just brash, we need the courage of our convictions. Pragmatism, however, replaces persons (and things) with “convergences of events” and gives them names only for ease of reference. Pragmatism displaces any enduring end with a lengthening stream of means. Convictions are dismissed as rigid dogma. Pragmatism, despite its theoretical standing, doesn’t work, because it eliminates both real freedom and real bravery.

Might I, nonetheless, make two points to diminish even pragmatism’s theoretical standing? First, there is such a thing as history. There are truth claims about what has happened in the past. But pragmatism cannot account for this, because what has in fact happened is not a question of what we take to be expedient. Second, there is such a thing as the future, even if it proves to be much shorter than we anticipate. Yet pragmatism cannot account for this, because what will happen will in fact happen, even if it is wretchedly inexpedient. Indeed, history shows as much.

Why, then, do so many of us give pragmatism a high approval rating? Maybe it’s because, as practical people, we don’t think much about “-isms,” despite our need to know them for what they are. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with being practical. St. Thomas, following Aristotle, had much to say about practical reason. But that’s not pragmatism. It’s the kind of reasoning that the truly free and truly brave rely on in working for the common good. Now if that sounds “dogmatic,” no offense, but don’t expect an apology.

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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