The Return Of Pragmatism

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In ordinary speech, pragmatism connotes practicality, commonsense, feet on the ground—virtues Americans like to think of as specifically American virtues. One thing the term does not connote is philosophical speculation. When we say someone is pragmatic, we are usually implying that he or she is not given to abstract rumination. But pragmatism is also the name of a particular type of philosophy. It was first introduced publicly nearly a hundred years ago, in 1898, by William James, and for several decades arguments over it dominated American philosophy. Then, in the 1930s, it went into a long period of eclipse, almost forgotten amid the emergence of new philosophical schools and theoretical paradigms. But since 1980 it has made an astonishing comeback. Legal writers, literary critics, historians, political theorists, and educators—not to mention philosophers—are starting to call themselves pragmatists. And by that term they mean to invoke the philosophical tradition of a century ago. Why is it back? What was it? Where did it come from? Pragmatism is an account of the way people think. This may not seem like a terribly useful thing to have. After all, if pragmatism’s account of the way people think is accurate, then we are already thinking the way pragmatists tell us we are. Why would we need a description of something we do anyway without it? It is as though someone were to offer us an account of the way our hair grows with the promise that having it will give us nicer hair. But pragmatists don’t believe there is a problem with the way people think. They believe there is a problem with the way people think they think. They believe, in other words, that other accounts of the way people think are mistaken; they believe that these mistaken accounts are responsible for a large number of conceptual puzzles; and they believe that these puzzles, when they are not simply wasting the energy of the people who spend their time trying to solve them, actually get in the way of our everyday efforts to cope with the world. Pragmatism is therefore an effort to unhitch human beings from what pragmatists regard as a useless structure of bad abstractions about thought. The sheer bravado of the attempt, the suggestion that all we need to do to lighten our load is just drop the whole contraption over the side of a cliff and continue on doing what we want to be doing anyway, makes pragmatist writing exhilarating to read. The classic pragmatist essays—Charles Sanders Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” William James’s “The Will to Believe,” Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “The Path of the Law,” Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing”—have a kind of ground-clearing sweep to them that gives many readers the sense that a pressing but vaguely understood obligation has suddenly been lifted from their shoulders, that some final examination for which they could never possibly have felt prepared has just been canceled.

What has seemed liberating to some readers has, of course, seemed to others like negligence and worse. The nonchalance with which pragmatists tend to dispose of issues that have engaged other thinkers has always struck many people as intellectually slipshod and morally dangerous. “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs,” wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1908, when international interest in pragmatism was first at its height, “and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” If the pragmatist account is correct, warned Bertrand Russell a year later, then “ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.” Pragmatists today have attracted similar sorts of hostility. They have been accused of purveying what one writer has called “a relativismcum-aestheticism that verges on nihilism and that may ultimately subvert liberal democracy” and what another has denounced as an “abandonment of traditional standards of objectivity, truth, and rationality, [which] opens the way for an educational agenda one of whose primary purposes is to achieve social and political transformation.”

Pragmatists—and this, to their critics, may be the most irritating thing about them—love these objections. For as John Dewey (borrowing a figure from William James) wrote of Chesterton’s remark, they spill “the personal milk in the [philosopher’s] cocoanut.” They confirm what the pragmatist has always claimed, which is that what people believe to be true is just what they think it is good to believe to be true. The critic who argues from the consequences of accepting the pragmatist account of the way we think—the critic who warns that dumping those other accounts over a cliff will lead to despair, war, illiberalism, or political correctness—has (in the pragmatist’s view) already conceded the key point, which is that every account of the way people think is, at bottom, a support for those human goods the person making the account believes to be important. The whole force of a philosophical account of anything, pragmatists insist, lies in the advertised consequences of accepting it. When we say to a child, “That’s the way the world is,” we are not making a neutral report. We are saying that understanding the world in that way will put the child into a better relation with it, will enable him or her to cope with it more satisfactorily—even if it means recognizing how unsatisfactory, from a child’s point of view (or anyone’s), the world can be.