Home On the Agenda Restoring the Ethic of Pragmatism

Restoring the Ethic of Pragmatism

October 28, 2014

Dan Yankelovich provides a history of the philosophy of pragmatism and explains how this ethical tradition can help set our country back on the right path.

My main thesis in these Rebooting Democracy blogs is that an unintended consequence of recent cultural change has encouraged many of our institutions’ leaders to subordinate the mission of their institution to their own personal interests. Our culture’s overemphasis on individual rights has been so sweeping and pervasive that it has inadvertently weakened our commitment to individual responsibility.

William James first introduced the philosophy of pragmatism.

This is not a deep or universal form of corruption. All big companies aren’t evolving into Enron. All executives aren’t morphing into Andy Mozillo, whose company, Countrywide Insurance, flooded the nation with egregious “liar loans” destined to fail.

Similarly, all government agencies haven’t fallen into the Veterans Administration trap of putting their hospitals’ scheduling convenience ahead of veterans’ health and then lying about it. Our criminal justice system, our health care system, our schools and colleges still manage to get many things right.

Yet, it is as if the cult of the self and its rights has grown so deeply embedded in the culture that otherwise honest and responsible people don’t think twice about exploiting others as long as their actions are not blatantly illegal. I can’t think of a more ethically blind rationalization than the familiar lament: “I didn’t do anything wrong; I didn’t break the law.”

The frustrating aspect of this diagnosis is that it identifies a problem that is awesomely difficult to fix. Our society is skillful in addressing economic, technical or administrative problems. It is less skilled at addressing cultural and ethical problems.

Fortunately, we have a firmly grounded ethical tradition that we can call upon to come to our rescue. It is an authentically American philosophy that contains all the elements we need to construct a countervailing ethic to the cult of the self.

Fortunately, we have a firmly grounded ethical tradition that we can call upon to come to our rescue.

I am referring to the philosophy of pragmatism that dominated American culture throughout a large part of the 20th century. William James introduced the philosophy of pragmatism in 1907. Philosophy had not yet become a professionalized academic subject and James was eager to capture the practical-minded, problem-solving genius of America. He wanted to identify a philosophy of life that Americans could use in their daily lives—one that examined action from the perspective of the value it added to our lives rather than relying on abstract and irrelevant concepts of truth.

The philosophy of pragmatism constitutes an authentically and uniquely American tradition, one that has exercised great influence on European philosophy as well as on American thought.

Over the past century, the popularity of pragmatic philosophy has bounced around a great deal. It gained immediate popularity when first introduced by William James. As elaborated by John Dewey in subsequent decades, it dominated American thought from the pre-WWI decade through the 1920s and 1930s up to WWII.

During this same era, however, pragmatism got shoved aside in the philosophy departments of our nation’s most prestigious universities in favor of more technical and analytic philosophies coming from England and Germany. Richard Rorty, a brilliant and provocative American philosopher, resuscitated and revived pragmatic philosophy in the 1980s.

Two cogent criticisms have been leveled at pragmatism that contributed to its being sidelined. One is that its theory of truth is crass and unsophisticated. The other is that it lacks fundamental values and speaks only to methods.

European critics have been quick to issue these criticisms. For example, Bertrand Russell jumped all over William James’ metaphor of the “cash value” of ideas as the core of their truth claim. Russell pointed to this turn of phrase as evidence of America’s crass materialism.

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently wrote a scathing criticism of pragmatism, based largely on a 1940 magazine article by writer Lewis Mumford. Brooks quotes Mumford as saying that the pragmatic mindset is characteristic of “people who try to govern without philosophic or literary depth.”

His purpose in reaching back to an article written more than 70 years ago, Brooks states, is to critique our current leadership who, because of their own pragmatic mindset, also overlook the deep moral dimension of thought.

I have great respect for Brooks as an independent thinker—a conservative who doesn’t hesitate to criticize other conservatives when he believes they are wrong or to accept liberal perspectives when he feels they are correct.

But here we are, with Brooks damning pragmatism for its lack of a moral direction while I deliberately turn to pragmatism because of its moral dimension.

I don’t think there is any genuine confusion involved. Pragmatic philosophy harbors many conflicting elements. Its sprawling theories extend over more than a century of American thought, and include a wide diversity of thinkers. Brooks’ main source, Lewis Mumford, was probably reflecting the prejudices of the philosophy departments of leading universities of his time three quarters of a century ago.

My own main source of pragmatic philosophy, John Dewey, is one of America’s most morally conscious philosophers. Dewey acknowledged that many criticisms of pragmatic thought have merit. But I believe that Dewey took them into full account and transcended them.

John Dewey lived a long life and was incredibly prolific. Some of his thinking is no longer timely. But much of what he thought and wrote is responsive to our current need for a countervailing ethic to unrestrained individualism.