February 13th, 2016
BEFORE one can truly understand what pragmatism is, one needs to be aware of what pragmatism is good for and more importantly perhaps, what pragmatism is not good for. As I will insist here, pragmatism is actually a rather narrow and specifically defined method. Understanding pragmatism’s boundaries and limitations is crucial because most of the common misrepresentations and attacks against it result from a broader and mistaken application of it.
When William James first presented pragmatism, he described it as a “method for settling metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable.”1 This simple description properly defines the restricted scope of what pragmatism is good for—and consequently what it is not good for. Paraphrasing James, pragmatism is a method for settling metaphysical disputes, that’s it. It is not a suitable method for settling non-metaphysical (i.e., factual) disputes; for that we have observation, verification and the scientific method.
To put it in very simple terms (and leaving mathematics and logic’s controversial status aside), everything we human beings dispute and hold beliefs about is either factual or is not. What is factual can and should (or at least potentially could) be settled by observation and verification. If facts are available, there is no business for pragmatism. One cannot and should not be “pragmatic” about the truthfulness of facts. The fact that there was an earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11 2011 is a verifiable event whose truthfulness depends on facts, not on pragmatic considerations. As long as something is verifiable, pragmatism is unnecessary and, if mistakenly applied, probably incorrect.
Recognizing that pragmatism is not a method for settling factual disputes spares it from the usual criticism that a pragmatic theory of truth bends the facts in favor of desirable practical outcomes, or that it exposes scientific truth to the whims of opinion. This critique was cleverly expressed by Bertrand Russell’s famous remark that pragmatists are committed to the truth of Santa Claus’ existence as this belief has beneficial practical results.2 Even before one goes down the road of debating if believing in Santa Claus is actually beneficial or not, a proper pragmatist should have pointed out to Sir Russell that the existence or non-existence of Santa Claus is a matter of verifiable facts and probabilities, hence, not the business of pragmatism.
Where pragmatism shows its worth is when metaphysical disputes arise. The pragmatist approach to metaphysics is actually quite simple: since metaphysical disputes are, by definition, beyond the realm of facts and observation, what one should do to settle them is to transform them into factual discussions by considering the practical consequences that different metaphysical beliefs entail. A metaphysical belief might not be justifiable by facts given its nature, but holding it as a true belief has observable and predictable effects in our behavior. It is in evaluating these practical consequences of non-verifiable beliefs that pragmatism shines.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to visualize this is by contrasting pragmatism with logical positivism. Positivists like A.J. Ayer famously contended that metaphysical disputes were nonsensical given that they cannot ever be settled by facts3. What pragmatism realizes is that every metaphysical dispute can be reformulated as a factual discussion concerning the practical effects of alternative metaphysical believes. So, for instance, one might never know what “Being” truly means, but one can certainly evaluate the factual consequences of believing that “Being” is this way or another (this, by the way, explains why pragmatists enjoy reading Heidegger while positivists cannot take it). In a nutshell, to answer the title’s question, what pragmatism is really good for is for turning metaphysical disputes into factual debates. Pragmatism puts facts and verification back on the dietary menu of metaphysics.
Let me illustrate this with another example. The nature of morality is a typical metaphysical dispute.There is nothing that we at present could observe that would settle the dispute about how moral values really are. The ongoing battle between those who believe that moral values are absolute, those who believe that they are relative or those who believe that they are a chimera has been going on since the dawn of philosophy and probably will still be going on forever. Faced with this prospect, the pragmatist stops the metaphysical train in its tracks by proposing an alternative way to solve the quarrel: let’s forget about how moral values really are and instead let’s evaluate the practical consequences of believing moral values are absolute, or relative, or irrelevant. In other words, let’s have a factual discussion about which position is better suited at helping us cope more successfully with our current existential conditions. If one day we miraculously manage to grasp the true nature of morality that would be wonderful, but in the meantime, we need to act. The quest for the true nature of morality is a fascinating philosophical endeavor but one that cannot be settled. Only a pragmatic discussion about the factual consequences of different ways of understanding morality can offer some concrete alternatives.
The capacity to transform metaphysical disputes into factual inquiries remains pragmatism’s most powerful and relevant virtue. The world we live in today—characterized by a rapid and unprecedented interlinking of diverse cultural backgrounds—exposes the contrasting and conflicting nature of our dearest metaphysical beliefs. Long gone are the days when metaphysical disputes were a matter of academic musings trying to settle if a man goes round a squirrel or not to use William James’ famous example1. Today, metaphysical disputes revolve around conflicting beliefs in vital issues as moral values, institutional arrangements or notions of social justice just to name a few examples. The combination of metaphysical beliefs—that cannot be, by definition, falsified by facts—and growing plural interconnection is proving to be a toxic blend. Pragmatism offers a promising method for introducing falsifiable premises into our inflexible set of metaphysical ideas by establishing a fair, open and ongoing conversation between the different practical outcomes of alternative beliefs. This, I am convinced, is our best available hope at truly confronting fundamentalism’s backbone and building a successful, sustainable and peaceful plural society.
1William James, Pragmatism, April 1907
2 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, Chapter XXIX, 1945
3A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936