In a recent column in The Stone, Harvey Cormier considers the political oomph of pragmatists through a nice presentation of some central thinking of William James. The occasion for the piece is a recent spate of writings characterizing Obama as “a pragmatist politician.” What I like best about Cormier’s article is his refutation, through James, of the lame but pervasive equation of pragmatism with weak-kneed inaction. Pointing to James, he emphasizes that pragmatism is compatible (even essential) to genuine truth-seeking by being incompatible with ideology:
Still, while James did want us to believe, he also wanted us to give up “ideologies.” He called pragmatism “[t]he attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” Pragmatists can have principles but not self-verifying ones; they renounce any certainties that are based on claims of universal necessity. In our world of chance and change, things may not go the way we want either intellectually or practically, so we have to look to the developing world of actions and results for support of, and challenges to, our most cherished faiths. The final test of even our logic is how well it leads us to act and live. Pragmatists therefore think, and act, provisionally, or subject to later changes in course. Still, provisional action is action, and particular actions are sometimes irrevocable. Moreover, “provisional” need not mean “timid.”
Another point to be made is that pragmatism does not equate to Machiavellian opportunism, either in politics or in science. Pragmatism, as James and Dewey and Peirce (and Rorty for that matter) have it, points toward the necessary adaptability of any truth-seeking that includes letting new things about the world into our understandings. Figuring-out means both that we come to the inquiry with notions in hand, but also that we are open to revisions and adaptions of those notions as what we learn sifts through our understanding.
Cromier points out others (e.g., Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club) who claim that pragmatism belies any possibility of actually changing anything about the world, phrasing the charge as “pragmatists have nothing that they would die for,” hence, they’d never be proponents of “radical change.” Implicit in such a claim is the misleading equation of pragmatic thoughtful adaptability with a simple-minded Darwinian/Hobbesian notion of self-preservation at all costs. Pragmatism includes being convinced of the rightness of an idea or the necessity of a moral action that would lead to change. It includes steadfastness that does not descend into mere stubborn adherence to principles and ideas for the sake of themselves. Such stubbornness, the hallmark of constipated ideologues throughout the world, is a self-constructed philosophical pit of despair from which there is no escape.