Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Just Being Pragmatic

The bare-bones basics of pragmatism include the judgment of all proposed “truths” in terms of utility or workability. Acceptance of a proposition is not sought primarily through experience or reason, but through observation of the results of believing such a thing. However, there is more that needs to be understood about pragmatism. For one thing, it can be simply the helpful habit of “always seeing an alternative,which can lead to experimentation about whether that alternative is more workable than the current method.”(King, Viney, & Woody, 2009) In this way, William James, known for his contributions to pragmatism, was much more focused on opening new doors than on closing other ones. The pragmatic way of life has become very pervasive in American psychology, and also in American culture in general. I think that this has been a mainly negative influence due to several weaknesses, or flaws, in pragmatism.

The first problem with pure pragmatism is everything that the system ignores. The long term consequences, which are harder to measure, are largely ignored. Beyond that, though, pragmatism looks at whichever works best, in the end, without reference to morality, truth-value, aestheticism, or even the concept of Occam's razor. Ignoring these issues, which is to a large extent the stuff that life is made up of, can prove a serious handicap to the extent to which pragmatic psychology can help people to achieve a satisfactory life. For example, Americans in general love “instant gratification,” and tend to be very goal-oriented. But are we happier, cooking our instant lunches in the microwave, than those who take the time to grow and cook their own food? Are we sacrificing the quality of our life for some hypothetical “end goal”? Ultimately, I think the means do matter, and the end matters as well. In any method, all of this matters: how well it works, how simple, how truthful, how enjoyable, and how moral it is. In fact, I think that pragmatism in its pure form misses the point of most of life: it is the middle of most things where we find pleasure, pain, growth, enjoyment, relationships, and so on. The “end” of anything occupies a very small spot, as far as how much time it takes up, how much we enjoy or are enriched by it, or what we learn.

In regard to religion, pragmatism judges beliefs and practices “by the work they accomplish in the world. If good work is accomplished, then a belief or practice is vindicated.”(King, Et Al., 2009) This view has no concept of eternity. If everything is judged by it's end result, then pragmatism can have no place to judge religion with it's eternity, since eternity has no end result. Each thing with an end has an end, is “in the world” as the above quote mentions, and those are the things the pragmatists are concerned with. But the things without an end cannot be the things that pragmatism could possible relate to. The pragmatist cannot be concerned with eternity itself, for it has no end result, no question of "does this work?” for it is an ongoing process forever. Everything with an end has essence, but not everything with essence has an end. Just as pragmatism fails to highlight what is important in the essence of life, related or unrelated to an end goal, it fails to even conceptualize the essence of eternity or religion.

But here is where the system really breaks down: In pragmatism, the question is not "Is this belief accurate?" but rather "Is this belief going to better my life?" One can immediately perceive that "better" requires some standard of measurement. “If good work is accomplished, then a belief or practice is vindicated.” I've mentioned this before, but here the question is begged: What is “good”? To define good, there must be a belief system. Therefore, pragmatism holds to all sorts of metaphysical beliefs about which is good and beneficial, and useful to a goal, but they do not question that belief system since they are unaware of it.

For instance, if the ends justify the means, as they surely must do in pragmatism, who decides which are the means and which are the end goals? The pragmatists would find the old concept of "disinterested love" a playful riddle, for it questions not whether the means or the end is more important, but rather which is the means and which is the end goal in love. Is love means to an end, or is it the end goal itself? A french lady from centuries ago, Héloise, discussed “tensions between love as a means to an end (e.g., satisfaction of sexual appetites) and what she called indifferent love. This latter term refers to love in its own right or love for the sake of love." How would a pragmatist be able to advise a person, and then test the end result, if they do not first have an overarching theory of what the end results should be? One pragmatist may say that love is an end in and of itself, and another might question love in regard to what it achieves, as though something else is the end goal. Pragmatism only works from inside some formerly established system, which system must be judged by another scale than “what works,” since asking “what works” only begs the question of what the standard is.


King, D. B., Viney, W., & Woody, W. D. (2009). A history of psychology: ideas and context (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

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