Friday, May 30, 2014
Pragmatism Revistied, Again
NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.
As my last two posts should indicate, I have been in a rather apolitical mood today, and so I think I will eschew current events, or even my usual economic topics to look at a favorite topic of mine, the shortcomings of pragmatism as a political philosophy. My earlier writing on this topic can be found at "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism" and "Pragmatism Revisited", but if you don't feel like following links, fear not, as I will assume you have no familiarity with my earlier posts.
Basically, political pragmatism can be summarized with a single, overused phrase. "That is good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." It is upon that foundation, the belief that political theories, that consistent, systematic approaches to political questions, that all of pragmatism is built. Be it the part-time pragmatist, who is "mostly conservative", but supports protectionism, or energy policy, or unions, or be it the full-on, Clintonite who adopts and discards solutions as he sees fit without a thought as to consistency, pragmatism is founded on the simple premise that no system can provide the answers we need.
There are numerous problems with such an approach, but let me point out two of the larger problems (and two I have not previously discussed). First, the implications of this theory for one's view of the universe*. Second, based on those implications, that it is simply impossible to be a consistent pragmatist.If you wish to find out about other problems, then I recommend the links above, which deal with many other issues raised by pragmatism.
The first problem is easy to describe. Either the universe is mechanistic, or it is not. Let us exclude human volition for a moment and think only about physical processes. Either they are predictable or not. Either the same cause leads to the same effect or not. And, if the universe is mechanistic, then there is a theory which accurately describes the universe.
Now, on to humans. Either humans behave mostly in rational ways, or they don't. Maybe not in the optimal way, as they may lack adequate information or may misunderstand the forces around them, but, given their limited knowledge and their understanding of the universe, either they behave in a rational manner or not.
So, to argue that political reality cannot be modeled adequately by the proper theory, as pragmatism does, one must either postulate an irrational, non-causal universe, or else irrational humans, who are not only irrational, but irrational in a way defying prediction**.
However, no one behaves as if they truly believe that. Even the most ardent pragmatist believes that the same solution with produce the same results, which suggests a sort of patterned result, which is indistinguishable from causality. Yet, if the universe, and humans, respond in predictable ways,t hen there is a theory which works. The fact that we have not found it does not mean that it does not exist, nor that we should not search for it.
Then again, the truth is that most pragmatists truly do not believe the universe is unpredictable, or humans totally irrational. What draws them to pragmatism is not a belief that no system will work, but rather an unwillingness to abide the constraints of any system. In my experience, pragmatists fall into two categories. Either egotistical creatures who cannot stand having their will thwarted, even by a political system or glad handing appeasers who want to do whatever pleases the audience whether it works or not. And that is why they choose pragmatism. Not because they doubt certain theories work, but because they want to do whatever they want, or whatever is expedient, whether it is best or not.
And that is the reality behind pragmatism. It is not a profound "adult" and "nuanced" recognition that life is complex. It is not a flexible realistic approach. It is the political expression of either a child's temper tantrum or the sycophant's appeasement.
* For those who want to toss out "chaos theory", let me correct them before they begin. Chaos theory does not state that systems are non-mechanistic, simply that some systems can be so complex we cannot predict their behavior. However, that is often couched in terms of our present capabilities. What was unpredictable in 1980 is often predictable now. For instance, many theories in mathematics, especially in topology and number theory, have now been proved through brute force computing, basically exhausting all possible calculations, which was not possible in the past. Of course there remain systems complex enough that we cannot figure them out, but few of them are relevant for our purposes, as they tend to occur in physics much more often than the social sciences.
** I know I wrote in "The Limits of "Scientific" Management" that we cannot predict human behavior adequately to scientifically manage the economy. That does not meant hat we cannot make broad assumptions about humans, for instance, that they will trade something they like less for something they like more. It is only that broad, general pattern one requires to form a theory of human action. One need only read Von Mises' Human Action to see how few assumptions one needs to form the foundation of a comprehensive theory of behavior. So, when I speak of predictability, I am not speaking of mechanistic responses, but of the general guidelines within which human volition is expressed. And, yes, there are exceptions, humans who do not behave rationally, but they are a very small minority. (cf. "All Or Nothing Thinking" and "Greed Versus Evil")
I could have made this even more simple. I could have asked two questions. First, is there truth, that is, are there facts which are unquestionably true? Second, if there are, can you ignore the truth when it is inconvenient? If you agree there is truth, and you can only ignore it at your own peril, then the entire basis of pragmatism falls apart. Because if there is truth, then there is a system which describes that truth, and if there is a system, then that should be what you pursue, not ad hoc, as it strikes you answers required by pragmatism.
I hate it when I write a single paragraph in the postscript that makes my entire post superfluous.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/08/02.