Saturday, 29 October 2016

Pragmatism and Trumpism

- Bruce Long

Why would a pragmatist Oxford philosopher support Donald Trump? The answer perhaps lies in issues relating to pragmatism itself.

Philosophical pragmatism has become something of a religion in academic philosophy. Pragmatist philosophers often don't spend much time questioning its merits. It's also something of a religion in America, given that America's two arguably greatest philosophers - Charles Sanders Peirce and William James - were pragmatists.
There is also a difference between the folk conception and deployment of pragmatism, and the formal understanding thereof. It runs roughly along the lines of the difference between the pragmatism of Peirce and that of James, and a dispute that they had about it. Peirce was a scientist, a mathematician, and an agnostic-cum-atheist who referred to god in much the same way as David Hume did: as a tongue in cheek placeholder term for people's ignorance and propensity to (although to a larger extent arguably Peirce had an actual faith of sorts) believe what makes them feel they know something and are secure. James was a Christian, probably a Mason (Protestants often were in that era), and a psychologist. In folk and basic terms, Peirce's conception of pragmatism was rooted in scientific and mathematical practice. He asserted that in the case where there are multiple experiments available for a scientific purpose, one should select the approach that returned adequate results (enough to solve the problem or reveal new information) for the least cost in terms of time and work. Such an approach is to be preferred over a competing approach that yields only slightly better, or a negligible improvement in results but at a much higher cost. James took Peirce's scientific pragmatism and, by way of metaphor, made it into something Peirce did not recognise or agree with. James' version is the basis famous of the famous dictum that one should believe what one likes so long as it makes one happy and able to function. He said "Truth is what works", and he applied it to the philosophy of religion and to political science. This is a core value and belief in American society. Coupled with the ideas of liberty and freedom to choose one's destiny, and with the cultural trope of manifest destiny, plus the pluralist leanings of America's founding fathers (Jefferson was pro Islamic freedom, for example) it has arguably helped promote the rise of Scientology, Raelianism, Mormonism, The Jehovah's wintesses, and a host of other American religious and faith institutions and icons. Peirce rejected James' interpretation and socio-political application of the concept of philosophical pragmatism, and they had a falling out.

A black and white photograph of James

Now, a note of caution. Philosophy is something of a mysterious art to most people. Philosophers will push a question and the asking of a question, or the putting of a problem, to what would normally be regarded as ridiculous and pedantic lengths. There are hundreds of thousands of technically superb and difficult professional research articles debating such things as the definition and meaning of truth, the existence of the mind, and the logic of possible worlds. In academic philosophy there are many definitions of pragmatism. They are related yet different in significant and important ways. The literature is quite vast. Most of serious philosophy is in fact NOT a waste of time. It does not deliver what science does very much, if at all. It is not designed to. Yet much philosophical cogitation crosses over into scientific method and the metaphysics of the material world. Not to mention cognitive science.

Practical pragmatism of the everyday variety has a more pressing problem. It's very easy to deploy or use in one's everyday life, and is particularly favoured in public institutions like law and policy making. However, this often gives rise to situations where salient and important information, and/or facts that are very important to an individual suffering the awful upshot of some real but complex and difficult to grasp reality, are abstracted out or ignored in deference to efficiency and, ironically, things like 'the greater good'. Lawyers deal in such cultural and practical complex issues, and face the inadequacies of the law to deal with them, every day.

Jean Baudrillard. The originator of the idea of 'the desert of the real'. Has America's map become it's territory?
Sure. Electing Donald Trump might solve a lot of issues expeditiously - but is that a good reason to be pragmatic to the extent that we ignore the more crazy aspects of his behaviour? Pragmatically speaking, he is now the only way of preventing Hillary Clinton from ascending to the presidency. However - isn't that because pragmatism of precisely the kind we are referring to results in the dominance of the idea that capitalism will sort out the best candidate for us as well as the people's democratic vote - or better. Isn't it pragmatism that gives us the idea that we should not elect philosopher kings, nor democratically elected leaders, but economic oligarchs or their representatives. Because - hey - pragmatically speaking they must be the smartest and most savvy people in the room/country since they are so successful. so their success and huge wealth, pragmatically and practically speaking, means that they must be the right people for the job. Right? Right? Anyone should question these premises. Especially a philosopher. Unless perhaps they are being overly pragmatic about it.

Charles Sanders Peirce.jpg
There is a threshold where pragmatism as James defined it - which is the way that everyday American people (or the 'folk'- to use a philosophical term of art) usually define it - stops becoming useful and starts becoming more like the handwaving use of Einteins' theory of relativity as applied to human affairs: something which Einstein himself lamented. Claude Shannon had similar concerns about the deployment of his mathematical theory of information in cultural studies and social science. Pragmatism just rolls on regardless. It disregards such concerns. It abstracts them away. But the terms and premises of such abstracting-away - of the hiding or discarding of information expressed as binary questions - are open to question. The philosophies that I suspect are most salient to Trump's candidacy include both cynicism and postmodernism.Trumps' campaign can be regarded as an expression of disdain for, and a kind of mimetic (that's mimetic, not memetic) portrayal of, a democracy that has devolved into something like an 'idiocracy' - or perhaps in their view always has been. Has the United States become a parody of itself? Has America become it's own desert of the real? Philosophers who back Trump may think so, perhaps.