Pragmatism is the New Idealism

Posted: April 19, 2006 in Idealism

Prior to last month, I hadn’t been an avid reader of weblogs. Now that I’ve taken the plunge and gotten my own and joined a group blog, I’ve become more familiar with the style of writing, the arguments, and such as I’m able, some of the underlying attitudes. I specifically wanted to put myself in harm’s way and confront fairly actively some ideas different from my own. It’s been an eye opener.

My earlier post on the Ascent of the Blog is a modest appraisal of the blog as a new and formidable instrument of democratic political and cultural activity. It’s democratic precisely because it lacks the imprimatur of tradition media, with their increasing spurious claims to authority. I’m convinced that blogging will eventually come to be seen as grass roots activism, though it could be all over the map as to focus and agenda.

What concerns me now is what I perceive as a heavy reliance on pragmatism in both poorly- and well-reasoned argument. I don’t intend to provide an exhaustive definition of the term or a survey of the various forms of the philosophical school of pragmatism as, for instance, pioneered by John Dewey and William James. That would take me too far afield and I frankly lack the expertise. Rather, the pragmatism I witness is the same seat-of-the-pants problem solving and enlightened self-interest that’s been remarked upon by Tocqueville as a fundamental — even clichĂ© — element of American character.

As my ideas began to take shape, I had intended to contrast pragmatism with idealism as opposites of a spectrum: pragmatism being the manifest reality of attitudes held and actions taken, idealism being the guiding dogma and theoretical philosophizing motivating us to recognize the directions we wish to go and restraining us from adopting solutions to problems that might lack conscience or balance. It occurred to me, though, that pragmatism has itself become an ideal, and that when applied as an ideal good, it tends to sweep aside judicious approaches to issues and seek only emphatically efficient answers.

For instance, the Bush administration has been remarkable unrepentant after being called on the carpet for its disinformation campaigns and repeated lies designed to sway public opinion in favor of preemptive war and now preemptive nuclear war. Rather, for the administration, it’s been full steam ahead, no looking back, and who cares what got us here, we’re here now and we’ve got a job to do. (Not that it’s getting done, but that’s a different post). Similarly, arguments that the quality of life we now enjoy in the first world absolves the nastiness knowingly committed to get us here are perfect (and bankrupt) ends-justify-means arguments. It’s also endemic in the blogosphere that any proposition, however preliminary, must be weighed in terms of potential application (pragmatism), but there is frequently diminished or simply no concern over whether a proposition is truly a thoughtful, responsible direction to go (idealism). If we identify something we want, the problem solving that gets us there is primary. Consideration of the possible ramifications, especially the difficult to foresee kind, no longer function as reasonable restraints over our appetites and desires.

Perhaps the worst result of pragmatism’s primacy is the defeatism that sets in among thinkers straining to find a better way when it’s argued not that an idea is not ideal (as in a good idea) but simply that it won’t work for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t matter that feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, educating the public (not merely children, but everyone), providing medical care to the disenfranchised, etc. are righteous ideas. If a trial balloon is sent up advocating some way those worthy goals might be accomplished, it’s quickly shot down in disputes over implementation. A few traverses across that ground and even the most well-meaning sort (funny how well-meaning has morphed into a slur) learns to not even bother, to join the dominant flow. Resistance is futile. See this case in point.

My concern is not to offer a solution (pragmatism) but to identify the problem. I’m still straining to get my head around it, but I feel certain that it’s about how we think about our place in the world (idealism).

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